Coalition agreement signed, Labor to take key portfolios

  • 2004-11-17
  • By Milda Seputyte
VILNIUS - Amid developing plans for a new government, the leaders of four centrist and left-of-center parties signed a coalition agreement on Nov. 10, immediately raising doubts in the Presidential Palace about several of the proposed candidacies.

Coalition partners agreed that the bloc of Social Democrats and Social Liberals should keep a portfolio of seven ministries, plus the position of prime minister, which would likely stay with Algirdas Brazauskas. The two remaining coalition parties - the Labor Party and the Union of Farmers and New Democracy Party - will receive the six ministerial seats left over.

But the biggest surprise to come out of the agreement was that the populist Labor Party will now control the Finance and Economy ministries, giving it tremendous influence over Lithuania's economy. In addition, Labor leader Viktor Uspaskich will hold the position of economy minister and the Laborites will head the Health, Justice and Culture ministries.

Prime Minister Brazauskas stated that he would nominate a full Cabinet later this week, yet according to unofficial information, some proposed nominees for ministerial portfolios could be eliminated from the list as President Valdas Adamkus expressed doubts over their experience and integrity. The president is allegedly concerned about some of the candidates having strong personal interests in the government.

The most controversial candidate is incumbent Environ-ment Minister Arunas Kundrotas, whose leadership at the ministry has drawn criticism in the European Commission over the implementation of environmental projects in the country.

There were 19 environmental projects approved for Lithuania in 2000-2003 for a total value of 225 million litas (65 million euros), half of which were to be cofinanced by the EU. Lithuania, however, has only managed to use 13 percent of the assistance so far.

The European Commission sent a senior officer to Vilnius last week to warn top Lithuanian officials about threats to environmental projects and the use of EU money in Lithuania, which has not been transparent. EU officials have given a negative assessment of environmental protection projects submitted this year.

Another Social Democratic nominee, Rimantas Vaitkus, who was proposed for the Ministry of Education and Science, has also been entangled in scandal. A year ago Vaitkus, as deputy minister of the same ministry, pushed through the founding of Latvia's Baltic Russian Institute in Lithuania, disregarding condemnation from experts in the process. His name has also been linked with a forged document that was allegedly presented to achieve recognition of the institute's diplomas.

Vaitkus denies any wrongdoing, and an investigation into the matter is continuing.

Meanwhile, a battle is brewing over the transport minister's portfolio, which is seen as crucial due to the vast sums of EU structural funds expected to flow through the ministry in upcoming years. The Social Democrats were poised to keep this portfolio, yet the Laborites have apparently had an eye on it as well. They have been pushing for Viktoras Muntianas, mayor of the Kedainiai district, to assume the position, while the Social Democrats are keen to see the current minister, Zenonas Balcytis, keep the job.

Although the negotiators of the four parties claimed to have spent most of their time harmonizing their programs, apparently the talks centered on the exact division of ministerial seats and finding the right synergy for each party. According to Social Democrat Irena Siauliene, the coalition partners' programs do not differ in terms of particulars, and thus the SocDems did not have to compromise much. One exception was exact definitions on agriculture, which were crucial for the Union of Farmers' and New Democracy Party's program.

Judging by reports and commentary, it appears that the Labor Party had to make the most compromises. Siauliene said that millionaire Uspaskich's party was forced to renege on most of its proposals to reform the state administration. The Labor Party had wanted to change the country's entire electoral system by eliminating the method of proportional voting in the Seimas (Lithuania's Parliament) and sticking to a one-district-one-seat approach. The Laborites had also targeted the regional administration system, with hopes of changing how mayors and municipality councils were elected.

Zilvinas Padaiga, a Labor Party negotiator and also a candidate for the health minister's seat, confirmed that the party made the biggest compromises.

"But a lot of the Labor Party's provisions were included in the coalition program. Sometimes, when seeking compromises, we had to soften our position while aiming for more flexible decisions," said Padaiga.

According to the political analyst Lidija Sabajevaite, program provisions for the ruling coalition partners are not important. If they had adhered to an ideology, it would be more difficult for them to harmonize their programs, yet they managed to show a degree of flexibility, the analyst said.