• 2004-11-17
It's official. The populists have made it to power in Lithuania. The notion of a rainbow coalition between left-of-center and right-wing forces, if even for the sake of keeping a group of seemingly dangerous political upstarts out of government, proved to be little more than political fantasizing, and now the Viktor Uspaskich-led group of Laborites is in the driver's seat.

And what a seat it is. After having finished first in the parliamentary poll, the Laborites followed through and negotiated for themselves a strong set of portfolios in what will certainly be one of Lithuania's most peculiar governments. Granted, though he had every right to request the prime minister's position, Uspaskich (who must certainly was aware of incumbent PM Algirdas Brazauskas' impressive approval rating) yielded and, other than the spheres of health, culture and justice, wrested control over finance and economy for his party.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. The Labor Party, a group of populists who promised everything under the sun (increase in pensions, minimum wages, tax-free income, utility subsidies, housing benefits), will now have tremendous influence over taxes, budget policy and state planning. They will have, in other words, both tactical and strategical control over how the Lithuanian economy develops. Uspaskich himself is set to become economy minister. Thus his vision of how Lithuania should progress could become official state policy. Bearing in mind the abundance of campaign promises, his appointment seems akin to giving a child control over the money-minting machine.

To be sure, the division of portfolios could hardly have been otherwise given the Social Democrats and Social Liberals insistence that they keep the prime minister's and the parliamentary speaker's positions. After all, by retaining the number one and two positions in the country, Brazauskas and his close associate, parliamentary chief Arturas Paulauskas, will essentially be able to override any irresponsible legislation that the Laborites might try to weasel through the system. (And as we have witnessed this year, finding Lithuanians MPs who are willing to help you out with lawmaking does not pose a challenge.) In this sense, Brazauskas and Co. dutifully employed the time-honored stratagem: "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Besides, there is no guarantee that a rainbow coalition would have worked. In contrast to the Labor Party, the right-wing Homeland Union contains many experienced politicians who would be less "compromising" than the Uspaskich-led clan, which at this point seems eager to work and desperate to prove its abilities. Had a rainbow coalition been formed and later collapsed, then the Laborites would have really assumed full control over the driver's seat. And that would have been scary.