VILNIUS - The Labor Party's popularity is up in the stratosphere again. And party members have accomplished it the old-fashioned way 's by hobnobbing among the masses.
Led by tycoon Viktor Uspaskich, the Labor Party celebrated its second anniversary on Oct. 18. Afterwards, the party leadership began a new tour around the country, and since Oct. 25, it has visited 16 towns.
"This tour is a simple scheme with one goal 's to correct the leader's image. Uspaskich has to work personally with the public to achieve this, and has to put his party up for market until municipal elections," said Lauras Bielinis, a political analyst from the International Relations and Political Science Institute.
In a press release announcing the tour meetings, Uspaskich claims: "We are very interested in the opinion of Lithuania's people, their problems and their valuable suggestions. This is going to be one of the biggest political tours through Lithuania. In the near future, over the next three or four months, we will visit all Lithuanian towns, and will meet as many residents as possible."
During meetings with small-town voters, Uspaskich emphasizes that his party would keep the promises it pledged before last year's parliamentary elections. He stresses that minimum salaries and pensions were raised 's just as the Laborites promised.
This, he mentioned, is because of Lithuania's economic boom, rather than a direct result of the Labor Party's work.
"We are no longer called populists, we kept our word to raise pensions and salaries, therefore we are ready to rule the country," Uspaskich was quoted as saying in a meeting with residents of Silute, near the Curonian Lagoon.
The town's cultural center was packed, and those who stayed until the end were treated to dinner and a pop music concert. Uspaskich claimed that Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas would soon resign from his post and the Labor Party would form a new coalition shortly, the Lietuvos Rytas daily reported.
The "whistle-stop" tour has paid off. If parliamentary elections were held today, one-fifth of Lithuania's electorate would cast their vote for the Laborites, a Vilmorus opinion poll showed.
Coming after the party's recent political hammering, which included Uspaskich's unflattering diploma episode, the rating is no less than shocking.
The poll, conducted in November, showed that Labor's popularity had surged to 25.3 percent 's a 12 percent rise since June, when party support was as its lowest ever. After Labor's chairman resigned from Parliament and the position of economy minister due to scandal, the party fell from its lead position with a 15 percent drop.
"Such rapid shifts, ranging from rejection to affection, in opinion polls show that society doesn't have a clearly shaped opinion about one or another political force. Attitudes toward politicians are based on emotional judgment and depend on changes in the political atmosphere," said Bielinis.
"This rating, this shift toward popularity isn't final yet, and the party's position in Lithuanian politics isn't settled yet. It results from a public relations project, which is designed to perform well in municipal elections."
Paradoxically, in another survey - conducted in October - analyzing corruption trends in the country, society labeled the Labor Party as the country's most corrupt political organization 's 33 percent of respondents believed the Uspaskich-led party was the most corrupt.
Based on the Labor Party's information, this is arguably the largest political organization, bonding over 14,000 members. In only two years, the Labor Party has succeeded in becoming Lithuania's largest and most popular political party 's success many could only dream of.
Now, thanks to the scandal that has embroiled Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas, Uspaskich is aiming for a better stake. The coalition agreement between the four partners states that the prime minister's position goes to Brazauskas, not the Social Democrat Party. If Brazauskas were to resign, the position of PM could likely open up to the coalition's largest force: the Labor Party.
The leader of the laborists confirmed that, in case Brazauskas resigns, they would suggest their own candidate. Uspaskich, however, claimed that he wasn't aiming for the position himself, but that the party had a possible candidature, the name of whom remains unknown.
Right after Labor's success in the parliamentary elections last year, MEP Ona Jukneviciene, an economist and resident advisor to the World Bank, was frequently referred to as the party's most suitable candidate. When asked if she could lead the government today, Jukneviciene told The Baltic Times she would hesitate.
"I think I wouldn't take the responsibility. Indeed, I was mentioned as candidate many times, but this wasn't my initiative, nor the Labor Party's. I don't consider this possibility seriously because there are many other people in Lithuania who need a chance to emerge," Jukneviciene said. (See next week's issue of The Baltic Times for an exclusive interview with Jukneviciene.)
Still, many pundits refer to the Laborites as neophytes.
"Today it is only a political project and not a political party. The party's structure still hasn't become more apparent, and politicians besides Uspaskich are not visible. Uspaskich remains the center of attention, while others are inactive in the background," Beilinis said. "There are certainly some normal people in the party, but for now they are in the shadows, and everything is being done to keep them there - to reduce competition with the leader."
Uspaskich is not only the party's biggest scandal-maker, but also its biggest trump. But the laborers also have trustworthy and tested techniques, which can send them back into the lead.