VILNIUS - The political fate of Viktor Uspaskich and his Labor Party hangs in the balance after voters forced a second round of elections.
Despite being under house arrest on allegations of fraud, Uspaskich won 20.26 percent of the vote during a by-election in the Dzukija constituency on Oct. 7.
Conservative Party candidate Kestutis Cilinskas received 30.29 percent of votes. Since neither candidate won the required 40 percent, a second round of elections will be held on Oct. 21.
Labor Party supporters reinforced the message to local media that the vote indicates their campaign's success despite his pre-trial investigation.
"The information war against the Labor Party and Uspaskich has been going for one and a half years, it has been blasted, Labor Party members, politicians and its founder were slandered," stated Labor party chairman Kestutis Dauksys in a press release.
"Still voting results have demonstrated that the initiators, strategists and executors of this black PR campaign have failed. Lithuanians understand what happens in the politics of their country. They can make their own decisions," the statement read.
The Labor Party has been on the verge of a collapse since its formation in 2003. Lithuanian prosecutors initiate a pre-trial investigation into suspected tax fraud in the party's bookkeeping in May 2006, and filed charges against the party's founder in August 2006.
During the pre-trial investigation, Uspaskich fled to Moscow for 18 months before returning to Lithuania in September. Russian authorities twice failed to extradite Uspaskich because he had requested political asylum in the country.
The suspicions, along with the sudden presence of 14 Lithuanian lawmakers from the Labor Party at Uspaskich's press conference in Moscow, raised doubt about the party's integrity. The tax fraud allegations, reports of election campaign spending violations, and politicians withdrawing support of the Labor Party have caused a decrease in vote tallies.
At first, the Labor Party drew a large percentage in the general parliamentary elections in 2004, winning 39 mandates. Uspaskich had swept his competitors in Kedainiai's local elections receiving 64.3 percent of the votes.
Movements in political parties and leadership in the past few years spurred changes.
From December 2004 to June 2005 Uspaskich was the economy minister. He resigned in June after an ethics commission accused him of misusing his office to promote private interests.
In May 2006, Viktoras Muntianas left the Labor Party because he had been elected chairman of the center-left Civil Democracy party.
Algis Kiupavicius, professor of political science at Kaunas Technical University, told The Baltic Times that the dwindling constituency and low voter turnout reflect the overall party's lack of political experience on the national level and communication skills with voters.
"The national stage is a little different [than local politics] because there are more big-scale issues, more complicated, and if you only have experience in basic provisions for the local community, it's not enough for reforms and social issues [such as], employment, immigration," said Kiupavicius.
"On the other hand, the party has been very ambitious. They won the largest share of votes during 2004, but it wasn't enough to make a two-or-three party-coalition," said Kiupavicius, adding that the party came under fire from opposition parties.
Voting results compared from year-to-year reflect the decline of public support.
The Labor Party candidate Virginija Baltraitiene won the 2005 elections in Kedainiai, but the voter turnout was set at 27.47 percent. A record low turnout hit the municipal elections Feb. 25, 2007. Of the 2.7 million voters registered in Lithuanian, 36.5 percent voted. The Homeland Union (Conservatives) received the highest votes, while the Labor Party finished in sixth place.
In the Oct. 7 elections in the Alytus district, 10 political parties competed for a seat in Parliament.
Aine Ramonaite, professor of International relations and political science at Vilnius University, said the reason for low voter turnout could be the overall confusion of people remembering names of parties and candidates because of the number of changes made.
"People simply don't know, so they don't vote. It's becoming difficult to make sense of this fragmented party system," she said.
There are 37,000 registered voters in the country's southern Alytus district. The second election is based on who will receive the most votes.
Both political scientists agreed if Uspaskich wins, the Labor Party has a chance to gain more votes in 2008.
"If he wins the election, it could be an important factor for the party's survival," said Ramonaite.
"The possibility of the party disappearing is not on the agenda," said Kiupavicius.