Center-right wind of change?

  • 2008-10-23
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - The main story to come out of the Lithuanian election is that the wheel of aggressive populism seems to have stopped.
Results from Lithuania's parliamentary election show the center-right party has won the first round.
The Lithuanian parliament of 141 seats is elected via a mixed election system - 70 MPs are elected from party lists while another 71 are elected individually in the constituencies. The picture of the latter half of the parliament's seats will be clear only on Oct. 26 - in the second round of elections in the constituencies because victory in the first round required 50 percent of votes, which no party reached. The final result will be the basis for coalition talks that will form the final face of the government after the second round.

However, already now it is clear that the populists have lost power and the turn to the center-right has emerged.
The apparent victory of the Homeland Union 's Christian Democrats, also known as the Conservatives, in the parliamentary election on Oct. 12 came amid voter anger over Lithuania's economic difficulties after years of spectacular growth. Double-digit inflation has worried many.

On Oct. 16, in Vilnius, Dalia Grybauskaite, European commissioner for financial programming and budget, expressed her skepticism about the current Social Democrat-led government's capability to curb budget deficit and inflation. They grew significantly due to desire of Gediminas Kirkilas, leader of the Social Democrats and prime minister, for overspending on social care in the parliamentary election year. However, Kirkilas' populist behavior failed to please the electorate because his actions provoked 11 percent annual inflation. It evidently even scared the social benefits' recipients.

According to the social survey by the social research firm Spinter Tyrimai, which was published by Delfi news portal, only 6.2 percent of Lithuanians would like Kirkilas to stay in his post after the parliamentary election while 70.9 percent of voters are against another term.
The election showed that many voters are apathetic about politics in Lithuania.
"As never before, many voters decided to spoil their ballots. They make up 6 percent of those who voted. It is an obvious protest," Zenonas Vaigauskas, head of the Chief Electoral Commission, which organizes the elections, said.

Some voters just crossed all names on their ballot while others wrote into their ballot such candidate names as Chuck Norris and Angelina Jolie.
Both previously quite successful populist parties, the Order and Justice and the Labor Party, showed poorer results in comparison to pre-election public opinion surveys. The Order and Justice is led by Rolandas Paksas who was impeached in 2004 from the post of president of Lithuania.

This party's only goal was seemingly to restore the right for Paksas to run for the presidency again. Currently he is banned. The party promised to introduce a strong presidential power (actually, it could be done only by referendum regarding the change of constitution). The Labor Party, which won the most votes in the previous election in 2004 when this party promised to solve all Lithuanian social problems in 111 days, is led by a Russian-born millionaire Viktor Uspaskich.

Both parties' success would be rather destructive though Western media speculation about their pro-Russian stance is rather exaggerated. Both, Paksas and Uspaskich, made repeated public statements in favor of a strong NATO and EU.
However, taking into account their shady business ties with the Russians in the past, a rhetoric question about their loyalty under all circumstances has a right to exist.

"There is no ground to fear of the arrival of populists. The state bureaucracy is a straitjacket to those who want to make some changes. It is bad when there are plans to make something good, but it is good when there are some bad plans. It is impossible to overstep state bureaucracy and implement some real nonsense," Ramunas Vilpisauskas, at the time expert with the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, said in 2004 when Labor won the election and formed a short-lived ruling coalition with the Social Democrats.

In the previous parliamentary elections in 2004, Labor was a purely populist party winning votes from an angry electorate. During the recent election campaign, Labor looked closer to the mainstream parties. Maybe, the Order and Justice party would go the same path but the electorate decided that it is better not to try it.
Actually, Paksas limited his freedom of maneuver after this election himself. "I would not like that my party would create a coalition with the Conservatives or the Social Democrats," he said.
It is obvious that a large number of votes from the populists was taken by the newly-formed National Resurrection Party, led by Arunas Valinskas, host of TV humor and song shows. This unorthodox party made a splash in the election taking the second place in the first round.

Among MPs from its list are a singer and actress who recently posed naked for a magazine's photo session, a former rap singer who made spiritually motivated trips to India and started a healthy life style, a show woman with a good and very dark sense of humor and Valinskas' wife who is quite famous in Lithuania as a singer. The massive victory for the National Resurrection Party was the death for two rather populist parties, which are members of the current government.

"Thanks to us, the Social Liberals and the Peasant's Union did not manage to get into the parliament," Saulius Stoma, newly elected National Resurrection Party MP, said.
It is rather difficult to describe Valinskas' party as populist because it did not make any extraordinary social promises and angry statements which are so common for populists and even traditional parties.
Valinskas just promised "politics with a human face." By choosing his party list, people just voted for a company of jolly guys who did no negative campaigning and gave no promises to raise pensions or wages. It is a phenomenon which was unknown in the practice of politics worldwide.

"The economic crisis comes. We do not promise you an easy life, but it would be less boring with us," Valinskas said during the election campaign. These words became some kind of motto for his party.
The party's positive influence on Lithuanian political life was praised by both traditional antagonists, the Homeland Union 's Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats.
"Valinskas' party was easing tensions and played a positive impact to the political and psychological climate of Lithuania," Kirkilas said.

"Valinskas' party took some votes from populists, but I know that many young people having liberal views also voted for Valinskas' party showing their desire for some change and protest against the current situation," Conservative MP Irena Degutiene said.

The 'Valinskas' party is seen by both sides of the political spectrum as a game changer in negotiations to form a new ruling coalition and a new government because this party can be a member of both - the center-right coalition led by the Conservatives as well as the center-left coalition led by the Social Democrats.
After the first round of elections, Valinskas described his party as the center-right and said that his party has no intention to deal with the populists and leans to the center-right. Ironically, the Conservatives are not rejecting the possibility of coalition with the populist Paksas' party as decisively as Valinskas does. It is obvious that the Conservatives would not have enough seats in the parliament for the creation of a stable center-right coalition without a good election result for the National Resurrection Party.

In a video conference of, Valinskas and Vytautas Landsbergis, founding father of the Homeland Union 's Christian Democrats and possible foreign minister in the new government, discussed the post-election political landscape like two good friends. It means that the center-right coalition is almost ready.
All mainstream political analysts of Lithuania agree that fortunately, both liberal parties, the Liberal Union as well as the Liberal and Center Union, managed to squeeze into the parliament. Both liberal parties say that they will under no circumstances be in coalition with Paksas.

These two liberal parties as well as the Conservatives have enough experienced MPs while Valinskas has obviously not and it is good that the latter did his job but came short of taking absolute majority in the parliament.
Indeed, a coalition of the Conservatives, the Liberal Union, the Liberal and Center Union, and Valinskas' party looks rather promising for the Lithuanian electorate who voted for changes.