Municipal elections: stringent financing, liberal advertising

  • 2011-01-26
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

PARTICIPATION: Pavelas Kujalis expects a strong turn-out on election day.

KLAIPEDA - Though the Lithuanian political pot is not sizzling feverishly just yet, with municipal elections set for Feb. 27, it is getting there fast. Last Monday, Jan. 24, was the last day when Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission and electoral commissions in 60 municipalities countrywide accepted applications from candidates willing to skirmish for the 1,526 municipal seats up for grabs. Over 14,000 candidates have decided to seek mandates in the municipal councils. That is several thousand more than in the previous municipal elections in 2007. Political parties and independent candidates intending to form electoral coalitions had to hand in their electoral papers before the end of the day as well. Thus, ex-Vilnius Mayor and ex-parliamentarian Arturas Zuokas, along with another 50 independent candidates to Vilnius Municipality’s Council, have signed the declaration of the so-called Vilnius Coalition. It seems that Vilnius Municipality’s Council is attracting the most lavish attention so far of hungry local political power seekers.

Therefore, besides the Vilnius Coalition, two other coalitions have popped up recently – the social movement Musu Reikalas (Our Matter) and a coalition consisting of leaders of Vilnius’ several communities. The Vilnius Coalition’s members, headed by the unsinkable Zuokas, assert that they have teamed into a bunch of hardworking people that have already worked for Vilnius Municipality at the beginning of the millennium. The Coalition’s slogan is as follows: Yes for the rebirth of Vilnius!

In his fiery pre-election speeches all over the capital by day, and in a 24-hour front-page ad on the trendiest Lithuanian Web site Delfi, Zuokas throws hardly feasible promises to his left and right. Are you dreaming about a salary of over 6,000 litas (1,710 euros) by 2020? No way, it is impossible, say economists shaking their heads. Yes, it is possible, if you entrust us with the power, Zuokas nods gleefully. Are you grumbling over the nagging traffic-jams during peak rush-hour in Vilnius? Zuokas assuredly hits the table, “I will build a bypass-road.” Are you about to suffer a stroke seeing that huge heating bill? Zuokas does not sway, “I will settle it.”

He compares the Lithuanian capital to a beauty that needs to be woken up. When it comes to Vilnius, not only seasoned politicians eye seats on its Council, but also a bunch of political animals and those who have nothing to do with politics as well. Like Sasha Song or Jurgis Didziulis, the ex-leader of the dismantled band Inculto – after their unsuccessful debuts at Eurovision Song Contests, they are ready to poke fun at something else – politics. However, the singers, grilled with questions on local politics in a few election rounds, withdrew from the political race, graciously acknowledging, “Being a good man does not make a good politician.”

Apparently, not all candidates show such reality-check sobriety. Evalda Siskauskiene, president of Lithuania’s Hotel and Restaurant Association, is convinced, if once given a chance, that it will be possible to establish Vilnius’ airlines. “We have failed to establish a national carrier, but our Coalition is willing to do that on the local scale. We are no worse than Riga, that runs 107 direct flights, while Vilnius has only 18 direct flights. Since we see big opportunities in conference tourism, the [air] carrier will pay off,” Siskauskiene says, mustering courage before the elections.

Independent candidates are the biggest novelty of the electoral campaign. “Politically non-affiliated candidates, over 500 of them in total, will considerably counterbalance politically-affiliated candidates. Only in nine of 60 municipalities will we not see independent candidates. They make the political campaign and the elections much more interesting,” Pavelas Kujalis, deputy chairman of Lithuania’s Central Electoral Commission, asserted to The Baltic Times.

Among other peculiarities of the upcoming elections, he discerns a more stringent control of the political campaign’s financing. Thus, a natural person’s or a legal entity’s contribution to the political campaign cannot exceed 42,000 litas this year. “However, though we observe some more strict rules regarding the financing, the campaign’s advertising will be relatively liberal this year, as all candidates, both parties, coalitions and independent candidates, will be able to run TV ads and hand out fliers. In the previous Seimas elections, running TV ads was forbidden,” he said.

“I believe because of the more flexible advertising rules we will see more constituents actively participating in the pre-election political campaign and a larger turnout on Election Day,” Kujalis maintained. He revealed that the elections will cost the Lithuanian budget 17 million litas. With the campaigning loosened up a bit, the state intends to be tougher right after, as it is allocating over one million litas for the elections’ audit. The deputy chairman of the Commission is bothered by the possibility that some current parliamentarians will become mayors. In such a case, a new parliament election for a vacant seat in Seimas ought to be held which, according to Kujalis, costs the state budget up to 700,000 litas. “As a rule, after a municipal election, we have to organize several such elections,” Kujalis said.

The race to Vilnius Municipality’s Council has already been dubbed “a millionaire’s race.” Thus, Viktoras Uspaskichas, europarliamentarian and chairman of Lithuania’s Labor Party along with his wife, has declared property of over 184 million litas. Money-wise, he is followed up by the aforementioned Zuokas who, along with his wife, claims to possess assets of nearly nine million litas. The millionaire list is ended up by the notorious Algirdas Paleckis, who denies the January 13 Soviet massacre and intends to wage a war against the oligarchs. His assets are estimated at 1.4 million litas. All of them - Uspaskichas, Zuokas and Paleckis – are eying the Vilnius Municipality mayor’s seat.