Political landscape on the eve of the municipal elections

  • 2011-02-02
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - The municipal elections on Feb. 27 will probably be the main event in Lithuania’s domestic politics in 2011. The elections, to 60 local municipal councils, are held every four years. This year, voters will also be able to vote for lists of coalitions of independent candidates who are not members of political parties. In previous elections, only voting for political party lists was possible.

Some of the independent candidates’ coalitions can play a significant role in the municipal elections. On Jan. 22, the movement named the Coalition of Arturas Zuokas and Vilnius, with the slogan “YES to the rebirth of Vilnius!” led by Arturas Zuokas, the liberal center-right Vilnius mayor from 2000-2007, was officially established in Vilnius. Zuokas is the promoter of courageous business ideas for Vilnius’ future, such as a Guggenheim museum and a high-speed tram in Vilnius. According to social polls, this 43- year-old politician could be elected to the post of mayor again if the Lithuanian parliament would listen to the proposal by President Dalia Grybauskaite to introduce direct elections of mayors, who are now elected by the municipality councils.

Zuokas, who was born into a poor family, started his career as a war journalist for international agencies in Nagorno-Karabakh and Iraq. After such experiences, he established the Baltic News Service agency and later moved into politics to become a rich fellow. Although the media accuses him of too close and too controversial relations with business, a nice legacy was left after his terms in office: a quarter of the newly-built skyscrapers and Vilnius’ renovated central street, Gedimino Avenue, as well as the renovated artistic Uzupis quarter where he has his family house. No wonder that Zuokas chose the slogan of the French student revolt of 1968, stating “Be realistic, ask the impossible” as a motto for his Internet blog, zuokas.lt, in which he writes in Lithuanian and English.

On Jan. 22, Zuokas’ coalition stated that it will turn Vilnius into “the most modern city of Eastern and Central Europe.” One of its goals is initiation of the creation of the new airline company, Air Vilnius. “There are 107 direct flights from Riga airport, and only 18 regular direct flights from Vilnius airport. We need to develop conference tourism in Vilnius,” Evalda Siskauskiene, president of the Lithuanian Hotel and Restaurant Association and member of the Zuokas-led coalition, said. The Zuokas coalition also promises that the average salary in Vilnius will be 6,400 litas (1,855 euros) by 2020.

Zuokas, former leader of the Liberal and Center Union and now a non-party man, does not hide his ambitions to become Vilnius mayor again, although the same intentions are declared by several other dinosaurs of Lithuanian politics: Arturas Paulauskas, former parliament chairman in 2000-2006 and leader of the microscopic party named the New Union (Social Liberals), Kazimira Prunskiene, prime minister in 1990 and chairwoman of the even more microscopic People’s Party, which has friendly ties with Russia’s ruling party, United Russia (her party is a version of the Center Party of Tallinn with its Mayor Edgar Savisaar, although Prunskiene was not involved in Russia’s money taking scandals and the popularity of Prunskiene’s party is close to zero - it can only dream about the ratings of the Estonian Center Party) and Viktor Uspaskich, member of the European Parliament, multimillionaire businessman and leader of the opposition Labor Party.

“The post of Vilnius mayor is the fourth most important post in the country, after the posts of president, parliament chairperson and prime minister and, therefore, I’ll leave the European Parliament in case I would be elected to the post of Vilnius mayor,” Uspaskich said. However, such plans can be difficult to achieve, according to Vladas Gaidys, director of the social research firm Vilmorus. He says that Uspaskich is popular in small Lithuanian towns but the population of Vilnius has different tastes.
Kaunas, Lithuania’s second largest city which, like Vilnius, is currently ruled by a mayor of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, also produced some coalitions of independent candidates for the upcoming municipal elections. The biggest non-party coalition there is United Kaunas, led by Visvaldas Matijosaitis, owner of Viciunai Group which produces fish fingers, herring and salmon products as well as ecological bread. United Kaunas unites Kaunas’ businesspeople, who probably decided that it would be easier for them to take power directly, instead of lobbying their interests via politicians.

However, the main battle for the municipalities will go on between the political parties. Currently, the biggest number of seats in municipalities is held by the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. They have 350 seats and 13 mayoral posts throughout the country. Traditionally, their biggest competitor has been the Social Democrat Party, which now has 302 seats in municipalities and 17 mayoral posts. Third place, according to the number of mayors, is occupied by the Peasant Popular Union, which has seven mayoral posts. The Peasant Popular Union is a small party on a national scale, but it traditionally shows good results in the rural municipalities.

There has been only one scandal in the election campaign so far. Greta Sapkaite-Valuckiene, (stepdaughter of Kestutis Sapka, former European champion in high jumping), now 28, who played in the French-Lithuanian movie The House created for the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and directed by Sarunas Bartas (probably Europe’s most non-commercial director, in comparison with whom Lars von Trier is just a mainstream artist for the popcorn-eating audience), is a candidate on the Social Democrat Party list for the Vilnius municipality council elections. She is the first Afro-Lithuanian competing in the elections in Lithuania. Photos from the movie The House, where she acts naked, appeared on the Internet during the election campaign. This could have been done by some political enemies, but these photos rather provoked some recovery in popularity of this former TV star.

Now she is a rich, young businesswoman who last year married a Lithuanian businessman in the Cayman Islands. Some years ago, Sapkaite started her TV career as a TV weather forecast reader, and subsequently became a host of various TV shows where she was often dressed in a traditional Lithuanian national costume. Later, as with many Lithuanians, she left for London but her emigration was not long-lasting. “It will help to increase her popularity. It encourages intelligent people, who are not in conflict with art and brains, to watch this movie,” Christian Party MP Donalda Meizelyte-Sviliene said, commenting on this weird scandal which was created out of nothing.

Sapkaite-Valuckiene is the wife of Linas Valuckas, who is a son of Konstantinas Povilas Valuckas, director of the Vilnius University’s Oncology Institute, where Algirdas Brazauskas, patriarch of the Social Democrats, was treated for cancer. It is a perfect example that Lithuanian political parties have nothing to do with ideologies or political programs – they are just clans of friends. Ironically enough, the Social Democrats are the clan of probably the richest people – the French call such socialists gauche caviar (the “caviar left”).

There are some curious things in these elections: independent MP Andrius Sedzius, a millionaire (and a son of Soviet-time Communist boss of the town of Siauliai) who is present on almost all TV brainless talk shows and who recently was a participant in a TV dance show, leads the independent candidates’ coalition in Siauliai. One of the three independent candidate coalitions in Vilnius did choose to call itself Vilnius - Musu Reikalas (“Vilnius - Our Thing” in Lithuanian), although the name “Our Thing” in the Italian language is Cosa Nostra, which is the name for the Sicilian Mafia.

They have on their list Jacek Komar, quite a decent Polish political analyst who left the post of spokesman for the Orlen Lietuva oil company on Jan. 12. This Polish citizen is the only non-Lithuanian candidate in this year’s municipal elections. Viliute Lobaciuviene, who calls herself “the chief witch of Lithuania,” with her parapsychology business, is on the Vilnius election list of the Liberal and Center Union. Her witching powers are somewhat unimpressive, taking into account that she failed to be elected in the parliamentary elections in 2004.