Social issues top election agenda

  • 2011-10-05
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas speaks about plans to create his own political party. If he does, results in the parliamentary elections are expected to be good due to Zuokas’ PR skills.

VILNIUS - In September, after the summer vacation, the Lithuanian parliament started its new session, which will have some pre-election specifics. The parliamentary elections will be held in the fall of 2012 and it is obvious that the political landscape will change after these elections. There will be a lot of attention given to social care issues and a lot of populism is expected during this pre-election season. Four years ago, during the previous pre-election year of 2008, 23.7 percent of all adopted laws were related to social issues.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite and the ruling center-right coalition are already sending signals to the opposition, asking them to avoid using social issues-related propaganda in the election campaign.
“If you will inherit a bankrupt state, you’ll not be able to implement your promises to your electorate,” Irena Degutiene, the parliament’s speaker and MP of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, said from the rostrum of the parliament, warning the opposition during the opening of a new parliamentary session on Sept. 10.

Grybauskaite stated that she will veto the law on the budget of 2012 if MPs include too much social populism into it. At the same time, she allowed the government of Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius to return pensions to the pre-crisis level starting from the beginning of next year. This is a big help for Kubilius and his Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats because pensioners are the most active voters during the elections.

However, these steps make no impression on the opposition. “It is impossible to survive on the minimal salary. Only Mr. Kubilius can contemplate: to raise it or not,” Valentinas Mazuronis, head of the Order and Justice Party’s parliamentary faction, said. According to Eurostat, the minimum wage in Lithuania is 231.70 euros per month, i.e. one of the lowest in the EU – it is lower only in Romania and Bulgaria. On Sept. 14, the Lithuanian government decided to propose to the tripartite council of the government, businesses and trade unions to raise the minimum wage by 50 litas (14.50 euros) from July 2012, i.e. a couple of months before the parliamentary elections. On Sept. 27, the parliament adopted a resolution, mostly with votes from the opposition, demanding to raise the minimum wage by 200 litas starting from the beginning of 2012. The opposition did not hide that their demand is related to the coming parliamentary elections. The parliament’s resolution has no power of law. The trade unions support this resolution, not the government’s minimalist proposal of 50 litas. Trade unions staged a picket in front of Kubilius’ office on Oct. 3 demanding at least a 200 litas rise in the minimum wage and promised a more massive demonstration in the same place on Oct. 7.

Another issue recently debated by politicians is the financing of political parties. “We need to do everything possible so that elections would go smoothly in financial terms,” Kubilius said during a press conference of Sept. 10. It was a kind of approving echo to Grybauskaite’s demand to pass a law banning the rights of business to donate to political party election campaigns. On Sept. 15, a draft was adopted by the parliament on the issue of political party financing. The political parties care more about their business sponsors than their electorate, according to Solveiga Cirtautiene, adviser to President Grybauskaite.
Some limitations on a private person’s donations were also introduced. “A person will not be able to donate more than 10 percent of his annual income,” Cirtautiene said to MPs from the parliament rostrum. “We’ll need to increase political parties’ financing from the state budget,” Kubilius said, urging to follow the Scandinavian practice.

Not everybody is happy with the new rules on political party financing. “MPs will be forced to circle the streets, holding a can and begging for donations from passers-by,” Social Democrat MP Birute Vesaite cried in the parliament. Ironically, the Social Democrats, who are supposed to be the representatives of the working people, are known for their close ties with rich persons, some of them even quite shadowy rich. The LNK TV show on criminal issues showed the tape picturing Vesaite together with other leftist politicians in a drinking party with Catholic priest Jordanas Kazlauskas, who is now a suspect in a criminal case (his priesthood is now suspended by the Church) – he is suspected of fooling his elderly parishioner. The parishioner’s 1 million litas (290,000 euros) disappeared mysteriously in dealing with this leftist politicians-friendly priest. The parishioner was killed under mysterious circumstances.

Meanwhile, two unusual political forces are being created for the parliamentary election of 2012. One of them is the movement called Drasos Kelias (“The Way of Courage”), established by relatives of Drasius Kedys. On Oct. 5, 2009, Kedys gunned down (as prosecutors officially suspect) his former girlfriend’s sister and Kaunas Judge Jonas Furmanavicius because Kedys thought that they were involved in his daughter’s pedophile molestation. In April 2010, Kedys was found dead near Kaunas. Prosecutors stated that he choked on vomit caused by alcohol abuse. The movement Drasos Kelias plans to become a political party concerned with pedophilia crimes and social issues.

Another unusual force will be the Lithuanian President’s Union (though this party’s title may yet be changed), established in August. This political party was established on the basis of the Vytautas Sustauskas-led Lithuanian Freedom Union. The Lithuanian President’s Union is led by Kristina Brazauskiene, widow of the late President Algirdas Brazauskas. Sustauskas is known as a populist politician, describing all the political elite as corrupt thieves. Sustauskas reached the peak of his career when he became the Kaunas mayor. Later, he worked as a taxi driver and now he is a pensioner. Brazauskiene, during the Soviet times, worked as a barmaid in a bar for Soviet elite, where she first met Brazauskas. She became a rich businesswoman, owner of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Vilnius, after her friendship with Brazauskas became very warm. Later, in 2002, she married Brazauskas.

A couple of years before the creation of the Lithuanian President’s Union, two journalists at Lithuanian TV3, pretending to be a journalist from China and her translator, interviewed Sustauskas about Brazauskiene. Then Sustauskas described Brazauskiene not nicely. “You know what a barmaid is in Lithuania. She was a barmaid and remained a barmaid,” Sustauskas said.

However, now the alliance of Sustauskas and Brazauskiene is strong. When, during the LNK TV talk show, Sustauskas was asked why he used the word “president” for his new party, which looks like the exploitation of the Brazauskas name, he answered, “Maybe it is the union of FIFA President Blatter.”
The Lithuanian Justice Ministry expressed its dissatisfaction about the allusion to the country’s former president in the name of Brazauskiene’s political party. Brazauskiene said that she will consider renaming her political party and calling it the Union of the Lithuanian President’s Widow.

Political analysts do not believe that Drasos Kelias or the Brazauskiene-led party will manage to achieve good results during the elections. According to political analyst Vladimiras Laucius, the ruling coalition after the 2012 elections can be formed by political parties of no strict political views: the Labor Party of Viktor Uspaskich and the political party of Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas (he has not created his political party yet, but plans to do so). This coalition may incorporate, as its small appendix, the Polish Electoral Action, which usually participates in elections in a coalition with the ‘Russian’ political parties.

Zuokas’s political party (Zuokas describes it as liberal and Christian) would be a strong rival to the traditional parties due to the PR skills of Zuokas. On Sept. 29, he received the Ig Nobel Prize. The Ig Nobel Prizes honor achievements which make people laugh and think. The Ig Nobel Prizes are organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research. On Sept. 29, during the 21st gala ceremony at Harvard University’s Sanders Theater, Peter Diamond, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2010, awarded Zuokas with the 2011 Ig Nobel Peace Prize for driving a tank over a Mercedes Benz, which was illegally parked on Gedimino Avenue in Vilnius. Zuokas’ tank attack was shown on CNN, BBC and many other TV stations across the world. Zuokas gave a speech during the award ceremony of Sept. 29.

In 2001, another Lithuanian, Viliumas Malinauskas, was awarded with the Ig Nobel Peace Prize, for creating a park of old Soviet sculptures near the Lithuanian town of Druskininkai – he is the father of Ricardas Malinauskas, who is the successful Social Democrat mayor of Druskininkai.

The Social Democrats are also expected to show good results in the coming parliamentary elections. A coalition of the Laucius-mentioned political parties, with the Social Democrats, is also possible. Political analysts also do not exclude the possibility of coalitions of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats with the Labor Party, or with the Order and Justice Party. It is not certain if two liberal parties, the Liberals’ Movement and the Liberal Center Union (both now are members of the ruling center-right coalition together with the PM Kubilius-led party), will manage to get into the parliament in the fall of 2012. Both liberal parties are strongly supported by business, but if new legislation on political party financing will come into force, they may have problems with their political campaign.