Lithuanian MPs cling to lavish parliamentary perks

  • 2011-11-30
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

KLAIPEDA - Lithuanian parliamentarians’ 2,000 euro salary per month is at the bottom of the list of European legislator pay, but with all parliamentary allowances, benefits and salaries summed up, the entitlements skyrocket, catapulting Lithuanian legislators to a level with an average salary, on par with the very top of the best paid elected officials in the entire European Union.

“The national census has revealed that the Lithuanian population decreased significantly, numbering less than 3 million people. Logically, it means that single-mandate electoral districts should be reshaped, to be exact expanded and taking up the Constitution-set number of electorates in each. If that happened, the existing electoral districts would shrink, as well as the current 141 MP Lithuanian Parliament: Seimas. This step would allow cutbacks in the hefty parliamentary budget and, undoubtedly, would hike Lithuanians’ trust in their legislative body. However, with the unwillingness of the parliamentarians to do anything that would impair their status quo, the constitutional amendments leading to a fewer-seat parliament is highly improbable,” Mantas Stalnionis, a commentator, says.

Many observers of Lithuanian politics are convinced that the issue of the lavish Lithuanian parliamentary incentives that Seimas members cling to, despite public disapproval, will be another horse that many to-be populist parties and social movements will ride on successfully in the 2012 Seimas election campaign.
What do most Lithuanians fume about in regards to these perks? First comes the salary, 7,000 litas (2,029 euros), plus nearly half of that, the so-called parliamentary activity allowances.

Sure, the MPs’ working hours are another red flag that drives most Lithuanians crazy. For the regular 8-hour work shift population, it is incomprehensible how it is possible for anyone in the public sector of the crisis-stricken country to be paid nearly ten times than the average salary, skip mandatory sittings and enjoy a four-and-half month vacation.

When the costly heating season strains most Vilnius dwellers, who often have to give up half of their family budget just to cover the heating and communal service costs, non-Vilnius born parliamentarians and their family members are entitled to the refurbished Seimas dormitory and full coverage of communal service costs in it. Not bad, right?

Next, but not least, is the size of severance allowances, which make up over 10,000 euros if an MP works a full parliamentary tenure and then is not re-elected, or does not seek re-election. “To be honest, I have never been aware of such benefits, even when I stayed at the wheel of the parliament. The Labor Party, whose deputy chairman I am now, stands for cutting down the excessive parliamentary benefits. However, I do not think this Seimas will have the guts to cut the fruitful branches it sits on,” Arturas Paulauskas, the former chairman of Naujoji Sajunga (New Union) and deputy chairman of the Labor Party presently, said to The Baltic Times.

The mid-November parliamentary deliberations over the draft on Parliamentarians’ Activity Guarantees have shown that Lithuanian legislators are far from considering any constraints on their lavish parliamentary incentives – the draft has been rejected and sent for improvements.

“I am really surprised by the legislators’ decision. Frankly, I thought the bill, upon introduction, with certain amendments and improvements will be passed. To reject it the way the parliamentarians did, walking out before the crucial vote or abstaining during the vote, means withdrawal from solving the problem. I do not know whether the politicians who voted against the bill, or simply walked out before the vote, will seek a new Seimas tenure next year. If yes, it means they are willing to further traipse in the mud we have all been stomping in so long and tediously,” Irena Degutiene, chairwoman of the Lithuanian Parliament, said with unusually strong words to express her angst.

She did not say, however, that among the mud-stompers there was a bunch of her fellow Conservatives, some of whom either left the Seimas hall before the vote, or voted against the bill. “I think the bill was doomed to fail from the beginning. From my experience, the later a bill is deliberated and a vote is scheduled, the less probability there is of having it passed. Simply speaking, by the end of the day, most politicians walked out, as the rest voted in a semi-empty hall. Before taking on more serious issues, like the parliamentary benefits and allowances, Seimas has urgently to work out a mechanism ensuring attendance of Seimas sittings. I am disappointed that three of my party’s members, in protest of the bill, deliberately left the hall before the vote. They were right back after the vote was over. It is sad to realize that absence, walk-outs and voting for others, like in the case of impeached Linas Karalius, cripple the Parliament,” Pranas Zeimys, a Conservative MP, admitted to The Baltic Times.

He is pessimistic on having the bill on MPs’ entitlements passed in the Seimas’ spring session. “There is too big a defiance on both sides of the aisle. The benefits, unlike something else, unite the largest spectrum of politicians,” Zeimys added.

Asked whether scrapping the benefits would impair his wellbeing and execution of duties at Seimas, the Conservative acknowledged: “Definitely, it would make my life more problematic. If the bill is passed, I will have to be more scrupulous with the use of the official car and gas. Besides, I will have to pay myself for the communal services I have now for free. Sure, the constraints on my parliamentary work would not impair the Seimas work quality.”

Another MP, chairman of the Liberal and Center Union Algis Caplikas says “some kind” of constraints on parliamentary activity compensation would make sense, but not the ones the lawyers’ working group has put for the Seimas’ vote. “I am trying to be very open-minded and flexible when it comes to the legislation. However, some provisions in the bill, like the effort to supply parliamentarians with official cars in a centralized way, make no sense to me at all. We have had a bad experience from a similar striving during the 2001-2009 Seimas tenures, when cars, German Golfs, were assigned to MPs in a centralized way. It didn’t work, but, regrettably, we are trying to jump on the same rake,” Caplikas said to The Baltic Times.

He calls “sheer nonsense” the bill spearheads’ effort to set a time-defined vacation for politicians. “As a parliamentarian, I work indefinite hours, which extend late into the night or weekends. The bill designers did not want to take that into consideration, raising the question of extra compensation for the after-hour work. Shamefully, they are going to decide for me when I have to go on vacation,” the parliamentarian said vexedly.

He says the best way to tackle the problem of poor attendance in Seimas sittings would be imposing fines for the truants. “When an MP is aware that he or she will lose 100 litas if he or she skips a sitting, the parliamentarian will start thinking whether it is worth it,” the politician said.

He compared the draft to a “Belarus-or-Russia-like legislative piece,” where the hard language of legislation prevails. “It is not about parliamentarians unwilling to discuss the bill; it is about the bill spearheads’ short-sightedness and rage towards the electorate’s elected officials and the desperate bid to harness them,” Caplikas inferred.

The revised bill is to be put to a Seimas vote again in the Parliament’s spring session. However, the outcome is quite predictable. The bill’s preparation group, compiled from prominent Lithuanian lawyers, seeks to set a fixed vacation for MPs, as well as forbid them from renting cars from parliamentary allowances on their own, instead of setting a system allowing car and office rent in a centralized way. The bill promoters intend to strictly set an amount of parliamentary allowance to be used for buying gas, representation and office leases. The bill foresees strict penalties for missing parliamentary sittings, even a month-salary cut. In addition, a 45-day vacation instead of a 4-and-half month vacation is suggested.

Seimas Chairwoman Degutiene, nevertheless, is hopeful in bringing the revised and supplemented bill for the MPs in spring 2012. “I hope that common sense will prevail and we pass the law,” she said, pointing out that many MPs voted against it in protest of the Social Democrat and chairman of Seimas’ Ethics and Procedure Commission Algimantas Salamakinas, who has brought much MP anger and frustration over his led commission’s often dubious decisions on what parliamentary behavior is ethical, and what is not.

How do neighbor countries deal with the benefits (if they exist) of their chosen representatives? The data of Seimas’ Parliamentary Research Department show that most European countries do not follow a set system of benefits. For example, Estonian MPs set their activities and parliamentary work guarantees 4 years ago, while Latvians legislators set their benefits in the Saeima statute.

Unlike in Lithuania, in the other two Baltic countries MP salaries are recalculated every year, and politicians receive parliamentary activity compensation for transport, office, representation and professional training. In that regard, Estonia has set it such that this kind of compensation cannot exceed 30 percent of the parliamentary salary, which is 3,353 euros.

In Poland, the parliamentary salary is pegged to a vice-minister’s salary and reaches about 8,000 litas. Poland’s members of parliament, who have no permanent accommodation in the Polish capital, are entitled to stay at the parliamentary hotel. If there is not enough space, the legislators get budget money for renting apartments. Differently from Lithuanian MPs, their Polish counterparts can ride public transport and fly some local air routes free of charge.
When it comes to parliament members’ aides, Greece lavishes the most for them, allowing an MP to hire a science consultant and four secretaries. In most European countries MPs are entitled to have only one paid aid while, for example, in the Netherlands, several legislators share the same aide’s assistance.

In regards to this, Lithuanian MPs, with 3 aides on average, are on par with French legislators. In Latvia, a Saeima member usually has 2 aides and Estonian parliamentarians do without any aides at all.