And the winner is…

  • 2012-05-30
  • By Kestutis Girnius

Elections to the Lithuanian Seimas will take place on the 14th of October. Although the election campaign has not formally begun and political skirmishing has been rather subdued, the broad contours of the final results can be predicted with a degree of certainty.

Barring an unexpected surprise or stumble of an immense magnitude, the three major opposition parties – the Labor Party, the Social Democratic Party, and Order and Justice – should win a comfortable majority in the new Parliament. According to the polls conducted in early May, they would garner 19.4 percent, 15.0 percent, and 8.6 percent, respectively. The dominant party of the current ruling coalition, the Conservatives, would receive 7.4 percent. No other party would clear the 5 percent barrier. A sizeable number of voters remain undecided.

Lithuanian polls are not the most accurate. In the municipal elections of 2011 they underestimated substantially the popularity of the Conservatives. But the polls have been quite consistent for more than a year, and a surge of support for the Conservatives is highly unlikely.

Although the government of Andrius Kubilius has won high praise from international financial institutions for its handling of the economy, the standard of living remains below that of 2008, and the prime minister is the politician Lithuanians dislike the most. The Conservatives had hoped that an upswing in the economy, both in Lithuania and the EU in general, would lead voters to rally to their cause. The euro crisis and its accompanying doom and gloom mentality have buried these hopes.

The Labor and Social Democrat parties are formally left of center. Law and Order leans slightly more to the right but can still be considered center-left. The three parties cooperated closely while in the opposition, and have recently reached an agreement to coordinate their actions during the elections and while forming a government. If past practice is a guide, the cooperation agreement will be respected during the campaign, although disagreement concerning the distribution of ministries cannot be ruled out.

Even if economic times had been more felicitous, the current right of center coalition would have been hard pressed to win. Depending on one’s point of view, Lithuanian voters are either fickle or discerning. But no party has ever won or received the most votes two elections in a row, the left regularly replacing the right and vice versa. The Social Democrats are the party that has come closest to two electoral victories in a row. They received the most votes in 2000 (31 percent) and came in second in 2004 (20.5 percent), but only by running in tandem with another party. The singular popularity of their former leader, Algirdas Brazauskas, played a major role.

Ostensibly the left will replace the right. In fact, little will change. The Social Democrats and the Labor party are left-of-center in name only. Since its inception, the Social Democrats have been the party of the nomenklatura and big business, although the party’s Communist past made it popular among workers and former collective farmers. During the years it was in power, from 1992-2008, the party did not even bother to discuss seriously the possibility of introducing a progressive income tax or a tax on real estate. Probably no other Social Democratic party in Europe has demonstrated similar indifference to social justice and equality.

Despite its name, the Labor Party is as much a party of the better-off, as are the Social Democrats. Founded by Viktor Uspaskich, one of Lithuania’s wealthiest individuals, it has also been consistent in its defense of the status quo. Moreover, Uspaskich is its unchallenged leader, who sets party policy unilaterally. Many of its leading members are also from the business community.

In deference to the economic hardships facing the population, the opposition parties have presented proposals, including the introduction of progressive income taxes, to alleviate the lot of most Lithuanians. Some palliative measures, such as an increase in the minimum wage, will be adopted. But budgetary constraints, pressure from the EU and Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite, and a well-developed understanding of their own self-interest, ensures that no major changes in the basic structure of the economy will take place. The latest statistics show that tax revenue as a percentage of GDP is lower in Lithuania than in any other EU country. This will be the case in 2016.

Lithuanian elections have one other salient feature – the astonishing success of start-up parties, founded just months, or perhaps a year before the elections. In 2000 newcomers finished second and third in the general elections, first in 2004, and second in 2008. Many have fallen as quickly as they have risen. Their success is an indication of the depth of the dissatisfaction with Lithuanian politics. About 20–25 percent of the electorate, mostly the elderly and those marginalized by the transition process, regularly vote against the party in power for its failure to ease their burdens, even if it is the party that they had supported in the previous elections.

This year the growing discontent and anger at the actual and imagined failings of the judicial system have given a very powerful fillip to those who have embraced the cause of Drasius Kedys and his family. It is unclear if and under what banner they might contest the elections. But they could rally substantial support with their uncompromising condemnation of the ‘system’ and inject unrestrained passion into Lithuania’s traditionally staid election campaigns. And not for the better.