Liberals fight for survival and presidency

  • 2001-08-23
  • Virgilijus Savickas
VILNIUS - A behind-the-scenes struggle for power within the right-of-center Liberal Union that began after Lithuania's recent political crisis is causing a great deal of speculation. The fall of Liberal leader Rolandas Paksas' government, which led to the left-wing Social Democrats taking power, caused his rivals in the party to believe their chairman had given a very weak showing, and now he is being asked to relinquish his office - and presidential nomination - to party Vice Chairman Eugenijus Gentvilas.

The two strongmen and their supporters are considered to be at odds, although in public they do not to show it. Throughout the summer, the most tedious time of the year for any journalist, the Lithuanian media have covered the power struggle between the leaders extensively, analyzing every twitch and nod of the head.

As the Liberals and their families gathered last weekend for a traditional camp at Lake Plateliai, near the western Lithuanian town of Plunge, they didn't even dare to whisper about their opposition leaders. However, media coverage concentrated solely on what they imagined were the leaders' opposing stances.

"We'll decide on our presidential candidates at a congress of Liberals due to be held in December," said Paksas to Lietuvos rytas, the country's largest circulation daily. "Parties on both the left and right are eager to escalate the conflict between the leaders."

Gentvilas also denied their disagreements. He objected to Paksas only in detail, he said.

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus nominated Gentvilas as acting prime minister after Paksas' resignation. He managed to pour oil on the fire when, in the middle of the crisis, he openly changed his favorite to Gentvilas as he tried to create a power alternative to the Social Democrats and their strongman Algirdas Brazauskas, who is now prime minister.

Although the plan didn't have a shadow of a chance of success against the overwhelmingly popular Brazauskas, in the public eye Gentvilas got a strong boost as a prospective leader of the right.

The only fault Gentvilas has in the current situation is that, although a powerful figure in his own party, he is not even a member of Parliament.

Two years ago Gentvilas, then chairman of the Liberal Union, joined hands with Paksas and his supporters, who were hugely popular at the time for resigning from Cabinet posts in a Conservative Party government after turning their backs on a deal with the U.S. oil company Williams International.

It was the right decision for Gentvilas, and the Liberals won a strong second place in last October's parliamentary elections, enough to form a government with third-placers the Social Liberals.

Gentvilas gave the office of party chairman to Paksas while retaining his position as Klaipeda mayor. Later Gentvilas was invited to the government as a minister of economy and resigned as mayor. Now he's jobless.

He is still five places short on the Liberals' electoral list. Those who have greater priority in the list must reduce their parliamentary mandate in order to promote Gentvilas.

It was announced last week that one of these Liberals, Vitale Vinickiene, refused to give up her seat clearing the way for Gentvilas' parliamentary mandate. She is the wife of Pranciskus Vinickas, a former aviation instructor and close friend of Paksas.

Paksas strengthened his position further earlier this month when he was re-elected as a head of the Liberal party faction in the Parliament.

In a quest to find the best Liberals on the party's Internet site, a popularity poll was arranged. The question was: "Whom would you prefer as presidential candidate for the Liberals, Paksas or Gentvilas?" Voting began in earnest in favor of Gentvilas, but then came an abrupt increase of votes for Paksas, some 84 at once. According to Rita Dapkute, the site's administrator, this was the malicious work of Paksas' supporters.

"Who is to blame for this mess?" asked Liberal MP Dalia Kutraite in an extended article published on the Liberal Union's Internet site. "Why did the Liberals so easily give up power?"

According to her, and most other observers, the New Policy coalition of the Liberals and Social Liberals was shaky from the very start. Her choice of words was extreme: "We should dare to recognize that after the elections on the night of October 8, 2000, political reality was raped."

The coalition agreement was enough to get to power, but not enough to get to work. Now, the two leaders of the Liberal Union, who a year ago rode the optimistic crest of the New Policy wave, are the right people for a presidential candidacy stuck in the wrong place.