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Protest votes reshape Lithuanian politics

  • 2015-04-04
  • By Rokas M.Tracevskis

VILNIUS - Protest voting in elections for the Vilnius municipal council and for the councils of other big towns in Lithuania significantly changed the country’s political dynamics. These local elections saw the triumph of the opposition Liberal Movement and non-party groups of local residents in all the big cities of Lithuania. The municipal elections are widely considered to be a dress rehearsal for 2016’s parliamentary elections.

During the municipal elections of 1 March, the ruling Social Democratic Party gained 20 percent of the votes throughout the entire country while the opposition party Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (usually referred to as the Conservatives) got 15 percent and the opposition Liberal Movement got 14 percent.

On 1 March, as the result of elections from the lists of political parties and non-party groups, the Liberal Movement formed the biggest faction in the new Vilnius council (taking 15 seats in the 50-seat council), even though they had had no seats in the Vilnius council after the previous municipal elections in 2011. In the second round of the mayoral elections on 15 March, Arturas Zuokas, 47, the leader of the newly-created Lithuania’s Freedom Union party (Liberals) and Mayor of Vilnius from 2003 to 2007 and then again from 2011 to 2015, received 37 percent of the votes and finished second, suffering a defeat to Remigijus Simasius, 41, who was the candidate of the Liberal Movement.

It was the first time that mayors have been elected directly by the voters -  a result of new legislation; previously, mayors were elected by the municipal councils. The post of Vilnius mayor is regarded as the fourth most important post in the country, after the posts of president, parliament chairperson and prime minister.

The Liberal Movement easily won the post of mayor and the biggest number of seats on the municipal council in Klaipeda, which is usually ruled by this party, as it is the stronghold of liberalism in Lithuania. The electorate of the other four biggest towns of Lithuania voted mostly for lists of local coalitions of independent candidates who are not members of political parties: these non-party candidates were elected mayors in Kaunas, Panevezys, Siauliai, and Alytus.

The ruling (on the national level) Social Democrats gained the biggest number of seats in municipal councils and posts of mayors throughout the 60 municipal councils of Lithuania. They had 16 mayors elected – this compares to 22 mayors before the elections.

The Conservatives came second. They had 11 mayors elected – they had 13 mayors before the elections.
The opposition Liberal Movement had nine mayors elected, the same number as it had before the elections. Four posts of mayors went to the Union of Farmers and Greens while the Labor Party as well as the Order and Justice Party (both coalition partners of the Social Democrats in the national government) gained two posts of mayors each (both parties possessed three mayors each before the elections).

 

Grybauskaite’s wish

President Dalia Grybauskaite did not remain completely neutral during the elections. “I did not vote for the person, who represents the interests of the Kremlin as well as for the representative of oligarchs,” Grybauskaite said after casting her vote in Vilnius on Feb. 25 (she cast her vote earlier than the majority of voters due to her scheduled visit to Chile). Everybody understood that the person referred to as related to oligarchs was Zuokas, who has a reputation in the
media of having shadowy ties with the ICOR group (it takes care of the centralised heating system and garbage collection in Vilnius), while the ‘pro-Kremlin man’ was Valdemar Tomasevski, the leader of the political party Lithuania’s Polish Electoral Action. Some of their views on the Ukraine situation, which are expressed by some members of this party, coincide with the Kremlin’s position. Last year, the public appearance of Tomasevski wearing a St. George ribbon (the ribbon with orange and black stripes that has become an accessory for pro-Kremlin activists) on his jacket provoked criticism in Lithuania and Poland, even some harsh words from Poland’s Senate Chairman Bogdan Borusiewicz.
Grybauskaite’s wishes came true in Vilnius.

During the municipal elections on March 1, the “bloc of Valdemar Tomasevski” (a coalition of Lithuania’s Polish Electoral Action and the Russian Alliance) gained 17 percent of the votes (meaning it has 10 seats in the new Vilnius council). This political force, as well as the Zuokas-led Lithuania’s Freedom Union (Liberals), will be in the opposition in the newly elected Vilnius council. Tomasevski, who is one of Lithuania’s members of the European Parliament (he is a member of the eurosceptic faction named the European Conservatives and Reformists Group there), took part in the elections of Vilnius mayor, but he gained just 17 percent of the votes, which was not enough for participating in the second round of the Vilnius mayor elections on March 15.

Vilnius and Klaipeda are the only two big Lithuanian towns which have Slavic minorities, and this is noticeable on the municipal election level. Anyway, the municipal election showed that the Lithuanian voters did not vote only according to their ethnic origin – the Tomasevski-led ‘Polish-Russian’ bloc got 17 percent of votes in Vilnius, although ethnic minorities, mostly Poles and Russians, make up some 46 percent of the city’s population: 18 percent of Vilnius’ inhabitants are of Polish origin and 14 percent of Vilnius’ dwellers are persons of Russian origin, according to the general census of Lithuania’s population of 2011. The candidate of the Coalition of Lithuania’s Polish Electoral Action and the Russian Alliance “bloc of Valdemar Tomasevski” failed to get into the second round of the Klaipeda mayor elections as well – the candidates of the Liberal Movement and the Conservatives took part in the second round elections there.
Grybauskaite was less lucky in Kaunas, Lithuania’s second-largest city. After the first round of the mayor’s elections, she made some remarks against participation of business-related people in the elections in Kaunas. However, the biggest faction in the newly elected Kaunas council will be a non-party coalition titled United Kaunas, led by Visvaldas Matijosaitis, owner of Viciunai Group which produces mostly fish fingers, herring and salmon. United Kaunas is made up of 300 Kaunas inhabitants, mostly local businesspeople. On 15 March, Matijosaitis was elected Mayor of Kaunas, beating incumbent mayor Andrius Kupcinskas of the Conservatives in the second round. After the election, multimillionaire Matijosaitis said that he will resign from all his posts in the Viciunai Group, although he, of course, will keep his shares of the companies of that group.

On 16 March, after the second round of mayoral elections, all the leaders of the main political parties held press conferences. “We will have 16 mayors and this number makes us happy,” said Algirdas Butkevicius, Prime Minister and the head of the Social Democratic Party, expressing his satisfaction that his party remained the most popular party in Lithuania - but he did say that he regretted his party’s poor results in all the big cities. His party lost the post of Mayor of Siauliai to a local non-party group of local residents.

“We are in second place after the Social Democrats according to the numbers of votes and elected mayors. We had 13 mayors [before elections] and now we have 11 mayors while the Social Democrats had 22 mayors and now they will have only 16. I can announce with joy that they are the biggest losers of the elections,” Kubilius said. However, he expressed regrets regarding his party’s failure in the traditional Conservative strongholds of Kaunas and Panevezys, where his party lost the posts of mayors. The Conservatives were defeated by non-party groups of local dwellers there.

Eligijus Masiulis, the leader of the Liberal Movement, was the most triumphant during his press conference. He emphasised that the nine elected mayors of the Liberal Movement will control municipalities with a total population of 883,500 residents. “According to this figure, the Liberals are the number one political force in Lithuania,” Masiulis said.

Zuokas, the leader of a newly established smaller liberal party titled the Lithuania’s Freedom Union (Liberals), expressed his pride that, during the municipal elections, his party received more than five percent of the vote throughout Lithuania, which is the threshold for getting into national parliament under the party lists – it gives some hope for this party in the coming national elections in 2016. During the press conference, Zuokas, the outgoing Vilnius mayor, regretted about his defeat in Vilnius, but he said that he has a greater plan: “This kick to my bum is a push forward and I’ll fly high.” Zuokas said that he will not return to municipal politics and announced about his intention to participate in the next presidential elections in 2019.

Mazvydas Jastramskis, professor of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science, presented his independent analysis regarding the municipal elections at his press conference on March 16. “When we have elections, where people can choose not only among political parties, but also among persons, who came from business and describe themselves as non-party persons, the votes tend to go to these allegedly non-political and non-party persons and their electoral lists,” Jastramskis said.

According to Rasa Alisauskiene, director of the social research firm Baltijos Tyrimai, the municipal elections demonstrated the electorate’s distrust of the so-called traditional parties. The ‘traditional’ political parties, except the Liberal Movement, managed to win only in small towns and rural areas. Alisauskiene, speaking to Lithuanian public TV, said that the votes cast for the Liberal Movement were protest votes as well because, according to a survey conducted by Baltijos Tyrimai, the majority of the electorate never considered that the Liberal Movement could be a ruling party, although it was a minor coalition partner in the Conservatives-led national government between 2008 and 2012. According to her, the main problem for the ‘traditional’ parties is their failure to present new ideas, the similarity of views among the ‘traditional’ parties and the overfamiliarity of the faces of the parties’ leadership. Some political parties could face electoral problems in the near future – 68 percent of Conservative supporters are above 60 years old, according to Baltijos Tyrimai.

The municipal elections’ results produced an earthquake in some political parties. Kubilius announced that he will not candidate anymore to the post of the chairman of the Conservatives and proposed to elect the  33-year old Gabrielius Landsbergis, a member of the European Parliament, to head the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats. In April, the rather Western European Christian Democrats’ liberal-style Landsbergis (he is the grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, the head of the Lithuanian state from 1990 to 1992) will compete for the party’s main post against the more socially conservative Irena Degutiene, 65, who is the former chairwoman of the Lithuanian parliament.

 

Grauziniene resigns

After the municipal elections, Loreta Grauziniene, chairwoman of the Lithuanian parliament and the head of the Labor Party, announced her resignation from her party’s leadership due to Labor’s poor election results in big towns (before the elections, Labor had eight seats in the Vilnius council, but now Labor will have no seats in Vilnius) and the traditional stronghold of Labor in the town of Kedainiai, where the Labor candidate was defeated by the candidate of Lithuania’s Freedom Union (Liberals).

Viktor Uspaskich, the Labor Party’s member of the European Parliament, will be acting chairman of the Labor until the party chairperson election on June 6.

The mayor election campaign in Vilnius could provoke a nervous reaction among some travelers. During the election campaign, Simasius kept repeating that Air Lituanica, an airline sponsored by Vilnius municipality, which connects Vilnius directly with the main cities of Europe, is a burden on the city’s budget while Zuokas, who was the initiator of the establishment of Air Lituanica in 2013, argued that Air Lituanica is essential for business travelers and tourists stating that the company brings an added value to the economy of Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania. Simasius, after his victory in Vilnius, promised to look for a private investor to take on Air Lituanica. Lithuania’s Liberal Movement, unlike the rather centre-left Liberal Democrats of Britain, is the party of somewhat extreme libertarians regarding the issues of economy and tends to glorify the private sector only.  

 

First foreigner ever elected in Lithuania

The municipal elections also produced a person for the history of Lithuania: Mark Adam Harold, 36, the first British citizen on Vilnius council and the first foreigner ever elected in Lithuania (although there were some other foreigners on various political parties’ electoral lists). He has lived in Vilnius for more than 10 years now. When Harold arrived to Lithuania for the first time, he knew very little about the country, but now he is fluent in Lithuanian.

Harold is the director of the Mushroom Agency, which is a small musical video production and PR agency in Vilnius. Harold was 19th on the Liberal Movement’s electoral list in Vilnius, but the voters (they have their right to make their own rating during the elections) lifted him to 11th place on this political party’s list (during the elections, the Liberal Movement got 15 seats in the Vilnius council).

Harold had previously stated that he would like to become a Lithuanian citizen as well, but Lithuanian legislation allows the dual citizenship only in some exceptional cases. He wrote a letter of complaint to President Grybauskaite and got her polite response wishing him a good luck.

If Harold does obtain Lithuanian citizenship, he could try to enter national politics, because the popularity of the Liberal Movement just keeps increasing. According to a social survey which was conducted by the Vilmorus social research company between 6 and 15 March and published by the daily Lietuvos Rytas on 21 March, if a parliamentary election would take place now, 21.5 percent of votes would go to the Social Democrat Party, 12.7 percent to the Liberal Movement, 9.3 percent to the Conservatives, 6.9 percent to the Order and Justice Party, and 6.1 percent to the Labor Party while other political parties would not get enough votes for getting their representatives in the parliament.

According to Lithuanian legislation, the representatives of the non-party groups of locals, which were rather popular during the municipal elections, will be able to compete only individually in the constituencies during the national elections: the Lithuanian parliament of 141 seats is elected via a mixed election system – 70 MPs are elected from political party lists while another 71 are elected individually in the constituencies.