A Peripatetic Political Life
Electoral convulsions redefine the political landscape
In the autumn of 2004, Lithuania held its fifth democratic parliamentary elections since it regained independence from the Soviet Union in 1990.
It is true that people have stopped keeping count of the elections that have been held, and no longer think of them as yet more proof that democracy is in place. But it is not only because of the usual factors, such as the formation of pre-election coalitions and programmes, or increased criticism of the government, that the political climate heats up in the run-up to a general election. All previous elections had been overshadowed by economic and political crises, and changes of government.
An active year
The October elections were no exception, apart from the fact that this time there was no economic crisis. On the contrary, the country has been praised for having one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies.
The left-wing coalition government formed by Social Democrat Algirdas Brazauskas in 2001 managed to remain stable during its term of office too.
Moreover, with accession to Nato and the European Union in the spring of 2004, the country achieved the foreign policy goals it had been striving for for the past decade.
However, it had been embroiled in its worst political scandal since independence for almost a year before the election.
The central figure in the scandal was President Rolandas Paksas, who had served twice as prime minister and had changed political parties twice before creating his own Liberal Democratic Party in order to run for the presidency. Supported by a Russian-born businessman who was suspected of arms dealing, and by a team of public relations specialists from Russia, Paksas was elected president in early 2003, winning a victory in a run-off against the favourite, Valdas Adamkus.
After almost a year of unsuccessful attempts to enhance the president’s powers, which are rather limited, Paksas was impeached for violating his oath, for leaking classified information, for illegally granting citizenship to his main financial backer in the election, and for getting involved in private business.
The discredited president was removed from office by the Seimas and the Constitutional Court, and not by a revolution as in Serbia or Georgia. Still, Lithuania has a long way to go before its political life will become as quiet or as boring as it is in the older democracies. Other scandals erupted following “Paksas-gate”. Several politicians, from almost all the main political parties, were accused of corruption.
It remains unclear whether this was an attempt to cleanse the political system of corruption once and for all, or an attempt by supporters of the impeached president to take their revenge or to influence voters’ opinion ahead of the elections using law-enforcement agencies.
A clear winner
It seemed that the status quo had been restored after Adamkus won the elections that were held to fill the vacancy left by Paksas’ impeachment.
However, the elections to the European Parliament, held simultaneously, showed that the scandals had had deep repercussions, and that the political system was facing great changes. The Labour Party, set up nine months earlier, emerged as a surprise winner, taking five of the country’s 13 seats in the European Parliament, while no other party won more than two.
Opinion polls showed that the Labour Party might win an outright majority of the seats in the Seimas too. Not surprisingly, the entire election campaign centred around two questions: “What will happen if the Labour Party wins the elections?” and “What is the Labour Party, and its leader, Viktor Uspaskich?”
Some foreign media reports on the outcome of the Seimas elections suggested that Uspaskich, who was born in northern Russia, was hardly known in Lithuania and that some Lithuanians even found it difficult to pronounce his name.
This is not quite true. He is well known as one of the richest entrepreneurs in the country, and used to head one of the two largest national associations of businesspeople. He was a member of the ruling coalition in the last Seimas, and chaired the influential Economics Committee.
It is only a character in a popular television show who pretends he cannot pronounce the name correctly, in order to make it sound funny.
However, the question of who Uspaskich the politician is remains to be answered.
He did not initiate any important legislation during his four years in the Seimas. His Labour Party criticised all the former governments.
Its election programme contained a range of promises, from changing the election laws to raising pensions and cutting taxes. The party has no clear political orientation, and tries to pursue different political ideologies at the same time.
Though its name implies a leftist orientation, its list of candidates to the Seimas (most of them businesspeople, some very rich by local standards) suggests that it is a very conservative party.
In the European Parliament, the Labour Party’s representatives joined the European Democratic Party, a new party created by Romano Prodi to bring together liberal parties in the Christian Democratic ideological tradition.
Uspaskich says that what Lithuania needs is more professional management. When he was asked during a television chat show what made him think that he, a Russian, could rule the country efficiently, he answered: “Because Lithuanians are incapable of doing so.”
Perhaps they are incapable, but can a person manage a country the same way as he manages his business?
The rainbow mirage
The Labour Party’s consistent lead in opinion polls
prompted other major political parties to band together.
The two former ruling coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the New Union (Social Liberals), ran together in the elections, praising the achievements of their government and highlighting the country’s strong economic performance and its fulfilment of its foreign policy goals.
The right-wing opposition parties, the Homeland Union (Conservatives) and the Liberal and Centre Union, formed an unofficial pre-election pact in an effort to prevent the Labour Party from coming to power, which they said would pose a threat to democracy and put Lithuania’s Western-oriented foreign policy at risk. After the first round, the two parties even agreed to support each others’ candidates in the run-off, which would have been unthinkable a year ago.
The elections did not produce an outright winner.
The Labour Party became the largest single party in the 141-seat parliament, with 39 seats. Uspaskich, who said before the run-off that his party was seeking an outright majority, conceded that the result was a setback.
The Work for Lithuania coalition of Social Democrats and Social Liberals won 31 seats. Even though it was the best election result for a ruling party in 14 years, it was outperformed not only by the Labour Party but also by the right-wing opposition. The latter won 43 seats, of which 18 went to the Liberals, and 25 to the Homeland Union (two and a half times more than in the 2000 elections).
The Union of Farmers and New Democracy parties, the coalition of supporters of the impeached president, and a few marginal political parties, expected to gain from a backlash provoked by the corruption scandals. But they ended up with almost as many seats as they had had before the elections.
The joint stand taken by the traditional parties against the Labour Party suggested that the logical solution would be to build a rainbow coalition, to include the former ruling left-wing parties and the right-wing opposition.
They began talks to form a broad coalition immediately after the elections, but these collapsed a few days later.
The Work for Lithuania coalition succeeded in convincing the general public that it was the Conservatives who had wrecked the talks by demanding too much. The Social Democrats and Social Liberals may have won fewer seats in the new Seimas than the right-wing parties, but they wanted to keep the posts of prime minister and chairman of the Seimas, in addition to more than half the ministerial posts in the government, including all the key posts.
At the same time, they started talks with the Labour Party.
The new left
In Prime Minister Brazauskas’ words: “A lot of things are said during elections, but then the needs of the state have to be taken care of.”
The Social Democrats and Social Liberals sought to defend their decision to form a governing majority with the Labour Party and the Union of Farmers and New Democracy Party. By blaming the Conservatives for the collapsed rainbow coalition, they tried to justify their actions both to voters, whom they had warned about the “threats” posed by the Labour Party in the run-up to the elections, and to the right-leaning president, whose approval for ministerial appointments is needed.
Having demonstrated their ability to negotiate with the right, the Social Democrats and Social Liberals achieved almost everything they wanted, just one ministerial post short of what they had sought in the talks with the right-wingers.
The former ruling parties can also claim that they are keen to ensure the stability of the state, while keeping their unpredictable partner, the Labour Party, under control. The latter appears to have given up not only its great ambitions but also its radical pre-election promises, most importantly, its promise to change the political system.
Brazauskas’ government, which stepped down after the new Seimas was elected, was perhaps Lithuania’s most stable and most efficient since independence.
Brazauskas, the country’s last communist leader, has managed to remain one of the most popular politicians during the 14 years of independence. He helped his ex-communist Democratic Labour Party to unite with the Social Democrats after the 2000 elections. There is some speculation that a merger of the Social Democrats and the Social Liberals may be imminent, too.
It seems that the Labour Party should become the next prey of the “old party wolves”. But this is an optimistic scenario. Brazauskas, who once withdrew from active political life, makes no secret of the fact that he often thinks of retiring again.
Some members of the Social Democratic Party are unhappy about the coalition with the Labour Party. The idea of Artūras Paulauskas taking over from Brazauskas as head of a combined Social Democratic and Social Liberal party in the near future does not appeal to them either.
Uspaskich, too, may have greater ambitions than just joining the Social Democratic Party.
An end to radical politics?
The anxiety over the Labour Party’s new political role has overshadowed other tendencies that emerged during the elections.
The ranks of “agrarians” within the Social Democratic Party, one of the relics of the Soviet era, have diminished considerably. The “agrarians”, elected mostly by rural areas, demanded the same level of state support for agriculture as it used to receive in Soviet times, and took an openly pro-Russian and anti-democratic stance.
Paradoxically, the EU’s rather socialist farming policy, based on direct subsidies, has helped people in rural areas to shrug off the nostalgia for Soviet times.
A number of small parties failed to win the 5 per cent of votes required to gain seats. Vytautas Šustauskas, one of the most flamboyant personalities in the last Seimas, was not re-elected.
Many voters now understand that an election, an essential part of a democracy, is a time to assess the performance of political parties.
For those who still take politicians’ promises at face value and believe that a new party created only months before the election can “save” the country from crime and corruption and solve all social problems, it will take slightly more time and effort to persuade them of this.
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