THE VOICE OF INTERNATIONAL LITHUANIA
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As a relief to many liberal-minded people and human rights activists came the news that Lithuanian voters completely trashed ultra-nationalist parties. The National Alliance “For Lithuania in Lithuania” (whatever that means) tried its best to mobilize the most primitive ethnic hatred, although even a classical antisemitic cartoon they distributed was about economy (the incumbent government's work in returning religious property of Jewish communities, that was nationalized under the Soviet rule). PHOTO: Marius Galinis of the „Union For Lithuania in Lithuania.“ (Lithuanian „Nacionalinis susivienijimas ‘Už Lietuvą Lietuvoje’“)
By Daiva Repečkaitė
The complicated electoral system in Lithuania makes general elections an exciting show. After the first round, when multi-constituency votes were counted, the victory of the populist Labor Party looked clear. However, after the second round (half of the Members of the Parliament are elected in single-seat constituencies), voters brought the traditional rivals, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, ahead of the populist party. Despite the initial panic and hasty criticism of the election outcomes as a victory of populist and pro-Russian forces, the election brought unprecedented gain to traditional parties and strengthened the forces with consistent ideologies. It is also time to understand that economy in Lithuania comes before relations with Russia.
In fact, this election was a real celebration of stability, nothing like 2004, when voters flocked to newly established parties. Political parties mentioned ideologies, even the terms 'left' and 'right' more than ever. Parties dropped names that sounded like toasts (“For work for Lithuania”, 2004) or vague and generic (“National revival”, 2008). Those which chose vague and indistinguishable names (“Yes”, “Party of the Lithuanian People”) were mercilessly rejected by the voters. One-person's-show parties of very rich businesspeople managed to attract only a few thousands of votes: appeals to 'Aryan heritage' and 'pagan shield' did not help the Party of the Lithuanian People, and memory of the late President Algirdas Brazauskas did not help his second wife Kristina Brazauskienė and her the Democratic Party of Labor and Unity. Obscure Republican and Emigrant parties did not enjoy popularity either.
As a relief to many liberal-minded people and human rights activists came the news that Lithuanian voters completely trashed ultra-nationalist parties. The National Alliance “For Lithuania in Lithuania” (whatever that means) tried its best to mobilize the most primitive ethnic hatred, although even a classical antisemitic cartoon they distributed was about economy (the incumbent government's work in returning religious property of Jewish communities, that was nationalized under the Soviet rule). Stickers were glued to just about every tree on the main streets of Vilnius. Quite surprisingly, the marginal, but in the past faithfully leftist Social Democratic Union (not to be confused with the Social Democratic Party) joined this Alliance. This way Lithuania lost a political group that was consistently promoting left-wing ideas: strong trade unions and redistribution of wealth. These principles may still be there on one form or another, but leftist voters will never again be convinced that this party stands for them. The election did not bring any success for the nationalist 'Young Lithuania', which went in alliance with the far-right nationalists in the last election.
When we look at the parties that got at least 1%, but less than 5%, necessary to win seats in the Parliament, we see parties with a stronger political backbone, but still marginal. The Socialist People's Front, which advocates for nationalization of strategically important enterprises, and the Christian Party, led by a former Conservative politician, were the last among them. Interestingly, voters also grew tired of the tricks of the current mayor of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas. He became world-famous when he staged an extreme 'punishment' with a tank for illegal parking. The Segway-riding mayor is still popular among some urban youngsters, but people also remember the allegations of shameless corruption, protectionism and abuse of power against him. With the loss of the charismatic, yet dictatorial mayor, his former 'home', the Liberal and Centrist Union, lost its electoral base and also failed to pass the threshold.
The elections were also not successful for the newly formed Union of Farmers and Greens. With several green activists on board, the party, which lost its leader to a sudden illness, rebranded itself and drafted a progressive left-leaning platform, but even its strong stance against the nuclear power plant did not attract enough voters and only succeeded in a single-seat constituency.
The smallest party to get on board is the Lithuanian Polish Electoral Action – a conservative, ultra-religious political group that has a strong base in the Polish-speaking areas of Lithuania. The mobilized ethnic minority, regularly angered by pressure for more integration and by the name transcription policy, this year absorbed a Russian minority party. They will be important in the coalitions that will be formed. Next to it came two populist parties: the impeached former president's Order and Justice Party and the new movement-turned-party “The Way of Courage”. The two were clear competitors for very disappointed, less educated and very angry voters. While many people are worried about the prospect of the latter being in the parliament, the capacity of this party's members to engage in actual day-to-day politics is likely to be limited, and they will probably follow more experienced colleagues. The split in populist voting is overall good news.
Three of the four winning parties could almost form a base of a Scandinavian-style party system. As the old leadership is receding, traditional parties increasingly compensate the lack of charismatic leaders with clear, European ideologies. The Social Democratic Party, having lost its long-time leader Mr. Brazauskas, has been searching for a new identity by purifying its ideological statements and supporting progressive taxation and more welfare spending, like social democrats traditionally should. After the split of the liberals, the Liberal Movement has been a consistent free-market ideology defender and as such made gains in the previous election and was an important partner in the current government. This year they strengthened their electoral base and, importantly, attracted youth votes becoming the only political party that that supports legalization of homosexual partnership. Finally, the Conservatives achieved what seemed to be impossible in Lithuania, where many Political Science articles have been written about 'revenge votes'. The approval ratings of the current Prime Minister – the only one who has survived the entire term of the Parliament – did not suffer as much from his austerity policy as expected. The people who were most affected were split among different political parties or have emigrated. Finally, the Labor party has become an established part of the Lithuanian political system since 2004, when it held several ministries in two successive governments. Throughout the years, its ideology did not become clearer: its platform rests on a paternalistic, caretaker stance, but, unsurprisingly, without any commitment to redistribute wealth from the rich. Its carelessness regarding budget deficit has already put them on the black list of the Lithuanian President.
For this reason the outcome of the election is not to be called a victory of the left, as many claim. We are still to see what becomes of the Lithuanian left. The votes for populists and social democrats, particularly in rural and poorer areas, clearly imply that people are tired of austerity. The Conservative-led government was good with numbers, but bad with people. They managed to control inflation, put economic growth on track and avoid accepting the invasive loan and reform package from the IMF. Yet most of the decisions were miserably communicated and harmed the poorest members of the society. To compensate this lack of concern with people and the fact that hostility towards Russia is not sufficient to mobilize voters, the Conservatives threw around religious and traditionalist statements, and failed to react to radical nationalist trends. On the other hand, they strengthened their electoral base among urban youth that self-identifies as right-wing and who appreciate governments being good with numbers, since they will not suffer from austerity measures that made the lives of the poorest members of the society more miserable. The new government may be better at addressing this problem, but dealing with numbers is likely to be its weak point. Borrowing or taxing – populists clearly never think about that when developing their promises.
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