While Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis has yet to announce his decision on whether he will run for president next year, many believe that a declaration of participation is only a matter of time. S. Skvernelis is included in official surveys, the seat of president is being measured for him and when talking about competing with specific, declared candidates. However, experts that Delfi has spoken to see three inconvenient questions when talking about the prime minister running for president.
Talks of S. Skvernelis’ candidacy were spurred on by his Tuesday Facebook entry. “I see how the path is being cleared for Conservative candidates in the presidential elections because there is currently no serious alternative to three candidates nominated by the party” branches. I do now know whether I could be such an alternative, but I clearly see that such a scenario is feared,” he wrote. In his entry, he also criticised the Conservatives and their potential presidential candidate, likely chief competitor in the second round, Ingrida Šimonytė.
Famous experts were quick to respond to such a claim by S. Skvernelis, noting that with such an entry, the prime minister has seemingly for the first time sent a signal that he will run for president.
“Regardless of all the long- time speculations whether Skvernelis will run, this is definitely the first time when from his own statements you can see that he is seriously considering running for president, not just posturing in front of journalists. When there is such a serious attack on one of your most likely competitors in the second round, you can make no other conclusion,” political analyst Audrius Bačiulis believes.
Meanwhile, communications expert Andrius Baranauskas also believes that this entry is a clear signal that S. Skvernelis will run for president.
“Today’s entry by the prime minister is clear proof of two things. First – he will definitely enter the presidential race. Second – his main communication will be about doing “specific tasks” – creating jobs, reducing social segregation (and prices in stores), increasing benefits and such, all in contrast to “empty politicking.” And third – the prime minister has found an enemy that he will seek to overcome in the campaign. This is an important part of a campaign because people do not vote for facts. An enemy, traditionally the Conservatives. Those who are supposedly obstructing the prime minister in working for Lithuania with their invitations to the Seimas,” he wrote.
However, if S. Skvernelis chose to run for president, three inconvenient questions arise. First of all, he would likely have to cede the post of prime minister, but who would the “Farmers” have replace him? Secondly, what happens if S. Skvernelis loses the elections? Finally, would S. Skvernelis as a politician elected by the people, not obtain more power and present more of a challenge to Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union (LVŽS) chairman Ramūnas Karbauskis?
Karbauskis’ goal – win everything
Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) docent, political scientist Virgis Valentinavičius believes that in a certain respect, the position of prime minister is more appealing than that of president, but R. Karbauskis wants to win everything, while also not having any other prospective presidential candidate.
“At the position of prime minister, you are in charge of real money flows, in terms of power, it is a very appealing post to some people. Clearly, Skvernelis, if it were his will, would not seek to become president and would remain prime minister. He quite likes the office, he feels strong, needed and invites his friends (to work). Meanwhile, the presidential elections are an unknown,” he believes.
Furthermore, according to the political scientist, the “Farmers” may struggle to find a “replacement” for S. Skvernelis because their resources are very limited, with even minister replacements being painful for them.
“However, Karbauskis’ logic is such that it is most important to win the strategic fight, take as much power as possible and afterward the other problems will resolve themselves. When you are more powerful, it is easier to find a prime minister. Of course, there are risks. There is the risk that Skvernelis may be stubborn and refuse to run, whatever Karbauskis may say, though of course Karbauskis has serious arguments.
As I like to emphasise, Karbauskis is a person, who paid Skvernelis’ wage for almost half a year. A good wage. It is not Karbauskis, who is indebted to Skvernelis, but vice versa. (…) I believe that Karbauskis would only allow Skvernelis to not run for president if he had a better candidate. At least for now, one cannot be seen,” the MRU docent stated.
“Karbauskis is left with Skvernelis. His popularity could of course drop a little due to the latest, to understate, nonsense. But nevertheless, for a long time Skvernelis will be the most likely candidate on the left side of the political spectrum,” V. Valentinavičius asserted.
In his opinion, if S. Skvernelis won the elections, it would be R. Karbauskis who would de facto rule the Presidential Palace.
“The situation is already a little unseemly when after a long time there is a sufficiently firm majority in Seimas. We see how much empty action, empty politicking, systemic fostering of hatred and how few real decisions there are. (…) If the Presidential Palace is also “taken”, then Karbauskis’ rule, power would grow stronger, but knowledge of how to use it wouldn’t. Looking at Karbauskis, he likely appeared most wise when he was more careful regarding the scandal of Greta Kildišienė. But when he feels strong, then begin illogical decisions, to understate. More politics and fewer works. This trend, after taking the Presidential Palace, would grow even stronger,” V. Valentinavičius predicts.
The political scientist believes that S. Skvernelis would face more risk from a loss in the presidential elections. In case of an electoral fiasco, it would be a demonstration of mistrust in him as prime minister.
“An important question is whether he will be able to remain as prime minister, not only if he wins, but also if he loses. A politician’s fear to lose does not stop them from participating in elections because the hope to win is always stronger. In this case there is all this risk, but it is all overcome by advantages, which Karbauskis will get if his candidate wins,” the political scientist believes.
Concerning whether R. Karbauskis may not want S. Skvernelis in the post of president due to potential competition upon S. Skvernelis’ influence growing and him being less dependent on the LVŽS leader, V. Valentinavičius explains that he does not believe there is such a risk at all.
“Just as what we have now. It seems like the post of prime minister is sufficiently strong, in some cases there was an image of Skvernelis being seemingly independent and Karbauskis having gone silent, but now we see the opposite – Karbauskis full front and centre day and night, establishing “earthworms on asphalt” commissions and omnipresent in news media. Skvernelis says something different to Karbauskis occasionally, but just look, a day or two later it’s the same again,” the MRU docent stated.
Furthermore, he believes that R. Karbauskis always has means to show what S. Skvernelis’ government is buoyed by if the latter tries anything independent.
“He lives and dies by the Seimas majority. If the majority vanishes, Karbauskis can always turn on the voting machine, set Agnė Širinskienė loose on the attack and Skvernelis will cease to be prime minister within two days,” V. Valentinavičius is convinced.
Skvernelis would not turn from the majority
Vytautas Magnus University (VDU) political scientist Lauras Bielinis also does not believe that if S. Skvernelis landed in Daukantas Square, he would form competition to R. Karbauskis in terms of power.
“We must realise that constitutionally, the president is practically dependent on the Seimas and the cabinet. Thus, reining in the president, if he or she is uncooperative or independent, is not difficult. You only need a clear majority. Dalia Grybauskaitė has just managed to manoeuvre and appear strong specifically because the Seimas was fragmented and there was no real majority.
As soon as the “Farmers” won, a real and functioning majority formed and the president withdrew to the background. Her face as a wilful and resolute leader vanished somewhere. Constitutionally and overall politically, the Lithuanian president does not have the power we grant in our fantasies,” he says.
Just as V. Valentinavičius, L. Bielinis does not see any potential alternatives to S. Skvernelis in the post of prime minister.
“On running for president, he will have to abandon the post of prime minister and cause a sort of crisis because the Seimas will have to form a new cabinet, which the majority will struggle with, instead of doing its work. This is because today we see no alternative or, more accurately, the majority does not identify a potential alternative to Skvernelis, nobody is talking about it. And if he did lose, his position in the majority would weaken,” L. Bielinis believes.
According to the political scientist, there certainly are reasons to lose. In recent times, S. Skvernelis has made mistakes, which weakened his image and could have a long-term impact on his ratings. He believes that S. Skvernelis could try to mend his image via the budget, make it populistically appealing, that is to say portray that benefits and wages are rising.
“A part of the voters may be bought out this way, but the accent of benefits is always accompanied by public communication. And there will be need for serious work in the news media to prove that this is truly that case, as in the budget. Because as we see, every step is accompanied by certain misunderstandings in places, which are summarised and presented in news media as a trend, a negative trend.
Thus he will find it hard to work with the news media because the majority is acting especially risky regarding the news media in this pre-electoral period – attacking the media, pressuring it and this could form a news media front, a sort of critical wave against the majority and Skvernelis at the same time,” L. Bielinis believes.
A different candidate
Communications expert Arijus Katauskas also believes that S. Skvernelis may not want to run for president at all because the post of prime minister could be more appealing to him. Furthermore, the post of president may not be as important to the farmers because they are far more interested in other positions.
“The greatest resources and least control is most likely in the regions. It is not without reason that we see sufficiently major figures, who could potentially enter national politics, but remain in the regions and maintain their powers. If we are to look bluntly, pragmatically, most likely municipalities, regions and executive government are where there is the most resources and factual influence. The “Farmers'” power is after all in the regions. A fairly large number of people from the regions comes to the Seimas elections as well,” A. Katauskas believes.
In his opinion, S. Skvernelis’ decision is greatly dependent on the start of next year, that is to say, how the public reacts to the budget and changes in the tax system.
“The budget and reactions to changes, which will come into play in 2019, which will really change, at least on paper, how much we earn, how much we don’t, people’s pensions, that’s where Skvernelis’ future will be resolved. If people feel no change, they will have no chances in the presidential elections. Looking long term, I believe that his decision will be based on the situation with his ratings, attitudes toward him after the budget, during the budget and the first month of 2019,” A. Katauskas believes.
A. Katauskas says he is one of the people, who believe that S. Skvernelis does not want to enter the presidential elections. However, unlike L. Bielinis and V. Valentinavičius, he sees a potential candidate, who could replace S. Skvernelis in the post of prime minister, as well as run for president.
“One simple matter makes me unwilling to believe Skvernelis running for president – the vacuum in the prime minister position. Could it be filled by Rokas Masiulis? I do not know, but in my opinion, it is possible. (…) He has success stories, would likely be faced with the least criticism and perhaps even support from the current Daukantas Square (President D. Grybauskaitė). He is also non-partisan and has no deep connections to Karbauskis,” the communications expert believes.
He finds that R. Masiulis is someone, who could compete with Ingrida Šimonytė as equals in the presidential elections.
“Look at how he is communicating right now. He is one of those fighting corruption, he sorted out the railways, reformed a number of matters, which can be successfully employed. He has excellent experience in organising, he has factually ensured his own independence,” A. Katauskas says.
However, A. Katauskas disagrees with public musings that how S. Skvernelis is communicating right now shows that he will enter the presidential elections. A. Katauskas, on the contrary, believes that this is communication aimed at retaining the post of prime minister.