Coalition – a party of three?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

There are often complaints that Lithuanian political parties do not renew themselves, the same politicians keep getting re-elected to Seimas, youth or new faces, who have fresh ideas, are not allowed in. These complaints have no real basis.

Lithuania frequently has new political parties or movements appear – the New Union, Modern Christian Democrats, Labour Party, Order and Justice, National Revival Party, Path of Courage, the renewed Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union (LVŽS). These parties rapidly gain the voters’ favour and trust, but also rapidly lose it. Lithuania has more change than most Western European countries.

The longing for novelty continues to flourish. Despite all the disappointments and unfulfilled promises there are still expectations that the arrival of young people of a different profile into major politics will make something more transparent, catalyse reforms and will allow to overcome entrenched problems. Better to be an optimist rather than a cynic, but it is unclear how valid this optimism is.

Over the past few years there have been a number of significant unpredicted changes, many veterans departed the field, being replaced by political newcomers. In 2014 no politician or analyst foresaw the LVŽS’ shocking victory in the Seimas elections, that policeman Saulius Skvernelis will become Prime Minister, that Gintautas Paluckas and Gabrielius Landsbergis, seemingly out of the blue, will lead the two largest traditional parties.

While the changes are impressive, the same cannot be said about their consequences and results. The promised reforms are stalled in the Seimas labyrinths, all three aforementioned politicians are following their predecessors’ steps, increasingly dedicating attention to public polemics and personal clashes rather than resolving specific problems. And just like US President Donald Trump, they often speak first and only think later.

With President Dalia Grybauskaitė criticising the cabinet’s work and with new disagreements appearing in the coalition government, questions regarding the PM’s future have renewed. Once again people wonder whether he will resign, will be pushed out or if he will attempt to form a new coalition. G. Landsbergis even has doubts that S. Skvernelis will reach the autumn Seimas session still in the same post. Prior to expressing this doubt, G. Landsbergis would have done well to consider who could replace the Prime Minister and what new coalition government could support him. It is hard to imagine what it would be.

Musings of the PM’s fall are urged on by his short temper and lack of tendency to hold back. We need only recall his exchange with the then Seimas Speaker Loreta Graužinienė, with the President over shots fired by border patrols, threats to lodge a complaint against Committee of Education and Science chairman Eugenijus Jovaiša at the Seimas Commission of Ethics and Procedures.

Nowadays his behaviour remains the same with the accurate notion that “over the past eight years the position was held to watch from the side, evaluate and criticise, but do nothing tangible.” As I mentioned, the comment is accurate. But the President’s memory is excellent, her term will last another two years and Skvernelis already has ample enemies. And it was not without his contribution that a hubbub arose over his potential resignation if the Seimas does not pass the cabinet’s forestry reform plan. While the PM denied rumours of his resignation, they arose from his entourage and I highly doubt that some clerk or advisor would independently choose to spread such a rumour. Perhaps Skvernelis is trying to influence and discipline the SocDems with his threats of resignation, but the threats are only effective when they are convincing. And he has threatened a number of times now, but quickly forgets it.

Skvernelis is risking to waste his once significant political capital. Such a threat is foreign to Landsbergis. Except his party he has almost no political capital. And if he acts as he has these days, he will not accumulate it in the future. I find it hard to understand his most recent actions and statements. After the Seimas elections Landsbergis viewed Skvernelis positively, said he wants to discuss forming a coalition with him, rather than Karbauskis. Landsbergis and Skvernelis would often consult, even a few “unannounced meetings” occurred, which prompted the media to start writing about the possibility for Skvernelis to depart the LVŽS camp and form a new coalition together with the Conservatives and Social Democrats. Such a scenario was never convincing, but recently Landsbergis is increasingly harsh in his criticisms of Skvernelis, stressing that the President has no confidence in this cabinet due to its inability to enact even the most elementary reforms needed for the people and the Prime Minister is responsible.

I am left with the impression that Landsbergis decided to burn his bridges to the PM, with whom he tried to maintain good relations before. I do not understand why because experienced politicians usually seek to expand and not decrease their venues of activity. In May he threw around accusations and insults toward LVŽS leader R. Karbauskis, stating that “you need to have at least some honour, but it would appear that the respected chairman of the Committee of Culture was not born with this trait.” Entangled in personal polemics with both “Farmer” leaders he appears to have buried any hopes of finding common ground which would allow the Conservatives to participate in government.

But the newest “Farmer” and Conservative agreement to support one another’s pursuits, bypassing the SocDems, shows that regular rules no longer apply. Instead of a traditional coalition we are heading toward a menage a trois, which benefits the “Farmers” who can pick and choose between potential partners.

Meanwhile SocDem leader Paluckas has a clear, but difficult task – to retake at least a portion of their traditional electorate from the “Farmers”, showing them [the voters] that the SocDems are prepared to defend their interests, even if this means clashes with the “Farmers”, while also ensuring that tensions in the coalition are stabilised and the SocDems are not ejected from power. As such they are seeking to distance themselves from the “Farmers”, while also remaining a part of the coalition. The differences between the “Farmers” and SocDems are becoming more evident. The SocDems oppose the cabinet’s plan for forestry reform, a number of party representatives registered amendments to return the VAT exemption for heating, which Skvernelis described as a slight. But for now Paluckas is managing to manoeuvre, though it is unclear how long the “Farmers'” patience will last.

A transition is happening, leading posts are being taken by “new” people. But the politics are hardly different. The country is governed by a brittle coalition, steeped in internal disputes and clashes, based not on common principles or goals, but the two party’s confidence that the continuation of the coalition is the lesser evil. The Conservatives’ flexibility only increases the likelihood the coalition will hold and grants the “Farmers” more room for manoeuvring.

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