ELECTIONS. Butkevičius’ on unsteady footing – potential replacements

In the Social Democrat party rally in 2013

“If you recall when I was elected in the last party congress, I said that most likely in the next one, young people will be elected,” Butkevičius told journalists after the first round of elections.

The Social Democrat ranks are rife with talks of who could take the lead in the future. That said the discussions have currently died down somewhat because the politicians are awaiting the second round of voting, after which “razborkės” [fighting] will begin say the Social Democrats.

A party council meeting is planned in November. The Social Democrats have already dubbed it the great reckoning. And there is definitely reckoning to be had. In 2012 the LSDP obtained 251 thousand votes in the multi-mandate district, while this year it was 183 thousand. 21 candidates entered the second round of voting in single-mandate districts this year, while in 2012 not only was the number up at 28, but also Butkevičius won in Vilkaviškis in the first round of voting, but not this time.

Normally Butkevičius’ term should last up to May 2017. But what if he does not cede his post? “If he doesn’t resign, he will be asked to,” states one politician. That said in November we may see a temporary chairman step in, with a potential new one elected in May. There are also other variants.
Who could take the role of party chairman? Based on information from the Social Democrats themselves there are a few scenarios: first of all, someone from the old guard could become chairman, secondly an intermediary candidate which suits both wings or thirdly a young politician who could step in to renew the party image.

The LSDP is unique in that it is made up of two large wings, which have survived since the merger of the Lithuanian Social Democrat Party and Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP) in 2011. Despite any others, this split is constantly visible. The LDDP members are often called the nomenclature, while the rest – true ideological Social Democrats, but this is a simplified perspective.

Another division is based on age. The party has almost no famous middle or transitional age politicians, one part is made up of experienced politicians, typically taking the key posts and the other part is youth, the numbers of famous faces in this camp can be counted on one hand. The Social Democrats can be distinguished by their particularly old electorate and lack of popularity in the cities, but the party has essentially unlimited opportunities to attract voters, research shows that voters are not “allergic” to this party. 16.9% of those taking a poll in September named the Social Democrats as their alternative voting choice.

The election performance proved to be poor however. 13 mandates won in the multi-mandate district and another 21 up for grabs in the second round single-mandate districts with 10 candidates leading in the single-mandate district voting first round. Butkevičius has blamed the youth group for the lost elections, citing insufficient work with students and the news media, claiming articles on scandals and the Labour Code were overblown.

Such is the context for electing a new chairman of the Social Democrat Party.

Algirdas Sysas

He is the first potential candidate to the post of chairman. The politician himself is demonstrating fairly clearly that if conditions permit it, he will seek the position.

“First of all I need to have the support of fellow members. If such support exists, then it will be a decision at the congress,” A. Sysas told Žinių Radijas.

The member of Seimas truly does often challenge A. Butkevičius in closed sessions, but some Social Democrats still hold the opinion that Sysas is more of Butkevičius’ right hand than a real rebel. When Butkevičius wanted to replace Romas Adomavičius in the post of Vilnius branch chairman in 2011, he proposed specifically Sysas, albeit he did not win the election to become branch chairman.

A. Sysas is seen as an influential figure in the party, but he turned 62 this year. It is unlikely that the party electorate, which has partially been captivated by the Peasant and Greens Union could interpret this as a renewal. Furthermore Sysas dropped from 2nd place in the party electoral roll to 4th, having earned 25 810 priority votes in this year’s election, not even to speak of the loss in the Šeškinė single-mandate district.

The main issue however is that Sysas was the manager of this year’s electoral campaign. Some politicians blame specifically him for the lost election, so it would be weird if he was rewarded after what is seen as a poor performance.

Gediminas Kirkilas

This politician came in second in priority votes after Butkevičius. “A little satisfaction for the years of criticism,” G. Kirkilas told colleagues. He received 26 970 priority votes, albeit still earning a little under half of Butkevičius’ 63 558.

Would the politician want to once more take up party leadership? It is unclear. But the politician tells everyone a story of his grandson who lives abroad calling him with the question “Grandfather, are you chairman now?”

Kirkilas was party chairman in 2007-2009. After the loss in the 2008 elections he did not seek re-election to party leadership. The politician was one of the few who directly said that if he were Butkevičius now, he would resign.

Unofficial talks with Social Democrats reveal G. Kirkilas to be an intermediary candidate, however if he is elected, just like with Sysas, it would be difficult to tell what sort of party renewal is happening.
Rasa Budbergytė. The Minister of Finance who replaced Rimantas Šadžius, for a time having been unofficially touted as a future PM, if the LSDP won the elections, but the President barred Butkevičius’ way to the post. The Social Democrats lost the election, so that question is no longer relevant. But with talks of a change in party chairman, Budbergytė’s name appeared again.

That, however, was only for a brief moment. Based on the Social Democrat charter “candidates to LSDP chairman have to have been members for an uninterrupted 3 years.” R. Budbergytė does not fulfil this clause, having only recently joined, barring her way to the highest authority in the party.
Vilija Blinkevičiūtė. Member of European Parliament and former Minister of Social Security could be held as one of the most realistic candidates for the post of chairman, if looked from the side. The politician is well known in Lithuania, charismatic, has unlimited time resources and according to some Social Democrats “acts as if during her term, pensions were raised from her own pocket.”
In the 2012 Seimas election, MEPs were not restricted from participating in the Seimas elections. V. Blinkevičiūtė earned 59547 priority votes and took second place in the party after Butkevičius. But this was a successful election for the party. In 2008 when the party lost the election, Blinkevičiūtė earned 48 366 priority votes and took first in the party roll.

Based on Spinter Tyrimai data, she is consistently mentioned among potential candidates to take up the mantly of Prime Minister. This is not an especially large amount of trust, but the politician has held stable positions, when interviewees are asked which politician is most suitable to be PM. In September Blinkevičiūtė’s surname was selected by 5.1% of respondents, same as in August.
The politician has one disadvantage however – she is still not seen as one of their own among Social Democrats; almost all politicians mention that she arrived from the Social Liberals, even if it was in 2006. She entered politics with the New Union, became Minister of Social Security and Labour, later defecting to the Social Democrats, but keeping her post.

Finally if one wants to lead a party from Brussels, it is necessary to have a monolithic background within the party. It isn’t clear if Blinkevičiūtė has that. She is also not seen as a strong actor in the political process, capable of debating on the level of ideology and metapolitics. Her image is still related with her time as minister.

Gintautas Paluckas

The 37 year old deputy mayor of Vilnius is seen to be a new Social Democrat youth star, particularly valued by rightist commentators, politicians and political scientists, however being a Social Democrat, appreciation from the right is not overly beneficial.

Sometimes it is brought up that the LSDP is living under siege conditions, which essentially means that failures are connected with attacks from rivals or the news media, not the party’s own mistakes. As such anyone valued by the rivals or news media is almost held to be a Trojan Horse in the party.
Despite these obstructions the Vilnius deputy mayor is seen as a suitable candidate if the party wishes to shed its label as a party of seniors and seeks to renew itself, at least visually. He is well read, has a feeling of where the leftist political party should turn, he is familiar with the rhetoric of income inequality and European leftist politics.

Paluckas himself will definitely participate in the bid to become party chairman, if he feels he has a backing. The politician himself can see a window of opportunity.

But he could face a number of problems. He is not overly famous. In this Seimas election he received 3550 priority votes. This is abysmally low. He earned a similar amount in his bid for Vilnius city council – 3990. Meanwhile in the Vilnius mayor elections Paluckas eanred 8250 votes, while the entire list gained 17 443.

Another issue that political rivals may very well use is a previous conviction for abusing his authority in public procurement. Paluckas won an appeal, but lost in the Supreme Court. This was neutralised fairly successfully in the mayor elections by admitting the fact, but it is a question which rivals will raise.

Mindaugas Sinkevičius

If the Social Democrat youth are not united, then another potential candidate is the 32 year old mayor of Jonava, the son of the Minister of Transport and Communications Rimantas Sinkevičius. He is not very well known, but managed to win the municipal election in 2015 with 12 336 votes.

But his political experience is minimal and very much regional, from 2007 he worked in the Jonava regional council, and from 2011 works as mayor of Jonava. M. Sinkevičius does not appear in public events and discussions, so his fame is even more limited than Paluckas.

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