An offshoot of a different party
“We will wipe corruption out with a bang. Call me and I will tell you how,” was a line in the LRLS commercial, uttered by Remigijus Šimašius, the man who would take over the party following a scandal that took down the then Party Chairman Eligijus Masiulis. With Masiulis’ scandal the word “corruption” has ironically become the main thing the party is identified with.
The history of the LRLS is not particularly long, it was founded in 2006 when a part of the Liberal and Central Union split off from the party, dissatisfied with Chairman Artūras Zuokas’ leadership. The new party manifesto invited the citizens of the state who value transparency and democratic rule to join them. Ironically this would become the party’s downfall.
The main figures behind the new party were already well known politicians such as Petras Auštrevičius, Gintaras Steponavičius, Eligijus Masiulis, Dalia Teišerskytė and others. Auštrevičius would become chairman, after bidding for presidency two years prior. He had a confident narrative and the support of both the Homeland Union and the Labour Party and earned an entire 20% of the vote in the first round, but unfortunately ended third and had to bury his ambition to become head of state.
Hard won mandates
With the party just created, the Liberal Movement fraction, led by E. Masiulis entered the political arena. Two years later he would become party chairman, leading the liberal political entity in the Seimas elections.
“I believe that the main reason is the party’s wish to change. The situation is not completely satisfactory because the party is muddling about and keeps failing to find its position in Lithuanian politics. My proposal is to precisely outline the limits of our functioning and clearly state what sort of voter the Liberal Movement intends to represent,” E. Masiulis spoke of the party’s strategy.
Cease muddling about and find one’s place under the sun, such was the new party motto created by E. Masiulis. The Seimas elections were successful. It was a tough challenge, but the 5% vote barrier was passed in the multi-mandate electoral district, allowing 12 party members into Seimas where they formed a coalition government with the Conservatives, National Resurrection Party and the Liberal and Central Union. The party was assigned three ministries to lead – Transport and Communications, Justice and Education and Science, respectively they would be led by E. Masiulis, R. Šimašius and G. Steponavičius.
Ministers did not escape reproach
Despite the successful elections the Liberals failed to avoid trouble with the Order and Justice, Labour, Social Democrat and Conservative parties passing a vote of no confidence regarding Šimašius in 2012. This was likely related to the paedophilia scandal that shook the country, news media mused.
The members of Seimas had more accusations however. These ranged from a society not satisfied with the progress made in court reform, complaints about court medicine, poor prison management and the minister’s personal failure to appreciate the situation in Garliava [regarding the paedophilia scandal]. Nevertheless the interpellation failed to pass, furthermore Šimašius remained confident in his decision making in regard to all the accusations made.
He would also end up embroiled in another minor scandal in 2009 as well, when he gave a bonus to one of his advisors after she’d worked only a day. Šimašius justified this as being based on an agreement made prior to hiring, unfortunately it ended up coming across unconvincing.
Controversial higher education reform met with protest
In 2009 another Liberal Movement minister was challenged with an interpellation – G. Steponavičius. Just as he began work as Minister of Education and Science, a controversial higher education reform was initiated. It included study grants for the brightest and most motivated students. For those performing at a lesser standard – state supported study loans. Also the reform was to include changes in the status and governance of universities and colleges.
Neither students, nor lecturers were convinced by the reform. Fears arose that those unable to obtain a grant would potentially be unable to pay for studying. This led to protests, which the minister played down as the complaints of only a minor fraction of individuals. Steponavičius stressed the long term benefits the system would provide instead.
Despite the complaints from the public and the then opposition parties, Steponavičius also survived the interpellation. The vote of no confidence failed with a difference of just one vote.
Only one candidate reached Brussels
This difficult period was not without occasional good news. In 2009 the party participated in European Parliament elections for the first time. On this occasion they would put one of their most powerful cards into play – the philosopher Leonidas Donskis. The intellectual chose to join the Liberals because he found it to be the only political power he could cooperate with. Donskis would prove to become the only party member to enter the European Parliament.
With E. Masiulis at its head, the party would see a rise in voters in the 2012 election, earning 10 mandates due to the party exceeding 8% of the vote. Nevertheless this was not sufficient to join the coalition and the party remained in the opposition. This would also be the election that would bring the current party frontrunner, former head of the Klaipėda port and Mayor of Klaipėda Eugenijus Gentvilas. Prior to said election he expressed a preference to remain as the head of the Klaipėda port, but fate would carry him into seimas.
Fortune from one man’s popularity
Before analysing the current situation the Liberals are in, it is worth looking three years back, when the Liberals began their European Parliament campaign. This time the party’s ace in the sleeve was entrepreneur and professional poker player Antanas Guoga, who joined the party in 2013.
The elections to the EP would prove to turn into an unexpected success story with the Liberal Movement taking third place after the country’s two leading parties, the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, while getting to send just as many representatives as the other two parties – two members. The then party head E. Masiulis saw this as a potential sign to the major parties.
Another success story proved to be the 2015 municipal elections. Nine mayor posts and third place in vote count. These victories were associated with the charismatic figure of A. Guoga. Even up to his political career he earned popularity in Lithuania due to his support to basketball.
Racist remark made little influence
The party narrative shifted in the municipal elections with R. Šimašius breaking windows of corruption and public declaration of real or assumed phone numbers of party leadership. Even posters appeared in the name of Vilnius inhabitants with Masiulis and Šimašius being congratulated with their birthdays and the former being invited to become president, while the latter – mayor of Vilnius. Even the electoral slogan was a rather apolitical “Everything will be ok.”
All looked to be fine for the party, with E. Masiulis being seen as a potential new Prime Minister. The party was on a rise.
“I got the honour of sitting next to a negro from one side and a toilet on the other. That person, sitting next to me, was not sober, acted inappropriately; we flew all night. I cried all night sitting next to him out of shame,” these words by D. Teišerskytė would prove to be highly controversial, but even they did not manage to dim the rising star of the Liberal Movement, the gaffe did not even elicit any more serious reprimands to the member either.
Both the public and political analysts already were lining up the Liberal Movement for a crushing victory in this year’s Seimas election. But then came what among Liberals themselves could be called the Black Thursday. The Special Investigation Service accused party leader E. Masiulis of taking a bribe from MG Baltic vice-president Raimondas Kurlianskis.
Events that brought down the party in one day
According to the STT, E. Masiulis met with R. Kurlianskis in a car parked by Seimas and accepted a €106,000 bribe. The funds were then found during a search of the politician‘s home. “Trust me, the time will come when I say so much, that it will definitely be interesting in Lithuania,” E. Masiulis told news media. And so everyone waited. While they did, the politician left the post of party chairman and relinquished his Seimas mandate. It would be called a party’s downfall in one day.
While the prosecutor’s office investigated, internal turmoil began in the party. A. Guoga was elected as the new party leader, but he took an unorthodox step by announcing the other than Masiulis there could be others related to potentially corrupt activities. He stated that the party could potentially be influenced by criminal structures. “I view the latest events positively regarding the future of Lithuania. I think it is a sort of breakthrough,” Guoga suddenly claimed on television. The day after, he opted to leave the party altogether as party leadership announced they would consider removing him from the party, followed by accusations of intentionally aiming to destroy the party. R. Šimašius then became party chairman.
Despite the best efforts of the Liberal Movement to rehabilitate itself after the scandal, they have not been successful in convincing society with a new, apparently transparent face. Opinion polls show that the party would potentially fail to pass the 5% vote barrier now. Nevertheless citizens everywhere waited with abated breath for the earthshattering revelations Masiulis had in store.
“I can clearly say that I took a €90,000 loan from R. Kurlianskis, which I asked for in order to invest in real estate,” perhaps these words did shake the daily life of the country, but definitely not in the way the politician intended.
The LRLS has about 8000 members and is seeking to enter Seimas based on a narrative speaking for gay partnership and liberal rights.