ELECTIONS. Populism and bankruptcy of value based politics. Analysis

Meeting in the front of the Seimas
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

The Seimas elections campaigning period is now almost over, having lasted since spring. The Alfa.lt news portal reviews the key factors and parties throughout the process

First of all – the role of law enforcement

This year’s election campaign has been heavily influenced by the actions of law enforcement agencies through their reactions to a string of scandals experienced by various parties. This ranges from Liberal Movement Chairman Eligijus Masiulis stepping down in a corruption scandal, to suspicions being declared against various Order and Justice members, as well as the presence of various Social Democrat Party members being present in a number of scandalous stories. Never before has there been such a density of suspicions cast on various major political parties. This has significantly diminished the quality of discourse in the electoral debates with many parties opting to take the easy path of focusing on the suspicions cast on parties and their members through their scandals, notably including the interpellations that the opposition is preparing for Minister of National Defence Juozas Olekas and Minister of Agriculture Virginija Baltraitienė.

Secondly – everyone is now populist

Back in 2012 many analysts ridiculed the Labour Party’s claim to raise minimum monthly wages to 1509 Lt (437 EUR) if they come into power. This year it is not only populist parties making such pledges, from Conservatives (Homeland Union), to Social Democrats, to Liberals there are pledges of increasing monthly and minimal wages and pensions, if they win. The only major party not to publically present any specific numbers on supposed increases in income is the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union.

Individual candidates try to keep up, for example Labour Party candidate in the Vilnius district of Lazdynai Jonas Pinskus notably promised every voter a new apartment instead of their old ones.

Political scientist: debates seem fairly poor so far

Political scientist Algis Krupavičius finds the current election to be active both visually and in terms of ideas, but despite some steps forward, there is ample room for improvement. He highlights the organisation of debates in separate electoral districts as a positive trend, but one that is only gaining momentum and will likely need to become more fleshed out in the future.

Krupavičius also spoke on the debates broadcast on national television. He found that there are simply too many debates, preventing voters from gaining an in-depth understanding of the problems discussed. “National debates broadcast on national TV aren’t very interesting. Firstly there are too many of them, voters are left confused. As such it is necessary to look through their regulations after the election. It would be better if there were fewer debates and they were only between the key parties. Then voters could get a more informative picture,” noted the expert.

Social Democrats – intimidating with Conservative reforms

The key motif of the Social Democrat (LSDP) campaign looks to be stability and the focus on a fear of a return of Conservatives to power. LSDP Chairman Algirdas Butkevičius contrasted himself to former PM Andrius Kubilius in that he seeks a steady pace in decision making. The LSDP commercial picturing a man awakening from a nightmare which apparently is made up of the Conservatives returning to power is supposed to connect to voters concerned about sudden political and economic changes.

Despite the image party strategists endeavour to construct and the still highest ratings the party has, it has had to weather a year of rocky relations with the President, controversial support for the vastly unpopular Labour Code and a string of scandals.

Nevertheless, A. Krupavičius notes that the Social Democrat campaign has been particularly active as of late, focusing on leveraging their ever popular PM Butkevičius.

Conservatives – intimidating with Social Democrat stagnation

The Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat (TS-LKD) campaign echoes the LSDP, just in this case the Conservatvies focus on a theme of four years of stagnation under Butkevičius and the LSDP. The Conservatives maintain that Lithuania most likely cannot “lose” another four years.

The TS-LKD has been especially critical of Butkevičius, painting him as incompetent, corrupt and indecisive, contrasting the Social Democrat camp with their own electoral roll which is presented as filled with driven, young and Western expert candidates. The Conservatives also focus on a narrative of opposing the nuclear power plant being constructed in Astravyets, Belarus.

Nevertheless A. Krupavičius observes that the party still lacks a clear message, despite an active campaign. He also praised the improvements party Chairman Gabrielius Landsbergis has made as of late, progressing from an image that lacked charisma, to an “aggressive and brave” attitude in debates.

“Peasant Greens”: between the left and the right

Ramūnas Karbauskis’ Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union is attempting to straddle the thin line of neutrality between the two veteran parties. They have not rejected cooperation with either the LSDP or the TS-LKD, but have three specific messages for voters.

Firstly they focus on the presence of competent non-partisan experts in their electoral roll, something that could be a boost with confidence in parties remaining low. Secondly the party focuses on its “clean” image, stressing an unwillingness to work with the Labour Party and Order and Justice. Finally they have a strong narrative of the need to combat alcoholism, which resonates strongly with voters in the regions.

Labour Party: no more Victor, no more refugees

The promise of 1509 Litas (437 EUR) minimum wages and party patriarch Viktor Uspaskich’s charisma carried the party into Seimas. This year most parties have similar promises and Uspaskich is no longer actively participating in politics. He has not even been replaced by the new party Chairman Valentinas Mazuronis, who opted to stay out of the Seimas election.

The party tried to prop up its weakness with a focus on the narrative of preventing a “flood” of immigrants from the Middle East, but with the prevalence of the question tapering off in the international arena and the lack of many arrivals to Lithuania, the value of such a narrative is left questionable.

Liberal Movement: after Masiulis

The Liberal Movement had a strong narrative of competence, Western values and human warmth prior to the scandal that rocked the party in May which cast a shadow on the party with now former Chairman Eligijus Masiulis being accused of corruption. The party has thus focused on distancing itself as much as possible from the former politician.

“The Liberal Movement is far less active this year and looks out of place. They became hostages of the party leader’s scandal and have yet to recover. Masiulis’ attempt at rehabilitating himself in front of the public clearly looks to have failed, so it seems there is more desperation in the Liberal campaign than optimism. Liberal Movement posters look to even avoid mentioning the name of the party, with it just being written in small print in the corner somewhere. Candidates are focusing on their independent images,” A. Krupavičius summed up the Liberal’s current circumstances.

Three factors in the election

Three aspects outline the political competition ongoing this year. Firstly the active fighting that law enforcement has done against political corruption this year has redrawn the lines of engagement, making one’s “cleanliness” from corruption as an individual or a party a key factor, rather than ideas. The LVŽS and TS-LKD look to have suffered the elast from this, while the LSDP are worse off and the Labour Party, Order and Justice Party and Liberal Movement have much to overcome.

Secondly this year’s election marks a bankruptcy of policy based on ideas and values. Most parties hesitated to present their programmes up until the last moment and even parties that were prepared ahead of time have offered pledges they would otherwise have been critical of. That said Lithuania is not suffering from a vast crisis as compared to 2008 or widespread disappointment in the work done by the government as in 2012. Furthermore the shadow of corruption scandals has overwhelmed many other messages that could be sent. Perhaps that explains the shallow campaign seen this year.

Finally the effort put into organising debates is noteworthy this year. Not only on national television, but organised by individual journalists in many electoral districts, of which there are 71. Nevertheless the success of the regional debates is dubious with most parties lacking more than a few notable figures that could be sent to represent the party further out in the field and inspire interest from voters there. The decision to segregate the five major parties from the other political forces as this creates an image of five candidates for governing, while the other parties’ ideas are less worthy of attention.

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