ELECTIONS. Where a Social Democrat ratings decline can lead

At the Social Democrat party rally in 2008

New poll data reveals that the three most popular parties are currently neck and neck prior to the first round of the Seimas election due on October 9. By now, however, many experts see the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) as the likely winners of the first round. Three experts were invited to Edmundas Jakilaitis’ show Dėmesio Centre [In the Centre of Attention] on LRT television – public opinion and market research company Spinter Tyrimai head Ignas Zokas, public relations expert Mykolas Katkus and Lietuvos Rytas analyst Vytautas Bruveris.

– The dynamics displayed by the poll data show that from January to September this year the Social Democrat’s (LSDP) popularity has, with some exceptions, been steadily decreasing, while competitors TS-LKD rose and lately the Peasant and Greens Union (LVŽS) have seen skyrocketing ratings. Mr. Zokas, what sort of research is it and is it unique in any way?

I. Zokas: It is a representative survey of the public opinion in Lithuania. It is unique in that the respondents were 18-75 years old. It is related to commerce, as the polling was financed by business for which the 75 year old boundary is optimal.

– Mr. Bruveris, looking at the trends revealed by the poll, are the perspectives for the LSDP grim?

V. Bruveris: Yes, it has been for a while now. Half a year or earlier it was clear – if the Social Democrats continue to make public relations mistakes in critical situations, muddle about and get involved in the political games their opponents and competitors impose, the situation for their party will deteriorate. It is nothing surprising that their lead has gradually been melting away. On the other hand it is rather surprising how resilient the Social Democrats have been, with no dramatic decline. It remains a fact however, the LSDP has slid out of the comfort zone into the risk zone and it is by no fault other than their own.

Mr. Katkus, it looks like the various scandals occurring this year have had little impact on Social Democrat ratings. With no economic crisis or other economic cataclysms, the ruling party, despite the myriad of scandals, still keeps a relatively high rating?

M. Katkus: There is a trend in Lithuania where people pose a question to themselves – do I want to live this way for another 4 years? This question is posed during various occasions. The decrease in ratings the SocDems have experienced reflects well when people posed this question because the party is seen and evaluated as “the government”. We see that over this period the LSDP’s partners have also withered away, 5% of the vote is very little for the Labour Party.

The decreasing Social Democrat ratings show that people want change. There is one good thing however. For a long time it appeared that the main party that could replace the LSDP was the Liberal Movement. It tried to not criticize the Social Democrats, the competition was fairly peaceful. This also helped the SocDems avoid a rapid decline. Furthermore the Peasant Greens act similarly. Now we have a dichotomy again – people will once more be mainly choosing between Conservatives and Social Democrats.

– Mr. Zokas, have you analysed the types of voter? How are Social Democrat, Conservative and “Peasant” voters unique?

I. Zokas: There are difference. The Liberal voter, for example, is very typical, but they have dwindled. The Conservative voter is rather interesting, there is an old and faithful electorate which helps the party regularly enter power, but it looks like this election might see the Conservatives attract a younger vote as well because at least theoretically a sizeable portion of the youth vote goes to this party. Whether these sympathies will convert into real votes is not clear however.

– Another interesting question: “Who would be your alternative pick?” Research shows that the most popular alternative is the Social Democrats, with the “Peasants”, Liberals, Puteikis and Krivickas’ coalition, Labour and etc. after them. TS-LKD would be the second choice for only 3.8% of poll takers. Mr. Katkus, what does this mean?

M. Katkus: The Homeland Union recipe for success or phenomenon is that they utilise their voters to the maximum, mobilising as many as possible. During elections this mobilisation is more important than preferences. Let’s remember the Centre Union, it was exceedingly popular, two of its leaders were frontrunners in the race, but the party only earned 3.8% of the vote in the elections.

– Mr. Bruver, what does a combination of only two candidates mean for the second round of elections?

V. Bruveris: Speaking of the Conservatives, they won’t really have much in the reserve. In my opinion their situation has had a sweeping qualitative change. Their programme is maximalist – to completely use up the reserve and hope that its main opponents – the LSDP and LVŽS fail to perform at their best. I cannot deny a potential TS-LKD win in the first round. This, however, would happen not due to their special inner potential, but due to poor performances by opponents and their incapability to utilise the situation.

I. Zokas: Single-mandate electoral districts usually vote for personalities, partisanship comes second there. Nevertheless I would not write off the Conservatives.

M. Katkus: The TS-LKD changed many districts and are risking greatly in many places, particularly Kaunas. But a number of research show that the single-mandate electoral districts vote for personalities.

– The second round typically exhibits lower voter turnout. This is beneficial to TS-LKD candidates, if they reach the second round. In 2012 many single-mandate electoral districts were earned by LSDP and Labour representatives. Now the situation could be completely different, if the Social Democrats would compete with LVŽS representatives in the second round. The latter are not those who would earn protest votes like the Labour Party did. Both the LSDP and LVŽS are essentially an identical second pick. And this is far from implying that the LSDP will beat the “Peasants” easily everywhere. Mr. Bruveris, what do you think?

V. Bruveris: If the LSDP and “Peasants” compete in the second round, the situation is even more unpredictable in regard to mandate numbers.

– Will TS-LKD representatives find a second round against the LVŽS far harder than that against Labour 4 years ago?

M. Katkus: Currently it is unclear how many “Peasant” candidates will reach the second round. Prior research suggests that a wave of popularity can earn a party’s candidates an extra 3-5% of the vote. If we consider the LVŽS wave fairly sizeable, it is likely that the party candidates will get a boost, but it does not have as many strong candidates as the two major parties – the LSDP and TS-LKD.

V. Bruveris: I agree. The “Peasants” have lesser chances in the single-mandate electoral districts, compared to the LSDP and TS-LKD.

I. Zokas: I believe that the LVŽS is a sort of hybrid party. On one hand it is an old, traditional party which has always had certain ratings and participated in government. On the other hand, the addition of Saulius Skvernelis brings some of the protest and novelty vote.

– Another important thing – N. Puteikis and K. Krivickas’ coalition and its chances to enter Seimas. Mr. Katkus, what do you make of it?

M. Katkus: Research data from Spinter Research show this coalition balancing on the edge of 5% of the vote. Furthermore they are shown to be a potential second pick for 10% of voters. Trends show that it should enter Seimas, but the coalition, just like the “Peasants” needs higher voter turnout. Nevertheless it is not this coalition, but the LVŽS that are the greatest mystery of this election. They aim at a centrist, mass and less politically inclined electorate, which can come to the vote – they could even beat the Conservatives.

– Four years ago the voter turnout in the first round was almost 53%. It is the highest turnout during the entire independence period. People were angry then, the government was associated with the crisis era and the voters wanted change. Now there doesn’t appear to be a clear motive. Furthermore people are impacted by the situation with the Liberals which casts a shadow on politics in general. Could the turnout be, say, 10% lower?

V. Bruveris: It could happen. You already mentioned the reasons. Another important reason – a bleak electoral campaign. Meanwhile lower turnout will likely benefit the TS-LKD.

– Labour and Order and Justice. Are both of these parties at the edge of a precipice?

V. Bruveris: Labour’s chances are higher, but not by much. What is most interesting in this election is how the trio of Labour, Liberal Movement and Order and Justice will perform. Which of these three enter or don’t enter Seimas will have profound impacts on the post-election coalition puzzle.

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