Experts assess whether ministers will change in 2022: only one can feel safe

I. Šimonytė and G. Landsbergis. Photo R. Danisevičius @lrytas.lt

The government ship, tossed to and fro by various crises, is sailing into 2022 with the same crew it left port with. Not a single member has changed in the first year of Ingrida Šimonytė’s Cabinet. Experts say it is difficult to predict whether the head of any minister will fall next year. However, one cabinet member can be completely calm – according to experts, one Minister in the 18th Government is absolutely untouchable, Vilmantas Venckūnas wrote in TV3.lt news portal.

In 2021, the chairs of four of Ingrida Šimonytė‘s cabinet ministers were seriously shaken, but after a slight wobble, they stayed where they were – the ministers stayed in their posts. The news portal tv3.lt takes a look at what shook the foundation of the Government this year and discusses with experts whether the head of the first soldier of the Government of Ingrida Šimonytė might fall in the coming year.

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“Do I have to resign because I am ugly?”

The first member of Šimonytė‘s team whose chair started to wobble was the one who joined the ministerial team the latest – Minister of Agriculture Kęstutis Navickas.

The Minister earned the resentment of farmers. A letter of no confidence in Navickas sent to the Prime Minister was signed by 11 members of the Agriculture Council – unions and associations of dairy, grain and livestock farmers. The farmers set out 19 points accusing the Minister of a lack of competence, declining livestock and crop yields, and lack of dialogue and leadership.

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“Milk production dropped by 4.7% in July, prices have fallen, pig farming people are not surviving, vegetable farming is not surviving,” said the chairman of the Agricultural Council, Jonas Vilionis, in October.

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“Do I have to resign because I’m ugly? I can’t. What does incompetence mean? They have been telling me for a long time that when I go through cow dung, my IQ will increase,” Agriculture Minister K. Navickas told TV3 News.

“I am not going to resign; I am not going to abandon the green course. I don’t know what could be more unclear here”, the Minister told a press conference later.

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Although the opposition also sought the Minister’s resignation, K. Navickas remained in his post. The Prime Minister expressed her support to him, and the Minister himself publicly announced that he had the support of the President.

He spoke of the withdrawal of the entire Government

However, Navickas’ story was a small earthquake compared to the tremor that shook the Cabinet of Ministers this December. The Belarus fertiliser scandal rocked the foundations of the 18th Government the hardest during its first year in office.

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When US sanctions against Belaruskalij, one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of potash fertiliser, came into force on 8 December, their transit through Lithuania did not stop. “Belaruskalij’s advance payment to the railways for services in November may be sufficient for December, January and February.

The Ministers of Transport and Communications and Foreign Affairs, Marius Skuodis and Gabrielius Landsbergis, have submitted their resignations to the Prime Minister because of this situation.

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Before announcing her decision on the fate of the two ministers, Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė did not rule out the possibility that the entire Government could resign.

“I don’t rule out this possibility, I can say that very bluntly,” the Prime Minister told LRT.

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“If there are so many questions being raised about the government’s performance, then perhaps the government, if it is not able to answer those questions, should end its mandate, and some other government could continue its work from scratch,” she said.

As Šimonytė said at the time, her own assessment of the situation will determine the decision on the future of the Government.

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“In politics, a lot of things depend on how you see yourself in a particular circumstance and in a particular place,” Šimonytė said. – It is essentially my judgment in terms of how I feel I can ensure the long-term interests of the country that will most influence my choice.”

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Finally, Šimonytė did not accept the ministers’ requests to resign.

“I appreciate the ministers’ readiness to take responsibility, but I cannot accept it. Not only because, as it turned out, the ministries had to act with incomplete information, but also because the road to abandoning the cargoes, which poses the lowest risk to the state, still needs to be mapped out, and resignations will not help. Therefore, I will not submit resignation requests to the President of the Republic of Lithuania, and tonight I have persuaded the ministers to withdraw their resignations,” the Prime Minister argued.

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She said at the time that she was also considering the issue of personal responsibility.

“I have also seriously and sincerely considered the issue of my personal responsibility. I understand it very well. But at the moment, there is no real alternative majority visible in the Seimas that could take the leadership and the initiative and offer a programme for Lithuania. Today, the groups forming the ruling majority have unanimously supported the Government’s proposed budget for the coming year and other related decisions.

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Given the heightened geopolitical situation and the ongoing challenges of COVID and migration, it would be irresponsible to risk the uncertainty that would be caused by even attempting to form a new majority or to change the composition of the Government in a significant way. Therefore, considering that it enjoys the confidence of the factions of the parties forming the coalition, the Government will continue its work with the same composition, in cooperation with other institutions, as provided for in the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania. We will continue to do our utmost to implement what we have committed to do in the programme of the 18th Government,” Šimonytė said.

Arūnas Dulkys passes interpellation test

Arūnas Dulkys, the Minister of Health, has probably been sitting on the hottest chair in the Government since his first day in office, and the opposition and critics have been calling for his head for a long time. The failed interpellation of Mr Dulkys this December can be seen as at least an interim culmination of this process.

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One of the organisers of the interpellation, Aurelijus Veryga, a member of the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union, presented to the Seimas the main questions put to the Minister and concluded his speech by saying, that it was difficult for the Minister to perform his duties.

“One of the key questions that most of my colleagues probably wanted to ask relates to one of the biggest problems – the COVID pandemic. The new Government boasted during the election period that it had detailed plans on how it would manage, that management decision would be taken, we heard about the famous 130-step plan to contain the pandemic, which suddenly appeared when the opposition started to prepare the interpellation,” Mr Veryga told the Seimas that this was one of the most important issues in the interpellation.

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“I have the impression that the Minister is still in a challenging position. Therefore, if the Seimas decides that the Minister is finding it difficult to handle this job, it would make it easier for him and the Government, both in the management of the pandemic and in the various tasks”, added Mr Veryga.

“I have made mistakes, and I am not hanging on to my post. If you and the people who delegated me to decide that my answers today are not satisfactory, I will resign. Until that happens, I feel obliged to carry on with my work,” Dulkys said on the Seimas tribune.

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However, the Seimas decided that Mr Dulkys’ work was satisfactory. Seventy-one members of the Seimas voted in favour of the Minister’s answers to the interpellation questions, and Dulkys retained his post.

Ministers can slip up on a level playing field

Saulius Spurga, associate professor at Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) and political scientist, told the news portal tv3.lt that it is still unclear the full extent of the Belarusian fertiliser transit scandal.

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“We don’t know to the end who should take responsibility for what,” Spurga commented.

However, according to the political analyst, the latest fertiliser scandal should not be compared to the stories that have led to the resignation or impeachment of cabinet ministers in the past.

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“I don’t think it makes sense. First, because they are slightly different situations”, said the MRU associate professor.

S. Spurga believes that it is difficult to say whether the story of sanctions against Belaruskali still threatens the stability of the Cabinet of Ministers.

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“The story has such a pattern that they are the most agitated at the very beginning, and then the public attention decreases. In my estimation, it was the ministers’ own expectations that the transit should be interrupted from 8 December.

Nobody demanded it too much, but they raised it themselves and were scandalised. It is unclear what they will bring up again or what they will announce again in a lame or incorrect way. There are no preconditions for this, but it is possible to slip on a level playing field”, said Mr Spurga.

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Public opinion no longer matters

At the same time, Bernaras Ivanovas, associate professor at Vytautas Magnus University (VMU) and political scientist, told the news portal tv3.lt that this situation showed that the public’s voice is not very important to those in power.

“The further we go, the more. <…> Public opinion is no longer important in terms of changing the Government. This is our problem,” Ivanov said.

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According to the political analyst, ministers’ heads are not falling when the public or even the President is annoyed, but when it is favourable for big business.

“This is in the hands of the people who control Lithuania’s essential resources, capital companies,” the political analyst said.

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Much of the work of ministers do not come to public attention

S. Spurga argued that it is very difficult to say which is the weakest link in Šimonytė’s cabinet.

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“There is what we see, but the ministers do a lot of work that is not in the public eye”, the political analyst said.

He said that the ministers who have to manage crises have the heaviest workload.

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“Are they the weak link? I want to say that whoever is in the post of Minister of Health, whatever the personality is, they are weak. A weak link is a relative term”, explained Spurga.

He recalled how Skvernelis did not find a minister

“There is a practice that ministers change during their term of office. For example, when there was an Education Crisis, and it was imagined that one Minister should be replaced, that was the mood, but three ministers were replaced,” said Spurga.

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The MRU associate professor is referring to the events at the end of 2018, when, after the seizure of the Ministry of Education and Science in protest by teachers, the then Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis dismissed not only the Minister of Education and Science, Jurgita Petrauskienė, but also the Minister of the Environment, Kestutis Navickas, as well as the Minister of Culture, Liana Ruokytė-Jonsson.

At the time, Skvernelis explained his decision to sack the three cabinet members by his desire to see more determination, breakthroughs and dynamism in the areas these ministers were responsible for. As a result, the Prime Minister was quick to find replacements for the heads of two ministries – Algirdas Monkevičius and Mindaugas Kvietkauskas became the heads of the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport and the Ministry of Culture respectively in January.

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However, it took Skvernelis some time to find a replacement for Navickas. As a result, the dismissed December 2018 appointee chair remained empty until April 2019, when Kęstutis Mažeika of the Peasant Greens Union finally became Minister of Environment.

S. Spurga notes that the long-empty chair of the Minister of the Environment not only did not contribute to the stability of the Government but also created a situation where discussions about the desire to merge the Ministry of the Environment into another ministry arose.

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“A good leader, a good manager, a good leader of a coalition does not only think about replacing a minister, but he also thinks about who to replace. It is very difficult to change horses in a race for many reasons”, said Mr Spurga.

The MRU associate professor argued that this makes it particularly important to predict whether 2022 will be the year when the head of the first member of Šimonytė’s cabinet will fall.

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The outcome of the China story could determine the composition of the cabinet

According to Mr Ivanovas, the question of the change of cabinet members will depend purely on economic circumstances.

“Moral issues have long been forgotten and are past their stage in Lithuania. However, economic things and business interests can have an impact. <…> From this point of view, I think next year everything will depend on whether the crisis with China can actually be resolved in the first place,” Mr Ivanov reasoned.

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Landsbergis is untouchable

And although the deterioration of relations with China is due to the country’s foreign policy, which is defined by its values, the Lithuanian diplomatic chief responsible for this – G. Landsbergis – is untouchable, according to B. Ivanovas.

“He is immovable in any case. <…> The prime Minister is a non-partisan guest star, so she cannot decide in principle about Gabrielius. He is her de facto boss. A manager cannot fire the chairman of the board of directors”, Ivanov said.

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According to the political scientist, there are no untouchable ministers in the 18th Government apart from Landsbergis.

“This is a minister of ministers, with a capital letter,” the VMU associate professor joked.

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Like Spurga, Ivanovas was reluctant to predict with certainty whether there would be a change of the first minister in 2022.

“You can draw from coffee grounds. I would say it’s 50/50 that maybe one will change. What is predictable with us is that everything is absolutely unpredictable. It’s challenging to draw from coffee grounds, so we don’t normally do it. But we can say that the preconditions are there, and the question remains whether they will be realised”, concluded Mr Ivanov.

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The news portal tv3.lt also wrote that Ingrida Šimonytė’s cabinet of ministers is recording a record high level of public distrust in its work. The last time such poor ratings of the Government were seen was only under the leadership of Andrius Kubilius during the economic crisis. Experts believe that a number of scandals and crises have contributed to the public’s poor perception of the Government, and that ministers should not expect more favourable treatment from the population in the near future.

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