How Lithuania’s political landscape has changed

Leaders of the coalition parties after 2012 elections
DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

Lithuania’s political field was different three years ago. Back then, the social-democrat leader Algirdas Butkevičius had an approval rating of 38.2% and the Social Democratic Party enjoyed the support of 25.7% of the electorate.

These numbers were gathered by the market research and polling company Spinter Tyrimai in March 2013 in Lithuania. Now, the situation has changed. In March 2016, according to Spinter Tyrimai, the approval rating of Butkevičius is now 26.4%, while his party’s support has dropped to 18.8%. It seems that the social-democratic party has wasted their most precious resource – people’s trust.

The situation is by no means dire, but the difference is substantial enough to make most social-democrats worry about their seats in the Seimas, the parliament of Lithuania. This increases competition within the party for a place on the electoral list.

In three years, the Labour Party’s ratings have also plummeted, giving reason to believe the views of political analysts who said that the popularity of this political force relied solely on the profile of its founder, Viktor Uspaskich. After he left the party and distanced himself from active politics, the party plummeted.

The rating of the conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats has been edging up within the margin of error, while that of the Order and Justice party have fluctuated without a clear direction.

However, the ratings of the Liberal Movement have risen tremendously since the municipal elections last year. The Lithuanian Peasant and Greens union has had a steady rise in the polls but the biggest increase was seen this year.

Social-democrats: lowering expectations

A ruling party since the Seimas elections in October 2012, the Social Democrats have not been hit by any significant shake-ups, excluding the blow it took in the 2014 European Parliament elections. The expectations of the Social Democrats were not met that year, with instead of an expected four or five seats, they won only two mandates.

In the 2015 municipality elections, in which voters for the first time elected their mayors directly, the Social Democrats’ also suffered. Of the total number of 22 mayors, only 16 were left, and of those 14 remain in their positions today. On the other hand, the overall number of seats at municipal councils increased from 328 to 371 (including directly elected mayors).

Even though the Social Democrats are slowly losing popularity, they are still doing better than any other party in the country. In March 2013, 25.7% of the polled voters said they would vote for the Social Democratic Party, in March 2014 the share was 25.6%, and in March 2015 it slumped to 20.8%, and in March 2016, 18.8%.

When asked about which politician or public figure could take on the role of prime minister, the rating of Mr. Butkevičius dropped as well: 38.2% (2013), 31%(2014), 35.2%(2015) and 26.4%(2016).

For a long time, Butkevičius and the Social Democrats were able to avoid major controversies, but there were still bumps on their road. The so-called Vijūnėlė Manor scandal, where a former vice chairman of the party and Mayor of Druskininkai Ričardas Malinauskas actively worked to legalize his 600 sq m lakeside house, was one such bump.

Law enforcement institutions weren’t able to find any traces of crime but the phonecall transcripts released showed Malinauskas personally discussing a needed governmental decree with ministers and the government chancellor in a tone that could have one mistake him for the prime minister himself.

The Social Democrats, who were worried about their image, pressed the Druskininkai mayor to leave the party, which he did with a loud door slam, taking the the entire Druskininkai chapter of the party with him.

Other notable scandals involved the prime minister’s son-in-law, whose firm was successfully in a public buy-out, the numerous visits by ministers and Seimas members to a Druskininkai water park, suspicions of bribery hitting the Mayor of Utena, Social Democrat Alvydas Katinas. However, it seems that these scandals did not have any significant influence on the social democrats’ political fortunes.

Liberals’ growing expectations

The Liberal Movement is moving in the opposite direction. Their popularity is steadily growing, and its peak was during the municipal council elections in 2015. The real breakthrough came probably during the 2014 European Parliament elections, where they won two seats, the same as the social democrats.

Following the elections, the widely-held opinion was that that the victory was achieved thanks to Antanas Guoga, a poker player and businessman-turned-politician, taking part in the campaign. However, the 2015 March municipal elections were also a great success for the Liberal Movement: 10 mayors were elected and the number of seats in municipal councils rose from 98 to 226 (including mayors).

Political analysts often mention that the future success of the liberals will depend on how well the Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius, does in his job.

The latter has so far been able to keep up a positive image. According to Vilmorus, Šimašius is rated positively by 38% of respondents, while only 16.7% rate him negatively.

Eligijus Masiulis, the leader of the Liberal Movement, is even more popular: 44.5% of respondents rate him positively, while 19.1% rate him negatively.

Guoga isn’t mentioned in the Vilmorus positive/negative ratings. Another pollster, Spinter Tyrimai, has surveyed who people believe would make the best prime minister and Guoga is in the top ten.

In a 2016 March survey, 5.6% thought he was fit to become prime minister, in February the share had been 7.3%. The results of Masiulis were 8.8% in March, 8.9% in February.

The liberals haven’t been linked to any notable scandals, except for one where a member of the party, MP Dalia Teišerskytė, made a rude racist comment about black people. The party did not sanction her in any significant way, except that Masiulis criticised Teišerskytė’s statements.

With the Seimas elections coming soon, the main weakness of the liberals is their lack of strong candidates for single-mandate constituencies, at least that’s what some party members are saying in private.

Conservatives with a new leader: from hated to disliked

The situation of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats has remained relatively stable, as the party kept increasing its popularity: from 8.2% in March 2013 to 10.6% in March 2016.

The municipal elections were just as successful for the Conservatives as the earlier ones: the party won 258 mandates (including 11 mayors), while in 2011 the number was 249. In the European Parliament elections, the conservatives won two seats.

The most notable developments for this political force was the change of leadership. In April 2015, the out of favour former Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius was replaced by Gabrielius Landsbergis, grandson of the conservative patriarch Vytautas Landsbergis.

The new leader’s first task was to work on his own popularity, since not many voters knew about him, a relative newcomer, although they definitely knew his family name. In the European Parliament elections, the young politician reached first place after being third.

The problem that Landsbergis faces now is his negative rating. According to Vilmorus, 22.2% of responders rate the politician positively, while 40.7% rate him negatively. Only 4.5% of respondents thought that he would be a suitable prime minister, according to Spinter Tyrimai.

After Landsbergis became the leader of the party, he started forming his own team for the Seimas elections. They were mainly young and new candidates, to which his party colleagues reacted negatively.

Since voters of the Homeland Union are known for loyalty and high turnouts, there are no doubts that the party will do well in the multi-member constituency, which elects half of the Seimas members through proportional representation. The issues come up when one looks at their potential in single-seat constituencies, especially in Kaunas.

The party lost the 2015 March municipality elections in the city that was once their stronghold. They also lost some members of the party, who can now be elected independently and will split the vote.

The Song of Roland for Order and Justice?

Analysts predict a not-so-bright future for the Order and Justice party. Even though their popularity rating isn’t particularly low, it has been very unsteady: 8% in March 2013, 11.6% one year later, 8.3% in 2015 and 9% in March of this year.

This dynamic is mirrored in the results of municipal and European Parliament elections. In 2014, the party won two seats in the European Parliament, the same as the liberals, social democrats and conservatives.

The party lost some momentum during the 2015 March municipal elections, going down from 155 seats in 2011 to just 87 seats in 2015.

Valentinas Mazuronis, the second in command in the party, after its leader Rolandas Paksas, left Order and Justice in February 2015 to become the current leader of the Labour Party. His son, Andrius Mazuronis, followed suit and chose to side with the liberals.

A member of this party, Kęstutis Trečiokas, was also involved in the Vijūnėlė Manor scandal that affected the Social Democrats. As a result, his positive and negative rating balance was -26.8%, according to Vilmorus.

Saulius Skvernelis, who was a very popular non-partisan minister of the interior nominated by Order and Justice, chose run in the elections for the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union.

The leader of the party, Rolandas Paksas, is suspected of numerous crimes including money laundering and taking a bribe of €15,000. Prosecutors have requested the European Parliament to strip Paksas of his legal immunity.

Political analyst Mažvydas Jastramskis predicted a “Song of Roland” fate for the party. In this French epic poem, Roland, the hero of the song, dies fighting the moors.

Labour Party: from bad to worse?

The Labour Party is currently in an unenviable position, and the question stands whether or not Mazurionis is happy with his choice to leave Order and Justice. Things have only gotten worse following the very successful 2012 Seimas elections, where the Labour Party won the biggest share of the vote in multi-member constituencies.

In March 2013, the party’s popularity rating was 12.2%, which went down to 8.7% in the same month of 2014, then down to 6.2% in 2015 and hit 5.9% in March 2016.

The Labour Party proved correct those political analysts who had said that it was a one-man show, and that the one man was Viktor Uspaskich. After his departure, the party’s popularity has been in steady decline.

Members of the party console themselves by saying that they are still able to organize campaigns that attract a lot of undecided voters.

That might be true, but in the 2014 European Parliament elections, the party won just one seat, and Uspaskich was the one to become an MEP. The 2015 March municipal elections were relatively successful, as the party won 152 seats (including mayors), while that number in 2011 was 165.

That was the last time when Uspaskich was actively involved in a Labour Party campaign. In November 2015, he left the party and devoted himself to fighting criminal charges against him and writing a book.

The fact that the current party leader Mazuronis, does not want to forgo his MEP seat and take part in the Seimas elections is a bad sign. Despite this, the party leader will still be present as a face of the party in the campaign. Seimas member Artūras Paulauskas will likely lead the party’s candidate list.

Mazuronis’ official reasoning is that if he was to leave the European Parliament, his seat would be given to someone from his former party, Order and Justice, since he was elected as a member of that party.

Unofficially, politicians are saying that there is little temptation for him to take up a seat in the opposition, which is a likely fate for the Labour Party after this year’s elections.

Black horse: Peasant and Greens Union

The Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union has seen its popularity grow steadily from microscopic to meaningful.

The party caught everyone’s attention when it won a seat in the 2014 European Parliament elections. In the 2015 municipal elections, the party won 143 seats (including 4 mayoral posts), compared to previously held 147.

The party’s rating represents its growth in popularity: in 2013 it had a rating of just 2.5%, the following year it was 2%, and in March 2015 it surged to 4.7% and a whopping 8.2% in 2016.

Ratings aside, an even better indicator of the party’s growing influence are talk from the other main parties – the social democrats, liberals and conservatives – about being open to forming a coalition with the Peasant and Greens Union after the elections.

The millionaire leader of the party Ramūnas Karbauskis said that he will try to form a rainbow coalition with all the parties, except the Labour Party or Order and Justice.

The Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union was involved in the ruling coalition from 2006 to 2008, when they were called the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union and led by Kazimira Prunskienė. Later, Karbauskis took control of the party and cut ties with Prunskienė.

That means that the party is not tied into any scandals, apart some debatable choices it has made in the past: calling for a referendum on NATO membership in 2002, opposition to selling land to foreigners as well as its stance on several energy issues, which might be becoming for a “green” party, but cannot help but raise suspicions in an as energy-conscious a country as Lithuania.

Translated from Lithuanian by Aivaras Medeubetovas

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