How will Lithuanians be electing their parliament?

DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Lithuania uses a mixed electoral system whereby 70 seats in its parliament, the Seimas, are divided proportionally among parties and 71 MPs are elected in single-member constituencies by two-round plurality vote. A rule adopted in 2002 says that the number of voters in each district cannot stray more than 20 percent from the average. However, the Constitutional Court has ruled that 20 percent is too much and variations should be capped at 10 percent. Radical demographic changes, brought on by massive migration over the last two decades – Lithuania’s population went down from 3.7m in the early 1990s to 3m in the 2010s – has exacerbated the need to redraw the system which translates votes into parliament seats. But will politicians venture into it with a year before the next elections?

Zenonas Vaigauskas, the head of the Central Electoral Commission, notes that tweaks to the electoral system are usually accomplished right before elections or get postponed indefinitely: “Paradoxically, in 2000 [with the conservatives in power – LRT], only months before elections when candidates were already registering to run for parliament, they decided to give up run-offs [in single-member constituencies]. It was a serious change, compared to what MPs are considering now. Candidate ranking in party lists was also introduced right before the 1996 elections.

“If they decided now to change the electoral system, to give up single-member districts and switch fully to proportional representation, there would be substantial novelties. Would these novelties come into effect immediately and apply for the parliamentary elections next year, or only for the 2020 elections – that will be up to the current Seimas.”

Neighbours’ example

Vaigauskas notes that both Latvia and Estonia elect their parliaments using proportional representation. Between the two world wars, the first Republic of Lithuania would also use proportional representation.

“Justice Minister Juozas Bernatonis, a social democrat, when he was posted as ambassador to Estonia, probably spotted their electoral system and submitted a bill back in 2013, suggesting that we elect our MPs according to proportional representation only,” Vaigauskas comments on the newly resurfaced idea to give up the plurality component of the vote.

Under the current mixed system, Vaigauskas says, a politician needs about 17,600 votes (from the electorate of 2.5m) to be elected to parliament. Single-member constituencies need to have at least 35,000 voters to elect one MP.

“So we have a situation where an administrative district needs to be split into several electoral constituencies, which presents some problems,” Vaugauskas explains the pitfalls of the current system.

Some politicians have also suggested reducing the number of seats in parliament in proportion to the shrinking of the population. Vaigauskas comments that, for instance, Latvia and Estonia have parliaments that are even bigger in proportion to their populations (100 and 101 seats, respectively, representing populations of 1.9m and 1.3m). “In general, small nations have disproportionally big parliaments comparing to big countries. This is because parliaments have to accomplish certain tasks,” Vaigauskas says.

“I agree that in view of the shrinking population, Lithuania might reduce its parliament, but not proportionally, because the Seimas, besides representing voters, has much other business necessary to represent the state.”

Social democrats undecided

Social democrat Gediminas Kirlikas, Deputy Speaker of the Seimas, says his party group does not have a united opinion on the issue of transforming the electoral system. “One thing is clear, though,” he says. “We will have to implement the Constitutional Court ruling. [Justice Minister] Bernatonis has suggested a radical solution – giving up single-member constituencies. In that case, we wouldn’t need to redraw constituencies, but it would cause much political passion.”

Commenting on what kind of electoral system would be most favourable to the social democrats, Kirkilas says that about half of his party’s MPs have been elected in single-member constituencies and half won their seats according to the party list. He also notes that the Labour Party and the Liberal Movement, by contrast, won most of their respective seats in the multi-member constituency and only a few in single-member districts.

Conservatives oppose election changes

Conservative Andrius Kubilius, leader of the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats parliamentary group, is critical about the proposal to give up single-member constituencies: “He [Bernatonis] only proposed it so they don’t have to implement the Constitutional Court ruling, which would have three new districts set up in Vilnius that would be out of reach to the social democrats,” Kubilius notes. His party, the Homeland Union, is traditionally more popular among urban voters, while the social democrats see rural and small town populations as their voter base.

Kubilius adds that his party has already put forward suggestions to the Central Electoral Commission on how to redraw constituency boundaries.

Too little time for reforms

Kęstutis Daukšys, leader of the Labour Party group, currently the third-biggest in the Seimas, says that he and his colleagues will discuss both Bernatonis’s suggestion and the Constitutional Court ruling.

“To my mind, however, there’s too little time left before next year’s Seimas elections for us to fundamentally transform the electoral system. We could probably redraw constituencies, but not the entire system,” Daukšys says.

Eligijus Masiulis, the leader of the Liberal Movement, agrees: “There is no time to make radical changes before next year’s elections. I think that we must now implement the Constitutional Court ruling and switch to proportional representation by 2020.”

Meanwhile Petras Gražulis, the leader of the Order and Justice party group, believes that the way to go would be to give up proportional representation and switch to plurality vote:

“Perhaps we should abolish the multi-member constituency and leave only single-member districts. MPs thus elected would be more responsible to their voters, would be closer to them and feel more responsibility when passing laws.

“Moreover, I think there are too many members in the Seimas. Unfortunately, the number is written in the Constitution.”

It is generally agreed that proportional representation systems, which distribute seats to parties in proportion to the votes they receive, are conductive to multi-party legislatures and coalition governments whereas plurality vote favour big parties and one-party majorities. Mixed systems, combining elements of both, are intended to balance the need to, on the one hand, distribute seats fairly and, on the other, prevent too much fragmentation in legislatures.

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