Kęstutis Girnius. A new president will change very little

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

While the presidential elections will be held in only May, the unofficial electoral campaign has started.

Some politicians have declared their candidacies, others have yet to make their final decision. The number of potential candidates is limited and it is unlikely that another “saviour” from abroad will appear in 2019, be it like Adamkus from the USA or Grybauskaitė from Brussels.

No declared or potential candidate has raised any notable enthusiasm or expectations.

Most of them are rather competent, but also rather bland. This is nothing bad because the office of Lithuanian president is also rather grey, the imperfect result of clashes of Vytautas Landsbergis’ allies and opponents. Landsbergis’ supporters wanted to create a strong presidential institution akin to the French model, while his opponents, wary of Landsbergis‘ ambitions, sought to limit a president’s capacities, ensure the primacy of the Seimas.

While the president is the head of state, the only to be elected by the entire nation, thus having a special status and the greatest democratic legitimacy, their right and powers are not especially large, especially compared to the US or French presidents.

While they are trusted with foreign and defence policy, as well as law enforcement oversight, they do not have any particular means to influence domestic and economic politics. The cabinet is not subordinate to them, their remit does not include key economic issues, which are decisive for people’s level of welfare.

They cannot raise or lower taxes, regulate the country’s finances, decide development priorities.

The requirement for the president to end their participation in political parties is a further limit to their capacities because they do not have their own party or group in Seimas, hence also reliable MPs, committed to their programme.

Under different circumstances, it is unlikely the president would have secretly corresponded with E. Masiulis on various matters. On the other hand, legislation did not restrict the president from speaking with Masiulis at the Presidential Palace, a restaurant or even on a gold court.

The president is not granted any special authority in domestic policy, but there are also no formal prohibitions from actively participating in it. It is said that nature dislikes emptiness and the same applies in politics. If the Seimas or courts are passive, the president can become involved and control the situation. Or the opposite.

At the start of the first term, Grybauskaitė stated that she would take as much authority as the Seimas would grant her.

The Seimas was generous, consistently backing down, only countering one of her vetoes after three years into the presidency. There were concerns over the supposed inclination of the president toward authoritarianism, but these fears did not come true. She did not conceal her antipathy toward the Labour Party and the Social Democrat led cabinet and after the 2012 elections sought to prevent the Labourites from entering power.

The president abused her power during the Crimean occupation crisis when instead of organising a State Defence Council meeting, she invited all the council’s members bar Seimas Speaker Loreta Graužinienė, thus implying she had the right to decide, who was faithful to Lithuania and who was a potential traitor to the motherland. This was an exception.

Overall, the president remained moderate, monitored the Seimas’ work from afar, rarely interfered with the legislative branch. I was left with the impression that Grybauskaitė cared more about maintaining her political capital, thus she avoided entering into the resolutions of the most painful issues.

Her uncontested popularity shows that she achieved her goal. Lithuania would have been better off if she had sacrificed that capital in order to direct the discussions in Seimas toward, in her opinion, a positive direction.

Algirdas Brazauskas was perhaps even more passive. Bar annual addresses, Brazauskas usually made no comment on the cabinet’s work, allowed it and the Seimas to work independently, albeit sometimes forcing the Seimas to amend laws, usually for the better, such as when he forced the LDDP atheist old maids’ efforts to practically halt property returns to the Catholic Church in 1995.

His decision to force A. Šleževičius to resign from the post of prime minister is also worthy of applause. But he was able to do it because factually he was still the head of the LDDP. A “non-political” president would not have been able to remove a prime minister.

Valdas Adamkus was the president, who tried most to expand the president’s powers and influence during his first term. He sought to make the ruling Conservatives satisfy his demands, often and publically clashed with Prime Minister G. Vagnorius, through his addresses to the nation and other means, he sought to mobilise voters to pressure the Seimas and cabinet. During the Seimas elections of 2000, he united and supported “New Politics” parties, seeking to ensure support in Seimas. Fortune did not favour his efforts and during his second term, he lost momentum and was content to be an observer of domestic politics.

Three different presidents, three clearly different approaches to the duties of office. But their stance on domestic policy matters was similar, all of them conceded to the primacy of Seimas and came to terms with it. There is no basis to believe that the candidates with the highest chances of winning will meaningfully differ from their predecessors.

The guidelines of domestic policy will not be decided next spring, but in autumn 2020. Perhaps only Skvernelis, with experience in the post of prime minister and having a political backing, would take a more active position.

Potential rebels such as A. Maldeikienė, N. Puteikis or A. Juozaitis have only minimal chances to win, but if a miracle happens and one of them was victorious, we would witness an impressive political, perhaps populist “show”, but when the curtain falls, we will notice that little has changed, that we were riled up over meaningless (or mostly meaningless) noise and passions.

The president has undisputed rights to direct foreign and defence policy. But their capacities for independent action are limited greatly by Lithuania’s membership in NATO and the EU.

The main guidelines for Lithuania and other countries are set in Brussels and Washington. Over the first two years of her term, Grybauskaitė spared no efforts in seeking to distance herself from Adamkus, develop and implement her own foreign policy.

The president actively appeared on international fora and widely interacted with foreign media, but you can hardly distinguish between her and Adamkus’ foreign policy. The shape is different, but the essence is the same. If Grybauskaitė failed to be rid of the frame imposed on her, it is unlikely any of the other current candidates could fare better.

The president curates law enforcement. In this they not only can, but also must seek measures to order this most confused and dysfunctional part of government. If I knew, which candidate could do this best, I would immediately give them my vote.

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