Kęstutis Girnius. Is support for the Conservatives capped?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The victory of TS-LKD candidate I. Haase in Zanavykai electoral district has drawn much attention.

The victory is impressive in that the “Farmers” diligently sought to win the elections, nominating Minister of Agriculture G. Surplys, though they usually explain that MPs should not be ministers.

The Conservatives did not conceal their happiness with winning, party chairman G. Landsbergis stated that this was a struggle “for the Constitution and for certain foundations of the state that we seek to safeguard.” But is this a one off TS-LKD victory or a sign that a part of voters are burying their traditional antipathy toward the Conservatives and the chances are increasing that the Conservatives will win the next Seimas elections and will form the basis of the next cabinet?

It is undisputable that the Conservatives have much to celebrate, but it is a little early to uncork the champagne.

In many respects, the current circumstances are especially favourable to the Conservatives. The party no longer has any serious rivals in the right.

This is a significant shift. After the 2015 municipal elections, it appeared that the Liberal Movement will become the strongest right wing power in Lithuania. The Conservatives took the posts of mayor in eleven cities and the Liberals in only nine, but the Conservatives faced crushing defeats in Vilnius, Klaipėda and even their former bastion of Kaunas.

Nor were they supported by voters in Panevėžys and Šiauliai. It appeared that the Conservatives will become a party of the province, while the Liberal Movement will rule the cities and after a while – all of Lithuania.

Everything changed following E. Masiulis becoming embroiled in a corruption scandal, from which the Liberals have yet to escape.

And if the other Liberal Movement branches follow the example of R. Šimašius and will create committees for the elections rather than running under the flag of the Liberal Movement, the party could vanish altogether.

The Conservatives’ traditional rivals, the Social Democrats, have broken apart into two. Both the Social Democrats and Social Democrat Labour may struggle to overcome the five percent barrier now.

In both cases, both parties will gather fewer votes than their united predecessor, thus increasing the potential number of Conservative supporters. The ruling coalition’s popularity is waning as well, albeit based on the September survey by Vilmorus, the “Farmers” are once more in the lead, if only by half a percentage point.

It is seemingly time for more consistent change. The Conservatives won the Seimas elections last in 2008, when after eight years of ineffective leftist governments, the Lithuanian people trusted power to the Conservatives and their allies. The same could occur in 2020. After eight years of not the best rule, voters could decide to once more grant power to the opposition and thus to the Conservatives.

These positive shifts should not be overestimated. It is not so much the Conservatives growing in strength, but rather their opponents tripping and failing. When you cut down all the trees, even a bush seems an oak tree. In recent times, the Conservatives have received major support in surveys, but it is notable that the percentage of their supporters is not increasing, rather fluctuating between around 14 to 17%. This is a concerning phenomenon because it shows that the Conservatives struggle to draw new voters, even from the Liberal Movement’s ranks. Under normal circumstances, support for them should exceed 20%.

The Conservatives are also harmed by a lack of a real leader. Whether you respect or denounce them, but there was no doubt that V. Landsbergis and A. Kubilius led the TS-LKD, formed its policies, made final decisions. G. Landsbergis is just a shadow of them, lacking the traits of a leader, a clear programme or aims. He is more akin to a party chairman’s press representative than a chairman himself. This is important because parties are often likened to their leaders – his image influences the party’s image. Landsbergis has been leading the party for three years now, thus he had sufficient time to develop leadership skills and abilities.

That he failed to do so thus far likely shows that he lacks them.

Once upon a time, the party had a clear ideological profile, perhaps even overly clear, which was partially even repelling. The party consistently emphasised the threat of Russia, urged to increase defence funding and increase the armed forces.

After the Crimean annexation, all parties maintain the same stance, just Paluckas‘ Social Democrats do not agree with raising defence spending to 2.5% GDP. Thus, one of the TS-LKD’s unique points has weakened.

The party is meandering. Supposedly, there are talks about changing the party’s name. This would not be the first time, the current name appeared in only 2008. There are notions that the TS-LKD is thinking about changing its strategy, will seek to move leftward, take up more centrist positions, will try to empathise more with common citizens and their worries.

Several weeks ago, G. Landsbergis release a new analytical essay named A different TS-LKD direction for Lithuania. Also the especially populist slogan of “We are on your [the Lithuanian people’s – K. G.] side.” The party claims it aims to create a country, which at every stage of life, every location in Lithuania, will be able to provide citizens with European level services, being more similar to Sweden than Belarus.

It is undisputable that this would be better, if Lithuania cared for everyone and was more akin to Sweden, but how do you create this sort of ideal state? Of course, “we are on your side,” after all, what party does not claim it is on the side of the people?

The slogan is empty, consistent repeating of it would indicate idea bankruptcy, a desperate pursuit of more voters, indirect admission that they cannot be drawn by more rational arguments and specific works.

I do not comprehend, why the Conservative’s would want to more leftward, thus becoming more akin to the leftist parties, which dominate Lithuanian politics, especially when right wing voters will vote for traditional right wing parties, rather than for a new, unreliable pretender.

The Seimas elections are to be held in two years, much will change by then, thus results cannot be predicted. But it is clear that the Conservatives are meandering, lack real leaders and new ideas.

The old guard is withdrawing, a new one is nowhere to be seen. The “Farmers” popularity may falter, akin to the Liberals’ and Social Democrats’. If this were to happen, it is unlikely the disappointed will rush to vote for the TS-LKD, if the Conservatives do not awake from their current lethargy. And even if they manage to take the most mandates, who would they form a coalition with? It is worth recalling that in 2008, the Conservatives only won 46 mandates, thus they needed the support of the National Resurrection Party and Liberal Movement. Instead of keeping releasing “analytical” essays, perhaps they should dedicate more attention to seeking potential partners.

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