When Viktor Uspaskich announced that he was withdrawing from the Labour Party, I said that this might have been a manoeuvre made with the intention of getting a lighter sentence. It was a demonstration that they were putting their weapons away and were looking for permission to leave through the back door. However, nobody expected the back door to be opened so wide for Uspaskich.
The result of the 10-year-long case was a €6,800 fine for the party’s leader without any responsibility placed on the party as an organization for the fraud. It would seem that these are the only consequences for fraudulent bookkeeping and millions of unclear provenance. Then there’s the other side of the Labour Party’s activities, where, election after election, they fleece their naive voters with primitive promises and the destruction of the state.
Of course, the Labour Party must be punished for the aforementioned crimes by voters, not the courts. It’s not worth dwelling on the discussion of whether or not there were any political agreements or pressure regarding the case, because the facts won’t surface anyway. What’s more important is that the Labour Party will compete in the upcoming parliamentary (Seimas) elections.
There are a variety of opinions on the Labour Party’s chances. Opponents would like voters to impose the strictest punishment possible on them – zero Seimas seats. The Labour Party’s new leader, Valentinas Mazuronis, has been trying to convince us that he believes in the party’s victory.
The real result will be somewhere in between. If I’d have to give a number, I’d say 20 Seimas seats (out of a total of 141), more or less. Why?
First, the court’s decision won’t have any fundamental effect on Uspaskich’s image. The fraudulent bookkeeping case was too long, and the appeal court did not absolve him of all guilt, so dreaming of an “acquitted” party founder’s return to the top of the ratings is not credible. The damage to trust in Uspaskich has been done, and according to polls, there are twice as many people with negative views of Uspaskich as there are with positive views.
According to public relations expert Mykolas Katkus, getting rid of Uspaskich’s negative shadow might open a new beginning for the Labour Party and open up new opportunities to rev up their political machine, which is a highly professional one. Despite this, changing the negative view that has “settled” in voters’ heads will be difficult, as the party has become directly associated with fraudulent bookkeeping. A bit more than half a year, especially in power, may not be enough.
In 2012, the Labour Party’s campaign with “grandma’s pancakes” and “1509” was one of the most professional campaigns ever seen in the history of Lithuanian elections. However, the campaign simply realised its potential rather than deciding the outcome.
The Labour Party had become a popular force in 2009, presenting itself as one of the main alternatives to the government during the financial crisis. Even then, they surpassed the Social Democrats in the polls, leaving other parties in a second league of their own.
However, many of their voters came on board late in the day. According to a post-election survey in 2012, only about 49% of the Labour Party’s voters had decided on who they’d vote for well before the elections. More than 24% of them had made their decisions a few months before the elections, which would show that, without a rapid rise in the Labour Party’s ratings, their chances will quickly dwindle. The remaining quarter of their voters made their decisions with only a few days or weeks left until the election. That was the real effect of their election campaign.
The period most similar to their current situation was before the elections in 2008. The Labour Party was already in the opposition then, but that was after the government fell apart, the beginnings of the fraudulent bookkeeping case, and Uspaskich’s trip to Russia, which was seen as an attempt to avoid arrest for his charges. The party’s ratings held at about 10%. The results in the election were similar, with 9% of the votes and 10 parliament seats.
Therefore even the most professional election campaign shouldn’t get the Labour party’s hopes up. It doesn’t work on its own, it works within a certain context. If you are fairly popular, well-liked, and criticise the right-wingers as a member of the opposition, your campaign will be effective, and you might even get more votes than your ratings might suggest. If you have a load of bad publicity and fail to fulfil the many promises you’ve delivered, even the best campaign won’t help you win the election.
How about their new leader, Valentinas Mazuronis?
There could be some additional opportunities if he were to take the party’s wheel into his own hands and distance it from Uspaskich. However, Mazuronis cannot and will not do that, so bad press will continue to follow his party.
On the other hand, I would not overestimate Mazuronis’ capabilities as the party’s voting list’s leader. Before the 2008 elections, the Law and Order party had a chance to make a good showing, but they let both the conservatives and the Liberal Centre Union surpass them. Mazuronis has never won a single-mandate district.
In a 2012 post-election survey, Law and Order voters ranked him much lower than Rolandas Paksas, the impeached former president who leads that party. Therefore, it’s difficult to imagine the Labour Party attracting many voters from the Law and Order party.
As a populist or a demagogue, the Labour Party’s chairman pales in comparison to “natural” masters of these arts. Mazuronis’ positive image grew not during his work in the opposition and criticism of the government, but during his work as the Minister of the Environment. He would be valued in places that require true competence and the discussion of decisions that require a certain expertise. However, the Labour Party is not one for which things like these are very important, or that would use these things to reach their voters.
The Labour Party will make it into the Seimas, but it won’t be because of Mazuronis or because of their aggressive political campaigning. They will be helped by Uspaskich’s legacy, which is the party’s organisation. Its well-developed regional structures and swollen ranks will allow it to step past the 5% barrier, along with a few more percentage points from its die-hard voters. However, they will not be the party to form the axis of the ruling coalition.
Mažvydas Jastramskis is lecturer at Vilnius University’s Institute of International Relations and Political Science