Referendum on dual citizenship in parallel with the presidential election: is it too late for the preparations?

Elections in Lithuania
DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

According to Žygimantas Pavilionis, Member of the Commission of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian World Community, preparations for the referendum on dual citizenship have to begin today or tomorrow at the latest should it be held in parallel with the 2019 presidential election. Meanwhile, Rimvydas Baltaduonis, representative of the Lithuanian American Community, says that it is not even worthwhile to organise the referendum in 2019, as it is already clear that it would not lead to the expected results, writes

This topic has been the focus of the LRT television programme Dėmesio centre (Eng. In the centre of attention), featuring an interview with Žygimantas Pavilionis, Member of the Commission of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian World Community; Dalia Henke, President of the Lithuanian World Community (LWC); and Rimvydas Baltaduonis, Co-Chair of the Commission of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania and the Lithuanian World Community and representative of the Lithuanian American Community.

– Ms Henke, as far as I understand, what you observe (with reference to the referendum on dual citizenship – is complete inaction and you cannot understand why nothing is being done about it. Is that correct?

Ms Henke: The Lithuanian World Community has been observing this inaction for 10 years now. Therefore, I wouldn’t like to say that it has only recently been picked up.

– Well, now, at least, you know what to look out for.

Ms Henke: Today, during the discussion in the meeting, we have heard of as many as four new proposals. They have absolutely nothing to do with the referendum, which would already require speedy preparations. Should the referendum be held in parallel with the presidential election, then we have sort of missed the train. Meanwhile, the LWC and the Board of the LWC are concerned that the 1.3 million votes (necessary to get to amend Article 12 of the Constitution) are hardly achievable. As you may know, we still have no idea what the referendum would be like, when it would be organised and when the financial and human resources it needs would be mobilised.

– Mr Baltaduonis, do you believe there is still hope to address this (the issue of dual citizenship – without a referendum? I mean, there isn’t any, is there?

Mr Baltaduonis: Lithuanians across the world have always tried to find as cost-effective as possible ways to connect us all, as children of Lithuania that we are, with the country and avoid separation. Today, we have learnt of many more ways possible. Whenever we come to Lithuania and have an opportunity to engage the Lithuanian government in the debate, we see the willingness to resolve the issue. What is missing every time is the next step to actual implementation of the solution.

– Mr Pavilionis, I assume that, besides the referendum, all other legal possibilities to address the issue have been exhausted. Would you still be willing to start things all over again?

Mr Pavilionis: I have been restarting things for the third consecutive time now. I believe that after the last ruling of the Constitutional Court we have all realised that the only way forward is amending the Constitution through a referendum. I myself was in charge of organising the European referendum; I won the election in Naujamiestis Constituency on my own, having worked really hard for a year or two. And now, when there is only exactly one year left, we have to work day in day out if we truly want to win this huge referendum. This means that we have to agree on the wording of the statement to be put on the ballot paper, launch a dedicated campaign, and allocate necessary funds. We have to ask for support from not only politicians but also from all the people. We are a nation with an old diaspora and we have to be able to summon that force. We have to ask them to mobilise themselves to make this decision.

– If nothing is being done and if the government does not prioritise this matter, why don’t you, as Member of the Seimas representing Naujamiestis Constituency, submit to the Seimas a draft resolution on the date of the referendum and the wording of the statement to be put to the referendum? Perhaps, that would shake things up, wouldn’t it?

Mr Pavilionis: We will not win the referendum if it is turned into an election show of the Conservatives. We can only win it if all the political parties are united in seeking a positive outcome among their voters, even among those who are against a global Lithuania and who do not like Europe. Everyone, young and old, has to vote, because that was how we won the European referendum. If there is at least a slightest political fragmentation, we will not win. So far, unity is still present. However, we are losing valuable time necessary for other priorities. It seems as if we are playing in a sandbox, preoccupied with personal vendettas, while this strategic goal, which is a top priority, is being neglected. I do not want to make any accusations, though. There is still time.

– But you do get involved with other party members in your internal political battles on the future party nomination for the (presidential – elections. However, that is not the focus of our discussion. Fifty percent of the population plus one voter have to express their opinion in the referendum to make it count. Presidential elections are usually among the most popular elections in Lithuania when voter turnout often reaches 60%. In theory, it would be possible to have 90% of the voters taking part in the referendum voting in favour of dual citizenship. This would mean amendment to the Constitution.

Mr Pavilionis: That could be the case if we launch the referendum campaign today or tomorrow at the latest. But if we delay it until summer or autumn, forget about it.

– Ms Henke?

Ms Henke: If we continue with the delay, the figures are hardly achievable in mathematical terms. I would agree with Andrius Kubilius, who says that, perhaps, we should not rush things. Perhaps, let us focus on funds and capabilities and postpone [the referendum] until the parliamentary election in 2020. All is not lost. We have to make a wise decision, because Lithuania needs Lithuanian citizens. Let us connect Lithuania, irrespective of the place where Lithuanians live.

– Mr Pavilionis, if the referendum is held on the same day as the parliamentary election, we would, probably, be running a rather huge risk of the referendum becoming a top subject in the election campaign. This, probably, would not be in the very best interests of the referendum.

Mr Pavilionis: Members of the Seimas are not as respected as the President. Therefore, the turnout in the parliamentary elections is significantly lower compared to the presidential ones. If we do continue to delay action, we could then work on the issue of the referendum to see how people react during the presidential election in 2019, which, by the way, has been declared as the year of the Lithuanians of the world. But we have to win. Losing is not an option. There are a million people living abroad. If we fail to connect this external global force with Lithuania, we may face grave dangers. However, if do succeed, we may well become a second Israel, Ireland or South Korea by tapping into our full potential. This would mean enhanced investments, innovation, education, connections, and, ultimately, protection from external threats.

– Perhaps, let us not go into discussion as to how to vote in the referendum. The laws allow both supporting and opposing the subject matter put to a referendum. In technical terms, though, Mr Baltaduonis, is it worth fearing the outcome of the referendum? There is more than a year left – 13 months, to be exact. If we pull ourselves together, we can surely mount a massive awareness-raising campaign within the remaining 13 months or even starting with September, can’t we?

Mr Baltaduonis: Just like Mr Pavilionis, I was also working on elections, especially the 2016 parliamentary elections, when the LWC promoted more active engagement in the upcoming elections.

– And the turnout was not that impressive at all.

Mr Baltaduonis: Exactly. I have learnt that it takes really hard work to get a vote and encourage a person to vote. We started our campaign with eight months left until the election, and we failed to at least double the number of votes. Over the last presidential election, 56% of the people came to vote. There are usually 4% of the ballot papers that are spoiled, because that is the way people simply express their protest. We would basically need 100% of all the voters arriving at the polls to vote ‘yes’. Opinion polls show that some 70% of the people support the idea of the referendum in general. However, the overwhelming public support fades once they are given the task of answering the question worded in the way it would be put to voters. Given this situation, going for a referendum becomes really difficult. After all, why waste millions and so much energy if the answer is already clear to us?

– On the other hand, Mr Pavilionis, the presidential election may attract more people to vote in the referendum and, likewise, the referendum may yield greater turnout in the presidential election. Therefore, the combined turnout may be much higher than expected. Emigration – much like once deportation was – is a phenomenon that nearly every family has had to face. It is a painful issue for many people. Therefore, parents whose children have emigrated or relatives of the emigrants could definitely find arguments to take part in the referendum.

Mr Pavilionis: So far, it has been up to the enthusiasts to keep things going. However, we have to understand that this is something each and every one of us should care about. If we start treating the referendum like this, I am certain we will win it. There is not a single family that has not been affected by emigration. There are 300,000 Lithuanians living in the UK with another 300,000 of them living in America. The figures are huge. If by supporting each other we try to do everything that is in our power, I am certain that we will win. Judging from the polls, there is not a single more unifying issue than this one, because 70–80% of the people support it.

– Ms Henke, the entire information space is also very conducive to the matter. A united mass media was involved in the campaign Idėja Lietuvai (Eng. Idea for Lithuania). Dual citizenship was one of the ideas. This would presumably demonstrate early engagement of the major mass media outlets to approach the issue of the referendum in a positive way, wouldn’t it?

Ms Henke: Our current slogan is “Unity not to be sacrificed for Citizenship”. We will claim victory in the referendum if top leaders of the country demonstrate personal commitment to the cause, i.e. if President Dalia Grybauskaitė continues to encourage people to vote in the referendum; if Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis commits himself to encouraging people to vote and explaining the importance of such action; and if Speaker of the Seimas Viktoras Pranckietis or Ramūnas Karbauskis make a personal commitment to follow suit.

– Politicians will always be politicians. In any case, the opinions of the leaders of society, including intellectuals, performers and sportsmen, are valuable in making such decisions.

Mr Pavilionis: I believe that in the end it is up to the unity of the people rather than that of the government. I think that, as always, we will unite one moment too late; we will mobilise to little funds; and we will lock horns with each other. Every single one of us has to feel the responsibility. Let us start encouraging everyone around us to express their opinion in the future referendum, which, I believe, will eventually be held, only that we will not be ready for it. If every single person is engaged, we will achieve complete success.

– Ms Henke, what kind of decisions do you see as necessary to be taken? Should it be a Seimas resolution on setting a specific date for the referendum? Should the decisions concern allocation of certain funds to a dedicated institution? Or should the decisions concern the wording of the statement to be put to a referendum?

Ms Henke: The wording is definitely very important. It will determine the outcome of the matter to be decided in the referendum. What is also important is a unified approach and understanding that it is a matter of personal importance for every individual.

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