SocDems on the brink – taking a step forward or a step backward?

SocDems' public debates
DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

The Lithuanian Social Democrat Party (LSDP) will be holding direct elections for the post of its chairman in a month for the first time ever. While there are seven candidates, three are seen as the most likely to win – MEP Zigmantas Balčytis, Vilnius vice Mayor Gintautas Paluckas and Minister of Economy Mindaugas Sinkevičius. Which of them will become the chairman of the largest party in Lithuania? Or perhaps an unexpected new Social Democrat leader will appear, asked?

Three favourites

One of the three most likely candidates, M. Sinkevičius, says that the party has to return to its fundamental, social democrat, values and be the party that forms agenda and is not simply the junior partner.

“For one thing, we have to return to the values we often declare, but sometimes, when we have political power in hand, forget to accomplish. Especially so given today’s political atmosphere – what are the recommendations from the European Commission? Massive income inequality is one of the critical elements. Truth be told in this regard we are we are in the top five of EU states. Social inequality, income inequality this is one of the core Social Democrat topics, thus we have to truly think how to help the working man, those earning little. How do we help public sector employees; not the bureaucrats, but the teachers, police officers and medical personnel? We have to be a partner that forms agenda, rather than the junior partner of the “Farmers”,” Sinkevičius says.

Another candidate, G. Paluckas, says that in his opinion the party has to firstly adjust its image, become more democratic and open. Change the heads speaking for the party for 26 years.
“The first thing to do is that we really need to fix our image. In terms of image, our leaders who have spoken for the party for some 26 years now, they are the same people. People have told us many times already, signalled that we need to change. Secondly, there is too little democracy in our party structures, we have a very closed and centralised organisation, this is why we need openness. Thirdly – relations with the public, we will only build trust and links with the public in a good and stable manner when we finally do that which we set out to do in our programmes. Our programmes are good and appealing; social democratic ideas, European leftist ideas just that we somehow fail to accomplish them,” Paluckas says.

A part of the old party nomenclature support MEP Z. Balčytis, who has lost the struggle for party chairmanship several times now. Political scientists say that the party needs greater change and this can only be expected from the younger candidates.

“Z. Balčytis is actually representing the same old traditional SocDem party – he has run for office in various elections already, the presidential ones and party chairman ones. It would actually be the continuation of the same track, just with a different face, thus I believe that we should not expect any transformations in the party with Z. Balčytis at the head,” says political scientist Tomas Janeliūnas.

Stains on a candidate’s reputation

Political scientists say that of the two younger candidates, G. Paluckas promises the most reform and is acutely critical of the Saulius Skvernelis cabinet, as he is a representative of municipal, not national scale politics. G. Paluckas also has grievances because he did not become a cabinet minister. According to unofficial data, he was also barred from becoming one due to negative information provided by intelligence agencies.

Furthermore, his biography has stains. G. Paluckas has been convicted based on corruption charges. This is something observed by political scientists and analysts as well.

“There are many politicians in Lithuania with shadows cast on their pasts or at least most have something akin to that. Perhaps not always validly, but often so, thus I believe that this argument is one of those used by his opponents and of course if he is elected, it will be used by representatives of other parties when they discuss with the Social Democrats,” says Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) Director Ramūnas Vilpišauskas.

“The question is whether he will manage to convince everyone because he also has certain stains on his political career. He had court convictions and other suspicions, that he is also related to relatives abusing privileges and such. Thus in this regard it would appear there is no ideal candidate, but political decisions are ones based on what compromise a candidate will be able to convince the other members of the party,” says political scientist T. Janeliūnas.

G. Paluckas himself claims that the court ruling is almost an advantage for him.

“Yes, it is a political disability of mine, but as often happens in nature, nature compensates for one disability by strengthening other capacities. As such every day I have to be 10 times faster, wiser and better just so I could match the other candidates whose only advantage is perhaps that they do not have such a stain on their biography,” Vilnius vice Mayor G. Paluckas explains.

Lacking experience in national politics?

Another candidate M. Sinkevičius is disdained for his youth and lack of experience in high level politics.

“Firstly – it is not only youthfulness that is important, this is particularly older colleagues who say that we should not chase trends of youth. I say that it is not my youth that I should be voted for. I say that I should be voted for because I have obtained real competence in municipal life. What are the nearest elections that await us? The municipal ones. I have earned people’s trust, which is the most important, not “likes” on Facebook, not followers on social media, but the trust of real people, when 12 thousand people elected me in Jonava. I have created a certain success story in Jonava and I would like to repeat it in Lithuania. The Social Democrats are the dominant power in the political life of Jonava. I believe that I am prepared to make it so we would become the dominant power in the Lithuanian context,” says Minister of Economy M. Sinkevičius.

Social Democrat popularity not rising

Sociologists say that the party is currently standing in place. Its ratings are practically not changing. Of the three candidates, only one is listed in the ratings.

“The Minister of Economy is in the ratings, he is not very well known, but he has a positive balance. Well, he is the only to enter the list, but we have another question, where people themselves say who best represents their interests. Of the 42 people mentioned, by at least three respondents of a thousand, well, not a single one of them is there,” says sociologist Vladas Gaidys.

According to the sociologist, the victor may end up not being chosen by their fame, but how actively the candidate visits the party branches. Currently people are more interested in Z. Balčytis and M. Sinkevičius.

“Currently of the three it is likely that Z. Balčytis and the minister who receive more attention. If we look at even mentions on Google, they have over a hundred thousand more mentions than any other candidate. It should also be said that the things we have on our form, even if it appears in the media, this fame does not automatically translate into a result. In this case it is very important how party members will vote and here a certain factor comes into play – the more people you visit, shake hands, perhaps twice, the more supporters you will have in those places, the regions. That activity is very important,” says sociologist V. Gaidys.

The LSDP chairman elections are to be held in early April.

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