The popularity of two politicians – a mystery for political scientists: could they become president?

Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen
Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

The political climate is increasingly marked by rating fluctuations. Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, the speaker of the Seimas and leader of the Liberal Movement, who was among the most popular politician just a year ago, is now watching the public’s trust decline, and she is joined by several other national political figures. But for some politicians, according to experts, a positive assessment is guaranteed – they are intriguing and this is the key to a favourable perception among the population. Andresa Repšytė writes in TV3.lt.

Back in May, sociologist Vladas Gaidys thought that if she continues to be associated with the position of speaker of the Seimas, rather than with the party she leads, V. Čmilytė-Nielsen will surpass the president in popularity.

This does not seem to be likely for the time being, as the ratings of the head of parliament and the head of state differ considerably. Since the end of September, the favourable perceptions of Gitanas Nausėda have not changed significantly – according to a poll conducted by Baltijos Tyrimai on behalf of the news agency ELTA, 65% of the population currently have a favourable opinion of the president, while 26% of the respondents say that they have a negative opinion of the head of state.

However, recent opinion polls show a marked change in the popularity of Ms Čmilytė-Nielsen. In just over a month, her support has dropped by 4 percentage points, with 37% of the population having a favourable opinion of the leader of the Liberal Movement and 53% having a negative opinion of the politician.

It is worth noting that since the post-election period, the number of people who approve of her has dropped by double digits – 15 percentage points. According to Baltijos Tyrimai data from November 2020, 52% of respondents had a favourable opinion of Ms Čmilytė-Nielsen and 31% an unfavourable opinion.

Has she lost her role by supporting controversial ideas?

According to Vytautas Magnus University professor and political scientist Lauras Bielinis, it is not difficult to explain the drop in Čmilytė-Nielsen’s ratings. History shows that the ratings of the speaker of the Seimas are an unfortunate matter – the majority of the public pays attention to the actions of the Government and the president, while the speaker of the Seimas remains in the shadows, so it makes no sense to react to the fluctuation of her rating as speaker.

“These are short-term things that do not move the public,” he stresses.

“V. Čmilytė-Nielsen had high ratings in the post-election situation, because she was in a way presented as a chess player, as young, as upright, and now she is just the speaker of the Parliament. This is a formal position, in relation to which the public is neutral. For this reason, this fall, which is considerable over the whole period, will probably not have any significance for her fate,” adds Bielinis.

Saulius Spurga, associate professor at Mykolas Romeris University (MRU), echoes him, pointing out that it is difficult to say what people expect from the speaker of the Seimas, which is why they are more focused on the Seimas and not on the speaker’s work as a politician.

“We have already noticed over the years that the person who becomes the speaker, although not directly elected by the people, receives a lot of trust and good ratings. So there is a puzzle here.

Just as a politician gets trust, if we know that the Seimas as an institution has low ratings, the ratings of the speaker of the Seimas fall accordingly. It depends on the general situation in society and on the issues on the table, on the work of the coalition,” he said.

And this year, the Seimas has raised a wide range of issues, controversial issues and proposals, such as the Partnership Law, the decriminalisation of drugs, which Čmilytė-Nielsen has voiced support for.

“She actively participated in them [the debates], defended that perspective. They incited much discussion and were viewed as controversial, and as a result, she partly lost her role, her position, her role as a mediator. One could say that this is also the reason why her ratings are lower,” the political analyst notes.

Political analysts doubt whether, with the support she currently holds, she would be able to compete in the next presidential elections and win the people’s approval, and there is one serious reason for this: she is the leader of the Liberal Movement.

“Čmilytė is the leader of a party, the leader of a party that is not very popular, not even in the top three. If she were to run for the presidency as a party leader, it would immediately lower her ratings. The experience of the last presidential elections shows that people elect people who are not partisan. That alone would reduce her chances, not to even mention her programme,” says Spurga.

Skvernelis is intriguing and this proves fascinating 

The sky is bright in the political ratings for Saulius Skvernelis, the ex-prime minister and the prefect of the Seimas group “In the Name of Lithuania”, which was created this autumn. His ratings have risen the fastest in the last month, up by 5 percentage points.

Currently, 52% of the population have a favourable opinion of Skvernelis and 38% think the opposite.

According to political analysts, it is not difficult to clearly identify these reasons for the rise in ratings. They also predict his rising popularity in the future.

“S. Skvernelis broke away from the “Farmers” and tried to make the most of his opportunities, not only by founding a group [in parliament], but also a party, as well as by speaking out very clearly on various issues and having his own position. In the political arena, this position favours him, he can be a critic, and he is able to attract people’s attention,” said Spurga.

“We see him actively working to separate himself from Karbauskis and the “Farmers”. [….] The creation of his own party creates a kind of expectation, an intrigue, which naturally focuses attention on Skvernelis, and everyone is now waiting for his next move.

I think that when the decision is made and we see the action of establishing the party – the party congress, the programme and other things – we will see an even bigger rise of both Skvernelis and the party itself,” predicts L. Bielinis.

S. Spurga also does not rule out this possibility: “Of course, he has limits – some people will never support him and for this reason, I would be very sceptical about his chances of becoming president, but he is one of the most popular politicians, he is and he will be for a long time.”

The ratings of the country’s other politicians have not changed positively over the month. Only Virginijus Sinkevičius, an EU commissioner who previously held a ministerial portfolio in Skvernelis’ Government, saw his rating rise by 3 percentage points. In October, he was viewed favourably by 53% and unfavourably by 23%.

According to Mr Bielinis, it is difficult to pinpoint the reason for the rise in the commissioner’s ratings, as the public hardly pays attention to the structures of the European Union and the people who work there.

“Sinkevičius, it has to be admitted, is quite active in Lithuania’s information field – every day we see his interviews, assessments, comments and the fact that he is active in our skies and has attracted attention in this respect,” he says.

Trust in Veryga is also dissolving

The poll also shows the diminishing ratings of the former health minister, Aurelijus Veryga of the “Farmers”. There are 3 percentage points fewer people who have a favourable opinion of him than in the poll conducted a month earlier. According to the latest polls, 38% of respondents have a favourable opinion of A. Veryga, while 51% say they have the opposite opinion.

The politician’s ratings, which he accumulated as a minister, have already “worn out”, according to political analysts interviewed by news portal tv3.lt. They also predict a further decline in the popularity of the MP.

“Today, perceptions of Veryga are more related to his presence as a politician in the Seimas, as an individual politician, rather than to the control of the pandemic. For this reason, Veryga should certainly expect a further drop in his ratings, as his ministerial reserve should already be depleted,” says Bielinis.

Mr Spurga also links the politician’s decline in popularity to the support for the Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union: “The party’s popularity is declining, and one of its faces is also declining. Of course, in the beginning, when they were standing in opposition to the Government when it was said that the Government was doing bad things, it seemed attractive. But you see, the criticism has become monotonous – bad over and over. When will there be good? Probably not many people know, including Veryga. These negative assessments are increasing as the general disillusionment with the party increases,” he says

The survey took place between 15 October and 5 November 2021. The survey covered 1009 Lithuanians (aged 18 and over) by personal interview and was carried out at 114 sampling points. The margin of error of the survey results is up to 3.1%.

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