The price of independence: could V. Ušackas‘ turn away from his party become an electoral fiasco?

Vygaudas Ušackas
DELFI / Domantas Pipas

With former diplomat Vygaudas Ušackas announcing his participation in the presidential elections, political scientists has spoken to all agree that Conservative support would raise the politician’s chances to enter the second round of elections, however it would appear that V. Ušackas is distancing himself from the party and will seek the post of head of state as an independent candidate. In such a case, analysts believe, on one hand, he could draw a wider circle of voters, however it would be difficult to replicate the success story of Dalia Grybauskaitė, writes.

V. Ušackas, who announced his participation in the presidential elections on Wednesday, did not clearly state whether he would pursue the office if he were to not obtain the backing of the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD), albeit emphasised that he would seek to be a representative of all people in Lithuania.

“I will participate in the elections as an ambassador of all the people of Lithuania. Regardless of party affiliation, political views, faith or ethnicity, I will seek to be your president, the president of a winning Lithuania,” the conservative stated.

On the eve of V. Ušackas launching his presidential campaign, the TS-LKD presidium discussed the politician’s behaviour after he was accused of assembling an electoral team, which circumvented the party. That said, the presidium did not make any decision. It decided to wait on the party’s branches nominating their favourites for the presidential election.

Presidential ambition wins out

Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) docent, political scientist Kęstutis Girnius told that V. Ušackas’ launch of his presidential campaign means that he will seek election even if he fails to obtain TS-LKD support. The political scientist agreed that it is a risky move, but also an understandable one.

“V. Ušackas has to risk, he cannot wait like S. Skvernelis, he cannot wait like D. Grybauskaitė did nine years ago, on arriving from Brussels and knowing that the crown is reserved for her. V. Ušackas must do something, this way he advertised his campaign launch because the media was awaiting it. For a time, he has won a portion of the public’s attention,” K. Girnius explained.

According to him, V. Ušackas likely still has hopes to receive support from his fellow party members in the TS-LKD primaries, however according to the expert, the politician’s presidential ambition is stronger, thus he chose to not wait.

“His hope is to win Conservative support, but I believe that the chances of this are low because he entered the party recently and likely only in order to run for president and seek the party’s backing,” K. Girnius mused.

Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) lecturer, political scientist Rima Urbonaitė echoed K. Girnius. According to her, V. Ušackas, who has long ceased concealing presidential ambitions, confirmed it on Wednesday, even if suspecting that his step irked the TS-LKD.

“I believe that he is viewing his chances to be elected Conservative candidate in the primaries quite cautiously. In other terms, if you still hesitate, others could be disappointed in you and things will get more difficult. Thus, I believe that today he is pre-empting matters and in this way, is taking up independence, though I would believe that through this declaration, his chances of winning the primaries have lessened. From what I have seen of the Conservatives’ reaction to V. Ušackas, it is not positive and they are not fascinated by this independence, separation from party processes,” R. Urbonaitė stated.

According to her, V. Ušackas sent the Conservatives a clear signal that he will run for president even without party backing.

“He is sending the Conservatives a message – “I am going and if you wish, then back me,”” the analyst stated.

Conservative backing with a clause

Political scientist K. Girnius pointed out that in terms of potential TS-LKD support for V. Ušackas in the presidential race, the party’s backing would guarantee the politician a greater number of sympathisers.

“V. Ušackas would have an organisation because the Conservatives and the “Farmers” are the only parties, which span all of Lithuania. The parties have branches in Utena, Joniškis, Pasvalys and elsewhere. If V. Ušackas is elected in the primaries and the Conservatives have their own candidate for the first time in three presidential elections, considering that there will also be elections in 2020 as well, I believe that the party would seek to support its candidate. If V. Ušackas is the candidate, then likely half the Conservative voters, even if he does not appeal to them, would still vote for him,” the analyst explained.

R. Urbonaitė mused that Conservative support would raise V. Ušackas’ chances to enter the second round of the elections, however she emphasised that the head of state position will go to a politician, who will draw broad public groups and in this regard, TS-LKD support could prove problematic.

“Knowing, how many people vote for the Conservatives in Seimas elections, the impression arises that their support creates good premises to enter the second round of the presidential elections. But the support of a broad public base is needed in the presidential elections and we know that the Conservatives struggle to expand their circle of voters, we often talk about a “ceiling” in their support, which is difficult to breach,” R. Urbonaitė stated.

According to her, due to this, V. Ušackas has no other way out than to seek to expand his potential electorate, emphasising his independence from political powers.

“It cannot be dismissed that V. Ušackas will seek support from other parties, though I think he, same as G. Nausėda, will state that the people’s support, rather than parties is more important,” the political scientist said.

One disadvantage

K. Girnius did not conceal that in his opinion V. Ušackas’ chances to win the presidential race are especially humble.

“He is not a famous politician in Lithuania, did not live in the country for many years due to his ambassadorship in the USA, ambassadorship in the EU, being the EU’s representative in Moscow, thus he has not become a familiar figure in Lithuania, he does not have clear positions on domestic policy, where he could draw voters one way or another.

If V. Ušackas will run for president without Conservative support, he will not have a political organisation, will not have people in the rural areas to campaign for him. I think that V. Ušackas has good relations with businessmen, who can support him, but they calculate – they will grant more money to those, who have greater chances to win,” the VU TSPMI docent said.

According to him, the pro-Russian politician label often attached to V. Ušackas should not be overstated, however on the other hand it could deter Conservative votes.

“If S. Skvernelis declares that he will run for president, if G. Nausėda will declare he will run for president and if I. Šimonytė won the Conservatives’ support, V. Ušackas’ chances would be exceedingly slim,” K. Girnius explained, adding that he does not see V. Ušackas in the second round of elections.

When asked about V. Ušackas’ odds in the race to become head of state, R. Urbonaitė noted that the presidential elections are greatly influenced by not only party support, but also by the candidates themselves, their image, their characteristics.

“V. Ušackas, having made a career in diplomacy, is certainly a presidential, not a prime minister type of person, but the question is whether he could really shoot to the top of the ratings,” the political scientist commented.

She stated that she noticed words in V. Ušackas’ rhetoric, which should appeal to the public – uniting, turning back to Lithuania. According to her, it would appear that he is seeking to appeal to as wide an electorate as possible.

“If V. Adamkus was pro-American, D. Grybauskaitė – pro-European Union, then the question is posed, whether there will be someone who will turn back to Lithuania. We can see many aspects of this in V. Ušackas’ speech and this could draw Eurosceptic. From what I have heard, V. Ušackas is aiming at a very broad audience, is seeking to appeal to many and not say anything that could deter anyone. The approach so far is rather abstract,” R. Urbonaitė shared her insight.

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