While the Liberals flounder, the Conservatives seek to get rid of entrenched stigma

Vitalijus Gailius, Gabrielius Landsbergis, Eugenijus Gentvilas
DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

The Liberal Movement can now only forget the positions it once had because it will long have to seek to escape the shadow of Eligijus Masiulis and when his trial begins, the harm will only increase, political analysts tell LRT.lt. Meanwhile the Conservatives are nearly threefold as popular as the Liberals and are trying to improve their image. Political analysts are convinced that their leader’s meeting with the Prime Minister is an attempt to show that they are not arrogant and closed off.

Lietuvos Rytas commissioned a survey from the public opinion and market research centre Vilmorus, which was performed on February 10-15. The results show that 4.3% of voters would support the Liberal Movement (LS), as compared to 5% in January. Meanwhile the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) would receive support from 12.1% of voters, compared to 10.4% in January.

The ratings were not promising for the Liberals even prior to the Seimas elections – there were doubts the party will exceed the 5% vote barrier. Nevertheless the LS managed to obtain a total of 14 mandates. Immediately on beginning work in Seimas, the Liberals began demonstrating that they could be no worse a voice of the opposition than the TS-LKD; a conflict arose between the two parties due to the choice of opposition leader.

LS frontrunner Eugenijus Gentvilas has explained earlier to LRT.lt that the time to call the Liberals the little brothers of the Conservatives has passed.

“In the previous term we did not sign a coalition agreement with the Conservatives on joint work in the opposition. If anyone views us as the little brothers, let them be careful with such views,” Gentvilas said last October.

Expecting more from Remigijus Šimašius

The head of Vilmorus Vladas Gaidys states that it is hard to say what good the LS has done lately. Meanwhile the other centre right party – TS-LKD – re-elected its chairman, was visible in the news media.

“The Conservative chairman candidates toured Lithuania, were visible and heard over radio and television. Their ratings grew somewhat. Speaking of the Liberals, I would point to Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, but perhaps he views and positions himself as primarily the city’s mayor,” the sociologist mused.

According to Gaidys, the LS was always viewed as a team of like-minded friends. “Next to E. Masiulis you had Gintaras Steponavičius and the rest. Most voters lately seek a more youthful team. It would appear that the scandal last May had a psychological impact, perhaps the moods that existed in the party are no more,” he commented.

Mažvydas Jastramskis, a political scientist at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science says that the LS lacks structural premises to rise up again. He explains that political leaders are very important in Lithuanian politics and the LS’ rise to the top was strongly linked to E. Masiulis.

“The Liberals’ performance in the Seimas elections was a little miracle, but they will have to bear the shadow of the scandal for a few years yet. R. Šimašius has to position himself as a national leader because currently he is only a regional leader. <…> The impression arises that their good performance in the elections was based on a lack of choice for those unwilling to vote for the incumbents or the “Farmers”, or the Conservatives, rather than any belief that the party renewed itself after the scandal,” Jastramskis explained.

He points out that Lithuania is overall not a favourable country for liberal ideology, stating that “Lithuania has significant citizen’s disappointment with vast income gaps between those earning the least and those earning the most, as well as the rise in prices. Thus the Liberals have little to say – they are seen as supporters of mid to large business and market liberalisation. They had a chance to become popular with E. Masiulis. That opportunity is gone and it is unclear how long they will have to seek one. R. Šimašius‘ situation is difficult – he has to manage Vilnius, while leading the party.”

Political analyst Indrė Makaraitytė agrees that R. Šimašius’ circumstances are difficult and no-one else wishes to lead the party.

“We have someone to compare R. Šimašius to. The former head of Vilnius, Artūras Zuokas was a communications professional. He managed to make any achievement of his, even the most uninteresting one, into an advantage. R. Šimašius is different. He perhaps hopes that his works will bring him through, but so far he has little to boast of. If he has any achievements, they aren’t visible, systemic. The Liberals also lack a leader in Seimas. On the other hand any leader who would take up bringing the LS back to the surface would risk burning in the flames of E. Masiulis’ case,” I. Makaraitytė told LRT.lt.

Until E. Masiulis’ case is not concluded, the crisis will doggedly pursue the party, she notes. “It is unclear how many more members of the party are related to E. Masiulis’ case. Perhaps more will surface. I think the LS have entered a vigilant state – they want a breakthrough, but this is prevented by the court case. When things reach the courts, I believe the Liberals will suffer great harm,” the political analyst said.

The Conservatives now want coalition with the “Farmers”?

Meanwhile the TS-LKD re-elected Gabrielius Landsbergis as its chairman a week ago. During the direct elections, 62% of the party supported the incumbent.

Last week a little publicised meeting between Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis and G. Landsbergis occurred. During it, G. Landsbergis claimed, two questions were discussed – S. Skvernelis’ participation in the upcoming Conservative congress and “impressions from the Eurovision preliminaries”.

M. Jastramskis points out that G. Landsbergis’ meeting with one of the most popular politicians in Lithuania is a way to improve his party’s image – “You can show that you are not arrogant and are with someone popular.”

V. Gaidys also notes that this meeting with the popular Prime Minister can bring benefit to the Conservatives. “I remember 1999, the heyday of Rolandas Paksas. He passed the Liberal Movement somewhere in the corridors – the LS’ ratings rose immediately. In this case I believe it is important that it is not arrogance or conceit that is being demonstrated, something that was perhaps sometimes present. Transparency benefits G. Landsbergis. I believe that the Conservatives want to become a second choice party that the voters of other parties can vote for,” the sociologist said.
Nevertheless, according to M. Jastramskis, the Conservatives have a systemic problem – most people view them negatively.

“Even Conservative voters sometimes view other parties better than the voters of those parties view the Conservatives. The fact is such that they have a long time stigma in their image. Many people recall the collective farms and Mažeikių Nafta and it is hard to escape, generations have to change. On the other hand they cannot close off and say that they are the only party and cannot enter coalition with anyone.

If they remain in the opposition all the time, 8 years will have passed. Perhaps they are trying to drive a wedge between the “Farmer” leaders in hopes of that party fracturing. During the initial stages of coalition formation, the Conservatives were decisively against joining the Farmer and Greens Union, but now people have appeared who could be talked to. S. Skvernelis is one of them,” M. Jastramskis told LRT.lt.

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