Who could replace Nausėda? Grybauskaitė – one foot in a trap that could scare her away

Presidential Palace in Vilnius
Presidential Palace of the President of Lithuania @ Ruslanas Iržikevičius / the Lithuania Tribune

The presidential elections will take place in May 2024, but politicians do not seem to be rushing to fill the seat. This is normal. Nobody wants to fire off bullets too early. However, behind the scenes, hunches are already being shared as to who might be candidates for the presidential elections. Of course, this depends not only on a personal decision but also on the political puzzle, future plans, trying to assess how likely success is, and whether there is any benefit to be gained from failing to win, Eglė Samoškaitė writes in TV3.lt.

President Dalia Grybauskaitė and President Valdas Adamkus have each served two terms in office, but this is not the rule. Algirdas Brazauskas, for example, preferred action, so he did not run for a second term and became Prime Minister. At the time, the ousted President, Rolandas Paksas, was found to have broken the Constitution and his oath of office and was therefore no longer able to hold office.

It is common in Western democracies for directly elected heads of state to serve two consecutive terms in office. For example, US President Donald Trump failed to win a second term in office. This is rare because the incumbent President is highly visible and has access to publicity, making it easier for him to win.

But what will happen in Lithuania when Nausėda’s first term ends? Which candidates will Lithuanian citizens be able to choose from almost two years from now? How might the political field change before then? Might Lithuanians be disappointed with the current President, or will he be unstoppable?

Gitanas Nausėda

There is little doubt that the current President, who does not belong to any political party, will seek a second term in office, and this may be for several reasons. First, although not everything is going his way, Nausėda does not seem to be disillusioned with the role of the President in general, as A. Brazauskas was in his time. Public confidence in Mr Nausėda is also quite high, and no other politician has yet been able to catch up.

According to the Vilmorus public opinion poll, 60.3% of respondents trust Nausėda, while 21% do not. He also leads when people are asked who best represents their interests.

“He may also be encouraged by the fact that there are not many competitors, and when there are no competitors, why not because the ratings are still praising him, let’s call it that, and since there is no fierce competition, I think that yes, this may encourage him to participate. Another thing is that he himself is sending signals that he is projecting a second term, at least from what we can see now,” says Rima Urbonaitė, a lecturer at Mykolas Romeris University.

The political analyst says she does not think Nausėda would be deterred from a second term by disagreements with the current ruling majority. She even raised the possibility that if Nausėda were to win a second term in May 2024, he might decide to support a political party less directly in the October parliamentary elections, which might then be more favourable to the ruling majority.

“Nausėda has found a way to navigate: he tries to adapt to the public’s mood, and he sends various signals that he is more interested in what the person on the street thinks than what the media writes. As a result, we see some flirting with very broad groups and a desire to please the widest possible section of society. In other words, he has found a pattern in this whole system”, she believes.

Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen

She is currently the speaker of the Seimas, which is quite a rewarding position, as the head of Parliament is visible in public, but in general, the position is not as responsible as that of a prime minister or even a minister in an important field.

Although Ms Čmilytė-Nielsen does not talk about running for the presidency, it is common for political parties to raise their profile in presidential elections, which is why they put forward their own candidate. It is almost a question of honour. And at the moment, no better-known politician at the national level in the Liberal Alliance can properly compete for this position.

“I think that is exactly what the Liberals will do with Ms Čmilyte-Nielsen. That is the best they can offer at the moment. And for the party, it is a performance – not only a personal performance of Ms Čmilytė-Nielsen but also a performance of the party,” the political scientist believes.

In this case, the Liberals can still make their minds up about the value of running in the presidential elections because if Nausėda wins a second term, it would be challenging to run in the October parliamentary elections from the position of a blessing. On the other hand, the Conservatives did just that with Ingrida Šimonytė in the last elections. Although they lost the presidency, they won the Parliament and have the post of Prime Minister.

It should be remembered that Ms Čmilytė-Nielsen rehabilitated the party’s name quite well after one of the biggest corruption scandals, when officials found around €90 000 in possession of the former party chairman, Eligijus Masiulis, from businessman Raimonds Kurlianskis. The court of the first instance has so far acquitted all defendants.

However, Urbonaitė said that Čmilytė-Nielsen did not seem to be a potential winner: “I have serious doubts about Čmilytė-Nielsen’s potential. And I am not just relying on ratings. Her ratings are not very high, although she is in a fairly rewarding position. The President of the Parliament always has more room for manoeuvre and takes less responsibility. I am not saying that it is a futuristic position, but internally you realise how much that speaker can do different things in Parliament. Still, externally there is more of a futuristic quality. The position is rewarding, but I don’t see the potential yet.”

According to the speaker, the potential of this politician can only be strengthened by the fact that a more liberal voter will have no choice but to vote for Čmilytė-Nielsen. At the moment, it does not look as if the Laisvės Party has any strong candidates to offer, especially as the presidential election is open to those aged 40 and over.

The Conservatives’ black horse

In the last presidential election, the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats were represented by the current Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, but whether she would dare to do the same thing a second time is highly doubtful. First of all, it is uncomfortable to participate in presidential elections from the position of the Prime Minister, who is seen as the person responsible for everything. Especially as this Government is living from crisis to crisis – first the coronavirus pandemic, then the migrant crisis, then Russia’s war against Ukraine and now inflation. Secondly, it seems that the last time Šimonytė did not take part in the elections, she was too full or had higher expectations.

“A party of this size, one of the biggest in our party system, but not with candidates. This is the problem, and you cannot clone Šimonytė and put her in every possible position, especially since I do not believe that she would agree to run for the presidency a second time. I would be very surprised if she did. It seems to me that she is disappointed with her first participation and that she would project this as an even worse election campaign. Because then, at least, she was running from the opposition, and now she would be coming as a Prime Minister who had not been able to get out of the crisis. Basically, you are a crisis prime minister, your ratings are pretty bad, and naturally, you carry an even worse stigma than before”, Urbonaitė believes.

The political scientist says she would not be surprised if Šimonytė calls for a political leave after this premiership, as the office of Prime Minister is one of the most difficult in the country, and the times are extraordinary: the European security system has collapsed, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is leading to imported inflation, and nothing is going to change until the world’s countries find solutions to both the conflict and energy resources.

If Šimonytė is not in the elections, then a void will open up: the party’s chairman, Gabrielius Landsbergis, has abysmal ratings, Laurynas Kasčiūnas and Paulius Saudargas are rather niching Christian Democratic candidates, who are not likely to be voted for by the more liberal supporters of the party, Arvydas Anušauskas is popular at the moment because of the war in Ukraine, but this is not sustainable, and Monika Navickas is barely visible and hardly recognisable. “There may be some who are willing, but there is sometimes a long distance between willing and able,” says Urbonaitė.

By the way, the Conservatives have not had a candidate in the presidential elections for a long time and have supported the non-partisan Dalia Grybauskaitė.

Vilija Blinkevičiūtė

Suppose, in Nausėda’s case, there is little doubt that he will participate in the elections in the case of V. Blinkevičiūtė. However, in that case, it is very doubtful whether the politician will want to be the Social Democrats’ presidential candidate in 2024. The reason for this is simple – V. Blinkevičiūtė feels very comfortable in the European Parliament, and the elections to this European structure will take place in June of the same year.

The Social Democrats are saying privately that in the forthcoming presidential elections, the party will once again face an old problem: the party leader prefers to be comfortable in the European Parliament and does not want to give herself up to a fierce battle for the presidency. But, unfortunately, comfort sometimes overshadows the will to fight. This was also the case in the last presidential elections when the Social Democrats allowed Vytenis Andriukaitis to take part, even though they did not believe he would succeed.

“The question about V. Blinkevičiūtė is very interesting because I am very curious whether she will take part in those elections. And not only for the presidency. But whether she will take part in the European Parliament elections. So I would like to hear Ms Blinkevičiūtė’s answer at this point. If she wants to run in the European Parliament elections, then that opens up a lot of questions – does she want to go back to national politics at all?” – noted the political scientist.

The Social Democrats do not doubt that the real warrior of the party would be Juozas Olekas, who would be willing to run for the presidency for the sake of notoriety. Still, this politician is more likely to be a hard-working and sociable person than a popular or national mobiliser.

Blinkevičiūtė would be a perfect “fit” because she is currently the leader of the opposition party, so she is not responsible for anything, and she also has a comfortable position where she can assess everything that is happening in Lithuania “from the side”. “This could be their candidate. Because will the party agree to let Andriukaitis go again? I have some doubts. But in this case, it is important what V. Blinkevičiūtė herself thinks”, says R. Urbonaitė. 

At the same time, according to the party members, the mood of V. Blinkevičiūtė is leaning towards convenience. “For a long time, this politician has avoided being in national politics and helping the party. I have always called her the party’s star who shines but does not warm-up”, says R. Urbonaitė.

Saulius Skvernelis

This politician has already entered the presidential elections as Prime Minister but came third and did not make it to the second round. Skvernelis himself believes that his cards were shuffled by his then comrade Ramūnas Karbauskis, who announced shortly before the elections that if Skvernelis did not win the elections, the Greens would leave power. This was pure blackmail. Skvernelis has repeatedly complained that this move was not coordinated with him.

As a rule, politicians agree to take part in personal elections if they are sure of success, or if they consider it probable, and if it contributes to other objectives, such as raising public profile. For example, if a party thinks that they need a candidate in the presidential elections badly for the sake of the party’s visibility, Skvernelis may agree to run, but he will weigh it up.

This politician often makes decisions not when he wants to but when the situation dictates. For example, he did not particularly want to be Prime Minister but became one because there was not much else to do. He only broke away from the Greens when the situation became unmanageable – if it had not been for the formation of a separate group, the members of the Seimas would have been on their own. Skvernelis himself is not a model of activism.

Political analyst R. Urbonaitė stresses that health will play a role in deciding whether to run for the presidency. During his time as Prime Minister, Mr Skvernelis contracted an oncological disease, which fortunately receded after treatment. Health issues are, without exception, very important to everyone. A politician may not want to be involved in empty political discussions about what they will do as President when half of those discussions are worthless because the President, together with the Government, is directly responsible only for foreign policy, the formation of the judiciary, and the appointment of the heads of some law enforcement agencies.

“I think that Skvernelis will be the one who will take a tough look: is it worth it for me to do this? Because an election campaign requires a lot of physical effort and psychological effort, if you are not involved only symbolically,” says Urbonaitė.

If Skvernelis decides not to run, the Democratic Union “In the Name of Lithuania” could run another candidate. But there are not many of them. Virginijus Sinkevičius is too young and plans to finish his term as European Commissioner in a usual way. Urbonaitė says that the party could perhaps nominate Vytautas Bakas or Tomas Tomilinas, but they are not very popular.

Ramūnas Karbauskis or Aurelijus Veryga

The Lithuanian Greens Popular Union ranks have thinned out. The most prominent figures in the party at the moment are its chairman, Ramūnas Karbauskis, and the former Minister of Health, A. Veryga. Karbauskis is currently not a member of the Seimas and has decided to resign after losing the majority, while Veryga is preparing to run in the mayoral elections in Kaunas in the spring of 2023.

Karbauskis himself has not officially expressed his desire to run for the presidency but has had such aspirations in the past, albeit not publicly. “But who knows?” said Urbonaitė.

“R. Karbauskis will be so rested. He won’t be in the Seimas yet, because he isn’t now, so anything can happen. But in general, the ranks of the Greens and their supporters have thinned out, the party is marginalising itself very strongly, and it seems to me that Karbauskis is often shooting himself in the foot,” the political scientist said.

“But he can do it because the party will need attention, it will need visibility, and he has mastered some of the technologies that can help during the election campaign. So I wouldn’t rule it out, but the party is a radicalised party – I’m still trying to be politically correct when I say that. That radicalisation is obvious. The rhetoric itself is bad. When you construct rhetoric for a niche audience, that is good. But you have to realise that more people hear you. And if people constantly think that they are being treated as fools, as Karbauskis is systematically doing, then he is eliminating the possibility of attracting additional voters,” says Urbonaitė.

It is not clear about Veryga, as he will run in the Kaunas mayoral elections. The political scientist saw this politician as a better candidate for the presidential elections, as his rhetoric is not as radical as Karbauskis’, although his mindset is apparently similar. “If Veryga were to run, he could pick up Karbauskis’ votes and attract some other votes as well. So I would see him as a better option, but I don’t know which one of them is more willing,” the political scientist reflected. 

Ignas Vėgėlė

During the coronavirus pandemic, Ignas Vėgėlė, the former chairman of the Bar Council, gained the trust of some of the public. He rose to prominence with a speech at the Annual Meeting of the Bar, which was interpreted by many as being against the various pandemic restrictions or the coronavirus vaccine. However, the address itself was nuanced and cannot be described in unambiguous terms. Mr Vėgėlė is currently no longer Chairman of the Bar Council and is not involved in public policy.

Political analyst R. Urbonaitė said that she doubted that Mr Vėgėlė could be a strong candidate in the presidential elections as he is associated with an issue that has fallen by the wayside, namely the pandemic. “He is a hero of the days of the cavalry, but if the cavalry has gone into the background, then Vėgėlė is going with something that is no longer relevant at that time. It is in the past, and the voter votes for the future. So I would say that this would be the biggest disadvantage of this candidate because he would be in some ways a past candidate,” she believes.

Dalia Grybauskaitė

This politician served two consecutive terms as President of Lithuania from 2009 to 2019. The Constitution does not allow a president to serve more than two consecutive terms, but it does allow him to take office after a break.

Grybauskaitė is still popular, does not run for any office and knows how to enjoy the attention. Recently, the former Lithuanian leader has been making public appearances from time to time, giving Western leaders a hard time with her words and using harsh rhetoric against Russia, which has attacked Ukraine – something that some of the public likes. She looks like a politician who does not mince her words but tells the truth. Just a clear contrast to the cautious, grey bureaucrats.

“I sincerely doubt that she would do it again. But the popularity she retains, how the media reacts to every statement, and how the media pick up every word she says could be a lure. Such a person may realise that her popularity has not gone anywhere, that some people even feel nostalgic for her. I would, of course, be surprised in human terms, but it is clear that Mrs Grybauskaitė feels very well, feels strong, has enough energy, and has never been lacking in ambition. And she is a person who needs to be active,” Urbonaitė said.

But there is a bit of a psychological trap here. Grybauskaitė is used to winning. I wonder whether she would like to end her political career with a defeat, and that is a possibility. The risk of defeat after years of victory may deter her from running, even if she is thinking about it.

“What would that mean? It would mean I end my political career by losing the presidential election. And that would be a big blow. Just the thought of such a risk could be a deterrent, especially given her character. Achievements and victories throughout her life have practically accompanied her. And here there is a risk of losing”, says the political scientist.

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