Will Lithuania elect its first new generation president?

Dr. Agnia Grigas
DELFI / Andrius Ufartas

As Lithuanians are getting ready to vote for their next President on May 12, the race is intensifying between the three leading candidates Ingrida Šimonytė, Gitanas Nausėda, and Saulius Skvernelis. Ms. Šimonytė has taken the lead in the polls and she also edges out her competition when compared for experience and qualifications in public service, foreign policy expertise, and leadership strengths. A lot will be at stake for Lithuania in the coming years and it will need a new generation leader up for the task

Lithuania navigates a complex international environment with rising populism and Euroscepticism, weakening transatlantic alliances, a revisionist Russia, continuing war in Ukraine, and growing tensions between the West and China. Domestically, the Lithuanian population demands higher living standards and a reduction of income inequality as society faces divergent interests among its different segments and suffers from persistent emigration and brain drain.

Public Service

The candidates’ backgrounds highlight their vastly different levels of experience in politics and public service. Economist Nausėda stands out for his lack of political experience. He has spent his career in banking and has had limited public service involvement outside starting his career at the Lithuanian state bank Lietuvos Bankas. Meanwhile, Mr. Skvernelis has been serving as Prime Minister since 2016. After a career in law enforcement, he entered politics in 2014 as Minister of Interior when the newly revived political party Farmers and Greens won a surprise victory in the Parliament.

A member of parliament member since 2016, Šimonytė benefits from the longest and most diverse experience serving the country. She started her career as a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance in the early 2000s as the country was preparing to join the European Union. She served as the Minister of Finance from 2009 to 2012 during the the global financial crisis that hard hit Lithuania and the other Baltic States. Her diverse and extensive public service background in different branches of government gives Šimonytė a solid foundation for implementing her vision and ideas as well as navigating the Lithuanian state apparatus. Yet she still remains a fresh face on the political scene–something that the Lithuanian voters often favor in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections.

Nonpartisanship

In order to ensure a system of checks and balances in the government, the Lithuanian constitution stipulates that the President must not be a party member even though political parties may raise candidates for the presidency. A nonpartisant President is more likely to serve the whole population and unify rather divide society rather than work for political party interests.

All three leading candidates are not members of any political parties. However, due to their different level of experience in government (or lack thereof) their ties to political parties differ. Mr. Nausėda currently has no formal ties any political party. Ms. Šimonytė is not a member of a party, but is supported in the elections by the conservative Homeland Union-Cristian Democtrat party.

Here, the candidacy of Mr. Skvernelis becomes somewhat problematic. Though he is not a member of a political party, as the leader of the current government and Prime Minister, Skvernelis is supported and financed by the rulling Farmers and Greens political party. If Skvernelis wins the Presidency, the government and the presidency would be tied to and dependent on the same political party. This could create an unfavorable situation for Lithuania’s politics, weakening the “checks and balances” system at the very highest level of government and could throw into question the political impartiality of the presidency.

Foreign Policy

As a parliamentary and semi-presidential republic, Lithuania has a mixed government system where the President serves as the head of state and the Prime Minister is the head of government. The President’s most important responsibilities center on foreign policy. In a difficult neighborhood and a complex geopolitical environment, foreign policy becomes an even more critical and challenging task for the next Lithuanian President.

While foreign policy is not the strongest suit of the leading candidates, here Šimonytė stands out among her competition.

Prime Minister Skvernelis is a player in Lithuania’s domestic politics and has demonstrated limited interest in foreign policy or knowledge of foreign languages. His visit to Israel was critiqued by current President Dalia Grybauskaitė for having “done more damage than good.” More so than his main competitors he favors improving dialogue with Russia. Nausėda has had a more international career having studied in Germany and worked as an advisor to international banks. However, largely due to his lack of political background, he also lacks foreign policy experience.

Šimonytė benefits from her experience and expertise working as the Minister of Finance representing Lithuanian interests internationally during the global financial crisis. From 2015 she has served on the board on European Central Bank where she gained further experience into the workings of European Union countries’ financial and political economic relations.

In diplomacy, key personality traits and a healthy dose of common sense can be instrumental. Šimonytė’s charisma and approachability would help her build diplomatic relations while her experience and pragmatism would serve to guard Lithuania’s interests.

While Euroscepticism and populism is on the rise in Europe, Šimonytė has taken a clear position on the European Union’s importance to Lithuania. She has advocated that Lithuania “has to be open to those ideas that strenghten the EU.” As a pro-Europe candidate, Šimonytė recalls other new European politicians such as France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Slovakia’s new President Zuzana Caputova. Among the Lithuanian candidates Šimonytė has also most clearly articulated her principled and pragmatic position regarding foreing policy towards Russia.

Populism and Europe

As populist trends shook up Britain, France, Poland, Italy and others in Europe and across the Atlantic, they have not yet raised a significant challenge to Lithuania or the other two Baltic States. Yet populism and Euroscepticism is only likely to grow. Forecasts indicate that during the next European Parliamentary elections, held on 23-26 May the mainstream EU political parties such as Christian Democrats or Social Democrats will win less than 50% of seats loosing some votes to new, Eurosceptic, and populist forces.

In this context of decreasing voter trust in European and national institutions, Lithuania will need leadership that can withstand such pressures. At the same time, a new era of politics requires leadership that is approachable with an ability to forge bonds and dialogue with voters, civil servants, and politicians. These trying times would be difficult for a political novice or a dusty old-era politician. 

Šimonytė here stands out as someone who has not played to populism but is also perceived as approachable and communicative. Her ability to balance these traits with experience without falling into the traps of populism or elitism will be invaluable.

In contrast, Nausėda’s positions and style are more difficult to discern because he is new to the political scene and because he favors cautious moderation in his rhetoric seemingly to appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate. Meanwhile, Skvernelis and his government of Farmers and Greens rhetoric is intended to appeal to the everyday voters rather than city elites and is marked by a sprinkling of nationalism, Euroscepticism and populism.

New Generation Politician

Comparing Šimonytė, Nausėda, and Skvernelis is not easy. Though all three are close enough in age they create an impression that they are of different generations or even of different era’s of Lithaunia’s political life. Here some may want to compare Šimonytė to the current President Grybauskaitė, but Šimonytė stands out among other candidates or other Lithuanian political figures.

Šimonytė is the first new generation Lithuanian leading politician. She is Western, pro-European, and a Transatlanticist. Her youth and approachable charisma is also characteristic of Europe’s new generation of politicians.  She entered Lithuania’s political life just a decade ago during one of the most difficult times for the state. Šimonytė works to demonstrate “that politics can be transparent, clean, clear, and oriented towards the many segments of society.” Her style is a reflection of her experience as a public servant, rather than a traditional politician, and she has sought to serve her country rather than a political party of a particular government institution.

Who Lithuania will choose come May 12th remains to be seen with Šimonytė and Nausėda leading neck and neck in the polls and Skvernelis trailing close behind. Both Šimonytė and Nausėda are likely compete for many of the same electoral segments: younger, educated, pro-European, urban voters. What distinguishes them is Šimonytė’s public service and political experience while Nausėda is a fresh face on the Lithuanian political scene.

Ukraine just elected a political newcomer, actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, as its president.  Estonia’s new President Kersti Kaljulaid was an experienced state official but largely a political unknown. Latvia opted for an experienced public servant and politician Raimonds Vejonis as its president.

How Lithuania will vote remains to be seen in May. Given the complex geopolitical context, populist and Eurosceptic tendencies in the EU, the hopes of the Lithuanian public and the responsibilities of the presidency, Šimonytė is the best prepared and best suited candidate to the Lithuanian presidency.

Dr. Agnia Grigas is a geopolitical economist and political risk expert. She is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of “The New Geopolitics of Natural Gas” and “Beyond Crimea: The New Russian Empire”.  Follow her @AgniaGrigas and Grigas.net

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