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Kęstutis Girnius: Slouching toward the elections

Kęstutis Girnius
Kęstutis Girnius
Šaltinis: The Baltic Times
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Although Lithuanians will go to the polls to elect a new parliament in less than six weeks, the election campaign is generating all the excitement of a snail race. There are no major rallies or meetings aimed at mobilizing supporters, door-to-door canvassing of voters is lethargic, public ads for candidates are few and far in between. Once again, Lithuania’s voters will be treated to a seemingly endless spectacle of political talking heads.

A minor Lithuanian television station, Lrytas.tv, has begun an eight-part series of debates among the leaders of the five major parties. That the party leaders have consented and are participating in the debates shows that they cannot conceive of a more profitable way of spending eight Sunday evenings in a row. Such lack of imagination also reflects badly on their campaign staffs, who are clearly incapable of coming up with more innovative ways of reaching voters.

The Chief Election Commission has urged voters to write in and suggest questions for the debates and discussions that will be sponsored by the national radio and national television station. A prize will be offered to those who come up with the best questions. Perhaps the contest is a way of trying to foster interest in the coming election. There is a more pessimistic and, I would say, more realistic interpretation, namely that it is an almost desperate attempt to spice up the legally-mandated but desultory debates that bore the electorate and convince them to abstain from voting. The turn-out for parliamentary elections is less than 50 percent.

For almost a year reputable polls have shown that the three opposition parties - the Labor Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the “Law and Order” - will win by a comfortable margin. The Labor Party is expected to gain somewhat less than 20 percent of the vote, the Social Democrats about 15 percent, while the “Law and Order” is hovering slightly above 10 percent. The dominant party of the ruling coalition, the Conservatives, are expected to garner slightly less than 10 percent, while another member of the coalition, the Liberal movement, may or may not clear the 5 percent barrier.

For almost a year reputable polls have shown that the three opposition parties - the Labor Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the “Law and Order” - will win by a comfortable margin.

Predictions are one thing, results another, since even the most accurate polls cannot factor in unexpected developments or major missteps by a dominant party. In the last three Parliamentary elections, newly founded parties have achieved amazing success, finishing either first or second. The conditions for a similar political hurricane are more favorable than ever – the standard of living is still below that of 2008, trust in political parties and politicians is close to an all-time low, while multiple scandals, in particular those related to the so-called paedophilia case, have roiled the population to an unprecedented degree. But no single new party has managed to funnel this anger and present itself as the new champion of the disappointed and the discontent. Instead, there is a real possibility that, for the first time in twelve years, no new party will force itself onto the central stage of the Lithuanian politics.

Greater attention is being focused on the shape of the new government. The default consensus is that the three major opposition parties – all of which are left of center and who have signed a cooperation agreement – will form the ruling coalition. But the cooperation agreement has already been breached, while Rolandas Paksas, leader of the “Law and Order,” and particularly Viktor Uspaskich, head of the Labor Party, are unconventional and unpredictable politicians. For almost a year, rumors have swirled about a possible agreement between the Labor Party and the Conservatives. Both parties have little in common ideologically and there is even less love lost between them. Nonetheless, the venerable patriarch of the Conservatives, Vytautas Landsbergis, warned his party last week that it must at all costs avoid collaborating with the Labor Party. Landsbergis’ warning is perhaps an indication that the rumors are not merely the fancy of overexcited political commentators.

There has been talk, albeit less insistent, of cooperation between the Conservatives and the Social Democrats. The enmity between these parties is even greater, while their only effort at working together – in 2006-2007 the Conservatives supported the minority government led by the Social Democrats – was an ignominious failure. The experiment is unlikely to be repeated soon.

Then there is President Dalia Grybauskaitė. It is no secret that she thinks ill of Uspaskich and wants to limit his power. She is extremely reluctant to ask him to form the new government for many reasons, including his blatant populism and the fact that the trial against him and the Labor Party has not yet been adjudicated. Her range of options in helping shape the new government and appointing the prime minister will depend on the breakdown of the votes. There may well be more drama after the election campaign than during it.

The Baltic Times
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