Vol 2, No 12
27 March 2000
A M B E R C O A S T:
A Leap into the Unknown
Results from the 19 March local elections (which can be found on the accompanying page) in Lithuania saw the country take perhaps its first step into the political unknown in this year of electoral double jeopardy. The established large political parties of all persuasions fared poorly, replaced at the top of the local tables by previously marginal and fringe parties and movements. With parliamentary elections due in autumn, was this set of elections a foreshadowing of yet a second leap into the political unknown to come?
With the recent celebration of the tenth anniversary of the restoration of Lithuania's independence, such a dramatic political shift takes on a symbolic significance. Optimists call it political maturity; detractors pin it down to political alienation and disillusionment. However, this brief half-year period between the local and general elections is vital for both the winners and losers of the local polls, as it could further tempt Lithuanians to test the untested parties or could serve as a warning for Lithuanians not to gamble with the same untested parties. In short: the coming months will be explosive politically.
The big winner
In claiming 270 seats nationwide and the most seats in about a dozen of the 60 local councils, the New Alliance (Social Liberals) can be regarded as the winner of the elections. To some this comes as a surprise, as the party is a relatively new movement founded by former presidential candidate Artūras Paulauskas - and is seen by many as his personal vehicle. However, the popular former prosecutor general scored points just by being outside of parliamentary politics, as public trust in the Seimas remains among the lowest of all governmental institutions, at just above ten per cent.
A few months before the local elections, the New Alliance hovered around the five per cent mark in popular polls - which tend to be on the lower side. However, Lithuanian politics shifted even further towards the personality game as 2000 came around, making the leaders of the party in some ways more important than the party platforms. This bode well for the well-liked Paulauskas, as the party's popular ratings soared in the last pre-election public poll. The party jumped an unheard of 8.8 points to 11.2 per cent (from a lowly 2.4 per cent a month before), which placed the New Alliance in second place and, more importantly, in a position of positive momentum.
The most vocal issue involving Paulauskas and his party was a petition drive to initiate legislation to divert funding from defence to education. Quick to point out that he is pro-NATO and supports a rise in defence spending, Paulauskas used his spotlight to highlight the more immediate concerns of ordinary folk, such as education. Meanwhile, the five established parliamentary parties - the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats, the Centre Union, the Social Democrats and the Democratic Labour Party (LDDP) - signed a nonsensical declaration tying support of Lithuanian integration into NATO to an uncompromising rise in defence spending. Despite their good intentions, the five parties ended up hurting their own credibility on social issues and other issues important to people in local elections.
In a way, Paulauskas and the New Alliance did not really win the local polls but were the benefactors of the persistant collapse of the five large established parties and public disillusionment.
Coming in second nationwide was the Farmers' Party, which earned 209 total seats and took the most seats in about a quarter of the councils - all rural. Its popularity and success in the local elections was more expected, as farmers had expressed an absolute lack of confidence in the government's rural policies through various protests and lawsuits. The Farmers Party, led by the well-to-do Ramūnas Karbauskis, took advantage of rural discontent and mobilised the rural population against the government and the establishment.
Lithuania's economic collapse, caused in large part by the Russian economic meltdown, hit the agriculture sector hardest. With their export market to the east all but vanished, farmers grew discontent. Led by some skilled campaigning and timely circumstances, Karbauskis milked the discontent for all it was politically worth. The summer of 1999 saw wide-scale protests by farmers, who blocked roads and borders with tractors and other farm equipment. Through all this, the "Andrzej Lepper" of Lithuania surged in popularity among the rural population. With a severe budget and revenues crisis, the government failed to pay out all its obligations to farmers: VAT refunds, subsidies, etc. This added fuel to the populist Karbauskis's fire.
Karbauskis said after the election that if the success of the local polls carry over to the parliamentary elections, the Farmers' Party will push to distance Lithuania from its European Union and World Trade Organisation membership bids, which are both, in Karbauskis words, disadvantageous for Lithuanian agriculture. He has since tempered his anti-EU tone, in his talks with President Valdas Adamkus, suggesting only that Lithuania needs a very long transition period. A possible unity issue for some fringe opposition parties could be Euroscepticism, an issue to be watched in the next few months.
Through all this, one item has been overlooked by many political observers - the coalition Karbauskis has with the marginal Christian Democratic Union. The small party, basically the personal vehicle for former émigré and current MP Kazys Bobelis, ran in coalition with Karbauskis in many constituencies. This coalition could be a force to be dealt with in the parliamentary elections, as Karbauskis has support in rural Lithuania and Bobelis has strong support in Marijampolė. The addition of other small regional parties to this coalition could bring it a strong showing in the Seimas elections.
One of the biggest disappointments in the local elections is the result for the Liberal Union, which only won 166 seats, placing sixth. For the last six months, the party stood far on top of the popularity polls, thanks mostly to the popularity of former Prime Minister Rolandas Paksas, who,coincidentally, joined the previously minor party about half a year ago. Many expected the popularity of Paksas to carry the day for the Liberals, but the combination of verbal assaults of the established large political parties and peaking too early in the polls (by about two months) ensured that the Liberals had to console themselves with only the success of winning the most seats on the Vilnius and Klaipėda city councils.
The final popularity poll before the elections, the same one that propelled the New Alliance so astronomically high, showed that the Liberal Union remained the most popular party but suffered a significant drop in support (dropping by 6.5 per cent in a month to 12.5 per cent). Paksas went into the local elections with a negative momentum and came out far less successfully than anyone would have thought even six weeks ago.
To add insult to injury, the victories in Vilnius and Klaipėda could prove to be Pyrrhic. Despite the large number of seats on both councils (18 of 51 in Vilnius city, 10 of 31 in Klaipėda city), for a while it looked possible that the others would lock the winning party out of the coalitions. It appears that the Polish Electoral Alliance turned the tide in Vilnius, as they are set to join with the Liberals (and possibly the Conservatives) in forming the city coalition. Originally, it was feared that the Polish Action would go with the centre-left grouping, locking the Liberals out. The same situation arose in Klaipėda, where a centre-left alliance with the Russian Union could push the Liberals out of its only incumbency, but that could have been averted by intense negotiations as well.
The scary result
As staggering as the results in some of Lithuania's other regions are, none were more shocking than those for second city Kaunas. In an in-your-face manner, voters showed distrust, anger and impatience with the current political elite by granting victory to the extremist Freedom Union. The radical party, led by extremist public campaigner Vytautas Šustauskas, garnered 11 of 41 seats on the Kaunas city council. Before the election, many wrote off Šustauskas as a madman, leading a rat pack of outcasts and radicals. However, the result in Lithuania's former provisional capital shocked political observers and politicians into taking the Freedom Union seriously.
Vytautas Šustauskas is best known for organising radical and off-the-wall protests in Kaunas, Vilnius and other regions of the country. His "march of the homeless" was written off more as a traffic nuisance than a real protest movement. His first annual "feast of the poor," which coincided with the first annual charity Viennese ball organised by the Austrian Embassy, was seen as nothing more than an extreme form of protest. At worst, Šustauskas was written off as an embarrassment to Lithuania during those public protests. However, when Austrian Ambassador Florian Haug organised the second Viennese ball, Šustauskas again organised a coinciding "feast," which proved to be so threatening that Dr Haug cancelled the ball in public embarrassment. At that point, Šustauskas led several public rallies (where many of the participants appeared to be the country's inebriated nouveaux riche, according to witnesses), pronouncing a "defeat" of the "fat cats" and even demanding Dr Haug's deportation. Luckily, the Austrian press did not pick up much on this story, as it coincided with the start of the Jörg Haider affair.
Though it appears that the Freedom Union will remain out of the Kaunas ruling coalition, the Šustauskas phenomenon will continue to be a thorn in the side of the establishment. There are also worries of smaller parties seeking a coalition with the Freedom Union before the parliamentary polls, as Šustauskas could draw a large amount of votes in Kaunas and help satisfy any coalition's goal of reaching the magical five per cent barrier in return for allocation of PR seats.
Continual disillusionment and slow economic recovery could provide more fuel for the Freedom Union and other fringe extreme parties. The result in the Akmenė region, where unemployment is near 30 per cent, is clear, with the Nationalist Union scoring its only victory.
Collapse of the Establishment
Looking at the strong results of the above-mentioned parties, which together have less than a handful of seats in the current Seimas, the voters' disenchantment with the current five large political parties is clear. Though the ruling Conservatives bore the brunt of public discontent, all five parties suffered on account of being in the halls of power during the economic collapse and continuous political chaos. When the main debate of the country's politicians is sidetracked to whether the chairman of the former Supreme Council (and current Seimas speaker) Vytautas Landsbergis is to be recognised as a former head of state, it is not surprising when voters turn elsewhere.
Despite shooting themselves in the foot during the current parliamentary cycle, with three prime ministers, several high-profile corruption cases and scandals and complete mismanagement during the economic collapse, the Conservatives took advantage of the party's dedicated grassroots supporters and scored better than expected. Though they did drop from some 500 seats before the elections to 199 and third place, the showing is remarkably better than the low poll ratings showing them to be on the short end of the required five per cent barrier.
However, as desperation drives the party to discuss possible co-operation with their arch-enemy, the former Communists of the Democratic Labour Party (LDDP), it could jeopardise that otherwise loyal grassroots base. Often partnered with an organisation of former political prisoners and Soviet deportees, the mere suggestion of the Conservatives' co-operation with the ex-Communists is tantamount to collaboration for a number of their supporters.
Moreover, running a lame-duck government for six months with little hope of any Wirtschaftswunder or even a significant recovery, the prospects for the Conservatives look somewhat grim. Adding insult to injury, a split in the party has occurred, with disenchanted ex-Premier Gediminas Vagnorius leading his wing of the party out of the fading ruling power.
Despite the downfall of their arch-enemy, the Conservatives, the LDDP did not reap the benefits in these elections like they did back in 1992 - the last time Gediminas Vagnorius ran the country into the ground. Instead of getting all the nostalgic and protest votes, the LDDP only managed to hold on to their core supporters in key areas, owing to the well-organised grassroots which go back to the Soviet days. They lost the protest centrist and left-leaning votes to the upstarts, as they took fifth place with 172 seats nationwide. However, despite not reaping all the success they hoped for, LDDP members expressed glee that the Conservatives are falling from grace. The sign of a true rivalry.
In fourth place with 173 seats is the Centre Union, which saw its popularity slowly dwindle over the past year, losing on its own game - populism. When the political scene was occupied with only the five major parties, the Centrists were the recipients of the protest vote - voters angry with the polarisation of the Conservatives and LDDP. Exploiting populism to its fullest, party leader Romualdas Ozolas pushed the Centrists to the top of the popularity polls month after month. However, with the rise of the Liberal Union and ex-PM Paksas, the Centrists lost a large part of the protest votes they usually received by default. The "petka" was broken, and other parties began receiving large-scale support. Shifting most of its attention to attacking the Liberal Union and Paksas during the campaign did not help Ozolas to regain the party's leading position.
However, Ozolas proved to be politically more adept than the usurper of his place in the limelight. The advantage of being a "centre" party is the ability to align with either political wing without compromising much. As they participated marginally in the cabinet of the Conservatives since 1996, in this coming cycle, the Centrists appear to be aligning with the centre-left.
The Centre Union appears to be the benefactor of the chaotic political scene, happily dragged into advantageous coalitions with old and new centre-left parties. Through one of these manoeuvres, the Centrists may likely come down with the mayoral chair in the crown jewel of all local councils, Vilnius city. On the same strategy, the Centrists could win in the parliamentary elections, even if they do not do as well as they expect.
In many ways, the polarisation of the Conservatives and LDDP, the ambiguous
The Social Democrats suffered over the past few months with a messy and public split amongst its ranks, which resulted in the forming of Social Democracy 2000. The split vote pushed the Social Democrats down to seventh place, with 104 seats (while the breakaway Social Democracy 2000 ended up with two lonely seats, one in Marijampolė and one added at recount in Mažeikiai). Party leader Vytenis Andriukaitis, who some saw as the catalyst of the split by the moderate faction, admitted that the very public internal strife of the party damaged its prospects in the elections.
But looking at the relative lack of success by the five established large parties in Lithuanian parliamentary politics, it is clear there is massive discontent among the public. The continual drop in public trust for the Seimas as an institution reflected on the parties directly, even those in opposition. The five parties must now hope that the newcomers to the scene show their lack of aptitude in governing local councils, which could be used to stifle their rise to national politics.
Will there be a Part Two?
Barely a week after the local elections, it is too soon to even properly analyse them. However, the results clearly delivered a message to all the politicians that the people are angry with the current situation. The established national parties realised the degree of disenchantment, and the rising forces in Lithuanian politics sensed that they have an opening in the next half year to break fully onto the national scene.
However, it is still early to tell. There is still a campaign to be waged, which will likely be the harshest in Lithuanian politics and will likely see some strange bedfellows emerge. Things also depend on the degree of economic recovery: how fast the economy will rebound from quarters of decline, if the 11+ per cent official jobless rate will decrease, if the standard of rural living continues to decline and countless other factors. The ruling coalitions for the regional councils have yet to be formed, though there are already plans and sketches in place for some of the key councils, such as Vilnius and Kaunas. However, since the newly elected councils do not convene officially for some time yet, there is still plenty of time to digest the election results before worrying about the actions of the 60 local councils and their constituent parties. Nevertheless, things are changing by the minute.
Mel Huang, 25 March 2000, 1330 CET
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