It is a tool employed by some pseudo-democratic regimes to change the election rules on the brink of the vote itself, to better suit the interests of the ruling clan in light of the day's conditions. Lately there has been evidence of it in Mugabe's Zimbabwe and in Fujimori's Peru, but it was a considerable shock when Landsbergis's Lithuania was recently added to the list.
What could have possessed the ruling Conservatives to implement major changes in the electoral laws this close to the upcoming national elections?
Though the parliamentary elections in Lithuania are due in early October, the campaign has been in full swing since the end of the local elections back in March. In the last few weeks, several high-profile coalitions have been formed on the centre, left-wing and nationalist-right fronts. Everyone in the country is focused on a campaign, taking daily events and news items and bending them to serve their party's interests in three months' time.
Therefore, it is quite inexcusable for the Conservatives to push through a rather significant change to the election law. Whether it had been on the agenda or not is a moot point; it was tantamount to changing the rules at the half.
Imagine if at half time, a football referee, biased towards the side with the faster legs, suddenly decided to have sides of seven instead? What if, during a basketball game, the referee, biased against the three-point shooters, decided to push the three-point line back by several steps?
A different 4th of July
On 4 July - the day so prized by Americans treasuring their democracy - the Lithuanian Seimas voiced contempt for that same notion by passing changes to the election law, eliminating the need for second-round voting.
Lithuania's mixed parliamentary election system allocates 70 seats by proportional representation and 71 seats by direct constituency mandate. Previously, a candidate had to win a majority in the constituency in the first round in order to win outright. If not, the two top vote-getters faced a run-off several weeks later. Now, the Conservative-controlled Seimas has decided to let the 71 constituency seats be decided in only a single round, and winners will only need a plurality of votes - much like the British and American systems.
That is, all in all, a fine electoral system, but whether it should be implemented during the campaign season is debatable?
In dire straits
The Conservatives and their colleagues, the Christian Democratic Party, are in dire straits. They are incredibly unpopular, and polls show them to be below the five per-cent barrier. However, both parties, especially the Conservatives, have strong party loyalty and should clear the barrier [for more on this and a prediction of the October election results, see the detailed study by Nerijus Prekevičius and Terry Clark in this week's Baltics Special Issue].
Many of their opponents, from all areas of the political spectrum, have entered into coalitions of sorts. There is a strong centrist group of the New Alliance (Social Liberals), Liberal Union, Centre Union and the Modern Christian Democrats, as well as a strong leftist group of the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDDP), Social Democratic Party and the New Democracy / Women's Party. Several other groupings have also entered into alliances for this fall's contest.
The larger groupings - particularly the centrist quartet - have announced that they will co-ordinate their activities but will not enter into formal coalition. A change to the electoral system at this point would force these groups to reconsider their strategy on how to approach the single-mandate districts. If there are to be no run-offs, alliance partners will need to negotiate over which candidate is the strongest and pull the others out, which could lead to more internal disputes.
All this would accrue to the Conservatives' benefit as they employ the old "divide et impera" tactic.
A ludicrous majority
If we use the results of the October 1996 Seimas elections, we can hypothesise as to the effects of the recent change. Of the 71 single-mandate seats up for grabs in the first round, only two seats - those of Vytautas Landsbergis (who became the speaker of Parliament) and Gediminas Vagnorius (who became prime minister) - were won outright. A third was won but invalidated due to low turnout, alongside three other districts.
Of the remaining 65 constituencies, 22 would have been affected by the rule change, amounting to a third of the total up for grabs. And, surprise, surprise, 16 of the 22 slots in question would have brought Conservative victories, although the party would have lost two this way as well.
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These 16 seats would have been at the expense of those representing smaller parties, such as the Young Lithuania movement (the seat of its leader, Stanislovas Buškevičius), the New Democracy / Women's Party (the seat of party leader and former Premier Kazimira Prunskienė) and the Peasants' Party (the seat of its leader, Ramūnas Karbauskis).
Surprisingly, some established parties would have been hit by this rule as well, leaving then Social Democratic leader Aloyzas Sakalas and current Centre Union head Romualdas Ozolas without mandate seats (though no doubt they were highly placed on their parties' lists).
In short, it would have given the Conservatives a ludicrous majority.
The opposition has been complaining, as expected, since the bill passed the Seimas. The Parliament, already in an extended sitting because of the pricked pride of the Conservatives following a televised scolding from President Adamkus, has lost most of its credibility as polls show public trust in the institution as the lowest its been in months.
The fact that a cardinal change of the parliamentary election law has come just a few months ahead of general elections proves that something is wrong about political ethics in Lithuania. Alvydas Medalinskas, Liberal Union.
We can see a desire of outgoing party to hold on. If a political group has compromised itself, survival in such a mode at the expense of others is unfair. This kind of policy cannot be called moral. Justinas Karosas, Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party.
The Conservatives' claims that the decision was based on the fact that the plurality system is used in more than 80 nations and, furthermore, saves funds, is an insult to the intelligence of the country. True, it saves funds and it is used in many countries that have single-mandate voting systems, but no solid democratic country would tinker with such a fundamental aspect of the electoral system so close to an election.
If anything, it has given the various opposition forces more fuel to attack the Conservatives. The last hope is that President Valdas Adamkus should decide to veto the bill, but there was no indication of the bill's likely fate at press time.
What if the Lithuanian government had changed the rules of the presidential election of 1997-98 to a one-round, plurality-takes-all system? The result would have been President Artūras Paulauskas's winning (he took 45.28 per cent in the first round, as opposed to the 27.9 per cent of eventual winner Adamkus).
Still, ironically, most political analysts feel that change or no change, Paulauskas and his New Alliance (Social Liberals) in the centrist alliance will win the election, and Paulauskas is likely to be the next prime minister.
Mel Huang, 5 July 2000
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