Election preview: Lithuania

Lithuania, the largest of the three Baltic states (and the only one without a large ethnic Russian minority), goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new parliament. I find I haven’t written anything much about the country in the past, so let’s start with a quick recap of recent history.

Like much of Europe, Lithuania pursued austerity policies as a response to the global financial crisis. This was under the auspices of a centre-right coalition government that had ousted the Social Democrats in 2008. But the measures proved unpopular, and at the following election, in 2012, the centre-left returned to power, in coalition with the populist-centrist Labour Party and two smaller parties.

This change of direction failed to help the economy, and four years later the voters took revenge on them as well. The Farmers & Greens Union – an agrarian centrist party – came from nowhere to be returned as the largest party, with 54 of the 141 seats. The main centre-right party, the Homeland Union, was a distant second with 31 seats; the Social Democrats lost more than half their seats, and Labour was almost wiped out.

The Farmers & Greens tried to form a grand coalition but Homeland refused to participate. Instead they took in just the Social Democrats as a junior partner, giving the new government a bare majority. But it represented only three out of every eight voters: Lithuania has a mixed electoral system, with only half the MPs elected proportionally and the rest from single-member districts.

The Homeland Union had actually won slightly more votes than the Farmers & Greens – 22.6% as against 22.5% – but the latter cleaned up in the single-member districts. Such a system is supposed to promote stability by making it easier to win a parliamentary majority, but if the result is that the majority changes at every election because the system exaggerates the underlying swing, it’s not clear that the interests of stability are really being served.

So Saulius Skvernelis, the nominee of the Farmers & Greens, became prime minister. In 2017 the Social Democrats split; the party organisation voted to leave the coalition, although the majority of its MPs (who later constituted themselves as the Social Democratic Labour Party) wanted to stay. There weren’t enough of them to maintain the government’s majority, but Skvernelis drew in additional support from the right-wing Order & Justice and the party of the Polish minority, each of which had eight seats.

Then in May of last year Skvernelis, in a move that’s not unusual in eastern Europe, tried to win election as president. But he failed to even make the runoff, coming third with 19.7% of the vote. Instead an independent, economist Gitanas Nausėda, won the job, and asked Skvernelis to stay on as prime minister, although he is not expected to continue after the election.

The government doesn’t seem to have anything big going against it. Lithuania’s experience with Covid-19 has been reasonably mild (its death rate is about the same as Australia’s) but, in common with much of Europe, a second wave is now in progress, with controversy over whether counter-measures are being delayed for political reasons.

Lithuania has also been in the news lately as one of the strongest supporters of the opposition to president Alexander Lukashenko in neighboring Belarus. But this is very much a bipartisan position; Russian imperialism has no friends in Lithuania.

Opinion polls suggest that the Farmers & Greens and Homeland will again be evenly matched and well clear of the rest. Both are polling around the 20% mark, followed by the Social Democrats in the low teens and Labour and the Liberals a couple of points further back. It’s not clear how many of the rest will make it into the new parliament (there is a 5% threshold for the proportional seats); the Poles are in the mix, as is Freedom & Justice, a new and more centrist incarnation of Order & Justice, and the Freedom Party, a new left-liberal party.

The 71 single-member seats will be decided on a runoff system, so final results won’t be available until the second round of voting, to be held a fortnight later. But Sunday will tell us whether something unexpected is happening and whether the Skvernelis administration is more on the nose than the polls have been letting on.

I’ve remarked before on the contrast in fortunes between the former Soviet republics in the Baltics and those in Transcaucasia. Comparing this peaceful-looking election campaign with the renewed war between Armenia and Azerbaijan only sharpens the sense that the Lithuanians are doing something right.

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