Sunday

19th Feb 2017

Lithuania's odd couple keeps nation guessing

  • A voter casting her ballot on 23 October. Emigration to the richer parts of Europe has been one of the biggest concerns. (Photo: Reuters)

The winners of last month's parliamentary election in Lithuania are a party without traditional party discipline, or organisation, or even a clear leader.

Yet the Peasants and Greens won 54 seats in the 141-seat chamber, up from the single seat that they won in the 2012 election.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

  • The new PM Saulius Skvernelis gained a reputation for being a trustworthy operator during his time as police chief (Photo: Council of the EU)

They have since formed a coalition with the Social Democrats. Quite an achievement, given the questions over the party's strategies, policies and personnel.

“It is true that The Peasants and Greens are more of an electoral vehicle, an electoral platform rather than a consistent political party,” says Mazvydas Jastramskis, a professor of political science at Vilnius University.

“However, the fact that they are dominating the parliament, even without an absolute majority, may, in the end, determine their unity, as nothing unites better than the will to maintain power.”

Yet, part of its success was due to a plunge in popularity of the previous coalition.

Recent reforms to labour laws that cut holidays and lengthened working hours proved extremely unpopular.

Lithuanians were feeling fatigue at a string of scandals to hit the coalition parties.

Still, the Peasants and Greens are now the biggest party in parliament, it's fair to ask how it is shaping up as a governing force.

Unfortunately, the party's lack of clarity starts at the very top. Who, exactly, leads the party?

Not tainted by party politics

On paper, wealthy businessman Ramunas Karbauskis is the official leader.

Yet he is not the man who will be prime minister. That honour goes to Saulius Skvernelis, a former police chief and interior minister who was crucial to the party's success.

Skvernelis gained a reputation for being a trustworthy operator during his time as police chief.

But for many Lithuanians, his appeal lay in the fact that he was not tainted by party politics. He is seen as a down-to-earth man, unlikely to get embroiled in political wrangling and corruption.

Karbauskis rejected the chance to serve as parliamentary speaker, saying he would be more effective leading the party's parliamentary bloc.

The two men have very different backgrounds, and it's not clear whether they share much common ground in terms of policy priorities.

Skvernelis has stressed the importance of spreading the benefits of economic growth.

“It’s important for citizens to feel they live in a country with the conditions of growing the economy and that it’s good to live here, instead of glancing abroad and looking at job markets in foreign countries,” he said after signing the coalition treaty.

This is a familiar theme in Lithuanian politics. Emigration to the richer parts of Europe has been one of the biggest concerns.

Creating a 'sober Lithuania'

Since it joined the EU in 2004, the country’s population has fallen by 10 percent, from 3.3 million to below 3 million.

So while Skvernelis has stressed familiar themes, Karbauskis has proposed some eyecatching and controversial measures.

He suggested a monopoly should be created on alcohol sales, attempting to make a policy platform out of creating a “sober Lithuania”.

The two men appear now to be more in unison, extolling the benefits of “technocratic government”, an approach that does not need any specific policy pledges.

On foreign policy, the defining issue for Lithuanians is the country's relationship with its biggest neighbour, Russia.

For a long time, society was split between those who regard Russia as a threat, and those who are more sympathetic, often feeling a sense of nostalgia for the days of Soviet rule.

However, since Russia began meddling in Ukraine and the threat to Lithuania became more clear, "it is not certain that the divide is still relevant today," said Mazvydas Jastramskis.

In the election, however, the conservative Homeland Union made it a campaign issue.

The Russian question

They were keen to draw attention to rumours about Karbauskis' alleged close ties with Russia.

But in Lithuania, there are always going to be allegations flung between politicians about Russia.

Karbauskis labelled allegations linking him to Russian intelligence were “absurd”, and Skvernelis said attempts to connect the party with Russian interests were “unethical”.

With all this in the melting pot, it still is not clear what Lithuania can expect from its new government.

Political scientist Rima Urbonaite, from Mykolas Romeris University, said the people are starkly divided on the prospects for the new administration.

“Part of the Lithuanian society obviously has taken up the approach that 'one should not expect anything from a government like that," she told EUobserver.

"Others who voted for this virtually new formation - I would call it a pseudo-party, as there are many non-party members in it - are simply waiting for the changes that have been promised."

Whatever else they may do, it seems unlikely that any Lithuanian politician would be foolhardy enough to plot an anti-EU course. Three-quarters of Lithuanians in the most recent Eurobarometer survey said they feel the benefits of EU membership.

Lithuania bans Russian TV station

Lithuania’s media watchdog has blocked broadcasts by Russian TV channel RTR Planeta on grounds of inciting hatred over Ukraine.

Dutch election: EU's most unpredictable vote

Polls suggest that four or five parties will be needed to form a majority after the 15 March vote. The shrunk size of the establishment parties means that smaller parties may play a role of kingmaker.

News in Brief

  1. Migrants storm Spanish enclave of Ceuta
  2. Spain's princess fined for tax fraud, husband sentenced
  3. EU to invest millions in energy infrastructure
  4. Dutch data watchdog forces online vote aides to up security
  5. EU allows Lithuania to ban Russian tv channel
  6. Finland announces increase in defence spending
  7. Ex-PM Blair says Brits should 'rise up' against Brexit
  8. Nato chief says facts to prevail over fake news

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Malta EU 2017End of Roaming Fees: Council Reaches Agreement on Wholesale Caps
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Innovation House Opens in New York to Help Startups Access US Market
  3. Centre Maurits CoppietersMinorities and Migrations
  4. Salzburg Global SeminarThe Child in the City: Health, Parks and Play
  5. UNICEFNumber of Ukrainian Children Needing Aid Nearly Doubles to 1 Million Over the Past Year
  6. Centre Maurits CoppietersThe Situation of Refugee Women in Europe
  7. Salzburg Global SeminarToward a Shared Culture of Health: Charting the Patient-Clinician Relationship
  8. European Free AllianceAustria Should Preserve & Promote Bilingual and Multinational Carinthia
  9. Martens CentreShow Your Love for Democracy! Take Part in Our Contest: "If It's Broken, Let's Fix It"
  10. CISPECloud Computing Leaders Establish Data Protection Standards to Protect Customer Data
  11. Malta EU 2017Landmark Deal Reached With European Parliament on Portability of Online Content
  12. Belgrade Security ForumBSF 2017: Building a Common Future in the Age of Uncertainty

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. CESIEU Not to Revise the Working Time Directive
  2. International Partnership for Human RightsAzerbaijan: 76 NGOs Urge the EU to Use President's Visit to Insist on Human Rights Reforms
  3. UNICEFDeadliest Winter for Migrant Children Crossing the Central Mediterranean
  4. World VisionGaza Staff Member Pleads Not Guilty
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region First to Consider Complete Ban on Microplastics in Cosmetics
  6. Dialogue PlatformWhy the West 'Failed to Understand' Turkey
  7. European Jewish CongressInternational Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony
  8. European Free AllianceCatalan Independence Referendum: A Matter of Democracy
  9. International Partnership for Human RightsKyrgyzstan: No Justice for Human Rights Defender Azimjan Askarov
  10. Dialogue PlatformThe Influence of Turkish Politics in Europe After the Coup Attempt
  11. World VisionEU Urged to Do Better Ahead of Helsinki Conference on Syria
  12. Caritas EuropaEU States to Join Pope Francis’s Appeal to Care for Migrant Children