Saturday

22nd Jul 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.

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  • 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.

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