The people have voted! But not (only) where you’re thinking of. In case you missed it, E&M‘s resident Lithuanian Mykolas Steponavičius catches us up on last month’s parliamentary elections in his home country, where people also headed to the polls to decide the fate of the populists they voted for in 2016.
A populist tale
In 2016 it seemed like the wave of national populism had come to Lithuania too. Indeed, all the necessary pieces were there – a young democracy with a highly conservative populace and widespread indifference for all things political. Voters had become disenchanted with the establishment parties as the Homeland Union / Christian Democrats (HU-CD) was still associated with austerity politics and the economic hardship experienced in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, while the Lithuanian Liberal Movement (LLM) was shaken by a corruption scandal. The newly elected Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LFGU) was ruled by a powerful oligarch, Ramūnas Karbauskis, whose character appears in a popular TV series and whose humanitarian exploits are renown in rural Lithuania. One of the most popular politicians in the country –– an ex chief of the police and minister of interior affairs, Saulius Skvernelis became the prime minister. Together they offered a new vision of politics where corruption is rooted out by strongmen, incompetence replaced by the rule of experts and the establishment’s disdain for the common people substituted with the promise of direct democracy. More importantly, the fiscal freedom enabled by outstanding economic growth provided plenty of means to gain voters’ benevolence through generous social spending. The stage for a painfully familiar populist tale was set.
However, over the next four years, political reality creeped up on the LFGU’s lofty vision. The basic problem of populism is its insistence on being able to transcend the rules of the political game. For the LFGU, it was the promise of expert rule that has proven fatal. Teacher protests in 2018 and the ensuing chaos in the health sector following the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the government’s lack of political experience. Frustrated and angry, they turned to blame everybody but themselves – especially the opposition, media and business interests, at times even teachers, health workers, and students. Efforts to curtail the independence of the national radio and TV broadcaster (LRT) further antagonized voters, especially in urban areas, such as Vilnius and Kaunas. With the 2020 parliamentary elections approaching quickly, the LFGU tried to save themselves by issuing one-time payments of 200 euros to pensioners, offering a 13th pension, as well as postponing the introduction of stricter measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 until the end of the elections. But it was too little, too late.
The 2020 parliamentary elections
On the 25th of October, after the second round of the parliamentary elections, the Homeland Union / Christian Democrats (HU-CD) emerged as the main party, winning 50 out of the total 141 seats. This marks the first victory for the conservatives since the 2008-2012 term during which it became notorious for austerity reforms. They are expected to form a center-right coalition with the two liberal parties – Lithuanian Liberal Movement (LLM) and Freedom Party (FP) who won 13 and 11 seats respectively. The latter has recently split from the former in light of a corruption scandal and has achieved somewhat surprising electoral success by openly advocating for legalization of same-sex marriage and decriminalization of drug possession. The new government will also mark a change in gender equality as leaders of the three coalition parties are all women who are likely to become ministers, with an ex-finance minister Ingrida Šimonytė from the conservatives taking the role of the prime minister.
Unlike in most democracies, in Lithuania liberals and conservatives are seen as allies, as they traditionally represent voters from bigger cities and are seen as more traditional and moderate political forces. Nevertheless, as future prime minister, Šimonytė will have the difficult task of reconciling the interests of the liberal parties with the agenda of the Christian democrats. They are especially likely to disagree on such issues as LGBTQ* rights, drug policy, and the politics of historical memory. These disagreements may have to be put aside, however, to manage the second wave of COVID-19 and the ensuing economic recovery. Depending on the success of this balancing act are not only the economy and public health, but also trust in public institutions. The center-right has been granted the authority to deal with another crisis yet again and it simply cannot afford to fail if it wants to maintain its hold on power.