Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 62

Lithuania’s local election returns, issued on March 26, document a strong leftward swing of the political pendulum. These returns, along with public opinion surveys, presage another jolt toward the left in this year’s parliamentary elections, of which the local elections are seen as the dress rehearsal.

Two left-of-center parties, New Union/Social Liberals (NU/SL) and the Farmers’ Party, took first and second place in the local elections on a country-wide basis. Fatherland Union/Lithuanian Conservatives (FU/LC), which has controlled the national parliament and government since 1996 and placed first countrywide in the 1997 local elections, was pushed into third place this time, losing more than half its mandates. FU/LC’s coalition partner, the Christian-Democrat Party (CDP), descended to seventh place, behind two colorless centrist parties. The left-of-center Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which governed Lithuania from 1992 to 1996, was set back only insignificantly from an already weakened position in these local elections. This means that the left-of-center winners achieved their gains essentially at the expense of the two conservative ruling parties.

NU/SL’s ascent seems all the more significant considering that the party was founded only in 1998 and is not represented in parliament. Its leader Arturas Paulauskas, however, is a figure of the former ruling establishment, reincarnated as an “outsider.” A former prosecutor-general under DLP’s rule, with a background in the pre-1991 nomenklatura, Paulauskas lost the 1997 presidential election by a mere 1 percent margin to the current president, the Lithuanian-American Valdas Adamkus.

NU/SL currently sponsors a legislative initiative to cut defense spending this year by a hefty margin and transfer those funds to schools under municipal and district jurisdiction. As an extraparliamentary party, NU/SL is entitled to initiating legislation in parliament if at least 50,000 registered voters sign a petition in favor of the proposal. Last week, the Central Electoral Commission authenticated the list of NU/SL-collected 85,000 signatures supporting the proposed shift of funds from defense to schools. The 1999 economic recession, however, has already pushed Lithuania’s defense budget below the levels projected for that year and for 2000. NU/SL’s measure, if enacted, would defeat Lithuania’s effort (1) to raise defense spending to the benchmark level of 2 percent of the gross domestic product by 2002 and (2) to implement military modernization programs indispensable for NATO admission. Paulauskas claims that to demand defense spending cuts is not to oppose NATO membership but has yet to demonstrate that he shares that goal with the country’s main political forces.

The Farmers’ Party and its leader, the parliamentary deputy Ramunas Karbauskis, are authentic “outsiders” with some characteristics of a social protest movement. The party more than doubled the number of its mandates in these elections. It recently organized mass actions demanding agricultural price support and state subsidies. Motivated by protectionist interests, and profoundly “Euroskeptic” in its electoral campaign, the party softened that stance somewhat after its unexpected success. It now demands a “pause” in Lithuania’s Eurointegration, a postponement of the accession to the World Trade Organization, and a “transition period” of ten to fifteen years before joining the European Union. As regards NATO, the Farmers’ Party “does not object” to Lithuania joining it, but wants the government to “take account of other priorities and slow down the membership preparations.”

In Lithuania’s second-largest, bedrock conservative city Kaunas, the leftist-nationalist Freedom Union, under its “street politician” leader Vytautas Sustauskas, unexpectedly took first place and NU/SL second place. They reject the Conservative-proposed privatization of the city’s heating utility by a major Swedish company. The overdue privatization of municipal utilities is a major issue in Lithuania’s national politics. The centrist Liberal Union (LU), recently joined by the popular politician Rolandas Paksas, looks set to dominate in the capital city Vilnius and the main maritime port Klaipeda. Paksas briefly served as prime minister of the Conservative-led government last year. His defection dealt a blow to the FL/UC while his decision to join the LU boosted the latter’s prospects in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives lost their majority in the national parliament and will have to run a minority government until the next parliamentary elections. Thirteen FU/LC members announced on March 23 that they have left the party and/or its parliamentary group to form a new, “Moderate Conservative” one under former Prime Minister Gediminas Vagnorius. Placed in difficulty last year as prime minister by the spillover of Russia’s economic crisis, Vagnorius sought an outlet in personal confrontations with Adamkus and the FU/LC’s chairman, Vytautas Landsbergis, who is also the parliamentary chairman. The Christian-Democrats, too, lost several deputies who set up recently a “Modern Christian” group in opposition to the mother party. The defections leave the governing bloc with fifty-two Conservatives and twelve mainstream Christian-Democrats for a total of only sixty-four votes in the 138-seat parliament–assuming that the government can hold out until the November parliamentary elections (BNS, Vilnius Radio, March 18-27).