Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 98

Opinion surveys suggest that the newly created, leftist Labor Party will take first place in Lithuania’s parliamentary elections on October 10, though it will fall short of gaining a majority. The party leader, Russian-born oligarch Viktor Uspaskikh, will claim the post of prime minister, but he will have to govern in a coalition with other parties.

Labor’s likely coalition partner is Working Lithuania, recently created through merger of the two parties that form the incumbent government: the Social-Democrat Party and the New Union/Social Liberals, headed by Prime Minister (and ex-president) Algirdas Brazauskas and Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas, respectively. Latest polls credit the Labor Party with slightly over 30% and Working Lithuania with slightly fewer than 15% of voter support.

Other constellations are possible but less likely. A strong showing by Fatherland Union/Conservatives and the pro-business Liberal and Center Union could offset the Labor Party’s gains and enable Working Lithuania to govern with them, and without Labor. At the same time, the Labor Party stands to gain a boost from the Coalition for Order and Justice and from Farmers’ Union/New Democracy, two leftist-populist organizations headed by the recently removed president Rolandas Paksas and the recently defeated presidential candidate Kazimiera Prunskiene, respectively. If their lists clear the threshold for parliamentary representation (5% for parties and 7% for coalitions) and each obtains a few seats in electoral districts, they can form an alliance with the Labor Party in the new parliament. If they fall short of the threshold for party lists, the lion’s share of those wasted votes will accrue to the Labor Party in accordance with the proportional system’s rules.

Should Uspaskikh’s Labor Party make its expected strong showing, Working Lithuania and others will probably argue that forming a governing coalition with Labor is preferable to a starkly polarized situation in which establishment parties try to isolate the upstart winning party. An isolation strategy might result in cementing a united leftist-populist opposition, energize those parties’ social base, and fuel a politics of confrontation, of which the Paksas impeachment and Prunskiene candidacy might turn out to have been a foretaste.

Meanwhile, all the established political forces, including Uspaskikh’s potential coalition partners, regard him and the Labor Party with well-founded misgivings. The party seems to be a vehicle for the leader’s personal ambitions. Uspaskikh himself fits the prototype of the Russian oligarchs of the 1990s who leveraged their wealth into governmental power. Himself a Russian who arrived in Lithuania at the end of the Soviet period, Uspaskikh grew wealthy in the gas trade, heading Lithuanian affiliates of Russian gas companies. Since then, however, he has diversified his interests, with food-processing now the mainstay of his business. Uspaskikh has proven to be a highly capable business leader with a hands-on management style. His recent past has given rise to apprehensions that he and Labor might favor an influx of Russian capital into Lithuania’s energy and other sectors.

At this point, two political scenarios — conventionally referred to as the “Paulauskas” and the “Paksas” scenarios — seem open to Uspaskikh and his possible coalition partners. These scenarios imply cooptation and confrontation, respectively.

The first scenario would in essence replicate the political evolution of Arturas Paulauskas. Originally a member of the Soviet-Lithuanian nomenklatura, then criticized for certain non-transparent activities as Prosecutor-General in the early 1990s, Paulauskas ran for president in 1997 on a populist backlash that foreshadowed the 2003-2004 campaigns. Paulauskas lost the 1997 presidential election runoff by less than one percentage point to Valdas Adamkus, who became a key consensus figure in the political system. Paulauskas went on to form the New Union/Social Liberals, initially a left-leaning party, which matured rapidly, joined the two-party governing coalition in 2001 — with Paulauskas as parliamentary speaker and Antanas Valionis as Minister of Foreign Affairs — and proved to be one of the driving forces behind Lithuania’s successful efforts to join NATO and the European Union. Paulauskas played a key role as speaker and, briefly, acting president in helping defeat the two Russian-connected challengers to the political system, Paksas and Prunskiene.

The other scenario has Uspaskikh making a Paksas-style attempt to move from parliamentary government, market economics, and Euro-Atlanticism toward personalized politics, economic clientelism, and renewed economic and political ties to Russia. As with Paksas, such a strategy would involve populist mobilization of the social-protest vote — up to 30% of Lithuania’s electorate — against the established parties. It also would require a party that follows a strong leader, as seems to be the case with Uspaskikh’s Labor Party (at least in the pre-election period). Such strategy may entail forming a governing coalition in the initial stage. However, Uspaskikh’s program calls for changing the electoral system, so as to elect all members of parliament from single-seat electoral districts. This would result in a massive shift of power from the existing parliamentary parties to businessmen-politicians affiliated with a party of power.

At the moment, Uspaskikh has offered to negotiate toward a coalition government with Working Lithuania, with Prunskiene’s party, and even with the Liberal and Center Union. He is prepared to leave the foreign affairs, defense, and state security portfolios under the control of other parties, so long as Labor takes over the economic portfolios. Uspaskikh is also playing down Labor’s previously stated intention to renegotiate some of the terms of Lithuania’s accession to the European Union. Even so, there is at this point no telling who would ultimately co-opt whom in a Labor-led coalition with Uspaskikh as prime minister and his party in control of the economic ministries. The answer will depend on the details of the post-election arithmetic in the new parliament, and the checks and balances that have enabled Lithuania’s political system thus far to either co-opt or marginalize previous challengers to the democratic order.