Preliminary returns from Lithuania’s October 10 parliamentary suggest that the traditional parties should be able to isolate the surging populist Labor Party after the elections, instead of entering into potentially risky arrangements with this challenger to the political system.
The Labor Party, founded by Russian-born oligarch Viktor Uspaskikh, placed first as expected, but its electoral list obtained only 28.5% of the votes cast; a drop of some 4% from the party’s score in the May elections to the European Parliament and in the latest opinion surveys. Labor captured 23 parliamentary seats on October 10. The traditional parties secured 37 seats between them. Of that number, the governing bloc Working Lithuania took 19 seats (including three seats in single-mandate districts and polling 20.5% of the votes cast for party lists); Fatherland Union/Conservatives, 11 seats (14.5%); and the pro-business Liberal and Center Union, seven seats (11.5%).
Apart from Labor, two populist anti-system parties secured parliamentary representation on party lists: the Coalition for Order and Justice (nine seats, 11.5%) and Farmers’ Union/New Democracy (five seats, 6.5%). These are led, respectively, by the recently impeached and deposed head of state Rolandas Paksas (who is barred from seeking any political office) and by the recently defeated presidential candidate Kazimiera Prunskiene. Other than Prunskiene, all parties — including the respectability-seeking Labor Party — at this stage rule out an alliance with the Paksas party.
A total of 75 seats (70 on party lists and five in single-mandate districts) were decided on October 10. A further 66 seats in single-mandate districts remain to be settled in runoffs on October 24. The traditional parties should be able to outperform Labor if they fully throw their support behind each other’s candidates in the districts.
Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas (whose Social-Democrat Party is one of the two components of Working Lithuania) and some around him hold out the hypothetical possibility of forming a governing coalition with Labor, on stringent conditions. The conditions include: Working Lithuania would remain “the core” of any such coalition, Brazauskas would remain prime minister, add the Liberal and Center Union and possibly Fatherland to the coalition (so as to dilute Labor’s share in it), cast aside Labor’s campaign pledges to raise wages and pensions while lowering taxes, and secure guarantees from Uspaskikh regarding continuity in foreign policy.
A multi-party government including Labor, dubbed the “rainbow coalition,” was widely considered a possible solution if the Labor Party performed as strongly as was expected (or feared) in the elections. Since this was not the case on October 10, most of the key figures in the traditional parties now tend to favor a strategy of isolating Uspaskikh’s party. Thus, Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas and others in the New Union/Social Liberals (the second component of Working Lithuania) are proposing a coalition based on shared values. Such a coalition would preserve the constitutional framework, parliamentary system of government, free-market economics, and Western orientation. The Liberal and Center Union (a party close to President Valdas Adamkus) had recently considered the possibility of a broadly based coalition with the Labor Party, but is now ruling this out, calling instead for a coalition of traditional parties. This had all along been the preferred option of Fatherland, whose leader, Andrius Kubilius, is calling for pooling forces in the runoff races in order to “keep populists out of government.”
Such a strategy can succeed if mainstream voters turn out in force. Turnout on October 10 was only 45% (down from 53% in 2000). A low turnout often works to the advantage of populist candidates who capitalize on the protest vote. This accounted for Paksas’ victory in the January 2003 presidential election and also for the three populist parties’ overall performance on October 10, when they garnered a total of 46.5% of the votes cast.
Although the populist surge is a recent phenomenon in Lithuania, it nevertheless fits the post-1990 pattern of alternating right-left in voters’ preferences and, consequently, in government. Fatherland/Conservatives and Social-Democrats alternated in power for a full decade in what came to be described as the “pendulum swing.” That decade’s polarized politics was ultimately overcome as these main political forces and their allies acted in consensus to promote free-market economics and to bring Lithuania into NATO and the European Union. With the political pendulum stabilized, populist leaders could cast themselves as an alternative to the system.
The populist challenges since 2002 have underscored the necessity of that consensus. While Social-Democrats and their Social-Liberal allies (now united in Working Lithuania) have been in government since 2001, and Fatherland and the Liberal Centrists in opposition, the four parties worked together successfully on the main issues of democracy, free market economics, and a Euro-Atlantic orientation. They can again jointly meet the challenge of the October 24 runoff by cementing their consensus and creating a value-based coalition.