Lithuania is headed for parliamentary elections on October 10, with some runoffs continuing on October 24. For the third time in less than two years, populist forces are strongly challenging the country’s parliamentary democracy, its recently completed market economic system and, indirectly, its full-fledged Western orientation. Even as Lithuania is consistently recording Europe’s highest economic growth rates (around 8% annually, recent and projected), populist political leaders are capitalizing on the votes of disadvantaged groups to attack the four mainstream parties that put Lithuania on the path to prosperity and led it into NATO and the European Union this year.
While populist leaders are wealthy beneficiaries of the economic transition, their electoral base consists of the transition’s impoverished losers. This seemingly paradoxical situation has been summarized as: “top leaders millionaires, supporters paupers” (Darius Kuolys in Veidas, September 23). The populist challengers exploit the corruption issue (exaggerating its magnitude, and in some cases deflecting it from themselves) as well as a certain level of public fatigue with long-serving mainstream politicians.
Four establishment parties have alternated in power since 1991: Social-Democrats, led by the incumbent Prime Minister and former president Algirdas Brazauskas; New Union/Social Liberals, led by Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas; Fatherland Union/Conservatives, led by former head of state and former parliamentary chairman Vytautas Landsbergis and former prime minister Andrius Kubilius; and Liberal and Center Union, led by Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas (and politically close to President Valdas Adamkus).
The first two parties formed the incumbent government in 2001. The latter two parties are in opposition, but they support the government’s policies on issues of democracy, market economics, NATO, and U.S. relations. These four parties joined forces against president Rolandas Paksas, who had allowed Russians linked to intelligence services and organized crime to penetrate the presidential office. Elected in January 2003 almost accidentally (by slightly more than 25% of eligible voters, in a low-turnout election) on populist-demagogic promises, Paksas was impeached and removed from office by the parliament in April 2004. This necessitated a pre-term presidential election in June 2004, when Adamkus narrowly defeated the Russian-connected, left-leaning populist Kazimiera Prunskiene (allied with Paksas) by 52.5% to 47.5% in the runoff.
A third populist challenge has now emerged through the Labor Party, led by Viktor Uspaskikh, who is one of Lithuania’s wealthiest businessmen and its wealthiest parliamentary deputy. Born in Arkhangelsk, Russia, and established in Lithuania since 1990, Uspaskikh was elected to parliament in 2000 as an independent, and in October 2003 created the Labor Party as his personal vehicle. The party claims to fight against corruption and injustice. For now, Uspaskikh is the party’s lone parliamentary deputy. In June 2004, the upstart party scored a stunning 35% in Lithuania’s elections to the European Parliament, winning five seats in that body. The parties of Paksas and Prunskiene obtained one seat each, for a total of seven “populist” seats, out of Lithuania’s 13 seats in the European parliament.
Since then, opinion surveys show the Labor Party poised to win first place with some 30% of the vote in the parliamentary elections. The party is primarily targeting the protest vote that makes up a relatively stable 25% of votes cast in Lithuanian elections. The European election in June and prognoses for the parliamentary election suggest that the Labor Party has inherited most of Paksas’ and Prunskiene’s protest-vote electorate. Following these two leaders’ defeats in April and June, their respective parties (Liberal-Democrat and Farmers’ Union/New Democracy) seem to be fading fast. Protest voters tend to be leader-oriented, and they are now seeking a new strong leader in Uspaskikh.
Uspaskikh is identified with the paternalistic “Kedainiai model,” named after the town where he owns most of the local economy, dispenses patronage, and is said to control the administration. Despite the populist appeal it projects, the Labor Party’s leadership and electoral list includes well-to-do businessmen and successful professionals. The party is expected to attempt to lead a coalition government in the new parliament. Depending on the elections’ outcome, Labor might negotiate with the incumbent government, with the Liberal and Center Union, or with Prunskiene. For their part, mainstream political leaders will undoubtedly use such a coalition as a means to rein in the Labor Party and ensure continuity of the policies that have turned Lithuania into a successful economic performer and reliable Euro-Atlantic ally.
Lithuania’s parliament has 141 seats, including 70 contested through proportional representation by party slates (with a 5% threshold for parties and 7% for coalitions) and 71 seats contested in as many electoral districts according to the majoritarian system, with most candidates nominates by parties, and most races necessitating runoffs.