Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 125

On November 9, leaders of the governing bloc Working for Lithuania, a loser in the recent parliamentary elections, signed an agreement with two left-populist parties to form a new parliamentary majority and cabinet of ministers. It is a disharmonious combination of Western-oriented democratic parties — Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas’ Social-Democrats and Parliament Chairman Arturas Paulauskas’ Social-Liberals — with Russian-born tycoon Viktor Uspaskikh’s Labor Party and Russian-connected politician Kazimiera Prunskiene’s Farmers’ Union/New Democracy. These two parties had questioned the country’s constitutional system and external orientation during the recent presidential and parliamentary election campaigns.

Lithuania’s political establishment faced two options in dealing with the populist challenge: forming a value-based government of the four traditional parties to keep the populists out of power or venturing into an alliance with the surging populists in hopes of coopting them. The election results cleared the way for a value-based government, which would have continued the cooperation between the Working for Lithuania governing bloc with the Liberal and Center Union and the Conservatives, a successful partnership since 2001. Although the governing bloc suffered heavy losses, the four traditional parties did win the elections collectively. They captured 74 seats out of 140 in the newly elected parliament (and could attract several independents to their side) while holding Uspaskikh’s and Prunskiene’s parties to 49 seats between them.

Thus, the traditional parties had a clear opportunity to form a value-based government, one guaranteeing beyond doubt the continuity of power and policy. However, the negotiations broke down over the division of posts, and the leaders of Working for Lithuania chose to form a coalition government together with the populist challengers to the system.

The new government counts on 84 parliamentary seats, including 20 Social-Democrats, 11 Social-Liberals, 41 Labor, 10 from Prunskiene’s party, and two left-leaning Polish deputies. Thus, the populist left is numerically dominant in the new governing majority. In the cabinet of ministers, Working for Lithuania will hold seven ministerial posts, Labor five, and Prunskiene’s party one. The populists have conceded the sphere of foreign policy, national defense, and security to the incumbent Working for Lithuania bloc; but they bargained hard over four ministries that will administer and distribute European Union structural funds and other financial assistance. Of those ministries, Economics goes to Labor, Agriculture to Prunskiene’s party, Environment remains with Working Lithuania, while Transportation is still being disputed.

Brazauskas describes these coalition arrangements as continuity of power and insists that the Labor Party will not be dominant. In reality, however, populist forces now hold a major share of power for the first time in Lithuania; and although Brazauskas retains control of the main levers of executive power, the populists clearly dominate the parliamentary majority on which that executive power depends. Brazauskas and his Social-Liberal allies will undoubtedly exert every effort to ensure continuity of policy; but continuity of power is only partial, while political forces that could have guaranteed it have ended up in the opposition.

The debate over whether the populists would or would not be dominant seems less relevant than the question as to whether it was necessary to hand them a share of power in the first place. A cooptation strategy was clearly no longer necessary after the October 24 election runoffs. Moreover, any successful cooptation strategy would have required unity of the political establishment to contain the challenge to the system. In the present situation, however, the four traditional parties are deeply divided over this issue, and the Working Lithuania bloc does not seem strong enough on its own to initiate and manage a successful cooptation strategy.

Fatherland Union/Conservatives and the Liberal and Center Union, with 26 and 19 parliamentary seats respectively, have decided to go into opposition. Conservative leader Andrius Kubilius shares with Brazauskas the responsibility for the breakdown in their negotiations toward forming a government. As some of Kubilius’ sympathizers now publicly admit, he presented clearly excessive (as well as constitutionally questionable) demands at the outset. For his part, Brazauskas showed unseemly haste in abandoning the negotiations in the opening stage and turning to Uspaskikh as a political expedient. Ultimately, the Social-Democrats are ceding to the populists the share of power that the Conservatives and Liberal Centrists could well have settled for, had the negotiations been given a chance to continue. Moreover, populists who sometimes questioned Lithuania’s EU accession will be in charge of distributing a share of EU funds, while staunchly pro-EU Conservatives and Liberal Centrists will not be part of this process.

Liberal Centrists, a small number of Social-Democrat deputies, some Conservatives including the Sajudis group, and leading Lithuanian commentators persisted down to the wire in calling for negotiations on a value-based government to resume. President Valdas Adamkus on several occasions clearly indicated that this was his preference. When Brazauskas with Uspaskikh and Prunskiene forced the pace of their negotiations to clinch agreement over division of ministries, Liberal Centrist leader Arturas Zuokas (who is politically close to Adamkus) called for a “coalition based on values, rather than on ministerial posts.”

Uspaskikh, who is poised to control the Economics Ministry, now promises to “teach them [presumably the mainstream political forces] how to achieve economic growth not only theoretically but also practically.” In fact and in practice, Lithuania is Europe’s top performer in economic growth, with annual GDP growth rates averaging 8% in recent years, holding inflation down, and on track with a plan to adopt the euro in late 2006 or early 2007. What Uspaskikh and Prunskiene have in mind to teach seems far from certain.

(BNS, ELTA, November 2-10; see EDM, October 12, 26, November 2).