As anticipated (see EDM, October 12), the left-leaning Labor Party of Russian-born tycoon Viktor Uspaskikh faltered in the second round of Lithuania’s parliamentary elections. After a strong performance in the October 10 vote on party lists, Labor went on to capture only 16 of the 66 parliamentary seats at stake in the October 24 runoffs for single-seat electoral districts.
Overall, the Labor Party will have the single largest group of deputies in the new parliament, but far from sufficient for carrying out Uspaskikh’s project to lead a governing coalition, and even weakening his ability to bargain for a share of power in a coalition. However, he is still in a position to disrupt the functioning of the political system if he chooses to join forces with smaller Russian-connected populist groups. These groups, typically led by wealthy individuals, owe their rise to anti-corruption posturing and redistributionist rhetoric targeting the electorate in rural areas bypassed by Lithuania’s overall economic boom.
The distribution of seats in the 141-seat parliament will be as follows:
Labor Party, 39 seats;
Working for Lithuania, the incumbent governing bloc (Social Democrats and Social Liberals), 31 seats;
Fatherland Union/Conservatives, 25 seats;
Liberal and Center Union (right-leaning, pro-business), 18 seats;
Coalition for Order and Justice (populist followers of the recently deposed president Rolandas Paksas), 11 seats;
Farmers’ Union/New Democracy (left-populist, led by Russian-connected, recently defeated presidential candidate Kazimiera Prunskiene), 10 seats;
Polish Electoral Action (left-leaning), 2 seats; and
Independents, 5 seats.
Uspaskikh and Prunskiene have instantly formed a political bloc, and they are counting on several independents and Poles to join them, for a total of 53 seats. Based on the affinity of their programs, the move is designed to force the populists’ way into a coalition government by maximizing their bargaining power vis-a-vis the democratic and Western-oriented parties. These, commonly referred to as traditional parties, are negotiating among themselves toward forming a four-party “rainbow coalition” of Social Democrats, Social Liberals, Fatherland Union, and Liberal and Center Union. Together they hold 74 seats for a narrow majority in parliament.
President Valdas Adamkus as well as most leading figures of these four parties had, even before the second round, called for the formation of a value-based governing coalition to keep the populists out of power. Those common values include the democratic political system, free-market economics, and the Euro-Atlantic orientation. A value-based coalition government is clearly feasible now in the wake of Labor’s second-round setback. Uspaskikh and Prunskiene are alarmed at the prospect of being frozen out of power by a coalition of the four traditional parties. Uspaskikh has lashed out at Adamkus and other proponents of that coalition. Both he and Prunskiene are hoping to tempt the Social-Democrat Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas into inviting them to join a coalition government that would, ipso facto, exclude Fatherland and the Liberal Centrists. Prunskiene is trying to rekindle old, obsolete left-right antagonisms by claiming that it would be “against nature” for the Social Democrats and Social Liberals (the Working for Lithuania bloc) to form a coalition with right-wing parties (BNS, ELTA, Lithuanian Radio, October 23-26).
Two considerations seem to generate some hesitation about forming a value-based government of the traditional parties. One objection suggests that isolation of the populists could result in a dangerous political polarization and social protests. This objection seems, however, to discount the costs of inclusion of disruptive forces into government, or to assume that they are easily co-opted.
A second, possibly fleeting impediment seems to arise from Fatherland’s proposal to form an alliance with the right-leaning Liberal Centrists and, on that basis, demand a predominant share of government posts, including that of prime minister, in a coalition with Working Lithuania. This demand may make some sense as an initial gambit in the normal bargaining process; but, if it persists, it can backfire and make such a coalition impossible. Fatherland’s demand seems already to be prompting Brazauskas into considering parallel negotiations with Uspaskikh and/or Prunskiene. To be sure, Fatherland’s current leader, Andrius Kubilius, has a matchless record in promoting market economic reforms while prime minister (1999-2000), sacrificing his party’s and his own political popularity at that time. In the current situation, however, with populist parties having just garnered more than 40% of the votes cast, the appointment of a right-conservative prime minister could make a large number of voters feel disenfranchised and may accentuate political polarization in the country. By the same token, a prime minister from Working for Lithuania would seem to be better placed to lead a coalition of the traditional parties, one that would exclude the populists while avoiding political and social polarization.