Lithuanian Conservative leader Andrius Kubilius made history as prime minister in 1999-2000, when he and the Conservative parliamentary majority kick-started unpopular market economic reforms, at the cost of the party’s electoral fortune. But some Conservatives risk jeopardizing those historic gains and diminishing their record if they unwittingly pave the way for left-populist forces to join the government in the wake of Lithuania’s recent parliamentary elections.
The October parliamentary elections resulted in a narrow majority (74 out of 141 seats) for parties that, since 2001, had acted as natural allies in achieving record-high economic growth, continuity of parliamentary democracy, and membership in NATO and the European Union. These parties are the Social-Democrat-led incumbent governing bloc Working for Lithuania, the Conservatives, and the pro-business Liberal and Center Union (31 seats, 25 seats, and 18 seats, respectively). Referred to as “traditional parties,” they committed themselves prior to the October 24 runoffs to forming a “value-based coalition” after the elections.
Those Western-oriented parties face a left-populist bloc consisting of Russian-born tycoon Viktor Uspaskikh’s upstart Labor Party and Russian-connected politician Kazimiera Prunskiene’s Farmers’ Union/New Democracy (39 seats and 10 seats, respectively, plus several left-leaning deputies who support them). This bloc offers to join Working for Lithuania in a coalition government that would ensure Uspaskikh’s predominance, split the democratic forces, and relegate the Conservatives and Liberal Centrists to the opposition.
On October 25, the Western-oriented parties began negotiating toward a value-based coalition that would bar the left-populists’ entry into government. However, the power-sharing negotiations came close to collapse as early as October 28. The Conservatives are making disproportionate demands, and Working for Lithuania is overreacting by opening negotiations with Uspaskikh and Prunskiene about a possible coalition government with them. The Conservatives’ negotiating stance could unwittingly usher in just such an outcome, which would be anathema to the Conservatives themselves.
Conservatives initially demanded the prime minister post for their party and a distribution of government posts proportionate to each party’s number of parliamentary seats. It was unclear whether these proposals counted Working for Lithuania’s two components — the Social Democrats and Social Liberals — as separate parties, although they are completing their merger into one party; or whether the same Conservative proposals counted the Conservatives and Liberal Centrists as one bloc, although they are clearly distinct parties. Kubilius then proposed a rotation system whereby Social Democrats and Social Liberals would alternate with Conservatives and Liberal Centrists in the posts of prime minister, parliamentary chairman, and various ministerial posts for the next four years.
When these demands were turned down, Kubilius proposed that Working for Lithuania form a minority government without Conservative members, though with Conservative parliamentary support on terms to be negotiated. These rapidly changing proposals seem designed primarily to emphasize the Conservatives’ special position, not to cement a broad-based consensus. They also seem to reflect a reluctance to assume the responsibilities of shared governance.
Working for Lithuania insists on retaining Social-Democrat Algirdas Brazauskas and Social-Liberal Arturas Paulauskas as prime minister and parliamentary chairman, respectively (they have held those posts since 2001), as well as six ministerial posts. The bloc’s leaders regard the proposed rotation as destabilizing and contravening the constitution and laws that stipulate that a prime minister’s resignation automatically entails the resignation of the entire government, requiring the formation of a new cabinet and parliamentary approval of its program. A four-party coalition would find this exercise difficult in any circumstances, let alone with a parliament where leftist-populist parties are strongly represented.
Faced with such demands, Working for Lithuania leaders rushed on October 28 to begin parallel negotiations with the Uspaskikh-Prunskiene bloc in response to its offer. Within hours, Conservatives announced their withdrawal from the negotiations toward a value-based government and accused the Social Democrats/Social Liberals of having intended from the outset to bring the left-populists into the government.
The Uspaskikh-Prunskiene offer may look tempting to Working for Lithuania’s leaders, because it would produce a clear majority of 84 in the 141-seat parliament. But it is a dangerous offer, because the left-populists would outnumber Working for Lithuania by 53 to 31 in this combination. Working for Lithuania’s leaders optimistically expect Uspaskikh’s and Prunskiene’s parties to abandon their budget-busting campaign promises. Meanwhile, Uspaskikh and Prunskiene demand the ministries of economics, transport, and agriculture, which would enable their two parties to control the distribution of a substantial part of the funds forthcoming to Lithuania from the European Union. The governing Working for Lithuania bloc was unwilling to concede those posts to Conservatives and Liberal Centrists; but it may have to concede them, however reluctantly, to Uspaskikh and Prunskiene if Conservatives do not cooperate in forming a value-based government with the other traditional parties.
Liberal Centrists — whose leaders are close to President Valdas Adamkus — refuse to participate in any government that would include Uspaskikh’s Labor Party. The Liberal Centrist leader and Vilnius mayor Arturas Zuokas is publicly reminding both the Conservatives and the Social Democrats/Social Liberals of their recently signed, four-party agreement to form a government that would guarantee stable governance and continuity of internal and foreign policies. Zuokas and other Liberal Centrists criticize the Conservatives’ “ambitions and rigidity” and the Social Democrats/Social Liberals’ “dual negotiating tactics” for the breakdown in the four-party negotiations toward a value-based government. Such is also the editorial stance of Lietuvos Rytas, the country’s leading daily newspaper, and of other seasoned observers who favor a coalition of the traditional parties.
Lithuania’s top Conservative figure, former head of state Vytautas Landsbergis, who is now a European Parliament deputy, has stated that he would hail a value-based government, but that its formation would turn into a difficult test for the parties. His observation from Brussels is being borne out on both counts. However, Conservatives in Vilnius can prove that the test is by no means insuperable (BNS, ELTA, October 25-November 1).