Lithuanian left closes in on victory in advance of Oct. 14 parliamentary elections

It’s a great autumn for post-Soviet elections — not less than a month after a less-than-fair Belarusian election and after an upset in parliamentary elections in Georgia, and with Ukrainian elections set for the end of the month, another former Soviet republic is set to go to the polls in just two weeks — Lithuania, the largest and most populous of the three Baltic states.

In nearly every election since 1992, Lithuanians have see-sawed every four years between more right-wing and left-wing parties.  So after a more left-wing coalition governed from 2004 to 2008, Andrius Kubilius (pictured above with, heh, Santa Claus), who previously served as prime minister from 1999 to 2000, returned as prime minister as the leader of Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats).

And now, as the first round of this month’s elections approach on October 14, both of Lithuania’s two largest left-wing parties look set to return to power, with promises to end the current government’s austerity measures in order to focus on unemployment.

Lithuania’s Seimas, (in full, the Lietuvos Respublikos Seimas, or the Lithuanian National Parliament) is the Baltic nation’s 141-member unicameral legislature.  Members are elected for a set four-year term — 71 of the seats are elected in individual districts, whereas the remaining 70 seats are elected under proportional representation.  The threshold is 5% of the national vote for a single party and 7% for a multi-party coalition running together on the same slate.  The strict proportional representation members will be elected on October 14, while voting in individual districts will take place on October 14 and October 28 (in the event of a runoff between the top two candidates — in order to avoid a runoff, a candidate must win (i) an absolute majority with a turnout of over 40% or (ii) an absolute majority representing at least 20% of the registered voters in the constituency).

Even under the relatively high proportional representation standards for election to the Seimas, Lithuania has a fairly high number of parties, but two parties in particular seem to dominate Lithuanian politics: Homeland Union and the Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania).  The Social Democrats were the largest party in the coalition that emerged after the 2004 election, and look set to return in that role.

The leader of the Social Democrats, Algirdas Butkevičius, was the party’s presidential candidate in 2009, and he placed second (the independent candidate, Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania’s former European Commissioner, won the largely figurehead role in a landslide victory).  Butkevičius also previously served as finance minister and as transport and communications minister between 2004 and 2008.  It will be the first election since the death of Algirdas Brazauskas, who founded the party and served as Lithuania’s president in the 1990s and a prime minister from 2001 to 2006 — and was notably the head of the Communist Party in Lithuania in 1988 and 1989 and was among the first to break with Moscow, which helped usher the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Kubilius’s current government, led by Homeland Union, has taken significant political criticism after implementing drastic budget cuts and presiding over an economic depression from which the country is only just emerging.  After high single-digit growth throughout the 2000s, Lithuania suffered a painful 15% contraction in 2009.  Lithuania returned (barely) to GDP growth in 2010 and even hit nearly 6% growth in 2011, but unemployment remains high at 12.9% (as of August 2012), down from a crisis high of 15%.

Seven other parties may well win seats in the Seimas:

  • The Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), a party more populist than leftist, led by the controversial Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, who fled Lithuania from 2006 to 2007 over a party funding scandal and potential violations in income law.  Uspaskich returned in 2008, however, and the party in this election has leapt to the top of polls on its promise to cut unemployment and boost government spending as well.
  • Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice) is another populist party with similarly flexible ideology that has shifted from liberal to conservative in its time — its also-controversial leader Rolandas Paksas is a former president of Lithuania, from 2003-04, until he was impeached for granting citizenship to a political donor.  Paksas has been embroiled in a constitutional court tussle regarding whether he will be allowed to even stand for the Seimas.
  • Liberalų Sąjūdis (LRLS, Liberal Movement) is a socially liberal and free-market liberal party that, alone among Lithuania’s major parties, supports gay marriage.
  • Liberalų ir centro sąjunga (LiCS, Liberal and Center Union) is another small liberal party, into which the Tautos prisikėlimo partija (National Resurrection Party) merged in 2011.
  • Tėvynės atgimimas ir perspektyva (TAIP, YES – Homeland Revival and Perspective) is a new center-right party formed last year by Artūras Zuokas, mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital, from 2000 to 2007 and again since 2011.  The party aims to promote Christian values and “responsible liberalism.”
  • Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų sąjunga (LVŽS, Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union) is an agrarian, center-left party (which changed its name to add a “green” element in 2012).
  • Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija (AWPL, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania) is an essentially Christian Democratic party that represents the interests of ethnic Poles.
Homeland Union currently governs with the support of the Liberal and Center Union (including the former National Resurrection Party) and the Liberal Movement.

In the 2008 election, Homeland Union won the most seats (45) on a total vote of 19.7%, followed by the Social Democrats with 25 seats and 11.7%, although the National Resurrection party won 15.1% and 16 seats, Order and Justice won 12.7% and 15 seats, the Labour Party won 9.0% and 10 seats, the Liberal Movement won 5.7% and 11 seats and the Liberal and Centre Union won 5.3% and 8 seats (the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania won 4.79% and the Lithuanian Peasant Popular Union won 3.73%, each with three seats apiece).

The latest polls, however, show a resurgence on the left, with the Social Democrats leading on 16.3% of the vote, followed by the Labour Party with 14.5% and Order and Justice with 9.5%.  Despite the more center-right bent of Order and Justice, the three parties have agreed to explore a governing coalition together following the elections, which has caused some alarm, given the hijinks of both Uspaskich, the Labour Party leader, and Paksas, the leader of Order and Justice.

Each of the governing coalition parties are flagging, however — Homeland Union trails with just 7.6%, the Liberal Movement with 4.8% and the newly-merged Liberal and Center Union with just 2.2%.

Meanwhile, TAIP wins 3.7%, the Peasant and Green Union 2.3% and the Poles 1.9%.

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