Lithuania’s president throws post-election coalition talks into disarray

Lithuanian’s highly respected president, Dalia Grybauskaitė, has upended what everyone thought would be a broad leftist coalition following the second and final round of Lithuanian parliamentary elections on Sunday.

Following a victory by the social democratic Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija (LSDP, Social Democratic Party of Lithuania), which won 38 seats after the first round on October 14 and October 28, it seemed likely that the Social Democrats would form the next government, a coalition headed by Social Democratic leader and former finance minister Algirdas Butkevičius.

It had always been expected that Butkevičius would lead a broad center-left coalition with the support of the more populist Darbo Partija (DP, Labour Party), led by Russian-born Viktor Uspaskich, which won 19.95% of the first-round vote on October 14 to just 18.46% for the Social Democrats and 14.90% for outgoing prime minister Andrius Kubilius’s center-right Tėvynės sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai (TS-LKD, Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats).

That October 14 vote determined the 70 seats allocated to Lithuania’s parliament, the Seimas, by proportional representation.  The remaining 71 seats were determined by single-member district votes, many of which were determined in the runoff votes held last Sunday, after which the Social Democrats emerged as the largest force, followed closely by Homeland Union with 33 seats and Labour with 29.

Indeed, the Social Democrats, Labour and a third party — Tvarka ir teisingumas (TT, Order and Justice) — had agreed an electoral pact to form a government.  Together, the three parties would command an absolute majority of 79 seats.  So the outcome seemed more or less a fait accompli.

Until Monday, when Grybauskaitė intervened, arguing that Labour is, essentially, unfit for government, and pledging not to nominate a prime minister who will govern with Labour support:

…Grybauskaite said she refused to back a coalition which included Labor, which stands accused of buying votes during the two rounds of voting.

“A party which is suspected of gross violations in the election, which is suspected of false accounting and non-transparent activities cannot participate in the government’s formation,” the president told reporters.

She said police were investigating 27 election irregularities, 18 of which concerned alleged vote buying, with the Labor Party accused of involvement in most of them.

Grybauskaitė, a political independent, is a highly-respected former European Commission for Financial Programming and the Budget from 2004 to 2009.  In the May 2009 presidential election, she became Lithuania’s first head of state by winning a whopping 69.1% victory, with her closest rival Butkevičius at 11.8% support.

On Wednesday, however, the three parties invited a fourth party, the Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija (AWPL, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania; Akcja Wyborcza Polaków na Litwie in Polish), a Christian democratic party devoted to ethnic Polish issues, into their coalition talks, which would give it 87 seats — more than the 85-vote majority it would need to override a presidential veto.  So it’s unclear that Butkevičius and his electoral allies are willing to back down, potentially setting up a constitutional showdown with Grybauskaitė, who is Lithuania’s most popular public figure by far.

Her concern about Butkevičius’s potential coalition partners is justified.  Uspaskich is under suspicion for corruption scandals with respect to the leadership of his party and criminal fraud charges, in addition to the accusations of vote-buying during the more recent 2012 elections, and Uspaskich even spent much of 2006 and 2007 more or less in hiding in Russia.  Indeed, his Russian background has long made Europe and the United States wary of Uspaskich’s role in any government for a country that only recently joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Furthermore, the leader of Order and Justice is hardly any better — former president Rolandas Paksas was impeached in 2004 after just a year in office after having offered citizenship to a Russian campaign donor.

 The problem is that Kubilius is loathe to join a ‘grand’ coalition with his center-left rivals, the Social Democrats, who have promised a more growth-oriented approach in Lithuania.  Despite an economy that’s growing once again (6% in 2011), the Lithuanian economy contracted 15% in the wake of the global financial crisis in 2008-09, and unemployment remains high at around 13%.  Lithuania hasn’t been forced to take any bailout money from the European Union or the International Monetary Fund, but Kubilius’s government has worked hard to bring Lithuania’s budget deficit within 3% of GDP in hopes of brining the Baltic nation into the eurozone.  Butkevičius, for his part, promised to create jobs, introduce a new progressive income tax and minimum salaries.

Although Butkevičius has been less stridently anti-euro than he’s been during earlier stages of the campaign, it’s by no means clear that he would want Kubilius as a governing partner, either.  Even if they did join forces, they’d command just 68 seats, something short of a minority, unless Kubilius’s one-time coalition partners, Liberalų Sąjūdis (LRLS, Liberal Movement), which is liberal on both social and economic issues, also joined the coalition.  The Liberals won just 10 seats, but together, Homeland Union and the Liberals would outnumber the Social Democrats in their own caucus.

Another alternative would be for Butkevičius to form a ‘rainbow’ coalition of all parties, excepting Homeland Union (which would remain as the center-right opposition) and the ostracized Labour.  Together, the Social Democrats, the Liberals and Order and Justice would command just 59 seats, but could potentially cobble another eight seats from the Polish party, and seven seats from the new movement-based, anti-corruption Way of Courage, which won seven seats.  Three independent and another MP elected from the agrarian, leftist Peasant and Greens Union, might also be persuaded to join.


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