Lithuania Bucks the Trend

17 June 2019


If the lesson of last month’s election to the European Parliament is that the “establishment” is struggling, then count Lithuania out. Voters across Europe shifted from traditional center-right and center-left parties towards Euroskeptics and national-conservatives on the one hand, and fervently pro-EU liberals and greens on the other. By contrast, in Lithuania, the center-right Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats and the center-left Lithuanian Social Democratic Party, the two most successful parties since independence nearly thirty years ago, finished first and second. The country’s fractured party system has seen much turbulence. But this May’s elections—Lithuanians chose a new president in addition to MEPs (Members of European Parliament)—suggest that its political establishment is doing just fine.


The clear winner was the Homeland Union, the progeny of the Lithuanian independence movement Sąjudis and colloquially known as “conservatives.” The party falls squarely within the pro-EU center-right European People’s Party dominated by Angela Merkel’s CDU, and like its Western European counterparts, it has drifted away from its conservative and Christian-democratic roots. The Homeland Union slightly improved on its performance in the previous European election, and received 20 percent of the vote and three MEPs instead of two. And though its presidential candidate Ingrida Simonyte lost in the runoff, Gitanas Nauseda’s victory was hardly a blow. Nauseda, a banker and economist with close ties to the Scandinavian banking group SEB, shares many of the Homeland Union’s policy positions and nearly entered the party’s presidential primary before deciding to run as an independent— a deft move, given the electorate’s distrust of politicians. The Homeland Union clearly faces a solid ceiling to its electoral support as Nauseda’s convincing victory in the runoff shows; having won the first round, Simonyte actually lost votes in the second. But while its brand remains controversial, the ideas it represents are popular.


The center-left and pro-EU Social Democrats finished a surprise second and managed to keep their two MEPs, despite a slightly decreased vote share. Given their recent struggles, the result is a coup. After running the country from 2012 to 2016, the party finished third in the nation’s parliamentary election three years ago and was demoted to a minor coalition partner. Subsequently, half of Social Democrats’ MPs left the party in response to a decision by the new leadership to withdraw into opposition. What’s more, the party’s presidential candidate, European Commissioner Vytenis Andiukaitis—most famous outside of Lithuania for his “facepalm” at Nigel Farage—received only six percent of the vote, finishing a distant fourth. The European election suggests, however, that the Social Democrats’ underlying health is fine.


On the other hand, the lasting power of the Lithuanian Farmers and Green Union, the current party of government, is less clear. A minnow until its unexpected victory in the 2016 parliamentary election, in which it leaped from one seat to 54 (out of a total of 141), the party can be described as centrist populist—an ambiguous label that probably best captures its oxymoronic name as well as its idiosyncratic ideology that mingles regionalism, technocratic impulses, and an interest in sustainability, without the cultural and economic radicalism of Western European greens. Though the party’s performance was the best to date in a European election, it received only about half the votes it did in its 2016 domestic rout. Adding to misery, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis failed to make the presidential runoff. While it’s too early to write-off the Farmers and Greens, the recent results raise the prospect of a fate common to Lithuanian populists: a swift meteoric rise in the polls followed by a slide into irrelevancy.


Overall, then, last month’s elections suggest that the Lithuanian political establishment is doing well. The Homeland Union and the Social Democrats are better organized and have more members than the other parties, which allows them to weather the electorate’s periodic wrath, especially after a period in government—no party has ever won successive parliamentary elections, ironically perhaps a sign of the country’s immature democracy. In addition, the Farmers and Greens have faced a largely hostile media, though some of the party’s woes are self-inflicted: at the end of the Presidential campaign the party chairman threatened to take the party into opposition if Skvernelis failed to make the runoff, a threat he subsequently walked back.


A further reason for the strength of the establishment is the absence of major divisions, characteristic of other European countries, on topics such as culture, immigration, and the EU. For now, Lithuania remains socially conservative and ethnically and culturally homogeneous. Due to its geographic position, it has not had to face Central Europe’s migrant crisis or the accompanying debates over Islam and multiculturalism (of the few refugees settled in Lithuania, reportedly over 70 percent have since left for Germany or Scandinavia). Overall Lithuanians are pro-EU – polls show that trust in the EU is the highest among Lithuanians – and they see it as a counterweight to Russia and a guarantor of freedom, all the while benefiting from EU subsidies within Lithuania and opportunities for work outside. Without such divisions, populist parties struggle to sustain their appeal: coming to power on a wave of general discontent with politics-as-usual is easier than keeping it without a cause to defend.


It’s important to note that populism in Lithuania has not been tied to Euroskepticism. The Farmers and Greens, for example, are no less pro-EU than the establishment. There is no serious political force similar to Salvini’s Lega (Italy), the Law and Justice Party (Poland), the Brexit Party (UK), or Fidesz (Hungary).


At the same time, one cannot help but wonder whether this will last. The presidential election saw bids from candidates with more national-conservative and Euroskeptic messages. Most noteworthy of these was Arvydas Juozaitis, whose standing as founding member of Sąjudis (and Olympic medalist in the breaststroke) helped raise national sovereignty and eurofederalism as topics of discussion, even if he failed to find electoral success (Juozaitis received 4 percent of the vote). If pressure on Lithuania grows to adopt the social progressivism and multiculturalism increasingly characteristic of Western Europe, conflict may arise. This could create an opening for a more national-conservative and Euroskeptic populist party, particularly if the pressure is seen to come from Brussels.


And yet, it’s far from clear whether Lithuanians would be willing to resist the ever-closer union. Since regaining independence, Lithuania has been consumed by a passion to be Western. Emigration to other European countries has been rampant, and the country has lost a quarter of its population. Unlike the Soviet Union, the EU isn’t tainted by obvious historical wrongdoing, such as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or a decades-long occupation. And unlike, say, Poland or Hungary, Lithuania lacks a genuine history of independence and freedom—before the collapse of the USSR, a sovereign Lithuanian state had existed only between the two world wars and been a democracy for less than half the time. While the struggle of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes against the Teutonic Order may provide a ready-made narrative for a skillful Euroskeptic politician to employ, it is unclear where the momentum for such resistance would come from – at least in the absence of some unexpected major controversy. It remains to be seen how jealous Lithuanians will be as guardians of their national sovereignty. But the case of Vytautas Landsbergis may be instructive: the once leader of Sąjudis—whose grandson presently runs the Homeland Union—has transformed from a fearless critic of the Soviet empire into an enthusiastic supporter of EU integration.


Photo Credit: Patrick Janieck, Le Palais Presidentiel, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.


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