The right-wing political parties have, regrettably, won the 2020 parliamentary election in Lithuania. The conservative Homeland Union — Lithuanian Christian Democrats managed to gain 50 seats in the Seimas (the Lithuanian parliament), while two liberal parties — the Liberal Movement and the Freedom Party — won 13 and 11 seats, respectively. They will thus be able to form a majority government, backed by 74 of 141 MPs in parliament.
There is a clear loser in this election: the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) under the leadership of Gintautas Paluckas, who boasted about renewing the party, achieved its worst result since the historic merger between the Lithuanian Democratic Labour Party (LDLP) and the LSDP in 2000. Ever since the early 1990s, the main two political parties were the conservatives and the LDLP, later transformed into the LSDP. The diminishing electoral returns for the LSDP in the last two parliamentary elections in 2016 and 2020 is thus an important, albeit unfortunate shift in the country’s party landscape. The main political cleavage today has become between the Lithuanian Peasants and Greens Union (LPGU) on the one hand, and the conservatives on the other.
Although the LPGU’s electoral support diminished considerably compared to 2016 when they won 54 seats, the LPGU still managed to win a large number of votes. In this respect, it would be wrong to say that they ‘lost’ the elections as such. With 32 seats, the LPGU is the second-biggest party in the Seimas and will thus be the main opposition party. This was not the case for the LSDP, which ever since the election in 2016 dropped to third and now fourth place overall. In 2016, the LSDP lost mainly due to its controversial push to liberalize labour laws, which then-leader and former Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius advanced towards the end of his term.
Cultural and Economic Cleavages
This shift in the party system is rather bizarre, given that the two political parties — the Peasants and Greens Union and the Homeland Union — exhibit considerable similarities. On the one hand, the LPGU is socially conservative: they support ‘family values’ and oppose LGBT rights (although there are several exceptions, one of them being Tomas Tomilinas), but remain committed to addressing social and economic inequality. Similarly, the Christian Democratic fraction of the Homeland Union also promotes ‘family values’ and is quite uncomfortable with LGBT rights. Furthermore, the conservatives are willing to move to the centre as far as economic policy is concerned (in fact, their 2020 electoral platform was far more socially oriented than in past years).
However, it is important to note that the dominant wing of the Homeland Union with its leader Gabrielius Lansbergis and the non-partisan leader of the Ingrida Šimonytė electoral list, set to become the Prime Minister of Lithuania, is rather liberal on both economic and cultural issues. This is evident in the newly signed coalition agreement: although contained in a supplemental section, the agreement hints at legalizing same-sex unions (but not marriage) and soft drugs. This, no doubt, is the work of the Freedom Party, a split from the Liberal Union, which campaigned hard against, what they and the dominant media called the “prohibition culture of the peasants”.
The 2020 election illustrates a kind of inversion of the party system found in Poland, where the main cleavage is between the socially conservative yet economically populist Law and Justice (PiS) party and the culturally liberal yet economically neoliberal Civil Platform (PO). Lithuanian electoral politics does not favour concentration of political power through re-elections of the party in government. Thus, the culture of a ‘political pendulum’ makes the victory of the ruling parties difficult (in fact, only Algirdas Brazauskas, the former president, prime minister, and leader of the LSDP managed to get re-elected and form a government twice in a row). Yet the dominant and most established political party in Lithuania today is the Homeland Union, which is far more liberal than PiS in Poland, while the socially conservative and economically left-wing Peasants and Greens are relatively new to government. The significance of this shift in the party system is that the left-wing electorate based in rural and urban areas — the less privileged, lower-income, and less-educated segments of society — are no longer represented by the LSDP and thus tend to vote for the Peasants and the Labour Party (led by the notorious millionaire Viktor Uspaskich).
Ex-Communists, Clientelism, and Corruption
From an electoral point of view, the winners of the first round (Elections in Lithuania are set using both a majority vote and through proportional representation and are held in two rounds) apart from the Homeland Union (24.9 percent) and Peasants and Greens (17.4 percent) were the Freedom Party (9.11 percent) and the Labour Party (9.4 percent). The fact that the Labour Party (LP) exists is, ultimately, a long-standing failure of the LSDP. The LP is a party bereft of ideology, a typical post-Soviet, one-man party formed around clientelism. A millionaire runs it, yet it targets its appeals at the urban and rural proletariat. The LP was formed in 2003 as a reaction to the liberal policies of the LSDP then run by ex-Communist Algirdas Brazauskas. The fact that the party still exists and is electorally successful is a sign of Lithuania’s stalled and in many ways failed post-Soviet transition. More importantly, it is a consequence of the absence of a properly left-wing political party linked to the actual working class.
As mentioned above, the Freedom Party split from the Liberal Union (LU) after a massive corruption scandal when its former leader Eligijus Masiulis was caught taking a bribe of 100,000 euro from MG Baltic, a major Lithuanian corporation. The case is now in court and her guilt is yet to be established, but it marked one of the biggest corruption scandals in Lithuanian history. Given that the party was only established in October 2019, it is more surprising that it managed to become the fifth-largest force (winning 11 seats, the same amount as the LSDP) in the Seimas today. It attracted liberally minded urban voters (mostly young professionals) due to its clear rhetoric and successful election campaign based on three issues: legalizing soft drugs, a pro-LGBT stance, and the promise to improve and invest in education.
The fact that its figureheads, Vilnius mayor Remigijus Šimašius who worked for the notorious Lithuanian Free Market Institute and party leader Aušrinė Armonaitė, are hardcore economic neoliberals did not play much of a role in people’s decision to vote for them. The notorious corruption scandal was completely forgotten and their opponents did nothing to remind voters about it. Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, the new leader of the Liberal Union, and her moderate rhetoric restored what the party lost due to the scandal in 2016. Over all, the success of the two liberal parties — together they have 24 MPs — shows that a socially and culturally progressive agenda (on human rights, LGBT issues, etc.) is seen as having no bearing on and even de-coupled from progressive economic policy. To be modern and ‘cool’ also means to be economically successful, to be someone who is able to project his or her success without thinking about the need for strong welfare institutions.
Social Democracy Splutters
The key question, of course, is why the Social Democrats were so unsuccessful. A minor reason boils down to a split from its ranks: the Lithuanian Social Democratic Labour Party (LSDLP), led by ex-Prime Minister Gediminas Kirkilas. It was established in 2017 when key LSDP MPs refused the party’s decision to leave the governing coalition with the Peasants and Greens. Gintautas Paluckas, the leader of the LSDP, embarked on a programme of renewal: democratization of the party, a return to European Social Democracy, and a cleaning house of the opportunist politicians who ran the party, most of whom were ex-Communists. Although the split improved their image as a ‘modern, pro-European Social Democratic party,’ it also split the vote (the LSDLP got 3.1 percent through proportional representation and won three seats in the Seimas in the second round).
However, a more important reason of the failure was the LSDP’s lukewarm electoral campaign. After leaving the governing coalition, the remaining Social Democratic MPs signed an opposition agreement with the conservatives and liberals in the parliament. This was a tactical mistake for a number of reasons. First, their distinct voice against the Peasants government was lost and, as a result, they became the main allies of their archenemy — the Homeland Union. The dominant media (including the state broadcaster) portrayed the Peasants as immoral, ‘uncool,’ and not European enough, while the LSDP leadership, instead of attacking the conservatives, played along and criticized the Peasants (only rarely, if at all, supporting their progressive economic agenda). Hence, the mild rhetoric and lack of clear-cut electoral messaging sank the voice of LSDP in the general boredom of Lithuanian politics.
The feeble leadership of Gintautas Paluckas was also an important factor. Paluckas lost three elections in a row while leading the party: the 2019 Vilnius municipal elections (there is not a single Social Democrat in the Vilnius city council), an election in a single-member constituency in Vilnius, Žirmūnai, and in the majority constituency in Utena in the 2020 parliamentary election (he entered the Seimas through proportional representation). The 2019 failure in Žirmūnai was especially painful because Mr. Paluckas, trying to run the party without being an MP, lost to a relatively unknown member of the Homeland Union, despite a lot of resources and money being spent on his individual campaign at the expense of the party’s broader efforts in October 2020. He never acknowledged his culpability in any of these failures. Finally, the LSDP’s electoral list was rather dull. Although it contained a number of young and progressive people, they were either unknown to the public or were people who did not have anything of substance to say.
This failure is especially sad given that the Social Democrats had a decent opportunity to mobilize urban voters who were unhappy with the Peasants and their ‘politics of prohibition’ on the one hand, and attack the conservatives and liberals for their double standards and elitism on the other. Nothing of the sort was done. This failure may wind up being the final nail in the Lithuanian Social Democrats’ coffin, who until now have managed to withstand the fate of Central and Eastern Europe in its lurch towards right-wing populism.
This article was published by Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. under the title “The 2020 Elections in Lithuania — A victory for the Right and a colossal failure for the Social Democrats.” Its author Andrius Bielskis is co-founder of the DEMOS Institute of Critical Thought in Vilnius.
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