This is a guest post by Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University and Researcher at General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania
On July 12th, Gitanas Nausėda will be sworn into office as president of the Republic of Lithuania. Nausėda, who is 55, is a former chief economist at SEB bank. He defeated former Finance Minister Ingrida Šimonytė with 67% of votes in the second round of the presidential election. In his first address to the nation, on the evening election results were announced, Mr Nausėda promised that “from this day forward things will be different.”
Who is Gitanas Nausėda?
Lithuania‘s incoming president is a long-time chief economist of SEB bank, and an associate professor at the International Business School at Vilnius University. He has a degree in economics and holds a PhD in social sciences. He previously worked at the Competition Council of the Republic of Lithuania and at the Bank of Lithuania. During the presidential election campaign, Nausėda declared his intention to unite Lithuania‘s political parties and increase political cohesion, promote the openness of the presidential institution, and seek to establish a welfare state. Nevertheless, the presidential election campaign and Nausėda‘s public pronouncements tell us little of his political character and personality.
During the presidential election campaign, Mr Nausėda demonstrated openness, participated in debates, visited Lithuania‘s regions and probably intended to distance himself from President Dalia Grybauskaitė‘s style of communication. On the other hand, it has been difficult to pinpoint the ideology and main political principles that Mr Nausėda represents. Some analysts (such as Šarūnas Liekis) have referred to Gitanas Nausėda as a candidate who lacks character and is supported by business interest groups.
The composition of the president‘s team does not shed much further light on the new president‘s political program. The formation of the president‘s team is still underway and its membership remains unclear. Although the new president has not been communicative about his new advisors, he has made it clear that he prefers professionals from academia and the diplomatic corps to political party members. So far, only a couple of names are known: Aistis Zabarauskas, who was responsible for communication during Nausėdas‘ election campaign, and Povilas Mačiulis, a former vice mayor of the Kaunas city municipality. Among potential foreign policy advisors, the name of Linas Kojala, director of Eastern Europe Studies Center, a PhD student at Vilnius University, was mentioned, but Mr Kojala declined the offer. Under circumstances such as these, when a president does not have extensive political experience, his choice of domestic and foreign policy advisors might give a strong indication of his future politics, but in this case Lithuanians will have to wait a bit longer.
Why did Gitanas Nausėda win the presidential election?
When Gitanas Nausėda announced his decision to run for president in the autumn of 2018, some analysts (Kęstutis Girnius, for instance) were sceptical about his chances to win the election as an independent, nonpartisan candidate without experience in politics. However, during the presidential campaign, public opinion polls (SPINTER, Baltijos tyrimai, Vilmorus) constantly mentioned Mr Nausėda as one of the top presidential candidates.
Several factors could have contributed to Nausėda‘s victory in the presidential election. First may actually have been the fact that he ran as an independent, nonpartisan candidate. Some analysts claim that in Lithuania‘s presidential election many people voted not for Gitanas Nausėda, but against Ingrida Šimonytė who was supported by the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats. During the presidential election campaign, Gitanas Nausėda consistently highlighted his independence from any political party. This proved to be a wise strategy since Lithuanians do not trust political parties. Public polls demonstrate that political parties are the least trusted political institution in Lithuania: according to the latest polls (Vilmorus: June 2019), only 6.2% of Lithuanians trust political parties (in comparison, 58.2% of Lithuanians trust the presidential institution). Second, Nausėda‘s opponent‘s election campaign was not aggressive enough: under criticism for poor management of the 2008 financial crisis (she was Finance minister back then), Ingrida Šimonytė chose to talk about future plans instead of effectively countering criticism of her past performance. Third, for some of the voters Gitanas Nausėda embodied an example of the classical ideal family, in contrast to his opponent and current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. Finally, Lithuania‘s 2019 presidential election once again shows that the electorate tends to vote for „hope“ and new faces in politics.
How might Nausėda‘s foreign policy look like?
So far, it seems that the new president will follow up on his earlier expressed foreign policy ideas. It is already known that for the first official state visit the new president of Lithuania will continue a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus (interrupted by D. Grybauskaitė) by going to Poland (the visit is scheduled for 16 July). Soon after the election, Mr Nausėda also reaffirmed his intention to maintain the current foreign policy line towards Russia, while also claiming that he will aim to be more diplomatic. The current minister of foreign affairs, Linas Linkevičius, states that there will not be any strategic changes in Lithuania‘s foreign policy.
During the presidential election campaign, Mr. Nausėda expressed support for Lithuania‘s status quo policy and pro-Western orientation based on membership in NATO and the European Union: he claimed to perceive the United States as a security guarantor and one of the most important allies of Lithuania; emphasized the importance of a value-based foreign policy and a strict position towards Russia; underscored the need for stronger cooperation with Poland; and stressed the need for closer cooperation with Latvia and Estonia, and for regular meetings with Baltic leaders.
Some analysts claim that in the 2019 presidential election the Lithuanian electorate demonstrated its political maturity. Indeed, Lithuanians gave their support for the candidates with a declared pro-EU and pro-NATO orientation. On the other hand, the electorate voted in the second round for the candidate who does not have any political experience. Thus, Lithuania‘s presidential election results still confirm a general trend to vote for new faces in politics.