This is a guest post by Dr Raimondas Ibenskas, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton.
The second round of the Lithuanian general election on the 23rd of October resulted in a surprise victory of the Lithuanian Peasant and Greens Union. Having received only one seat in the previous election in 2012, this party scored 56 seats (40% of the total) in the Lithuanian parliament Seimas. Its victory notwithstanding, the party faces a challenge of forming a majority government. Neither the Social Democrats, the leading party in the outgoing centre-left government, nor the main opposition party, the conservative Homeland Union, seem to be keen on joining the coalition government with the Peasants and Greens.
Another major surprise of the election was the poor performance of the incumbent parties. The Social Democrats, despite leading in opinion polls throughout their term, came only distant third in the election after the Peasants and Greens and the Homeland Union, while the Labour Party was diminished from 29 seats in 2012 to 2 in 2016. The electoral decline of the Order and Justice party was more modest, although the party came perilously close to not reaching the 5 percent electoral threshold required for obtaining representation through the PR tier of the electoral system. The electoral losses of government parties could at least partially be attributed to multiple corruption scandals related to some of their politicians. They have also likely been hurt by the major welfare reform implemented shortly before the election. The liberalization of labour relations in the new labour code adopted as part of the reform was negatively perceived by the electorate and openly opposed by trade unions.
The Union of Peasants and Greens was the main beneficiary of this dissatisfaction. The party existed as a minor political force since the early 1990s and was a government coalition partner in 2004-2008. In the 2008 and 2012 parliamentary elections it did not cross the 5 percent electoral threshold, but some of its candidates were elected in single member districts. Despite its name, and somewhat similarly to the coalition between agrarian and green parties in Latvia, the party is socially conservative. On the economic dimension, it can be placed to the left of the centre, thus providing an attractive alternative for the supporters of centre-left government parties. Somewhat ironically, the party is led by one of the wealthiest people in Lithuania Ramūnas Karbauskis, an owner of the Agrokoncernas Group, which was worth an estimated 55 million Euros in 2016. Although elected as an MP, Karbauskis ruled out the possibility of becoming Prime Minister by arguing that his knowledge of foreign languages was insufficient for this position.
Two factors played a crucial role in propelling the Peasants and Greens to the position of the strongest party in Lithuania. First, they managed to attract popular independent Saulius Skvernelis, a Police Commissioner General in 2011-2014 and Minister of Interior in 2014-2016. Although delegated by the Order and Justice Party, he kept his distance from this party and declared in March 2016 that he would be running in the parliamentary election with the Peasants and Greens. Although he did not formally join the party, he was its most visible leader during the election campaign, obtained the highest share of individual preference votes in the PR tier and also won a seat in a single member district in the capital city of Vilnius. While the addition of Skvernelis and several other prominent politicians or personalities provided the party with the image of newness, it may also lead to internal divisions and conflicts. A sign of the things to come was the indication from Karbauskis after the election that his party’s nominee for Prime Minister’s position may not necessarily be Skvernelis, as generally stated during the election campaign; an MEP and long-term insider of the party Bronis Ropė was put forward as an equally likely candidate.
Second, the Peasants and Greens also benefited from the mixed electoral system of Lithuania. Although they gained only 19 seats in the PR tier, thus coming only close second to the Homeland Union, 37 out of 42 of their single member district candidates won seats in the second round of the election (including 2 candidates that ran as independents in their single member districts but were on the party’s list). Being perceived as an attractive second choice for the supporters of most other parties, the Peasant and Green candidates had an advantage over the two major parties – the Homeland Union and the Social Democrats – that did well in the majoritarian tier of the electoral system in most previous elections.
In the aftermath of the election the latter two parties were indicated as potential coalition partners by the Greens and Peasants. Although a coalition with either of them would be a majority one, the Social Democrats may prefer to stay in opposition following their defeat while the Homeland Union insists that any coalition should also include their long-term partner Liberal Movement. The latter, being both economically and socially liberal, and having recently experienced a major corruption scandal involving its former leader, has been ruled out as a coalition partner by Karbauskis. Karbauskis also repeatedly excluded the possibility of the cooperation with the ideologically quite similar Order and Justice party by considering the latter as tainted by corruption allegations. A coalition with the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance would be more feasible, but it would not provide the Peasants and Greens with parliamentary majority. Finally, a single-party minority government of the Peasants and Greens is another possibility, although it was considered as unlikely by some observers.
The strategic situation in parliament therefore suggests that government formation will be an arduous process with an uncertain outcome. Additionally, the Peasants and Greens will have to deal with President Dalia Grybauskaitė, who in 2012 did not shy away from an (unsuccessful) attempt to prevent the inclusion of the Labour Party in the coalition government. Grybauskaitė, although formally independent, is also quite close to centre-right parties, especially the Homeland Union. Although after her first post-election meeting with Karbauskis and Skvernelis she declared that the responsibility for forming a majority coalition government falls on the Peasants and Greens and that she will not initiate “artificial” coalitions, she also indicated that she will actively shape the selection of ministers. The Peasants and Greens only need to look at the experience of the Labour Party, whose multiple ministerial candidates were rejected by President after the 2012 election, to know that this may prove as an important challenge to putting together a new government.
Raimondas Ibenskas is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Southampton. His research interests lie in the field of comparative politics with a specific focus on political parties and party systems. The main strand of his research examines key, yet under-studied aspects of instability of political parties, such as party splits, mergers, and electoral coalitions, in both Western and Eastern Europe.