Lithuania – Presidential Election Campaign to Reach the Finish

This weekend, on May 12th, Lithuanians will be electing their new president for the next 5 years. Presidential elections campaign, that some experts initially named “boring”, “indistinct”, and “without strategy”, currently is in full swing: from announcing the decision to run for a president in remote village to leaving the national debates in TV studio in a protest, presidential candidates reveal  a wide spectrum of possible choices for Lithuanians. However, it does not seem that the presidential elections of 2019 would transform Lithuania’s foreign policy: policy domain that is an prerogative of the president.

The final official list has 9 candidates: Arvydas Juozaitis, a writer, philosopher, one of the leaders of Sąjūdis (Independence from the USSR movement, established in 1987);  Gitanas Nausėda, a former chief economist of SEB bank; Ingrida Šimonytė, a former Finance minister, the only female candidate, current member of the parliament; Mindaugas Puidokas, political scientist, current member of the Parliament; Naglis Puteikis, a historian, current member of the Parliament; Saulius Skvernelis, former chief of police, current Prime minister; Valdemaras Tomaševskis, Polish origin Lithuanian politician, member of the European Parliament; Valentinas Mazuronis, member of European Parliament; Vytenis Andriukaitis, a former Health minister, current EU  Commissioner  for Health and Food Safety. According to the law, a person can run for president if he/she is at least 40 years old Lithuanian born citizen and has lived in Lithuania for the last 3 years. Latest public polls (by Vilmorus, for instance) suggest that the three frontrunners who could pass to the second round on the 26th of May are: Ingrida Šimonytė (22.3%), Gitanas Nausėda (21.9%), and Saulius Skvernelis (16.7%).

The frontrunners for the office seem to be appealing to a different kind of electorate. Current Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis chose to announce the decision to run for the president 300 km away from Vilnius, in Rusnė that was one of his first places to visit once he was appointed a Prime minister in 2016. Analysts suggest that in such a way he showed the focus on the electorate in the regions. Moreover, domestic policy issues card is used quite a lot by Mr Skvernelis: he promised to raise pensions, support for young families, full energy independence. Meanwhile, Gitanas Nausėda who declared his candidacy at the newest library of the Vilnius University aimed to be associated with innovations, critical thinking, and new ideas if to believe his team. This newcomer to politics might become “a pig in a poke” which usually is very appealing to Lithuanian voters. Moreover, his candidacy was publicly supported by the former president Valdas Adamkus. Ingrida Šimonytė, who creates an impression of a pragmatic personality and ability to handle criticism well, once asked why she had chosen a rather simple location (the stairs at the Parliament) to announce her decision to run for the office, laconically answered: “Because here the lightning is better for you, journalists”. Endorsed by the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party, she might appeal to those who support current president Dalia Grybauskaitė. According to polling agency “Baltijos tyrimai”, Saulius Skvernelis is popular among men, Gitanas Nausėda appeals to the middle-aged electorate, while Ingrida Šimonytė would be elected by women and young people.

Despite the fact that Lithuania’s Constitution grants the right to settle basic foreign policy issues to the president, foreign policy issues have remained on the margins of the presidential elections campaign. Some analysts named foreign policy programs of the main presidential candidates “same wine in new bottles”. Indeed,  there does not seem to be a great divide between the key foreign policy ideas of Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis when finish line is approaching: all the 3 candidates highlight the intention to maintain the pro-western foreign policy, based on membership in NATO and European Union.

The aforementioned candidates also display similar foreign policy ideas about Lithuania’s international partners. Once asked, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis claimed that they would choose Poland as a country for the first official visit if elected (a tradition started by Valdas Adamkus but interrupted by Dalia Grybauskaitė). The United States is perceived as one of the most important allies of Lithuania and is security guarantor expressing the need for Lithuania’s bigger contribution to security and proof of its worth. Saulius Skvernelis has gone even further claiming that in case of meeting with Donald Trump as Lithuanian president he would apologize United States for voting in the UN against the U.S. decision to transfer its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

However, during the presidential campaign, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis made some controversial statements: he suggested turning Astravets nuclear power plant into the gas power plant (the idea was rejected by Belarus), named Latvia a competitor of Lithuania, and expressed support for the transfer of Israel’s capital from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was not completely clear whether he suggested the aforementioned issues as a Prime Minister or as a presidential candidate. He was harshly criticized by the president Dalia Grybauskaitė as not following the basic principles of Lithuania’s foreign policy as a result.

Meanwhile, Ingrida Šimonytė points out that Lithuania should act as a solid partner in the international arena, making more contributions, being a better listener and taking into consideration the interests of its partners. Analysts claim that if this idea was transformed into foreign policy practice, Lithuanian foreign policy would stop resembling 1 issue (security from Russia) country.

Russia’s issue has not been a dividing factor between the frontrunners: Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis. In their foreign policy programs, they stress that there is no need for changes in Lithuanian-Russian relations. Saulius Skvernelis refers that Russia violated international law, Ingrida Šimonytė encourages to prepare foreign policy guidelines for future Russia; Gitanas Nausėda emphasizes the importance of value-based foreign policy. However, it is worth mentioning that less than 1,5 years ago S. Skvernelis suggested to significantly improve relations with Russia.

In terms of China, Ingrida Šimonytė demonstrates the most cautious position indicating the potential threats from this country in both economic and national security sectors; while Saulius Skvernelis encourages focusing on the pragmatic interests in this regard. Gitanas Nausėda claims that he does not see any risks from trade with China and expresses the need for a more active role of the president in creating business opportunities.

In other words, despite some disagreements of opinions, Ginatas Nausėda, Ingrida Šimonytė, and Saulius Skvernelis mostly support Lithuania’s status quo foreign policy. Even though candidates’ foreign policy positions do not seem to be intriguing, there is still a chance for a surprise in elections results: data suggest (“Baltijos tyrimai”) that 25-30% of Lithuanian voters are undecided until the last minute in presidential elections.

Posted on behalf of Gerda Jakštaitė, Lecturer, Vytautas Magnus University, by Fiona Yap

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