Will there be a centre-right government or not? Will the liberal forces manage to participate in government? The second round of the parliamentary elections in Lithuania has certainly clarified these questions. The previous government, consisting of the “Farmers and Greens Union” and social democratic forces, has been voted out of office. The new government will certainly bear a liberal signature.
Parliamentary elections in Lithuania remain exciting until the very end. This is due to the electoral system, which combines proportional representation and majority voting. In the first round of voting, 70 seats will be allocated by proportional representation. If the first round of elections on 11 October (results of the first round) had been the same, a moderate conservative government with liberal participation would already have been highly likely. However, there are also 71 constituencies through which MPs are directly elected to the so-called Seimas. Those who fail to succeed in the first round (and that was almost all of them) had to compete against the runner-up in the second round yesterday. And it is always difficult to predict what the outcome will be.
Homeland Union Versus the Farmers and Greens Union
Now the Lithuanian voter has spoken. In direct elections, larger parties are favoured. So for most observers, the question was whether the strongest party in the first round of voting, the Homeland Union- Christian Democrats of Lithuania (Tėvynės Sąjunga – Lietuvos krikščionys demokratai), would also perform best here. The former governing party, the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų sąjunga) was breathing down its neck. The party, which is difficult to classify politically and wavers oddly between green left and ultra-conservative, had suffered heavy losses in the first round of the elections. In the last elections in 2016, however, it had clearly outstripped the Homeland Union in terms of direct mandates. But this time, that was no longer possible. In the second round of voting, the Homeland Union was able to maintain its clear lead.
While the Farmers and Greens Union improved from 16 to 32 seats compared to the first round, the Homeland Union increased from 23 to 50 seats. And since the former partner of the Farmers and Greens Union, the Social Democrats, also suffered heavy losses, it is clear that a replacement of the government will be forthcoming. This has also something to do with the good performance of the liberal forces. This was not so obvious some time ago, because in recent years they seemed to be in a self-inflicted downturn. That, incidentally, is why there are now two liberal parties in the Seimas.
Two Liberal Parties
Firstly, there is the traditional Liberal Movement of the Lithuanian Republic (Lietuvos Respublikos liberalų sąjūdis, LRLS). In 2016, it was thrown into turmoil by a financial scandal involving one of its former leaders, which almost cost it its existence. After many quarrels, resignations and rapid changes in the chairmanship, however, the party stabilised under MEP Eugenijus Gentvilas, who led the party with a steady hand, and was able to hand over the chairmanship in an orderly fashion to the young MP Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen in 2019. With 6.8% and 6 seats in the first round of voting, the party did not perform as well as before, but it clearly stabilised. This was also evident in the second round of voting, where the party won seven more seats and secured 13 seats in total.
However, during the temporary decline of the Liberal Movement, dissatisfied members of the party and several newcomers to politics had founded a new liberal party in June 2019, the Freedom Party (Laisvės partija). Under the energetic chairwoman Aušrinė Armonaitė, a former LRLS parliamentarian, it now led a very energetic election campaign, strongly targeting modern urban voter groups – with topics such as LGTBI rights and the liberalisation of drug policies. The extent to which the party succeeded in penetrating modern cosmopolitan milieus is illustrated by the fact that Aušrinė Armonaitė won the votes of Lithuanians living abroad, who are run as a separate direct constituency in the country’s electoral system.
In the first round, the party even outperformed the Liberal Movement, with 9% and nine seats. In the second round of voting, however, the forces shifted as the movement has regional strongholds and now holds 13 seats.
Coalition Negotiations Begin – First Liberalisations
The fact that both parties performed better than expected, both individually and together, means that both parties can now form a coalition with the Homeland Union, a moderately conservative and economically liberal party. All the parties concerned had previously stated this as a desired constellation and reaffirmed this on election evening. The new Prime Minister will therefore in all probability be the former Minister of Finance and former presidential candidate of the Homeland Union, Ingrida Šimonytė. This means, by the way, that all three governing parties will be led by women!
It is important that the two liberal parties, which have occasionally been a little hostile to each other because of the quarrels of recent years, get together. Everything points to the fact that this will be the case, however, and that both parties will seek their place in the spectrum and find a positive division of labour – like the more traditional VVD and the left-liberal D66 in the Netherlands, for example.
Coalition negotiations started just one day after the election. It is already becoming apparent that a liberal influence will become visible. The clearly pro-Western and pro-European coalition will continue and even strengthen the previous course of support for the opposition in Belarus. It has already been announced that arrivals with a fresh negative Covid test will no longer automatically be put into a ten-day isolation. In contrast to the Central European states – especially Poland and Hungary – the wave of national populism does not yet seem to be spreading so vehemently in the Baltic countries. The election in Lithuania has shown this again. The country remains an extremely stable and liberal democracy.
Dr. Detmar Doering is project director for Central Europe and the Baltic States at the Foundation’s office in Prague.