The start of the Year ‘09 was especially challenging and controversial for Lithuanians. On the morning of January 1 Vilnius woke up as Europe’s Capital of Culture 2009 – a great chance for any country to present itself and receive a bunch of tourists, explorers and guests of different age and interests from allover Europe. Although it seems there is so much great to expect, the present shows a different picture. Tense economic situation, overall dissatisfaction with the reforms of the new government, unfulfilled expectations ‘to be saved by Brussels’ in assuring the economic stability – these are only some of the reasons for the broken spirits in Lithuania. So, what could it signal for the upcoming European Parliament elections in June? Will Lithuanian citizens go to vote and who will they vote for?
Shortly before Christmas, Lithuania had the elections for the national parliament Seimas, which resulted in the new right-oriented government coalition being formed after that. Only in one month the new government, mostly represented by two parties – the conservative Tevynes Sajunga (‘Homeland Union’) and the freshly-born populist-oriented Tautos Prisikelimo Partija (‘National Resurrection Party‘) – failed in fulfilling their voters’ expectations, as a recent public opinion poll reveals. It became evident that Lithuanian citizens are dissatisfied with the ‘anti-crisis’ political decisions made by the government as well as by the elected politicians themselves.
Trust in Seimas dropped dramatically and now is only 3,6 percent. It seems like the supporters of the populist Tautos Prisikelimo Partija in the elections finally woke-up with a hard hangover. As the poll also shows, the ratings of the leader of the party and the Head of Seimas Arunas Valinskas only in one month dropped to 1,6 percent. The former TV quiz show host has already earned himself a bad name among journalists too. He did this by introducing new rules how journalists should work in the parliament. These regulations (by the way, withdrawn recently) allowed access to Seimas only to the fixed number of preferable representatives from the media. Futhermore, the other members of Tautos Prisikelimo Partija (former actors, singers and showmen) were much criticised by their colleagues in in the parliament and the media for continuing to earn extra money for their performances.
As some of the political analysts comment, the state-of-the-art of the political life and the economic situation in the country after Seimas elections is rather intense. The proposed ant-crisis plan by the government introduced a package of tax reforms in order to reduce spending and increase income to the budget. For example, this amongst other things dramatically increased VAT for media publications and books from 5% to 20% and increased the tax payments for people working according to the part-time contracts (including journalists). All this resulted in rapid closure of media titles (magazines, regional dailies, weeklies, etc.) and dozens of journalists loosing their jobs. Overall disenchantment of the hard economic situation, rising unemployment and rapidly implemented decisions by the new government rose strong criticism of different professional groups and trade unions. This lead to massive strikes and even repeated the scenario of riots which only a week before firstly experienced our neighbouring capital Riga.
Taking all this into account, there are already discussions going on how Lithuanian voters will perform on June 7, as this day elections to the European Parliament will be combined with the second round of the presidential elections. Candidates for both are still not announced. Concerning the likelihood of who will be the new Lithuania’s President most chances are given to Dalia Grybauskaite, the current EU Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget. She receives most credits for the open and harsh criticism on the actions and performance of the previous social-democratic government for being incapable and unwilling to predict the approaching economic downturn in the country. Still, Grybauskaite does not disclose her plans for presidential elections, which, according to some political analysts, could be the encouraging message for the Lithuanians to participate in the elections in general.
As for the EP elections, there are also no candidates officially named. Though, it seems that all the parties which participated in the parliament elections in Autumn 2008 confirmed they will nominate their candidates. Two days ago the national daily Lietuvos Zinios reported that it is expected to be some kind of rehabilitation for some parties which lost their long-lasted positions in the national parliament and the government. It looks like it can again be the chance for some former party leaders to prolong their political career. Following the practice of the first EP elections in 2004 and the recent survey, personality of the politician (50 percent) and his/-er experience in national politics (38 percent) are the most predominant criteria while choosing among the national candidates for the MEPs. Will the scenario repeat itself again? In 2004, the popularity of the populist-oriented Darbo partija (‘Labour Party’) was striking. What to expect this year? Rolandas Paksas, one of the most scandalous political leaders of the past decade, the first European head of the state being removed from the President’s position by impeachment, recently announced he is seriously considering being one of the candidates. Having in mind that his popularity rating is still quite high, this is definately worrying news.
It must be said that the coming months in Lithuania will be extremely interesting to monitor. It is again obvious that it will strongly depend on the political and economic situation in the country and, as some predict, it is again dangerous that the decreasing trust and interest in national politics will negatively influence the numbers of those going to give their votes. As the most recent Eurobarometer survey shows, the favourable attitude towards the EU in Lithuania has dropped by 6 percent during the last half of the year and it happened so for the first time since the membership. One of the reasons for this could be also the speculative pre-election performance of some Lithuanian political parties, which ineffectively tried to convince the European Commission to prolong the Ignalina nuclear power station operation. In consequence, we had a usual situation of the ‘blame-game’ where some national politicians complained about ‘the Brussels’ as being unsupportive and Commissioner Grybauskaitė criticized the former national government for its decisions. Well, let’s see what happens! Then let’s th!nk about it more and discuss.
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