Casting a vote in Vilnius, Lithuania, Oct. 23, 2016. Photo: AP via VOA
With the eyes of the world focused on the presidential election in the United States, there is little chance that you have heard about the parliamentary elections in a certain Central–East European country. Yet although the US population is more than 100 times that of Lithuania, the core issue for many voters in this Baltic country is the same as for many Americans: distrust of the governing class. The result after the second round of the Lithuanian elections (half of the members of parliament are elected from party lists and another half by counties) ‑ an absolute victory for the Peasant–Green Union ‑ was not merely a surprise to the political elite of the nation; it was a total shock.
Two decades of national decline
Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1990 and the first free elections in 1992, the political landscape of the Republic of Lithuania has been dominated by the same political elite and its two major parties: the Conservative Homeland Union (into which the Christian Democrats merged several years ago) and the former local communist party, now called the Social Democrats.
Every four years, for the most part, these two parties exchanged governmental positions by promising a better life to the Lithuanian people. However, mass migration to other European Union countries and a dramatic demographic decline of the nation (from a population of about three million people, Lithuania loses about 30,000 inhabitants every year on average) did not stop. Lithuania became one of the most rapidly declining nations in the world. Dissatisfaction with this situation persisting after two decades has finally resulted in a first time victory for a third party: the Peasant-Green Union.
The social justice gap
According to economists, one of the main reasons why voters changed their beliefs completely and voted for a new party was the lack of social justice. Social injustice created by a non-progressive or even regressive financial system resulted in a one of the biggest social gaps within EU countries. It became obvious that there are two Lithuanias instead of one. A wealthy, Western paid, happy Lithuania whose inhabitants mostly reside in the capital city of Vilnius, and the rest of Lithuania where people try to survive on several hundred euros per month. Tremendous financial inequality and the extinction of the middle class led to mass migration to other EU states, such as Great Britain.
In contrast with the liberal agenda of the major parties (even the Social Democrats lean this way), the programme of the Peasant and Green Union included a much more left-wing economic agenda, especially on property taxing and a more generous distribution of the money to the most vulnerable groups, and this seems to have attracted a great number of people. There is no doubt that majority of people here are socially conservative, and yet they also want a welfare state more sensitive to their needs. Since the gap between GDP per person and the median wage is the biggest among the EU states, fair redistribution of public finances became more and more important issue and resulted in the outcome of the election.
Peasant and Green Union – new Christian Democrats?
It has to be said that Lithuania’s Greens are not a typical Western Green party. Although it pays a lot of attention to environmental problems, the programme of this party and the rhetoric of its leader Ramūnas Karbauskis (who personally considers himself a pagan) is very conservative on moral issues, despite its socialist economics. Opponents call this new party “unknown” because of the new political faces, and its ideology “untrustworthy”, but the Peasant-Green Union agenda actually represents one of the most popular ideologies in Europe – that of Christian democrats. Family life, patriotism and social justice (a bigger state) were always the key elements of Christian democracy in Europe, and it looks as though in Lithuania this kind of ideology will be represented by the Peasant-Green Union.
When so-called Christian Democrats working together in one party with Conservatives were becoming more and more liberal on moral issues, and Social Democrats were becoming more and more liberal economically, a huge political niche was discovered by the Peasant-Green coalition and its leader Ramūnas Karbauskis. While the new leader of the Conservative-Christian Democrat Party is willing to pass a homosexual partnership law and does not question the practice of abortion in Lithuania, Mr Karbauskis and his party said that they would be against both of these moves, a position usually held by Conservative Party in the past. When Social Democrats, who ran the government for the last four years, passed one the most liberal labor codes in the EU it became obvious that the political elite of Lithuania had lost touch with the nation.
A great desire on the part of both Conservatives and Social Democrats to compete for liberal voters finally resulted in a great loss of their own electorate. Trying to sit on two chairs (liberal-conservative and liberal-socialistic) ended up by landing on the ground.
Peasant-Green Union: novelty in patriotism
One factor in the electoral success of the Peasant-Green Union was a new type of rhetoric about patriotism and national interests. According to political scientist Vytautas Sinica, the leaders were the first ones to raise the issues of the possible threats of globalization and European integration to the national interests of Lithuania. No party before said that mass migration from Lithuania might result not simply in a temporary decline of our labor force, but may lead to a total extinction of the state within 30 years. No party before said that Lithuania should support the Visegrad states (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) in their demand for complete reform of the EU integration project. No party or its leaders had declared that the education system first of all has to be oriented to patriotism and loyalty to the nation and not only to preparing a highly skilled labor force for the markets. A huge number of people who were not represented for years on these ideas, saw new hope in the Peasant-Green alliance.
New policy in Central-Eastern Europe
Some are now saying that the recent election result in Lithuania reflects the victory of Prawo I Sprawiedliwosc (Law and Justice Party) in Poland last year. This party, which won an absolute majority last year from our near neighbor, also positions itself morally on the right and economically on the left. Actually this caused the total eclipse of socialist parties in Poland. When the right wing party adopted a strongly pro- social economic strategy, voters simply had no reason to vote for the socialists again.
Political scientists in Lithuania say that Mr. Karbauskis also seems to follow the style of the Law and Justice leader J. Kaczynski. Just like Mr. Kaczynski, R. Karbauskis plans not to take any governmental position but to stay in parliament and consolidate the party votes there by influencing state politics from the back seat.
It is hard to tell if the elections in Poland affected the Lithuanian people’s decision to vote for the Peasant-Green Union, but today we can say for sure that parties which combine morally right-wing and economically left-wing political agendas are a trend in the whole of Central-Eastern Europe today. Whether this political trend lasts and shapes the next two decades in the region remains to be seen.
Dovilas Petkus is a post-graduate student of European Affairs at Vilnius University, a policy analyst at the Statehood Studies Center (Valstybingumo studijų centras), and a board member of Pro Patria, a youth movement for Catholic society and patriotism.
Correction: Owing to an editing error the second paragraph originally read: “The Christian Democrats and the former local communist party, now called the Social Democrats, formed the Conservative Homeland Union.” This has been corrected.