C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 03 VILNIUS 000646
E.O. 12958: DECL: 08/06/2028
TAGS: PGOV LH
SUBJECT: LITHUANIA'S SEIMAS ELECTIONS: POPULISTS IN STRONG
Classified By: Charge d'Affaires a.i. Damian Leader for reasons 1.4 (b)
Â¶1. (U) This is the first in a series of reports on the
upcoming parliamentary elections in Lithuania.
Â¶2. (C) SUMMARY. Lithuania will hold parliamentary elections
on October 12. It is unlikely that a single party will win
even a third of the parliament's seats and a coalition will
be necessary. A Paksas-Uspaskich populist coalition is
possible, but other coalitions are more likely: a rainbow
Conservative-Liberal-Social Democrat coalition or a
center-left coalition including Labor. We do not expect that
any of the likely outcomes would lead to major changes in
bilateral relations. Recent rhetoric by Paksas, however,
would raise concerns if his party were to become part of a
ruling coalition. End summary.
Plenty of Room for Populists and Others
Â¶3. (U) Lithuania holds parliamentary elections October 12,
filling its 141-seat Seimas with 70 candidates chosen by
party list, and 71 chosen in single-mandate districts.
Because the latter require over 50 percent of the vote to be
elected, most will go to a run-off on October 26 between the
top two vote-getters. As many as 11 parties have a realistic
chance of winning at least one seat through the single
mandate districts or by meeting the required five percent
hurdle to win seats via party list.
Â¶4. (U) Lithuania's mixed election process, because it is
combined with a relatively immature democracy, a media not
inclined to serve as a political watchdog, and NGOs with
limited capacity to do so, provides opportunities for
multiple parties, including populist ones. Many political
commentators believe that business interests and others,
including the clique of bureaucrats known as the "statesmen"
(valstybininkai), who allegedly exercise control from behind
the scenes, encourage and benefit from the disorder in
Lithuanian politics and the current absence of strong
leaders. Others claim Russia is the real beneficiary of
Lithuania's lack of strong parties, and believe (without
producing evidence) that the Kremlin financially backs the
Four parties lead opinion polls
Â¶5. (U) Four parties have led the polls in recent months:
two "traditional" parties, the Conservatives (Homeland Union)
and the Social Democrats; and two "populist" parties, Labor,
and Order and Justice. The Conservatives and Social
Democrats sit comfortably on the right and left wings of
politics, respectively, not doing much to reach out to the
center: the highest either has polled in recent memory is 16
percent. A strong leader has dominated each until recently:
former president and PM Algirdas Brazauskas, now retired, for
the Social Democrats, and Vytautas Landsbergis, currently an
MEP and formerly chair of the Conservatives. Neither current
SocDem PM Gediminas Kirkilas nor former PM and current
Conservative party chair Andrius Kubilius has broad personal
Â¶6. (U) The Viktor Uspaskich-led Labor Party was the big
winner in its electoral debut in 2004. Despite Uspaskich
spending more than a year in Moscow to avoid prosecution in a
party financing fraud case that is still pending, the party
is in third place in most polls, getting a considerable and
sustained bounce since his return to Lithuania in September
Â¶2007. Uspaskich is a self-made millionaire, an ethnic
Russian who immigrated to Lithuania in Soviet times. He is
often described as engaging and funny and having the air of a
Â¶7. (U) Order and Justice, the party of Rolandas Paksas, the
former President who was impeached in 2004, is routinely in
first or second place in the polls. For a large minority of
Lithuanians, Paksas has the image of a near mythic hero -- an
airplane stunt pilot, a principled fighter of corruption, a
President unfairly brought down by an elite clique that could
not tolerate an upstart outsider as head of state. Because
of Paksas's impeachment, he cannot run for the Seimas. But
his personal popularity is the driving force behind his party.
Â¶8. (C) Paksas and Uspaskich both portray themselves as
persecuted victims of a corrupt elite. Much of the
electorate is so distrustful of politicians that it accepts
this portrayal. Public distrust is not without reason --
continuous scandals regularly remind the public that
corruption exists at petty and high levels -- and it is hard
to discount entirely the "corrupt elite" notion. Paksas's
VILNIUS 00000646 002 OF 003
and Uspaskich's appeal stems from their promises to help
average Lithuanians and clean up corruption, although the
promises come without concrete policies. The traditional
parties, who have alternately held power for most of the
period since independence in 1990, put out more substantive
party platforms, but do little to reach out to the vast
center or expand their party base.
Who shall lead?
Â¶9. (C) Despite their strong position, political observers we
spoke with predict the populist parties will not hold real
power after the elections. Alvydas Medalinskas, a
commentator and former Paksas advisor, predicted an even more
fractured Seimas than the current one. Audrius Baciulis,
political correspondent for the leading news weekly Veidas,
told us he thinks the Social Democrats will find a way to
maintain their grip on power. He and others noted to us that
in 2004 Labor won by far the most seats in the Seimas but
settled for a minor role in the ruling coalition while the
Social Democrats took the PM spot. Then, after Labor
collapsed in 2006, the Social Democrats consolidated their
hold on power. The theory that the Social Democrats will
retain power is reinforced by the widely held view that only
the Social Democrats have enough competent leaders to run the
Â¶10. (C) Another widely held view is that if either populist
party manages to lead a coalition it will be fragile and will
collapse -- as Labor fell in 2006 and as Paksas fell from the
Presidency in 2004. Politicians, political commentators, and
average Lithuanians, as well as the populists themselves,
tend to believe this. And for Order and Justice, just
getting into a coalition might be challenging; one comment we
hear repeatedly is that Order and Justice would be the major
parties' last choice for a coalition partner.
Â¶11. (C) Although it is too early to predict, two coalitions
currently seem the most likely possibilities. The first
would be a rainbow coalition for Conservatives, Liberal
Movement, Liberal and Center Union, and Social Democrats.
Conservative Party Chairman Andrius Kubilius told us he
believes this would be the most likely coalition for his
Party. Another possibility is a Social Democrat-led
left-center coalition, in many ways similar to the coalition
currently in power but with the possible inclusion of Labor.
Less likely is a coalition led by the two populist parties.
Although they have expressed a willingness to work together,
without the support of another party or two in the coalition,
the populists would lack real experience in governing.
What Would a Populist Mean for Us?
Â¶12. (C) Given the ongoing investigation into the fraud
allegations against the Party and Uspaskich, a return of
Labor to power would perhaps not be the best development for
transparency in Lithuanian government. That said, the impact
on bilateral relations would not necessarily be negative.
Uspaskich was Minister of Economy in 2004-2005 and Post
maintained good relations with him at that time. If the
widespread allegations that Uspaskich receives funding from
Moscow are true, however, there is a legitimate concern that
he might draw Lithuania closer to Russia.
Â¶13. (C) A return of Order and Justice to power would be
another matter. Although Paksas was, by all accounts,
pro-American as President, of late he has been vocal in
calling for closer ties with Russia and has been critical of
Lithuania being too close to the United States. He recently
said in an interview with a radical daily, "Sometimes it
seems that Lithuania has become a U.S. protectorate and an
obedient implementer of American policy in this region." He
and others in his party also have made irresponsible
statements counter to inclusive, democratic values. In May
2007, Vilnius Mayor Juozas Imbrasas, an Order and Justice
party member and loyal defender of Paksas during impeachment,
supported the city's refusal to grant the Lithuanian Gay
League a permit to display the rainbow flag in the city and
refusal of a permit for a European Commission information
campaign promoting diversity. In November 2007, Imbrasas
mocked a city employee for taking paternity leave: "I am
outraged that this young, handsome, active man...took
paternity leave. Everyone's murmuring, laughing at (him)."
One Order and Justice MP, Marija Ausrine Pavilioniene, left
the party in May 2007, calling the party "homophobic."
Â¶14. (C) Post has quietly worked to remind Paksas of the
value of working with America, but for some voters, our
closeness to Lithuania means that bashing America is the
equivalent of bashing the GOL, and that is a popular pastime.
VILNIUS 00000646 003 OF 003
While he might feel comfortable being friendlier once his
party is in power, we would not guarantee it.
Â¶15. (C) Were we betting people, even we would not bet on
which parties will end up in the next government. That said,
the chances of a major shift in Lithuanian policies that
would put them in conflict with our interests are unlikely.
A greater risk will be a fractious coalition with no strong
head to lead Lithuania in strengthening its democratic
institutions and to guide it through the widely-expected
upcoming economic downturn.