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Lithuania - Political Parties

Lithuania is a multi-party republic. The most popular parties in Lithuania are Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and Liberals. Out of 40 registered political parties in Lithuania, 28 submitted their members' signatures by 01 March 2012 and had the right to take part in the general election in the middle of October 2012. 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 populist parties.

In the first years after the declaration of independence, Lithuanian politics were stormy, especially the struggle between the former Communist Party of Lithuania and the movement for independence, Sajudis. On its own, the Communist Party of Lithuania won only twenty-three seats out of the 141 seats in the March 1990 parliamentary elections. Sajudis and other political parties that supported independence had won a majority. In addition, the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (LSDP) won nine seats; the Christian Democratic Party of Lithuania (CDPL), two; the Lithuanian Democratic Party (LDP), two; and the Lithuanian Green Party, four. Noncommunist parties were in their infancy--small and weak. Seventy members of parliament did not belong formally to any party, although virtually all of them were ideologically close to Sajudis.

Parliamentary organization was complicated by the numerous parliamentary factions, unrelated to party strength or differentiation in society. Parliamentary factions had no fixed constituencies to which they were accountable. In 1992 there were nine parliamentary factions and a nonfaction group consisting of twenty independent deputies. The largest was the Center faction (eighteen members), followed by the Moderates (sixteen), the LDLP (twelve), the Liberals (ten), the Poles (eight), and the Nationalists (nine). The United Sajudis faction had sixteen members, and the Santara faction of Sajudis had ten.

In this political landscape, the position of chairman of the presidium of the Supreme Soviet (de facto president) was won in May 1990 by Vytautas Landsbergis, the president of Sajudis and a professor of musicology who had never been a member of the Communist Party of Lithuania. Landsbergis defeated the former leader, Brazauskas, by two-thirds of the vote. Brazauskas refused to accept the position of deputy chairman. Kazimiera Prunskiene, an economist, was chosen as prime minister, whereupon she immediately quit the Communist Party of Lithuania. Brazauskas agreed to serve as one of the deputy prime ministers. The other deputy prime minister was Romualdas Ozolas, a philosopher and former communist who eventually joined the Center faction in the parliament.

The new system of government became operative with the election of President Algirdas Brazauskas in February 1993. Brazauskas came from the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP), successor to the Communist Party of Lithuania. In the elections of October 25, 1992, s eventeen groups or coalitions ran candidates for the 141 seats of the new parliament, the Seimas, but some did not muster enough votes for the 4 percent threshold. Against everyone's expectations -- and even to Brazauskas's own surprise -- the LDLP and its satellites won an absolute majority of seventy-three seats (51 percent).

Landsbergis's forces still hoped for a strong showing of their coalition, but the Sajudis-Santara coalition succeeded in winning only sixteen seats, including three contested ones. The Social Democratic representation de-creased to eight seats, the Christian Democrats increased to ten, and the Center barely squeaked through with two victories in single-member districts but did not meet the 4 percent threshold for seats elected by party lists. Three new groups entered the parliament--the Citizens Charter with ten seats; Political Prisoners and Exiles with twelve; and the Christian Democratic Association, a splinter of the Christian Democratic Party with one. One seat was won by an independent. The Polish minority, however, was able to win four seats because it was not required to reach the 4 percent threshold.

Controversy in the Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP) government over the pace of Lithuania's economic reform, which is the slowest overall in the Baltic region, resulted in the resignation of the economics minister, Aleksandras Vasiliauskas, in July 1995. Several other members of the cabinet disagreed with Prime Minister Adolfas Slezevicius, who advocated accelerating the pace of reform. Lithuania's banking sector, although more stable than that of Latvia, is arousing public concern and could divide the government further. In July some 1,000 people assembled for a rally in Vilnius to call for improved legislation to protect bank deposits and to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Slezevicius and President Algirdas Brazauskas for their failure to remedy the weakness of the banking and financial system.

Former Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimira Prunskiene finished a close second in the 2004 presidential election and her Peasants Party won 10 seats in the Seimas (parliament) later that year. But the party failed to cross the 5 percent threshold in October 2008 parliamentary elections, and she herself lost in a single-mandate district. She won less than 4 percent of the votes in the 2009 presidential election; during the campaign some media outlets referred to her as "the Kremlin's candidate." She left the Peasants Party in July 2009 and almost immediately announced her plans to form a new party.

Eight members of parliament, including the newly elected Speaker, withdrew from the Labor Party May 2 and 3, 2006 formed a new parliamentary group, and promised to support the ruling coalition of which they are no longer officially members. Over four hundred Labor Party members followed the parliamentarians and exited the party. The exodus reflected dissatisfaction with party leader Viktor Uspaskich, rather than with the direction of the Government. The break-away Labor Party members, together with three independent parliamentarians and a Liberal Democrat, established a new parliamentary group, the Civil Democracy group. Parliamentary groups are distinct from political parties, which must meet membership and registration criteria, and with which they are generally associated. 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.

Four parties led the polls in 2008: 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 SocDem PM Gediminas Kirkilas nor former PM and Conservative party chair Andrius Kubilius had broad personal appeal.

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 cas, the party was in third place in most polls in 2008, getting a considerable and sustained bounce since his return to Lithuania in September 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 common man.

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 2008 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.

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 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.

The Conservatives have a committed base and are the traditional opponent of the ruling Social Democrats. Order and Justice ran the strongest campaign in 2008, especially in rural areas and small cities, and attracted the most funding -- 2.8 million litas (1.1 million USD) versus 1.7 million litas (680,000 USD) for the Conservatives, the next highest fund-raisers. Order and Justice also benefited from a feature film based on the life of its chairman, impeached ex-President Rolandas Paksas. It was shown for free in movie theaters and broadcast on a national television network. The Election Commission fined the film's director for failure to disclose his funding sources, but ruled that there were no grounds to prevent its airing on television.

The Peasants' Party, led by Agriculture Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, has a small but solid rural base and Prunskiene is an established force in national politics. The Liberal and Center Union, led by former Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas, ran a sophisticated campaign in 2008, with automated phone calls and an American PR consultant. The biggest wild card was the National Revival party, led by comedian Arunas Valinskas, whose stated goal was to draw votes away from the populists, in particular Order and Justice.

In 2008 there were two parties on the cusp of crossing the five percent threshold for party list seats and who also might win single mandate seats: the left-leaning, current coalition partner Social Liberals (Chaired by Arturas Paulauskas) and the center-right Liberal Movement. Two parties that would rely on single mandate districts to get seats are the newly formed, far left Front, whose chair is former Social Democrat Algirdas Paleckis and the Polish Electoral Action party, which usually wins one or two seats.

On 05 December 2009, former Lithuanian Prime Minister Kazimira Prunskiene, whose popularity with voters had tumbled in recent years, founded a new political party that has drawn attention because of its open ties with Russian politicians. The meeting to establish the party was attended by the Russian ambassador to Lithuania, the chairman of the Russian Duma's International Affairs Committee and other officials from Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. The new party calls for closer economic and political ties with Russia and with other neighboring countries, both east and west. The Lithuanian People's Party is the latest in a long list of top-down Lithuanian parties created as personal vehicles by known politicians and other personalities. While some of these parties have enjoyed short-term success, none has been able to break into the ranks of the biggest and most successful parties -- which are those that are driven more by political ideology rather than the ambitions of their founders.

In March 2012 Lithuania's Ministry of Justice allowed registering the Courage Path party, established by supporters of Drasius Kedys, central figure of the so-called pedophilia scandal. The Courage Path Party is based on a movement that started following the so-called pedophilia scandal that shook the country in late 2009, when Drasius Kedys, businessman from Garliava, shot two people who allegedly molested his daughter. Kedys himself was later found dead.

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