Become a Patron

Lithuanian Presidential Election: a surprisingly tranquil race

On May 12 Lithuania will hold the first round of its Presidential election. The pre-election campaign has turned out to be surprisingly calm and polite, unlike many other recent elections, where populists and right-wing nationalists brought tensions to the political landscape. In Lithuania, presidential frontrunners have been cautious not to stray from current Lithuanian foreign policy consensus. Most of the nine contenders support greater defence funding, express guarded scepticism about closer EU integration, and recognise the need to amend domestic social security policy.

If no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote in the first round, then a presidential run-off will take place on May 26, alongside with the European Parliament election. Incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaitė (*) is serving her second term in office, so she can’t re-run in this election. There are three popular potential successors.

A 54-year-old economist Gitanas Nausėda (*) became fairly well-known from a decade of evening news appearances, commenting on Lithuanian economic policies as an advisor at the SEB Bank. He is an independent candidate and no party has officially announced support for him, although he is backed by former President of Lithuania Valdas Adamkus (*). Nausėda is a centre-right candidate, who describes himself as a conservative. In order to portray a stable image, he has avoided taking firm positions and claims that he would find a balance between disagreeing parties in the Parliament. Critics of the economist argue that he represents the interests of big businesses (for example, Nausėda’s proposal on expanding trade with China has become very controversial due to concerns regarding potential security threats and human rights violations in China). He also suggests closer cooperation with Scandinavia, the Baltics, and the United Kingdom in order to increase Lithuania’s political weight on the world stage. Nausėda was widely touted as a possible opponent to Dalia Grybauskaitė during 2014 elections, but he decided not to run.

Just like Nausėda, his main rival is an economist: 44-year-old centre-right former Minister of Finance Ingrida Šimonytė (TS/LKD-EPP), who previously was a deputy chairwoman of the Bank of Lithuania (the national central bank). Since 2016 she has served as a member of Seimas (Lithuanian Parliament). She has positioned herself as a pragmatic, “straight-talking” politician, winning a strong following among young, urban voters. While technically Šimonytė is an independent candidate, she won TS/LKD party primaries and is their official presidential nominee. Despite the fact she was the Minister of Finance during the economic crisis and had to implement some very unpopular decisions, she still managed to remain more popular than the government itself. Nevertheless, some critics question Šimonytė’s work as the Minister of Finance, lambasting her decision not to apply for an IMF loan during the global financial crisis and other austerity measures, implemented by the TS/LKD government at the time. Šimonytė had been called a continuity candidate to replace incumbent President of Lithuania Dalia Grybauskaitė, because she aims to continue her predecessor’s foreign policies, especially the tough line on relations with Russia.

48-year-old current Prime Minister of Lithuania Saulius Skvernelis (LVŽS-G/EFA) is another top presidential candidate. At the beginning of his career, Skvernelis worked as a police officer, later becoming General Police Commissioner and then serving as the Minister of the Interior from 2014 until 2016. While formally he is an independent candidate too, he is supported by main ruling agrarian-green LVŽS party, since he runs the LVŽS-led government. Skvernelis has considerable popularity in rural areas, amongst voters who seek a leader with a firm hand on the tiller. Skvernelis has sparked controversy by contradicting official Lithuanian policy in suggesting that he is willing to seek dialogue with Russia and that the Lithuanian embassy in Tel Aviv could be moved to Jerusalem. These statements caused much conflict between the Prime Minister and incumbent President Dalia Grybauskaitė. Skvernelis is seen as a reformer and now claims that electing him as President would guarantee that all necessary reforms would be implemented (together with his loyal government). However, opposition parties, especially TS/LKD, argue that Skvernelis win could lead to a democratic deficit in Lithuania, as all governmental branches would be led by the same party. Critics also allege that Skvernelis has misused his office’s publicity and funds for campaign purposes.

Shortly before the election, chairman of LVŽS Ramūnas Karbauskis suddenly presented this ballot as a referendum on trust in his party, saying that if LVŽS nominee Skvernelis loses the election, LVŽS most likely will move into opposition. It would be challenging to form a new majority in the Parliament without LVŽS, so such a development could lead to snap parliamentary election.

Other candidates have far less voter support. It is worth mentioning that the European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis (LSDP-S&D) is taking part in the presidential race too. He speaks in favour of social justice and expanding the rights of ethnic minorities. Another candidate is a philosopher and prominent member of the 1988 – 1989 Sąjūdis independence movement Arvydas Juozaitis (*). He is running on a nationalistic platform and although the primary domain of Lithuania’s presidential power is foreign policy, Juozaitis’ campaign focuses on domestic issues. His proposals include introducing mandatory military training to high schools, along with other education reforms.

Follow Europe Elects on social media for full coverage of the election throughout both election days and beyond.

Antons is a data analyst on the Europe Elects team and a specialist in the politics of a number of Eastern European countries.