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Lithuanian Parliamentary Elections: Two-Rounds, Zero Certainty

On 11 and 25 October, Lithuanians will head to the polls to elect their national parliament—the Seimas—in a two-round election. A majority of the 141 seats in the national parliament—71 to be precise—are going to be determined in single-member constituencies with a majoritarian system in two rounds. The first round will be held October 11th, next Sunday, when there will be multiple parties vying for the place in a second-round run-off between the two most-voted parties. The second round will commence two weeks after the first, on October 25th.

The rest of the seats in the national parliament, totaling 70, are determined based on proportional representation. The proportional seats will be voted on at the same time as the first round of the single-member constituencies commences, on October 11th, next Sunday. This raises the question: how meaningful are the opinion polls in Lithuania, which are based on proportional representation, as less than half of the seats are determined with proportional representation?

Historical evidence shows a mere plurality in the seats allocated by proportional system is by no means sufficient to ‘win’ an election in Lithuania—to be the largest party in terms of total seats. In 2012, the Labour Party (Darbo partija, DP-RE) achieved a plurality of the 70 proportionally awarded seats. However, after all the run-offs in the single-member constituencies were finished, the party dropped to the third place in terms of total seats, behind the Lithuanian Social Democratic Party (Lietuvos socialdemokratų partija, LSDP-S&D) and even the Homeland Union (Tėvynės sąjunga, TS/LKD-EPP), which finished second and third in the PR vote, respectively. In 2016, this pattern was repeated.

Not only did all pollsters predict a plurality for the Social Democrats in 2016—which in the end was won by the Homeland Union—but the up until then with just a single MP represented Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (Lietuvos valstiečių ir žaliųjų sąjunga, LVŽS-Greens/EFA) won the single-member constituency run-offs in a surprise landslide. This led to the seat distribution we can observe today in Lithuania, with an overwhelming seat plurality for the Farmers and Greens. LVŽS’ triumph was later attributed to popular interior minister of the earlier government, Saulius Skvernelis, beïng convinced to lead the party’s list for the election. Skvernelis subsequently became the Prime Minister of Lithuania and is in fact still serving in the post to date.

LVŽS’ popularity was on a steady decline, from polls in the high 40s right after the stunning surprise victory in 2016 to around 10% by the beginning of this year. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped them stabilise their ratings, and satisfaction with the Lithuanian government increased over the recent months.

So whom can we expect to do well?

Moving back to the elections of 2020 ahead of us, most pollsters show a two-horse race between the Farmers and Greens Union on one hand and the Homeland Union on the other for the plurality of 70 proportional seats. Such is thus also reflected in Europe Elects’ national polling average. However, there are significant differences between the individual pollsters. A recent Norstat poll commissioned by the state television LRT saw the Homeland Union in a decisive lead. On the other hand, a poll commissioned by the state news agency ELTA saw the Farmers and Greens, the Homeland Union and the Social Democrats tied. Approximately a third of the electorate is still considered to be undecided in most of these polls, and history has shown that last minute swings are pretty common in Lithuania. Both in 2012 (Labour Party) and in 2016 (Homeland Union), pollsters did not foresee the winner of the plurality of the seats allocated proportionally.

A pattern that has applied throughout most of Lithuania’s post-Soviet history is that government parties generally tend not to increase their vote shares in the next election. The only time this has happened was in 2004 when the incumbent centre-left Brazauskas government managed to do so. However, even in this case Brazauskas only assumed office in the middle of the previous term, meaning there were not two consecutive electoral victories for the same political force in that case, either.

Whom can we expect to enter parliament?

The nature of the Lithuanian electoral system allows for representatives of even very small parties to get elected in their constituencies, should they enjoy enough local popularity. An example from 2016 is Aušra Maldeikienė, who was nominated by the small party ‘Lithuanian List’ (Lietuvos sąrašas, LS-*) in the urban central Vilinius constituency of Žirmūnai and managed to win it. As a further example, the independent Povilas Urbšys (*) enjoys enough popularity in his home constituency in Western Panevėžys to have carried it both in the 2012 and 2016 elections. This year, the former Social Democrat (LSDP-S&D) Prime Minister Algirdas Butkevičius, who headed the 2012–2016 government, is running for reëlection in his home constituency of Vilkaviškis for the small Green Party (Lietuvos žaliųjų partija, LŽP-Greens/EFA). It is difficult to predict whether his popularity is sufficient to carry the constituency for the Green Party, but this special constellation certainly makes Vilkaviškis a constituency to look out for. The leader of the Centre Party–Nationalists (Centro partija – Tautininkai, CP/T→ECR)—Naglis Puteikis—did not enter parliament through the proportionally distributed seats, but by winning his home constituency of Danė located in the harbour town of Klaipėda.

The party of the Polish minority (Lietuvos lenkų rinkimų akcija, LLRA/KŠS-ECR) traditionally has a reliable voter base—even if polls suggest lower support levels—that guarantees them around 5% nationwide support, with a couple of single-member constituency wins in constituencies that are predominantly inhabited by the Polish minority. The party is, therefore, almost sure to get in the parliament, even if the polling average would show otherwise.

Below you can find an overview on what chances Europe Elects gives each of the main smaller parties to cross the 5% hurdle for the 70 seats of proportional representation, based on the recent opinion polls.

Graphics: Filip Van Laenen

Which post-election coälitions are likely?

In recent years, the main divide in Lithuania’s party system appears to have been between classic centre-right conservatives (Homeland Union; TS/LKD-EPP) and liberals (Liberal Movement; LRLS-RE) on one side, and an ideologically diverse mix of other parties on the other side. The conservatives enjoy a difficult standing especially among the more rural population, which can in part be explained by the post-Soviet reforms that involved closures of the kolūkiai (also known under the Russian name kolkhoz), the Soviet collective farms, at which much of the rural population earned their daily bread. Also, the conservatives, together with the liberals, led the austerity government in the years 2008–2012, that implemented several unpopular measures in order to avoid Lithuania experiencing a similar fate as large parts of Southern Europe. The governments since 2012 have all labeled themselves as ‘centre-left’, despite often enjoying support from groups that were internationally viewed as ‘right-wing’, like for example Rolandas Paksas’ Order and Justice (TT-*) party, the Polish minority-representing Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania (LLRA/KŠS-ECR), and the eurosceptic Centre Party (now CP/T→ECR).

The Farmers and Greens (LVŽS-Greens/EFA), who lead the current government, have not ruled out any coälition option after the elections. However, they made clear on several occasions that an alliance with the conservatives is difficult to imagine for them. The centre-right Liberal Movement (LRLS-RE) and Freedom Party (Laisvės partija, LP-RE) are believed to prefer the conservatives as coälition partners, while the Labour Party (DP-RE) and Freedom and Justice (Laisvė ir teisingumas, LT-RE) appear to be ready to support any government that offers them the posts they desire.

Following the 2016 elections, also the Social Democratic Party (LSDP-S&D) briefly was the Farmers and Greens’ (LVŽS-Greens/EFA) junior coälition partner. However, dissatisfied with this alliance, the party decided to leave the government agreement already in 2017, leading to a split of the party, with the split-off Social Democratic Labour Party (Lietuvos socialdemokratų darbo partija, LSDDP→S&D) retaining a majority of LSDP’s originally elected MPs and remaining in government. Since, LSDDP’s public support, however, has plummeted, and a powerful return of LSDP towards a meaningful or even the main force of the Lithuanian centre-left after the upcoming elections cannot be ruled out. LSDP appears to be ready to dare a second attempt at governing together with the Farmers and Greens, but also speculations about an alliance with the conservative TS-LKD (EPP) were widespread in recent weeks.

Test of patience and stamina

Lithuanians are heading to polls twice in the next couple of weeks to elect their national parliament in a two-round election. 70 of the 141 seats will be decided with a proportional election system, whereas the rest 71 are decided in a two-round election where the two most popular candidates proceed to a run-off. As a result of the mixed election system, the results are hard to predict even for the experts of the political system. Nevertheless, favourites in the election can be gauged to be the centre-right TS-LKD (EPP) and agrarian LVŽS (Greens/EFA), at least in terms of proportional seats.

The situation, however, remains in flux and the Lithuanian polls are known for missing the mark also on the proportional seats of the parliament. We’ll be wiser on Monday.

This article was further edited by Julius Lehtinen

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