By Egle Murauskaite
In the Baltics, the first half of 2019 is election time: for Estonia, it’s a new parliament, for Latvia and Lithuania, it’s new presidents; and then all three countries will vote for their new representatives to the European Parliament. Given widespread public discontent in the region, and in much of Europe, over the lack of improvements in living standards and waning enthusiasm for European integration, is change coming to the Baltics, or are these political power plays a shadow theater?
In March, the liberal opposition Reform Party won parliamentary elections in Estonia, defeating the governing Centre Party. Ongoing efforts to form a governing coalition may now lead the increasingly far-right EKRE Party to not only gainparliamentary power but also ministerial positions. In the June presidential election in Latvia, the parliamentary vote on the candidates will be made open for the first time—with some hoping for greater transparency, while others fear greater constituent pressure to select a populist. Against this backdrop, Lithuanians will head to the polls to elect a new president on May 12, and will also cast a vote in a referendum on whether to allow Lithuanians to hold dual citizenship.
The Lithuanian presidential campaign started in January 2019, although the official list of nine candidates was not finalized until mid-April. Vocal and charismatic economist Aušra Maldeikienė withdrew her candidacy during this period, opting to run for the European Parliament instead. It is worth noting that two other candidates, Naglis Puteikis and Valentinas Mazuronis, neither a top contender, will run in both Lithuania’s presidential election on May 12 and in the European Parliament election on May 26.
The current leading presidential candidate in traditional opinion polls is Gitanas Nausėda, a 54-year-old chief economist at SEB bank with widespread name recognition from a decade of evening news appearances. Nausėda has positioned himself as a center-right candidate with an emphasis on national identity. Projecting a steady and comforting image, he avoids taking firm positions, speaking largely in platitudes, and seemingly affirming Lithuania’s present foreign policies. Critics of the economist argue that he represents the interests of big businesses. Indeed, one of Nausėda’s more curious proposals has been to expand Lithuania’s trade with China—he expressed having no reservations about the potential security implications, or concerns about China’s human rights violations. Another of Nausėda’s suggestions is to create a closer cooperation forum between Scandinavia, the Baltics, and the United Kingdom in order to increase Lithuania’s political weight on the world stage.
Leading most social media and online polls is Ingrida Šimonytė, a 44-year-old former Finance Minister supported by the Christian Democratic Party. Šimonytė appeals to a similar electorate as Nausėda. She has positioned herself as pragmatic, straight-speaking, and good humored, winning a strong following among younger urban intellectuals. Šimonytė’s professed admiration for Jaroslav Hašek’s novel The Good Soldier Švejk—popular during the Soviet era for its satire on bureaucratic inefficiencies—has also endeared her to many senior urban voters. Šimonytė swiftly rose to prominence: she was the first presidential candidate to collect the necessary signatures, and did so virtually overnight. Critics lambaste her decision as the Finance Minister not to apply for an IMF loan during the global financial crisis and critique the other austerity measures implemented by the Christian Democrat government at the time. Šimonytė appears to be handling the criticism well, patiently explaining her logic in unapologetic, accessible terms. Gender politics may disadvantage Šimonytė though: some voters question whether they want another female president, following current President Dalia Grybauskaitė’s two terms.
Saulius Skvernelis, a 48-year-old former police officer and current Prime Minister from the ruling Peasant Greens party, has considerable popularity in rural areas. He appeals to an electorate longing for a firm hand in politics. On the foreign policy front, however, Skvernelis has little international experience and a poor command of English. He 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. Critics also allege that Skvernelis has misused his office publicity and funds for campaign purposes. Despite attracting several young experts to the current cabinet, Skvernelis seems to take little note of their suggestions. His latest proposal for Lithuania to fund the conversion of Belarus’ Astravo power plant from nuclear power to natural gas is perhaps the latest example of questionable policy proposals.
Arvydas Juozaitis, a 62-year-old author and one of the leaders of the 1988-89 Sąjūdis independence movement, rounds off the list of competitive candidates. Juozaitis is respected for his past political achievements and his philosophic writings. He polls in third to fourth place among older rural voters, and has repeatedly denounced his insufficient coverage as a sign of favoritism. 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. On foreign policy, Juozaitis has mused on a potential union with Latvia.
Overall, most frontrunners have been cautious not to stray from the current Lithuanian foreign policy. They support greater defense funding, express guarded skepticism about closer EU integration, and recognize the need to amend domestic social security policy. No candidate appears poised to attract enough votes to win the first round on May 12. A runoff, where the top two vote-getters in the first round face each other, will likely occur between Saulius Skvernelis and either Ingrida Šimonytė or Gitanas Nausėda, who will likely split the votes of their target electorate. Most analysts describe the candidates’ public positions as bland and anodyne. If the president-elect is to live by his or her campaign promises, then the next four years would hardly bring major foreign policy changes for Lithuania—barring any candidate efforts to purposefully differentiate themselves during the runoff. Nevertheless, the personalities of the three frontrunners differ dramatically: a dynamic economist explaining things in a low pitch vs. a tall, high-pitched economist squirming out of potentially uncomfortable positions vs. a rotund policeman baldly pushing through. When it comes to the regular long-term negotiations with foreign dignitaries or resolving the latest crises, it could make a big difference how and how much they are able to make Lithuania’s voice count.