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Lithuania: Elections May Bring Down Post-Communists

By Kestutis Girnius

Prague, 17 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Lithuanian voters will go to the polls on Sunday, October 20, to elect a new parliament.

Analysts believe that the ruling Lithuanian Democratic Labor Party (LDLP) will be defeated by right-of-center forces. If these predictions come true, the LDLP, which was the first post-communist party to return to power in Eastern Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union, will also be the first to be voted out of office.

Four years ago (1992), the LDLP captured 42.6 percent of the vote and a majority of seats in Parliament. This time the party is expected to gain about a quarter of the vote.

If there is a consensus that the LDLP will go down to defeat, there is far less agreement about which party shall emerge as the victor. Many analysts believe that the core of the new ruling coalition will be formed by the Conservatives, led by Vytautas Landsbergis, who engineered Lithuania's drive to independence, and the Lithuanian Christian Democratic Party. But these two parties are unlikely to win half the seats in Parliament, so a third party -- most probably the Central Union -- may be asked to join the coalition.

Tension between the Conservatives and the Central Union increased this week, when they and several other parties failed to agree on the text of a pre-election appeal to the voters.

Because Lithuania has a mixed electoral system, final results will not be known until November 10, when run-off elections are held in the single mandate districts. Of the 141 parliamentarians, 71 are chosen in single-mandate electoral districts, while 70 are chosen on a proportional basis according to party lists. Individual parties must clear a 5 percent barrier to gain representation, while coalitions face a 7 percent hurdle. In all, 24 parties are in the running.

Lithuania's main opposition party, the Conservatives, is a stronghold of anti-communist sentiment. The party is expected to receive the largest share of the vote. The Conservatives have focused their criticism on government corruption and the dilatory implementation of economic reforms.

The Christian Democrats have cooperated closely with the Conservatives for the last four years. While benefiting from the support of many who consider the Conservatives and the LDLP to be excessively radical, the Christian Democrats suffer from a lack of forceful and charismatic leaders and the inability to formulate a positive program. The party is known more for its opposition to abortion, gambling, and pornography rather than its suggestions for reform. Its recent proposal to introduce a very high rate of taxation on the better-off has earned it the enmity of businessmen but could also lead to increased popular support.

After its crushing defeat in 1992, when it received a mere 2.5 percent of the vote, the Central Union has regrouped and steadily gained strength. Led by two of the country's most popular politicians, the Central Union has concentrated on exposing government corruption and presenting itself as the moderate alternative to the Conservatives and the LDLP. Although formally neutral, the Central Union had unofficially signaled its willingness to join a right-of-center coalition until it backtracked this week. It is impossible to judge whether its recent vacillations will harm its popularity.

Of the other political parties, only the Women's Party, headed by former Prime Minister Kazimiera Prunskiene, and the Social Democratic Party are thought to have a good chance of clearing the four percent barrier.

During the 1992 election campaign the LDLP managed to project successfully an image of itself as a party of ideologically moderate and efficient technocrats. It also benefited greatly from the protest vote against the Sajudis government. The LDLP has lost both these trump cards. Its mismanagement of the banking crisis and other economic problems has undermined its claim to competence, while its toleration of corruption has enraged many voters.

The LDLP is running scared and has resorted to populist referendums in an effort to lure disenchanted voters to the polling booth. On election day voters will be asked to approve a reduction in the number of deputies -- a popular measure in view of the widespread disgust at Parliamentary incompetence -- and to incorporate into the Constitution a clause stipulating that at least half of budget expenditures are to be allocated to social matters.

Although polls have consistently indicated that the LDLP will suffer a substantial defeat, several factors could still turn the elections into a tight race. Almost half (48 percent) of those polled on at the end of September were still undecided about whom to support, or whether they would participate in the elections altogether.

Many Lithuanians prefer 'political personalities' to parties, so there might be little correlation between the percentage of votes cast for a party and that for its candidates in the single-mandate districts. And voters have misled pollsters in the past. During the last parliamentary elections, the results of exit polls diverged by as much as 30 percent from actual results.