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Lithuania: Local Elections Show New Trend

By Kestutis Girnius/Breffni O'Rourke

Lithuania's local government elections have dealt a heavy blow to the established political parties, particularly those of the center right. Is this a foretaste of what's to come in national parliamentary elections later this year? The director of RFE/RL's Lithuanian Service, Kestutis Girnius, discusses the results -- and what they mean for the Baltic state -- with correspondent Breffni O'Rourke.

Prague, 22 March 2000 (RFE/RL) -- With vote counting completed in Lithuania's local government elections, it's clear there is an increased political fragmentation across the country.

Voters turned away in large numbers from what could be called the five traditional parties, particularly those on the right, but also those on the left.

Between them, the big five garnered almost 80 percent of the vote in the municipal elections of 1995, but this time, they saw their support plummet to little more than 40 percent of the vote. Notable were the losses of the Conservative Party, which rules at national level under Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. This time they took only 11.5 percent of the vote, down from 33 percent in 1997.

Those who gained most from this election were the new or reinvigorated parties, like the New Union, which was founded only two years ago. It is headed by Arturas Paulauskas, the man who was a leading contender for the state presidency in the 1997 election.

The New Union, which lacks a clear program but has shown an anti-NATO streak, won the largest amount of votes, over 16 percent. Another party which did well was the reinvigorated Farmers' Party, under Ramunas Karbauskis. That party is also short on program but is critical of the European Union, which Lithuania is working to join.

Public discontent at the country's lengthy economic depression, caused by the 1998 collapse of the Russian ruble, can explain some of the backlash against the established parties. But not all, according to RFE/RL's Lithuanian Service director, Kestutis Girnius.

He says that normally a protest vote will see people moving their votes from left to right, or vice versa, according to which of those two sides is in power at the moment. But that does not account for the fragmentation seen in this election. Girnius says:

"I think it is a more fundamental shift, it is a shift in which the traditional five party Lithuanian political system is being undercut, and what you are moving into is an area where the traditional parties will only be part of the mix, and that what I call the politics of personality will assume an ever-greater role in Lithuanian political life."

In support of that contention, Girnius points to the leaders of the New Union and Farmers Party, Paulauskas and Karbauskis, whose personalities dominate their parties. There is also the Liberal Party's Rolandas Paksas, who became a focus of national attention overnight when he resigned as prime minister over the unpopular privatization deal for the Mazeikiu Nafta refinery. The formerly obscure Liberals gained greatly in stature at the latest elections.

With national parliamentary elections coming up in autumn, what will happen in Lithuania? Girnius believes the fragmentation is likely to continue, with the result that a total of seven or eight parties could be represented in parliament.

That would make coalition building much more difficult, with the prospect of shaky alliances stretching across the spectrum from right to left. That's a situation unfavorable for the emergence of governments capable of taking tough political decisions.

Girnius finds regrettable the apparent trend to vote for individual personalities as opposed to parties with clearly defined programs. But he does not see a danger for Lithuania's domestic stability or international standing:

"I think that all politicians, even those who come out in their campaigns with anti-NATO and anti-EU undertones, know that there are no real alternatives to that for Lithuania."

The country's economic depression appears to be bottoming out, but any improvement is likely to be too slow to be of much help to the established parties in the parliamentary elections this fall.