Lithuania’s Semi-Presidential Stand Off Reaches its Endgame

Almost exactly a month after the second round of the October 2012 parliamentary elections, Lithuania is in the final stages of appointing a new government. As predicted prior to the election, the two centre-left parties, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats (LSDP), gained enough votes to form a coalition with a third party, the populist Order and Justice.  The Conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, who led the country through the financial crisis, performed better than expected, but were left in second place with no obvious coalition partners.

Given the pre-election maneuvering that had already taken place, the formation of a centre-left coalition should have been straightforward. But it was not to be. The second round of the constituency campaigns was marred by allegations of vote-buying, particularly in prisons, aimed primarily at the Labour Party, which already had a reputation for corruption.  The complaints were referred to the Constitutional Court for adjudication, and Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, refused to approve any government that contained the Labour Party.

The result was a classic semi-presidential stand-off, with President Grybauskaite and the would-be Prime Minister, the LSDP’s Algirdas Butkevicius, locked in a battle of wills.  Meanwhile, the Conservative leader, Andrius Kubilius, continued to run the country.  The deadlock was finally broken when Butkevicius recruited an additional coalition partner, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, a small party representing the country’s Polish minority.  This gave the coalition a three-fifths majority in Parliament, sufficient to over-ride any presidential veto.

President Grybaukaite backed down, but not before making two demands.  Firstly, she has asked that the immunity of the MPs implicated in criminal dealings be revoked (Lithuanian MPs have immunity from prosecution).  Secondly, and somewhat bizarrely, the President requested a personal meeting with each proposed minister to confirm their fluency in at least one of the EU’s languages, English, French or German.  President Grybauskaite is a former EU commissioner, and Lithuania will hold the EU Presidency from July to December 2013.  However, the President’s gesture was only partially inspired by respect for Lithuania’s international partners.  Its primary purpose was to exclude certain individuals, viewed by the President as corrupt, from ministerial office.

This month’s stand-off may be healthy for Lithuania’s democracy in the long term. Most significantly, the prosecution of electoral violations is an important step in tackling corruption.  Even better if immunity from criminal prosecution is lifted, since the guarantee of such immunity tends to attract the wrong sorts of candidates to politics.

Although an extra coalition partner can make disagreements more likely, the inclusion of Lithuania’s long-marginalised Polish minority in the governmental process is arguably long overdue.  Lithuania’s relations with Poland have been poor in recent years, largely as a result of disputes over the treatment of this minority.

Therefore, despite the unexpected drama, Lithuania’s 2012 elections have provided an opportunity to tackle problems that have persisted since its transition to democracy twenty years ago.

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