Alvaro Peñas interviews Vytautas Sinica, political scientist, vice chairman of the National Alliance (Nacionalinis Susivienijimas) party of Lithuania.
The first round of the Lithuanian elections has given the ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union the winner against the Lithuanian Christian Democrats. Are these elections going to change anything?
Until the results of second round of the election there is absolutely 50:50 chance for both Homeland Union (Christian Democrats) and Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union to finish as winners. There is a swing towards Homeland Union in public opinion, their totals in proportional election are biggest in more than 20 years (Lithuania has a mixed election system – half of parliament is elected through party lists nation-wide and other half in single-member constituencies in two-round system). On the other side, it is usual that everyone except those supporting Homeland Union are against them, so everyone gathers behind another candidate in the second round and Homeland Union tends to lose constituencies in the second round of the elections. Will this favourable swing be enough to defy that tendency remains to be seen. It is very possible that both parties will end up having around 40 mandates and no clear advantage.
Your party, founded this year, has failed to enter Seimas (parliament). However, in Latvia and Estonia the nationalist parties are strong and are part of the government. Why is it different in Lithuania? Do you think this situation will change in a near future?
Lithuania remains probably the last country in EU with no nationalist representation in parliament. Studies show that for such parties to gain popularity, country must have either mass immigration or local national minorities that cause integrational problems. Some countries, like Poland, become an exception, when right wing parties manage to present the problem without actually experiencing it. Lithuania is the only Baltic state without big and, lets say, problematic Russian minority. We have integration issues with Polish minority but there is no comparison in the extent of the matter. Also, for a long time Homeland Union (very pro-EU and even federalist and very against the Kremlin) and “Order and Justice” (very against EU and quite pro-Kremlin) parties managed to present themselves nationalist, without being such. Meanwhile real nationalist parties for two decades were weak, with no charismatic leaders, no established organization and professional political planning. This year, there were at least three other parties that presented as catholic or national conservative. Two of them got less than 1 percent, the third got 2.28, but with considerable state funding and sitting MP (they got 6 percent in 2016 election, but were not identifying as nationalist before). So there remains a huge fragmentation of nationalist right in Lithuania. Yet I believe that all those parties are going away in the next electoral cycle. Meanwhile we have just created a party this spring and rushed into this election without time and proper preparation, without public knowing our name. Decision to participate was made mostly because of the need to show alternative political thinking. In such circumstances, making into the Parliament would be a surprise.
In a recent article you described the Lithuanian electoral system as a facade of democracy. What do you mean?
In short, we have a democratic electoral system in its principles, but, in the details, everything is structured in a way to favour parties that are already in parliament. First, they get state funding (which is quite usual, yet not a just principle), while private funding is very difficult and restricted in Lithuania (not so usual). Second, they agreed to debate only among themselves during the campaign, which they do and which, I believe, is outrageous. Third, National Electoral Committee and Constituency`s Electoral Committees consists of only parliamentary parties representatives, who are also paid for the job and make decisions about electoral rules. For example, this year, they recognized as just National television`s decision to pair debate opponents by their ratings in one online opinion poll. Fourth, any public comments in the mass media by parliament member candidates are considered normal, but public comments in mass media by non-parliament member candidates are considered a hidden advertisement. The list could go on, but the main point is – everything is carried out in a way to make it more difficult for non-parliament parties.
These elections are being held under the shadow of Covid-19. What is the situation in Lithuania with the pandemic?
In spring, Lithuania was among the first countries to declare a state of quarantine and spread of the virus was clearly contained. We bought medical supplies ourselves, not through European Commission, and it turned out as good bet. In numbers, Lithuania had one of the best records in the world. Public showed and still shows strong support for those actions and takes Covid-19 as serious threat in general. This also helped the ruling party in the elections. All this allowed for the country to have one of the most liberal Covid-19 regimes from late June till now. But now the numbers of those having the virus are skyrocketing and prime minister talks about “pausing the public life again”. Media are preparing society for that with interviews with medics in favour of quarantine. But society is tired and now it would be much more debatable than it was in spring.
I know the Baltic countries and have visited Lithuania several times. Two years ago, I was surprised to find a zebra crossing with the LGBT colours next to the historical centre of Vilnius. To what extent the gender ideology is spread in Lithuania?
The society is very conservative on the family issues (not on the abortion issue, though) –70 to 80 percent of the public are against same-sex partnership, even more against “same sex marriage”, even 60 consider Pride parades “against the public morals”. Yet society is also very passive on public issues. Any unfavourable law can be passed with no protest. Also, it is still a society with modern survival values in Ronald Inglehart terms. People care about and vote by mostly economic issues. So, LGBT agenda is something silently despised in the society, but, at the same time, new Freedom Party with very radical gender ideology agenda gets 9 percent of the vote and even 5 percent in very conservative rural areas. I can tell from personal experience that ,even in the capital, many young people did not know and did not support their stance on LGBT issues, but voted for them just because of this year’s trend “against prohibitions”, because incumbent government is commonly associated with prohibitions and despised for it. It is not clear yet, but surprising results of Freedom Party might mean that a new electoral cleavage finally starts to emerge in Lithuania and, if so, there will definitely be a polarization of Lithuanian party politics that became extremely centrist (despite combative rhetoric) during the last decade. And this also means a relevance for a strong and up-to-date nationalist party.
Lithuania has allied with Poland in the hardest line of the European Union against the Lukashenka regime. What do you think of the situation in Belarus?
Lithuania tried to take important part in the taking over the Lukashenka regime. While the protesting people in Belarus are right to be unsatisfied and have every right to protest and as any nationalist, I support that will, as political scientist, I see that there are no pro-European opposition leaders and, actually, no strong enough leader with an agenda what to do after the transition to democracy at all. All the opposition leaders are more or less in favour of Crimea occupation and Putin`s geopolitics. So practical consequences of the protests will probably be in Moscow`s favour: either they can push Lukashenka harder and demand more concessions of Belarus sovereignty, or the democratically elected successor will be easy target for Moscow to make demands. Very sadly, for Belarus now and because of no prepared alternative, it is a choice between democracy and sovereignty. As we all know, there cannot be first without the latter.