Vytautas Sinica, political scientist, vice chairman of the National Alliance party
Lithuanian politicians have been devotedly active in their fight for democracy in a neighboring countries, and yet are more than willing to come to terms with the façade democracy they themselves have created in Lithuania. The electoral system is the face of every democratic regime; in Lithuania’s case, it’s a multifaceted front, disfigured heavily by hypocrisy.
From party funding and formation of electoral commissions to the candidate debate order and definition of campaign advertising, every aspect of elections in Lithuania is regulated or executed practically in a way that ensures only incumbent parliamentary parties have an actual chance of winning the election, barring any other participants from distinguishing themselves (with an exception of extremely wealthy candidates who are then immediately labeled oligarchs).
One great example of this are the electoral debates on LRT, the national broadcasting network, which are organized according to the results of an absurd and rather scandalous online poll, isolating the larger parties to a privileged discussion between themselves. Any and all measures will be used to make sure that social democrats and conservatives get to participate in the elections under circumstances as favorable to them as possible.
Among the member states of the European Union, Lithuania’s populace is characterized by extremely low trust in political parties, poor voter turnout, and general lack of belief in their own political power. This is the fault of the long-time parliamentary incumbents in Seimas, whose actions earned their parties infamy among the citizens. At the same time, however, they also tuned the system to their own favor, ensuring their parties privileged conditions of electoral participation. The safeguard of this order of things is the Central Electoral Commission, delegated by the very same incumbent parties. How does this mechanism function?
Four latches to keep the system locked in place
Laws and CEC decrees in force today maintain the situation where (nearly) nobody is able to get into the parliament, but those few who manage earn a lot of advantages in the elections. Essentially, this stagnant system is held up by several columns. Let us overview four of them.
First, the funding. Seimas of 2008-2012 passed a law that practically prohibited the financing of parties by large sums from private funds, opting instead to finance parties from the state budget and thus the tax-payers’ pocket. The reform was agreed upon by delegates on both left and right. Parties now receive budget funding based on their results during the previous election cycle; in turn, it is mostly allocated among the incumbent parties. The sums funded are rather large in Lithuania – over the past six months, parties were granted 3 million euros, with the conservative HU-LCD party receiving the lion’s share of it.
It’s no secret that nearly all the funds received by the parties are spent on election campaigns; it is also well known that election campaigns are expensive, and very dependent on media air time. This means that we, the tax-paying people, are covering most of the costs of campaign advertising of the biggest parties participating in the election, whether we personally support them or not. State funding forms the larger part of the incumbent parties’ campaign budgets, alongside other sources of income still available to them.
Why should citizens with little love for Gintautas Paluckas or Gabrielius Landsbergis be forced to pay for their advertising? It’s not the military force or the firefighting department, the support of which is essential for all of us, since we never know when a need for them will arise. People don’t trust the parties, and would gladly do without them – at least the traditional ones. Why not allow their willing and faithful supporters to provide them financially? As things stand right now, private donors who have filed their income and asset reports (a rare requirement worldwide) are allowed to donate sums of up to 9 thousand euros; those who have not are allowed to donate up to a mere 12 euros. For comparison, states in Western Europe (Sweden, Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere) permit sums up to several thousand to be donated even anonymously. In Lithuania, donations are permitted only during the campaign, at other times non-member donations are not accepted at all. It is sometimes cynically stated that with enough popular support, it’s possible to collect enough funds even in 12 euro increments. And yet, the Freedom Party, who have collected the most from these small donations, managed to collect a mere 45 thousand euros. Even the smallest state-funded grant is substantially larger that than.
Of course, there are fears of corruption and business influence on party decisions. However, as the various scandals of the liberal and other parties have clearly shown, big business in Lithuania is successful in finding ways to support state-funded parties anyway; only now this “support” is transferred in conspicuous boxes, under rugs, and other hiding places. Today, the only way a non-parliamentary party can manage to purchase media air time is if the delegated candidates are rich themselves, capable of taking loans in their name. Whenever that happens, as in the case of the LFGU, systemic parties begin loudly decrying the supposed “coming of the oligarchs”, feigning ignorance of the fact that they themselves have programmed the system in a way that only permits oligarchs to become a part of it.
Would it really be worse to allow private donors to finance their preferred parties, even in sums as large as 100 thousand euros, as long as the donations are legal and transparent? Naturally, later party decisions made in the interest spheres of such generous donors would have to be watched closely, but at least the financial conditions for electoral participation would be fair and even for all. But we can’t have that, now can we?
Second, the electoral commissions. Only incumbent parliamentary parties can delegate members to the Central Electoral Commission. The CEC then organizes the order of the elections, and often makes important decisions that can affect the end results. There have only been feeble attempts made to conceal the fact that CEC decisions are heavily politicized, often resulting in outcomes agreed-upon beforehand; analogous transgressions are forgiven to some, and penalized for others. CEC member positions are salaried, as are those of the county and district electoral commissions. Working at a local electoral commission often means a sleepless night, but is crucially important, as parties can only be certain of their votes being counted fairly if they have their own delegates within the commissions. Incumbent parties are able to pay their commission delegates a wage, while newcomers are forced to find over a thousand volunteers, willing to work the entire election night in various electoral district without pay.
Third, the order of debates. In countries ruled by mature democratic regimes, political debates are considered to be one of the most important parts of a campaign. It is difficult to measure their relevance for Lithuanian voters, but debates aired on TV are watched by hundreds of thousands of people; this seems enough to warrant substantial effort by incumbent parties to make backroom deals on privileged conditions for the debates. In order for the debates to feature confrontations between leaders of parties both well and less known, as well as reflect their opposing political leanings, the fairest method of their selection is to draw lots. It takes little effort for the party representatives to pick a numbered piece of paper that would determine the debate order. If, for whatever reason, the lot-drawing would prove impossible, parties have already drawn a number that decides their position in the voting ballots, and could thus be easily ordered to debate according to them (LRT Radio chose this exact solution this year).
However, there has been little effort to reform the process. In 2018, the CEC permitted the parties to amicably agree upon the debate order amongst themselves, leaving the lot drawing only as a resort for those unsatisfied with or unwilling to partake in the agreement. Unsurprisingly, the largest incumbent parties have agreed to debate each other, leaving the rest to squabble in the “amateur league”. This year saw an even greater insult: the national broadcaster (LRT) commissioned a poll to determine the popularity of parties participating in the upcoming election; the poll, organizing by an obscure polling agency, was partially conducted online, and its scandalous results (eg. leading party getting two times more support than in any other poll) were then used to group the debate participants according to their reported relevance. The main issue here is the open affirmation of the principle that “strong and relevant” parties (i.e. the incumbent ones) should debate amongst themselves, sidelining all the rest. The voters are being conditioned to think that certain debates will feature the “real” candidates, who will inevitably be in charge following the elections, while the other, less important debates will be held just to entertain the hopeless pretenders, who are guaranteed to lose anyway, and are therefore undeserving of the citizens’ attention. CEC approved this selection method, and neither suggested, nor demanded to hold a drawing of lots.
Fourth, the approach to advertising. Recent decisions made by the CEC have prompted a reconsideration of what we considered to be political advertising – and why? It is obvious that if various political events are being commented by a member of the parliament or a mayor of a certain town, especially if they are being interviewed precisely because of their status, it is not considered to be a form of advertising, even though the public becomes more aware of the politician in question. Meanwhile, if some political process is being analyzed by a candidate with no current position of importance, the CEC considers the publication to be a political advert. Even though neither case involves any bragging of one’s accomplishments, mentions the candidates’ parties by name, or features any similar attempts to attract votes, the incumbent candidate maintains a critical advantage against their “unremarkable” opponent. Publishers aren’t allowed to freely decide on inviting the latter, as they risk heavy fines – and have been fined in the past; and yet, interviewing incumbents carries no such risk, as it’s not considered to be a form of advertising. In practice, this means that parliamentary politicians, as well as those holding other important offices, are able to advertise their political leanings and receive free air time, while those lacking in similar status are forced to pay up for any sort of public statement, even when not promoting themselves. In the eyes of the CEC and incumbent parties, this is, of course, completely fair. Because “fair” is whatever will keep the budding up-and-coming parties away from the halls and corridors of the parliament.
How can this animal farm be set right? The façade democracy in Lithuania is plagued by several issues, but at the very least the electoral process is neither expensive, nor hard to fix:
- Budget-derived party funding must be drastically reduced of even completely rejected. Political parties are not an essential good, and must therefore be financed by their willing supporters. Individual donations should be made public and be only limited to sums up to a 100 thousand euros or such; willing donors should not be forced to file complex reports on their assets (in many cases, commonly filed income reports suffice completely).
- The CEC should not be composed on the basis of party representation, its decisions must be based on legal motives, and all members of the country and district commissions must receive equal pay or not receive it at all. Public activities are usually unpaid.
- All public debates among party representatives must be organized according to results of lot drawings, deciding the order of the debate opponents. The simplest solution would be to have the ballot number drawing double as a determinant of the debate order. Parties should not be allowed to make biased agreements on debate order between themselves. Debates must include confrontations between incumbent and contending parties.
- Public comments and statements not directly promotional in their content, published by candidates that are members of the parliament or hold other political offices should be treated equally to those published by election participants who are not in official positions of power, and not considered to be a form of political advertising. Any and all broadcasting cycles related to the elections and organized by the national media should allot the same amount of time for representatives of all the participating parties, without granting a privileged status to the “most influential” and “highest-rated” parties. Any exclusivity of this sort is a way of conditioning the voters into believing that only certain participants of the election are serious contenders worthy of their vote.
These measures are hardly sufficient to genuinely democratize the faux democracy prevalent in Lithuania of today. However, they would provide for a solid start of the reforming process, allowing to change the current system, heavily biased in favor of incumbent parliamentary parties, into one of equal footing for all, which could then be further improved in the future.