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2012 Lithuanian Parliamentary Election and Nuclear Referendum: Post-Election Report

- October 16, 2012

Continuing our series of election reports,  the following post-election report on this weekend’s Lithuanian parliamentary election and nuclear referendum is authored by Dan Mallinson, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the Pennsylvania State University.


The initial results of the Lithuanian parliamentary election are in, and it appears that the Labour Party and Social Democrats (SD) are the clear winners. Reports based on exit polling and information from the Lithuanian Election Commission indicate that the Labour Party took 21 percent of the votes in the national election, while SD won approximately 19 percent. The ruling Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD) only received approximately 14 percent of the vote (see Figure 1 for all party vote shares). That being said, this represents the national election totals, which only fill 70 of the 141 seats in the Seimas. The results from the constituency elections are still not in and run-off elections for districts where no candidate won a majority of the votes will be held on October 28. If the national results are generally reflected within the constituencies, it appears likely that Labour and the Social Democrats will form a center-left coalition. Of course, they will need the help of at least one additional party. At this time, it appears that they are in talks with the populist Order and Justice party.

The implications of the opposition victory will not be fully understood until the final coalition forms, but SD and Labour have made clear that they are interested in rolling back some of the austerity measures put into place by HU-LCD and Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius. Additionally, they have promised to raise the minimum wage, cut taxes, and allow the budget deficit to rise over three percent of gross domestic product in order to provide stimulus to the economy. The three percent threshold is a key aspect of the Maastricht Treaty requirements for adoption of the Euro and the liberal parties have expressed a desire to delay Lithuania’s adoption of the Euro for at least a year (from 2014 to 2015). The parties certainly have their work cut out for them, as Lithuania’s recovery has slowed in the last year and Lithuanians continue to emigrate to western Europe for jobs.

The election of a center-left coalition also has implications for regional politics. Prime Minister Kubilius and the HU-LCD have had a generally antagonistic relationship with Russia. This surfaced most recently as a dispute between Lithuania and the Russian energy giant Gazprom over possible overpayments. Additionally, with the closure of the Ignalina nuclear power plant in 2009, Lithuania imports over 60 percent of its electricity, most of which comes from Russia. Kubilius made energy and political independence from Russia a vital priority for his government, but the leftist parties are not as likely to follow this path. First, SD has promised to “reset” relations with Russia. This comes at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed a desire to reassert influence over former Soviet-bloc countries. Second, SD and Labour are both skeptical of Lithuania’s ability to help build a new nuclear power plant in Visaginas (next to the shuttered Ignalina plant).

Turning to the issue of the Visaginas plant, Lithuanians also voted yesterday on a non-binding referendum regarding whether or not they support the project. In 2008, over 80 percent of Lithuanians had supported keeping the Ignalina plant open, but less than the 50 percent threshold of eligible voters cast a ballot in the referendum, thus rendering it moot. On Sunday, over 60 percent of voters opposed the construction of the Visaginas nuclear power plant. With over 52 percent of eligible voters casting a ballot in Sunday’s referendum, the results will stand this time. While this appears to be a stark contrast with the results four years ago, it is understandable considering the events of the intervening four years.

Since the 2008 referendum, Lithuania has faced a deep economic contraction, harsh austerity measures, and subsequent rapid growth that has been celebrated by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. Regardless of that external praise, many Lithuanians are still feeling the pinch of the austerity program. This casts doubts on the country’s ability to finance such a large project while citizens are still hurting financially. In this way, while the two referenda are about the same general policy (i.e., nuclear power) they represent two very different choices. The choice in 2008 was to keep an existing – and paid for – plant operating, while the choice yesterday was to invest billions of Euros in constructing a new plant. This proved a much harder sell. Additionally, since 2008, the world was reminded of the dangers of nuclear power with the 2011 disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. The reactor that Hitachi plans to build in Visaginas is the same design as the one installed at Fukushima. (Interestingly, Lithuania’s nuclear power history is thus connected to two of the most visible nuclear disasters in history. The reactor at the Ignalina plant was the same design as the one that melted down in Chernobyl.) With the clear referendum results, SD and Labour can now point to popular support if they wish to delay or scuttle the project. In fact, they are the parties that called for the referendum to be included on the October ballot and have expressed reservations about building the plant in Visaginas.

It must be said that these results are still in flux, as final results will not really be available until after the October 28 run-off. Between now and then, talks to form a governing coalition could fail or HU-LCD could boost its overall vote share through the run-off elections. What is clear is that the governing dynamics will be fluid for at least a few more weeks. That being said, here are two important notes to end on. First, overall turnout in this election reached above 50 percent for the first time since 2000 (see Figure 2). While this is still far below the 75 percent that turned out in 1992, it continues a trend of increasing turnout since it bottomed out in 2004. Second, although his party lost, Andrius Kubilius now has the distinction of being the first Prime Minister to serve a full term since Lithuania regained its independence in 1990.