The 2020 parliamentary election in Lithuania: why did the EAPL-CFA fail?

The 2020 parliamentary election in Lithuania: why did the EAPL-CFA fail?

Kiryl Kascian and Vitold Jančis

In October 2020, a new parliamentary election took place in Lithuania. Lithuanians elected 141 members of the unicameral Seimas. Among them, at least six persons represent the country’s national minorities or have a minority background. In this text, we discuss the context of this election, focusing on Lithuania’s national minorities.

According to the electoral rules, 70 MPs were elected in a countrywide multi-mandate electoral constituency while 71 MPs received their seats in single-mandate electoral districts. To participate in the distribution of the seats in the multi-mandate constituency, each party requires to reach an electoral threshold set at five percent for the parties and seven percent for the multi-party coalitions.

Minority representation can be achieved through mainstream or ethnic parties. In the Lithuanian context, the latter option is virtually monopolized by the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (EAPL–CFA). The EAPL–CFA’s unique niche in Lithuanian politics and its failure to meet the five percent threshold at the 2020 parliamentary election determines why we are first focusing on its performance and after that discuss the minority representatives in the mainstream parties.

The primary focus on the EAPL–CFA has two interconnected contexts. The first includes the party’s position within Lithuania’s political system and its actual performance. The second one involves the election context.

The 2020 election vis-a-vis the EAPLCFA’s niche in Lithuania’s political system

The EAPL–CFA’s electorate overwhelmingly consists of the members of Lithuania’s Polish, Russian, and other national minorities. For over a decade, it quite effectively collaborates with the Russian Alliance (RA), a small political party claiming to represent Lithuania’s Russians that became the EAPL–CFA’s junior coalition partner. In other words, the EAPL–CFA aggregates the votes of those persons belonging to the country’s national minorities who tend to vote ethnically.

The EAPL–CFA came to the 2020 election as a member of the governmental coalition. However, with 4.80 percent at the countrywide constituency, it came short to participate in the distribution of mandates. Thus, it interrupted its lucky streak consisting of the 2012 and 2016 elections and returned to the situation from 2008. Back then, the EAPL got 4.79 percent and obtained three mandates in the three single–mandates constituencies in the Vilnius county populated predominantly by ethnic Poles. In 2020, this situation nearly mirrored, as the EAPL–CFA claimed three mandates in the constituencies (Nemenčinė, Šalčininkai–Vilnius, and Medininkai) around Lithuania’s capital. On the one hand, the party was capable to reclaim all three single-mandate constituencies it won in 2016. On the other hand, the EAPL–CFA’s support dropped in all of them, though being still sufficient to comfortably claim the MP seats there.

The decrease in the EAPL–CFA’s performance is attributed to the election context. However, it worth comparing the structure of the party electorate in 2016 and 2020 based on its results in the countrywide constituency. In the following table, it is distributed among five segments: the core area (i.e. single-mandate constituencies of Nemenčinė, Šalčininkai–Vilnius, and Medininkai), peripheral core area (other single-mandate constituencies around Vilnius with the partial adjustment of the change of the constituencies’ borders), urban electorate from Vilnius and Klaipėda, as well as supporters from other districts.

The table demonstrates three important aspects. First, it is crucial for the EAPL–CFA to secure the votes of urban Poles, Russians, and representatives of other minorities from Vilnius and Klaipėda. Second, the election results show the decrease of the share of the EAPL–CFA’s votes received in Vilnius for 2.67 percent. It means that the party’s popularity declined in the capital. The electoral results confirm this trend. In 2016, the party received 9.83 percent of all votes in Vilnius, while in 2020 its result dropped to 7.69 percent. If the party were able to keep its result in the capital from the 2016 election, it would mean over 4,800 additional votes more than sufficient to reach the electoral threshold. Third, the share of votes received in Klaipėda in the overall structure of the EAPL–CFA’s electorate increased, so as the party’s general performance in this city (7.51 percent in 2020 vs 7.38 percent in 2016). It shows the increase of ethnic Russian votes from Klaipėda among the EAPL–CFA’s electorate. Yet, these votes cannot compensate for the party’s losses in Vilnius.

Election context: scandalous runaway from the mainstream agendas

In recent years, the party was in the center of several scandals that partially affected its electoral performance at the 2019 municipal and European parliament elections. Several scandals were attributed to the EAPL–CFA activities within the government coalition and specifically linked with the personality of Jarosław Narkiewicz, Lithuania’s minister of transportation and communication. During his official visit to the United Arab Emirates, he failed to appear as a participant in the forum and paid for his private dinner from the budget of one of the government agencies. Much more serious scandal around him emerged when he was accused by the journalists in prioritization of road construction to the private house of the country’s prime minister Saulius Skvernelis, representing the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union.

On the eve of the parliamentary election, the EAPL–CFA was the only significant political group in Lithuania that publicly refrained from the moral support of anti-Lukashenka protests in Belarus that became one of the main issues of Lithuania’s foreign policy. This move was somewhat counterproductive for the effective mobilization. In the lack of ethnic Polish votes, the party strived to attract the electorate among other minority groups of Lithuania, primarily among ethnic Russians. It is possible to agree with the assessment that a significant part of this electorate “lives in a sort of self-made ethnic ghetto combined with a Kremlin-made information bubble, as they watch mainly Russian TV through the available cable networks”. It is fair, however, to say that a substantial group of this ghettoized electorate also consists of ethnic Poles. To put it briefly, the EAPL–CFA tries to attract the votes of those citizens of Lithuania who either support Russia’s policies aimed to enable Lukashenka to keep his power in Belarus or prioritize good relations with Russia at all costs without taking much into account Lithuania’s interests and security concerns.

This situation substantially leads to the negative stereotypization of Lithuania’s Poles and Russians, as well as partly explains the psychology of the EAPL–CFA’s leadership towards its ethnic Polish voters. Since the EAPL–CFA claims to represent Lithuania’s Polish minority, one can get a false impression that the members of this community are somewhat reluctant to support the political changes in Belarus which contradicts the efforts of Lithuania’s and Poland’s authorities to back the protesters, as well as the position of the active members of Belarus’s Polish minority who take part in the protests. The EAPL–CFA does not have a monopoly on speaking on behalf of Lithuania’s Poles, but its position on the issue produces this stereotype and brings it into a broader public debate in Lithuania. For instance, Žygimantas Pavilionis, an MP who was one of the authors of the resolution aimed at support the protests in Belarus emotionally claimed that his fellow MPs from the EAPL–CFA are not Poles, but Russians “in the worst sense of this word” as their behavior indicates that they act as representatives of the Kremlin. Beyond any doubt, the discussion in these terms also affected members of Lithuania’s Russian minority who in large part cannot be labeled as adherents of the Kremlin’s policies. In other words, it is the EAPL–CFA that opened the floodgates for the reappearance of the ethnic issue in Lithuania’s domestic discourse.

Two subsequent accidents also had an impact on the EAPL–CFA performance in the parliamentary election. The first one was the campaign “Bye, bye, Lord Voldemort” initiated by an influential Lithuanian journalist Andrius Tapinas. During this campaign, Tapinas called on his supporters not to vote for the EAPL–CFA and persuade other citizens to do the same. Admittedly, Tapinas’s campaign against the EAPL–CFA was primarily focused on the ethnic Lithuanian voters, and not the voters from Polish or Russian national minorities. The second issue to be mentioned is a fragment of the interview of Arūnas Valinskas, a famous showman and former politician. In his interview, Valinskas accused Tomaszewski of being a pro-Kremlin public figure and said that the politicians like him should be shot dead. The EAPL–CFA used that fragment of Valinskas’s interview interpreting it as a sign of danger and discrimination of the Polish and Russian minorities by the ethnic Lithuanian majority. It is highly likely that Valinskas’s words and the EAPL–CFA subsequent reaction in the public space motivated some voters to cast their votes for EAPL–CFA candidates in the runoff election.

In this sense, it is also worth focusing on the personality of Waldemar Tomaszewski who has been the party’s chairman for over 20 years starting from 1999. In 2009, he was for the first time elected as an MEP, and in 2014 and 2019 successfully sought re-election. Because of the demographic figures of its potential electorate, the EAPL-CFA could hardly claim more than one MEP mandate. Therefore, the 2014 and 2019 MEP campaigns could instead be interpreted as a vote of confidence in Tomaszewski as the EAPL-CFA’s leader with the issue of whether Lithuania’s Poles and other minorities would again have their MEP was at stake. In other words, Waldemar Tomaszewski’s uncontested leadership for over 20 years results in a low level of autonomy within the party. Although parallels in the leadership style of Lukashenka and Tomaszewski would be an obvious exaggeration, it is evident that Lithuania’s Polish minority lacks possible alternatives to the current EAPL-CFA political leadership to challenge their position effectively.

Minority representatives in the new Seimas: an overview

The new Lithuanian parliament will include the following representatives of the country’s national minorities: Evelina Dobrovolska from the Freedom Party, Tomas Tomilinas from the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, Emanuelis Zingeris from the Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats, and the representatives of the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance – Czesław Olszewski, Beata Pietkiewicz, Rita Tamašunienė.

It will be the first term in the parliament for Beata Pietkiewicz. Her political career in the EAPL–CFA became more visible when in April 2019 she was appointed as vice mayor of Šalčininkai.

Rita Tamašunienė is a prominent and reliable member of the EAPL–CFA. In the government led by Skvernelis, she was the minister of interior. She received the MP mandate in the electoral district of Nemenčinė, one of the core regions for the EAPL–CFA. Although the local self-government used its administrative resources to mobilize voters to vote for Rita Tamašunienė, she was able to secure only 54.53 percent of the votes in the runoff election.

Czesław Olszewski won in the neighboring electoral district of Medininkai. As an MP, he became known as the person who spent a record amount of the available funds on flowers. His main rival was Robert Duchniewicz, an ethnic Pole representing the Social Democratic Party. Although Duchniewicz is well-known in the region, his failure could partly be explained by the same mobilization of the local self-government administrative resource in favor of Olszewski.

Other political parties also had candidates of minority backgrounds but in many cases, they failed to receive sufficient support among the voters.

Emanuelis Zingeris was elected on the Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats list. A representative of the Lithuanian Jewish community, he is a well-known Lithuanian and European politician with significant experience as a Seimas member.

Tomas Tomilinas is a prominent and influential member of the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union. Being of Polish background, he graduated from the school with the Polish language of instruction in Vilnius. Although Tomilinas identified himself as Lithuanian at the website of the Central Electoral Commission, local Polish media outlets treat him as a Pole.

The MP mandate received by Evelina Dobrovolska from the Freedom Party is a significant fact. Placed eighth on the pre-election list of her party, she advanced to sixth place after preferential voting. She is also well-known for her consistent activities in the fields of human rights, women’s rights, and national minority rights.

Image: © Vitold Jančis

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