Are we witnessing the end of ethnic parties in Lithuania?

Are we witnessing the end of ethnic parties in Lithuania?

In Lithuania’s recent parliamentary election, the party claiming to represent the interests of Polish and other minorities failed to reach the electoral threshold. As Kiryl Kascian writes, this could bring an end to the ethnic channel of minority representation in Lithuanian politics

A special case in Lithuania’s politics

National minorities constitute about 15% of Lithuania’s population, with Poles representing 6.6% and Russians 5.8%. The EAPL-CFA or ‘Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance’ party, led by Valdemar Tomaševski, is an ethnic party of Lithuania’s Polish minority and its electorate differs from other parties in Lithuania. For over a decade, it has been in an electoral arrangement with the Russian Alliance (RA) which enables the party to attract the votes of Lithuania’s Russians, who vote in ethnic terms.

The electoral Polish-Russian arrangement led by the EAPL-CFA monopolises the ethnic channel of minority representation in Lithuania. It is logical and mutually beneficial for the EAPL-CFA and the RA. The former consistently lacks ethnic Polish votes to reach the threshold at the multi-mandate constituency level set at 5%. The latter can attract no more than 20% of ethnic Russian votes. Jointly they can reach the threshold. Still, this arrangement is dominated by its ethnic Polish element.

EAPL-CFA’s electoral capacities

The country’s electoral system is mixed, with 70 MPs elected in a multi-mandate constituency and a further 71 MPs being winners in single-seat constituencies. During the 2012 and 2016 parliamentary elections, the EAPL-CFA received 5.83% and 5.48% of the vote. In both cases, the party list received five seats, supplemented by a further three MP mandates obtained in the single-seat constituencies around Vilnius with a predominantly ethnic Polish electorate.

Failure to reach the electoral threshold in 2020 reduced the EAPL-CFA’s representation in the Seimas from eight to three MPs, all elected in the single-seat constituencies. This nearly mirrored the situation from the 2008 election, when the EAPL-CFA narrowly missed the threshold by receiving 4.79% of the vote and obtaining three MP mandates in single-seat constituencies. After the 2020 election, the party was unable to form its parliamentary fraction, and its three current MPs joined a mixed political group.

Reputational damage

For parties with limited electoral capacities, reputation is particularly important. In recent years, the EAPL-CFA has been involved in a series of scandals.

In 2018, a conflict swirled around Michal Mackevič, chairman of the Union of Poles in Lithuania (UPL) and Member of Parliament representing the EAPL-CFA. Targeted by Poland’s prosecution service in the investigation into inappropriate use of funds from Poland by the UPL, Mackevič publicly made some offensive remarks towards Urszula Doroszewska, Poland’s Ambassador to Lithuania. This triggered debates within Lithuania’s Polish minority, and negatively affected the relations of its main political and civil organisations with the Embassy of Poland.

This was followed by a scandal involving Jaroslav Narkevič, Minister of Transport and Communications, over unreasonable expenditure of public funds, nepotism, and dubious prioritising of road construction projects.

Furthermore, the anti-Lukashenka protests in Belarus disputing the outcome of the presidential election became one of the main issues of Lithuania’s foreign policy. The EAPL-CFA was the only parliamentary political party in Lithuania that wilfully abstained from expressing support for Belarusian civil society in its protests against the alleged fraudulent election.

The EAPL-CFA was the only parliamentary political party in Lithuania that abstained from expressing support for Belarusian civil society in its recent protests

As a consequence, the EAPL-CFA suffered harsh criticism. ‘Farewell, Valdemar’, a campaign launched by journalist Andrius Tapinas, called on voters not to back the EAPL-CFA. It was followed by a statement by TV showman Arūnas Valinskas who accused Valdemar Tomaševski of a pro-Russian stance and added that ‘people like him should be shot dead‘.

The EAPL-CFA interpreted the former as a negative political campaign and filed a series of complaints. The latter statement had clear elements of hate speech, although Valinskas primarily attacked Tomaševski’s political views and not his ethnicity. Conversely, it was the EAPL-CFA’s leadership who had incorporated an ethnic factor into Lithuania’s public discourse by reducing all criticisms of its political contenders to a common ethnic denominator.

A grim future for ethnic representation in Lithuania?

Notwithstanding the EAPL-CFA’s failure in the 2020 Lithuanian parliamentary elections, there is still demand for an ethnic channel of political representation among Lithuania’s national minorities. The party kept its core electorate, but without reaching the threshold. A comparison of the 2016 and 2020 election results suggests that the party faced its biggest losses in Vilnius. The crucial problem for the EAPL-CFA’s leadership is how to re-attract and mobilise its urban potential electorate.

The crucial problem for the EAPL-CFA’s leadership is how to re-attract and mobilise its urban potential electorate

To do so, political leadership is crucial. There is an absence of leadership renewal because of a lack of feasible alternatives to the current incumbents. Tomaševski has led the EAPL-CFA since 1999, while Mackevič has served as the Chair of the Union of Poles since 2002.

Leadership renewal is much needed to improve the public mandate to speak on behalf of the entire Lithuanian Polish minority. Failure to do so, and to reboot the party’s current image, will lead to further dispersion of the EAPL-CFA’s electorate. The party’s political force will be reduced to purely municipal level – bringing to an end its role as a nationwide vehicle for ethnic political representation.

Kiryl Kascian holds a doctoral degree in Law from the University of Bremen. He is currently a board member at the International Centre for Ethnic and Linguistic Diversity Studies.

Note: This article was originally published by The Loop: ECPR’s Political Science Blog.

Image: ©  Vitold Jančis

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