The Conservatives take pride of their democracy. Former party leader Andrius Kubilius once suggested to hold general elections for party chairman and famously called it a “celebration of democracy”.
Current leader Gabrielius Landsbergis has proposed to expand on this democratic process – voting in the chairman election, as well as electing candidates to presidential, mayor, European Parliament or Seimas elections in single mandate districts will no longer require party membership – non-partisan individuals will also be able to come vote.
That said the democratisation process in the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat (TS-LKD) ranks has other sides to it. Party members are obliged to vote and publically speak according to the instructions of the party presidium or council.
For example the party’s Oversight Committee has earlier ruled and such rulings become a part of party regulations that party members must adhere to presidium or council instructions and cannot hide behind their mandate as member of Seimas in voting or speaking against the party’s will. Otherwise they risk being penalised in the party, being removed from the organisation completely in extreme cases.
This is linked with the former situation when two members of the Conservatives – Vida Marija Čigrejienė and Arimantas Dumčius – supported the Social Democrat budget project though the Conservatives had chosen to vote against it.
Oversight Committee Chairman Valdas Benkunskas spoke of this during a Saturday party meeting, stressing that these regulations apply to not only members of Seimas, but also representatives in municipal councils, mayors and other Conservatives in public office.
According to V. Benkunskas the Conservatives are planning to completely reform their regulations and formalise the Oversight Committee’s rulings further. The regulations are registered at the Ministry of Justice and must adhere to Lithuanian law.
V. Sinkevičius: this is how members of Seimas are pressured
Mykolas Romeris University professor, specialist of constitutional law Vytautas Sinkevičius doubts whether this isn’t pressuring members of Seimas. One way or another, if a member of Seimas refuses to adhere to party instructions in voting, they risk even removal from the party. It is a major loss for a politician because without party support it becomes harder to participate in elections, the likelihood to take up important posts decreases.
“We have to see two aspects – the Constitutional Court has ruled that a free mandate as member of Seimas is specified in the Constitution in order to ensure that members of Seimas would represent not some single political party, group or part of the electorate, but the whole nation. In other words a member of Seimas is a representative of the nation and they have to have a free mandate so that they could work in the interests of the whole public, the whole nation,” the professor says.
According to Sinkevičius, a member of Seimas cannot be bound by any obligations – it is prohibited to instruct them or pressure them how to vote.
Another aspect is that members of Seimas or overall politicians enter parties under their own free will. This means that they agree with the party’s views, ideology and the goals it pursues. When conflict arises, the member of Seimas’ opinion differs from that of the party, the parliamentarian must choose.If the party’s ideology or goals are unacceptable, they have the choice to withdraw.
“But can an individual be penalised for carrying out their constitutional duty – to represent the whole nation and have a free mandate? I would believe that you cannot draw from the Constitution that members of Seimas can be penalised for this. You see one way or another the member of Seimas is then pressured, they are urged to vote in a certain way and submit to the party’s instructions and not their own conscience. However members of Seimas should adhere to three things – the Constitution, state interests and their conscience. The Constitution does not state that they must adhere to party instructions,” Sinkevičius says.
Conservatives see no pressuring
Conservative member, lawyer Stasys Šedbaras does not agree with V. Sinkevičius‘ thoughts. According to Šedbaras, who is also his party’s Oversight Committee member, the Conservatives’ obligation to uphold the presidium’s or council’s rulings and decisions is not a restriction of the member of Seimas’ mandate.
“This does not clash with the Constitution. The individuals are free to vote as they will, but equally they are free to choose the political entity they will accompany and whose charter and programme they will work under,” Šedbaras says.
According to the politician, if any member of the TS-LKD is unwilling to agree with a decision, they are free to leave the party and suspend their membership.
Šedbaras explains that being a member of a party has benefits – the party provides financing during elections, the politician no longer needs to gather signatures, but for this they are expected to implement party programme.
“In a partisan perspective, they have to implement the will of the party’s institutions. Not doing so they can, of course, be penalised by party structures. But as a member of Seimas, they are free to vote as they will. Meanwhile the party is free to demand they carry out that which the politician has committed to,” the politician says.
In other words Šedbaras says that members of Seimas can vote and speak against the party‘s will and they will not lose their mandate as a result, but such an individual can face party penalties, up to removal from the party.
G. Landsbergis – what is the purpose of party organisations then?
Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat Chairman G. Landsbergis believes that such a request to uphold party programme and presidium and council rulings is completely natural. He stresses that both the presidium and the council are democratically elected institutions, they feature varied numerous differing opinions that are discussed until a joint position is finally formulated.
“These are not unilateral decisions,” Landsbergis says.
According to the politician by making the decision to become a member of the party, people commit to upholding the fundamental proposals outlined in the party’s programme. If such an individual does not consistently uphold them, then the question arises whether they share the same path.
“A member of the party, elected through the party can vote as they will, but then let them not be a member of the party. It is completely normal to join a different Seimas group, join the majority,” the politician states.
“I would then ask why we need party structures at all if everyone acts as they will. I believe that it is a decision – to be a member of a community,” G. Landsbergis says.
Party leaders’ dream
Political parties and their leaders have always dreamed of controlling their representatives in Seimas, cabinet or municipal councils so that they would maintain discipline – that is to say that they would vote as decided by party leadership.
In authoritarian parties or single leader parties this process is easier, while it is harder in democratic parties.
Despite all sorts of pressure and efforts, when the Labour Code was passed in June, 25 Social Democrats of the Seimas group’s then 40 participated in voting. The remaining ones either did not participate in voting or were not present in Seimas at all, but those who voted complained to journalists of “terrorising” and “arm twisting”.
Currently the implementation of the new Labour Code is halted, but this is the best example of how parties seek to control their members during the legislative process.
One Social Democrat who wished to remain anonymous recalled how A. Butkevičius, as the leader of the party, employed his informal ability to rate down dissenting members of Seimas in the electoral list, reducing their chances of being elected in the coming elections.
“That is exactly what he did. Prior to voting regarding the Labour Code it was initially decided in the group meeting in the morning that voting would be free (and the majority had chosen to vote against), but afterward it so happened that it was said that those who do not vote or disagree, the chairman will tell the branches that they will not be rated highly,” the Social Democrat said.
When asked whether this is good or bad, the Social Democrat stated that in this regard it is important to maintain balance – on one hand discipline must be maintained because party members have to carry out the party’s programme, but it is fairly risky because it can distort politics and achieve very limited aims which benefit specific interest groups, rather than the public.
“Every stick has two ends,” the politician quipped.
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