Making predictions about the 2019 presidential elections today is like trying to predict the end of the seventh season of Game of Thrones just as the first season begins. However perhaps the competing “families” are already visible, former political advisor to MP Andrius Kubilius and the Conservative party chairman Gabrielius Landsbergis wrote on this Facebook wall?
Gabrielius Landsbergis, Jonas Survila
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The president will be elected by all of Lithuania, not just the Lithuanian Facebook and not even the wide and consistently growing centre right. This is why both parties and candidates should keep this in mind when considering their chances and respectively planning their endorsements. Even the entire centre right is only around 30% of the electorate which voted in the Seimas elections. Even all the voters of the traditional three major parties – the Liberals, Conservatives and Social Democrats – would not be enough to win the second round of the presidential elections because they do not form 50% of the vote.

For the past 15 years, 20 if V. Adamkus’ first term is included, the people of Lithuania have elected non-partisan candidates. Even in 2002 when the then Liberal Democrat Paksas was elected, they elected him not as a representative of a traditional party, but as an anti-establishment and anti-elite candidate. Over the coming two years the support of voters to parties will certainly not rise, I would in fact predict that disappointment will increase.

The Liberals may be unable to recover from the public court hearings regarding Eligijus Masiulis and others involved in the Liberal’s corruption investigation due to the second wave of discussions, evidence and other details, amplified by Remigijus Šimašius‘ unsuccessful mayoral performance in Vilnius. It will also impact the Social Democrats who were in power at that time and will likely be relevant to the process, perhaps just with a less dramatic status. There may just be more spicy titbits such as Dainoras Bradauskas’ “holding some parties by the balls”. As such a sizeable portion of voters will once again be able to say about parties that “they are all like this” and will likely divert their thinking about what candidate to support in the presidential elections away from partisan candidates primarily.

Of course some parties and candidates will participate in the presidential elections in order to improve their performances in the European Parliament elections or using candidacy as a platform to prepare for the 2020 Seimas elections which will then be a year away; all this without even really competing for the leading positions in the presidential race. This role will likely be filled by Petras Auštrevičius who has been successfully working the European Parliament, his role in the presidential race being linked to both the upcoming European Parliament elections and also seeking to help his scandal struck party to stay above water.

I wouldn’t view Robertas Dargis’ candidacy seriously, he may siphon away votes from a Liberal candidate, but it is unlikely that the representative of major business and employers could receive sufficient support from the nation which is deservedly and strongly discontent with both low wages and high prices. Dargis, as a good organiser, would have better chances to take the weakened Liberal Movement’s niche in the Seimas elections, gathering around 7% of the vote and leading a Seimas group, aiming for economy linked posts in a future coalition government, rather than having realistic chances in the presidential race. In the context of the presidential elections he could be a good campaign head for a candidate, but not a real competitor for the post of president.

To this day the most serious competitors in my personal opinion are Skvernelis, Blinkevičiūtė, Ušackas, Šimonytė and Matijošaitis.

If the elections were to be held next Sunday, they would be won by Saulius Skvernelis. However his tragedy is that there is still much time left and time is not on his side. Today it is not yet clear where the decline of support for him will cease. I believe that his ratings will no longer decline as dramatically as over the past four months, however the erosion of public support will continue. The alcohol restrictions to come into power in January, paired with increasing heating prices (if the government does increase the VAT tariff for heating after all) will be a fairly significant test of his popularity’s resilience. However if Skvernelis manages to remain Prime Minister up to the presidential elections, which is currently a fairly great challenge, he would risk to lose everything by running for the office.

After the presidential elections the cabinet of the time will have to return their authorisation to the newly elected president. While it has historically been more of a technical/procedural action, it could be different this time. If the head of cabinet runs for the office and loses and lacking a robust majority in Seimas, the newly elected president would have a fairly large and importantly – fresh political capital to initiate even the formation of both a new coalition and a new cabinet. As such the “Farmers” should already start thinking about an alternative to Skvernelis today. It would appear they are doing so. Viktoras Pranckietis could be such an alternative and with decent prospects, especially if endorsed by Skvernelis himself. He is appealing to the second Lithuania and his non-polarising image of a provincial intellectual and moral person could receive broad support, making for a surprise to many, as was the “Farmer’s” victory in the second round of the 2016 Seimas elections.

Vygaudas Ušackas has much potential as well, being “unblemished” by politics in the eyes of voters, also being a non-polarising figure. He has not been a part of Lithuanian national politics for the past five years, but on the other hand is fairly well known and recognised by the public. If he chooses to run for office, his fortunes will depend on whether he would be able to escape the elusive rhetoric armour which plagues many a diplomat and to formulate an authentic uniting vision – to clearly express what he supports and opposes, what his key message is. Petras Auštrevičius‘ example in 2004 could be similar when he turned from diplomacy to politics and was just a hairs breadth away from entering the second round of presidential elections (being less than 2% away from K. Prunckienė who took second place), where, if he was still in the race, he would likely have won at the time. However what he lacked in that presidential race was specifically political thinking, a clearer political vision, more clearly defined political profile and authentic (not technocratic) vision.

Ingrida Šimonytė would also be a strong candidate, though her time as Minister of Finance during the crisis would be referred to by rivals all the time. In the people’s eyes this would be a sort of renewed Grybauskaitė 2.0 version – firm, strict, transparent, also a former Minister of Finance, only younger and with a sense of humour! As such more suitable in the new era of Facebook. On the other hand we must not forget that while Winston Churchil won the World War, afterwards he lost the national elections. In other words, after the team of a firm, military leader type of hand in Daukantas Square and a police officer at Gediminas Avenue 11, the nation could want a different archetype at Daukantas Palace. This is why the calm and intelligentsia of Pranckietis, demonstrations of social sensitivity from Blinkevičiūtė and the maintained diplomatic image of Ušackas could have more space. However in running for president, as paradoxical as it may sound, one must primarily want it. From public interviews by Šimonyė such intentions do not come across and one does not become president by force. On the other hand there is still quite some time to reconsider. It is also important to stress that even not running in the race, Šimonytė‘s support for another candidate would be impactful, particularly in the first round, thus her word and position will matter regardless of anything.

Another potential leftist candidate Žygimantas Pavilionis has lower chances in the presidential race than a year and a half ago when he decided to enter national politics following the conclusion of his term as ambassador in the USA. At the time he was enveloped by the aura of an active and professional diplomat which he has maintained even to date, but on returning he has made a number of major mistakes in national politics. The wish to cooperate with Karbauskis right after the Seimas elections, which, as we see today, would have been disastrous (or at least not beneficial to the TS-LKD); later – candidacy in the party chairman elections against Gabrielius Landsbergis where he was left third and was surpassed by Paulius Saudargas, who is not an exceptionally prominent political figure, shows that Žygimantas “slips while cornering” and he makes major mistakes, leaving behind an image of an excessively heated, ambitious and rushed politician. Furthermore it is currently not very realistic for a clearly partisan candidate and especially member of Seimas and in Žygimantas‘ case even a sort of Seimas “backbencher” to consider victory in the second round of presidential elections, where 50% +1 of all voters’ votes are needed.

On the other hand he is a hardworking, young and energetic politician and still has a year and a half to try and recover his reputation and display wide national level uniting initiatives. The regional Valdas Adamkus forum organised yesterday is an excellent example of this. In his team he has talented and politically competent people who can provide good advice and protect from mistakes.

However for now in Žygimantas Pavilionis‘, just as in Dargis‘ shoes I would seriously consider supporting a stronger, more broadly appealing candidate and seek positions that would open up following the candidate‘s success in the likely newly formed cabinet.

Andrius Tapinas would only have a chance if he was openly supported by Dalia Grybauskaitė (which is theoretically only possible if her other favourites did not run such as Linkevičius and Šimonytė). Otherwise he could have a strong showing, perhaps taking third or fourth place, potentially having a decisive influence through who he supports in the second round. However for now despite the excellent and titanic, but much needed work he is doing in encouraging the civic mindedness of the young generation and fighting for transparency, creating new forms and standards of media expression, without unambiguous and clear support from Grybauskaitė he would only be a sort of analogue to the candidacy of then famous TV figure Vytautas Šerėnas in the 2002 presidential elections where he was left fourth with 7.75% of the vote. And most importantly he would greatly risk his public authority, the status of “the Conscience of the Lithuanian internet” and the future of the excellent TV projects he stated.

What could the TS-LKD primaries look like?

This is also too early to predict – it will depend on the regulation, whether non-partisan candidates can participate as well, when they will be declared and who will be able to vote. For now no party in Lithuania has experience in organising primaries. Both for the candidates and, if it were to be an election open to the public, to common voters this will be a new and interesting experience, but its effects and consequences for the final result (the national elections) are hard to predict. I would not dismiss the possibility that the Conseravtive primaries could feature successful performances by experienced and highly valued party veterans such as Laima Andrikienė or Rasa Juknevičienė or professor Vytautas Juozapaitis who could attempt a sort of Lithuanian Reagan scenario.

I have yet to discuss other candidates who have potential to be significant players – particularly Vilija Blinkevičiūtė who already participated in the 2004 presidential race and had a decent showing with 16% of the vote. Antanas Guoga who wishes and could be reborn as a phoenix or the duo of Naglis Puteikis and K. Krivickas which has significant potential in certain segments of the public or Aušra Maldeikienė. And not to forget what could be the dark and very strong horse or black swan of the elections – the successfully performing (other than the trees being cut) Kaunas mayor Visvaldas Matijošaitis who has been demonstrating the image of an economic and concrete mayor to all of Lithuania. But more on these candidates some other time.

In summary, candidacy in the 2019 presidential elections will be a game of high risks and high stakes. As such those who intend to participate and especially not just participate, but also win will have to take great risks. Risking and betting things from the post of Prime Minister to position in society, news media or business on the roulette of voters’ moods. By running for the office they will lose their political innocence and on losing will be seen as tainted by the broad public.

One would have to relinquish his work at a bank because Lithuanians will never elect a banker as president, the journalist would lose his position as moral authority, while the members of Seimas and European Parliament would likely have to relinquish their mandates and chances to also run for MEP if they wish to be serious pretenders, unlike politically late Zigmantas Balčytis tried. This will be a significant challenge and great burden for both Vilija Blinkevičiūtė and Petras Auštrevičius, as well as other candidates considering their chances.

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