Visvaldas Matijošaitis, Gitanas Nausėda, Saulius Skvernelis
© DELFI montažas

Political scientists have observed signs that reveal the begining of the presidential election campaign. Among the most popular potential candidates, according to the public, we find Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, economist Gitanas Nausėda and Kaunas Mayor Visvaldas Matijošaitis.

A public opinion survey by public opinion and market research company Spinter Tyrimai which was commissioned by the Delfi news portal revealed that S. Skvernelis would receive support from 13.5% of respondents, G. Nausėda from 9.9% and V. Matijošaitis from 9%.

The data suggests that following the trio of S. Skvernelis, G. Nausėda and V. Matijošaitis, there is the European Union ambassador to Russia Vygaudas Ušackas, who would receive support from 7.5% of respondents, while 7.2% would support Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union leader Ramūnas Karbauskis. 6.2% of respondents would support MEP Vilija Blinkevičiūtė, 4.5% - member of Seimas Ingrida Šimonytė and 3.8% - MEP Antanas Guoga.

3.7% of respondents would vote for Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists president Robertas Dargis, member of Seimas Žygimantas Pavilionis and journalist Andrius Tapinas would each receive support from 3.3%, member of Seimas Algirdas Butkevičius – 3%, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius – 1.7% and MEP Petras Auštrevičius – 1.5%.

11% of the respondents were unsure who they would support in the elections, while 10.9% do not plan to vote.

Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) political scientist, professor Tomas Janeliūnas has observed signs that indicate the campaigning for the presidential race has begun.

"We are gradually seeing candidates who are no longer afraid of declaring their candidacy. So far it was somewhat presumed, but it was too early for them to confirm any such intentions. We are now seeing clearer and clearer that the candidates are announcing about it. Perhaps not always directly, but at least they do not oppose talks of it," T. Janeliūnas said.

According to the political scientist this shows that at least the first stage of the electoral campaign has begun. "Most likely it will last around a year, speaking of how the circle of potential candidates will form during then," T. Janeliūnas said.

S. Skvernelis has advantages, but is more vulnerable

The political scientist is not surprised by the names of the three most popular candidates. "The names are mentioned practically the most, when people see this in the news about potential candidates, their ratings reflect it," T. Janeliūnas said.

Comparing S. Skvernelis and V. Matijošaitis' chances, the political scientist saw more advantages in the prime minister's situation because he is more visible at the national level and being the head of cabinet has the greatest opportunities to draw media attention.

"V. Matijošaitis is limited by his regional status and visibility primarily in Kaunas and only then at the national level. On the other hand S. Skvernelis is far more vulnerable. Being prime minister he holds vast responsibility for ongoing and future reforms and the success of the reforms will decide how he is received," T. Janeliūnas said.

The political scientist currently does not see any clear intentions from the Kaunas mayor to become a national politics figure and reminded that at least earlier V. Matijošaitis declared he has no intentions of expanding his political career outside of Kaunas.

"But of course seeing the rising popularity, ambitions may come into play, why not make use of it in attempting to position oneself as a potential national politics player," T. Janeliūnas pointed out.

Meanwhile he associated G. Nausėda's positions with momentum – G. Nausėda has been seen as a potential candidate for a decade, if not longer.

"This is inertia, he has long been seen as one of the most prominent economists in Lithuania. This fairly stable and positive evaluation would appear to be consistently improving at least because he has not met with negative criticism, does not have any particular vulnerabilities, has not partaken in politics and is not linked to any political parties that would have disappointed somehow. This neutral position allows him to appear in such lists of potential candidates," T. Janeliūnas said.

That former Minister of Finance I. Šimonytė is only seventh, the political scientist explains through her own declaration that she currently does not desire to run for president.

"She is not striving to appear in public, to be at the centre of attention and constantly remind of herself, thus clearly distancing herself somewhat from the highest step of politics which clearly influences people – she is not viewed as actively preparing for the presidential elections, quite the opposite, having distanced herself and unwilling to participate," T. Janeliūnas said.

According to the political scientist the survey results currently show passive expectations from voters. "For now there are no visions, guidelines for potential programmes even from the candidates, who have declared their intention to participate in the elections. As such everything is based on passive trust or distrust, which was formed by some external circumstances," T. Janeliūnas outlined.

V. Matijošaitis and S. Skvernelis acting like candidates

Mykolas Romeris University (MRU) docent Virgis Valentinavičius also believes the electoral campaign has begun. According to him, this is also evident in public surveys which ask about potential candidates, journalists' questions to potential candidates regarding their intentions.

"The potential candidates are choosing a time to declare their candidacy, watching their competitors' circumstances. The leaders who surfaced recently, namely Kaunas Mayor V. Matijošaitis and Prime Minister S. Skvernelis, are already acting as candidates," V. Valentinavičius said.

The MRU political scientist believes that currently V. Matijošaitis' position is currently more convenient than S. Skvernelis'.

"V. Matijošaitis is in a better position because his image is currently fairly positive and his only worry is to not spoil it prior to the elections. Meanwhile S. Skvernelis' situation is somewhat opposite – work in the cabinet, inconsistency and his, to put bluntly, frequent disregard for high politics and the fact that he is a candidate supported by the Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union causes him serious reputation problems," V. Valentinavičius stated, adding that of all potential candidates, S. Skvernelis is most worried because his ratings dynamics are fairly poor.

"He remains among the most popular candidates because he is the prime minister and is very visible and recognised. This visibility and recognition is a double edged blade. All the troubles of the cabinet and majority government are also the troubles of S. Skvernelis," V. Valentinavičius said.

The political scientist does not view V. Matijošaitis' status as a regional politician as a weakness. "During the last Seimas elections, Ramūnas Karbauskis came from Naisiai and won a landslide victory. Not being in Vilnius is currently an advantage. R. Karbauskis and the "Farmers", even if cynically, but managed to exploit voters' distrust for traditional party politics. In the US it is popular to make use of Washington, stating one is not from there. As such V. Matijošaitis has this advantage," V. Valentinavičius said.

Economist G. Nausėda, the expert notes, is always among the potential candidates up to the election really starting, but he is nowhere to be found when candidacies have to be declared.

"I believe that this scenario will repeat. This is an appealing candidate, an intelligent, competent person, but nevertheless a candidate from the sky, or in this case from Facebook, lacking any party structure and without public governance experience, I doubt Lithuania has reached a point where it will elect total amateurs. Most likely it will not happen," V. Valentinavičius said.

The fairly low position of I. Šimonytė, the political scientist explains through her not sending a clear message that she is seriously considering running for the office.

"In I. Šimonytė's case, the support of the Homeland Union (TS) will be very important and the TS has declared that it will hold primaries and the candidate will be selected in the American fashion. As such receiving early party support is problematic. If I. Šimonytė decided to participate, she would have good chances in the primaries, of course depending on the participants because somewhere there we also have Vygaudas Ušackas," V. Valentinavičius spoke.

According to the political scientist, the main variable to decide election results will be the ideas the candidates offer the people and the main topic will remain reducing social segregation.

"Party support, partisan organisations and electoral campaigns are all well, necessary tools of work, but these are just add-ons in the end," V. Valentinavičius said.

Chances for A. Maldeikienė to reach the second round

Communications expert, public relations agency Nova Media head Arijus Katauskas also sees signs of the electoral campaign beginning.

"Increasingly many candidates, when answering questions regarding their candidacies, are arranging their messages as if the campaign is beginning. Of course this is perhaps only the first stage, the situation is being probed, public reception is being monitored. But the main candidates, that is to say the top three, have fairly clearly declared. The political parties currently have not raised their candidates, but I agree with the other experts that it would appear that it will be anti-party, not party candidates that dominate in these elections," A. Katauskas said.

The expert does not dismiss the chances of journalist A. Tapinas who landed only in fourth place.

"We have to consider that the percentages in the data aren't all that large, considering the error margin. One thing is perhaps that the public does not yet know, does not understand, perhaps does not believe and there is something of a right wing bubble phenomenon which is not very visible in the research. This manufactures A. Tapinas' low ratings, but I believe that the situation would change if he decided to run for president, would begin gathering a team and perform his communications. For now it is more based in the internet," A. Katauskas said.

Meanwhile G. Nausėda who is in the top three, according to the communications specialist, has remained in peoples' heads for a while now as a potential candidate, while V. Matijošaitis in third place is a strong phenomenon of Kaunas communication.

"He managed to entangle Vilnius into a sort of confrontation, even half a competition which did not exist before. He ensured himself massive visibility and let us not discount that this is a person driving a Ferrari and creating many jobs, where Lithuanians need a strong patron and as some say – the nation's father," A. Katauskas said.

As for S. Skvernelis in first place, the expert points out that he is currently still basking in the sunshine of his prior ratings. "But the trends are such that if he confirms his candidacy for president, the battle will be great. In the current situation I would mainly see V. Matijošaitis and S. Skvernelis in this battle, but there is one thing which we do not see in this research – Naglis Puteikis and Aušra Maldeikienė," A. Katauskas highlighted.

According to the expert, the potential candidacies of N. Puteikis and A. Maldeikienė may be received with ridicule in Vilnius, but he stressed that "there is another Lithuania."

"N. Puteikis showed already in the previous elections that he can be a very interesting dark horse. Thus if a single candidate was formed from them, it would be massive, but I would not be surprised in A. Maldeikienė herself could challenge the current most popular candidates, even over reaching the second round," A. Katauskas said.

The communications expert explained that this presidential election is unique in terms of communications – this is a struggle between strong communications slogans and strong images. He would not be surprised if the main topics in it remained questions of social segregation.

"I can see V. Matijošaitis with the slogan "I tidied up Kaunas, I'll tidy up Lithuania", these are fairly simple message which can reach people's heads very easily. But once again – the elections will feature not just voters from Vilnius and Kaunas, but all of Lithuania and their support can be decided by far simpler things, for example promises over pensions, wages and jobs. The prime minister will be faced with expectations regarding results, while the others will have the chance to make promises," A. Katauskas said.

The public opinion and market research company Spinter Tyrimai performed a public opinion survey on September 19-28, 2017 at the commission of the Delfi news portal. Citizens aged 18 to 75 participated in the research. The survey was performed as a standardised interview. The research was performed across Lithuania at a total of 65 locations distributed to represent the entire country.

During the research 1008 respondents were interviewed. The distribution of participants is proportional to the number of inhabitants in the country's regions. The margin of error for the research is 3.1%.

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