Saulius Skvernelis, Dalia Grybauskaitė
© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis has quickly become the voters’ favourite. According to public opinion surveys his popularity has exceeded 70% and passed even the ratings of President Dalia Grybauskaitė. The last time she faced such a strong rival in terms of ratings was when Social Democrat Algirdas Butkevičius attempted to compete with her last term.

The two’s relations did not develop in a pleasant direction, with the President not hiding her antipathy to that term’s majority coalition, with the two politicians ceasing to interact and A. Butkevičius losing both the seat of prime minister and party chairman following a string of corruption scandals involving the Social Democrats. Does the same fate await S. Skvernelis as his predecessor?

The nation loves Skvernelis like Paksas

According to a recent Vilmorus survey, S. Skvernelis’ popularity, within error margins, exceeds 70%, while the long term ratings leader President Grybauskaitė lags behind by almost 10%, being favoured by around 62% of respondents.

What is important here is that S. Skvernelis is viewed negatively by only 7% of respondents, versus the President’s 21%. Nevertheless, neither politician has any serious rival, with figures such as the factual “Farmer” leader in Seimas Ramūnas Karbauskis, Seimas Speaker Viktoras Pranckietis and the opposition Conservatives’ leader Gabrielius Landsbergis trailing by at least 20%.

The last time a prime minister was so well received was almost two decades ago, when Rolandas Paksas reached ratings of up to 75% during his brief time as Prime Minister. S. Skvernelis’ popularity is on track to reach such heights and if the ratings remain stable, he could become a serious contender to replace D. Grybauskaitė as president in 2019.

The Alfa.lt portal reviewed scenarios how the two most popular politicians’ relations may develop in the near future.

Scenario one: Skvernelis becomes Butkevičius 2.0, Grybauskaitė remains the uncontested favourite

President Grybauskaitė’s status as the queen of the ratings appears monolith, with no major fluctuations or scandals over the duration of her two terms. In this regard Prime Minister Skvernelis is left appearing more vulnerable due to his popularity being based on a number of factors. The Prime Minister is striving to appear firm and professional, maintain an image of being unrelated to traditional party politics, while also bringing forth tangible achievements. For now, however, his cabinet has yet to begin any serious work, with ongoing analysis and preparatory work.

If the Lithuanian economy continues growing and the government is not faced with any major scandals, this could work well for Skvernelis, but the experience of the Butkevičius government shows that in most regards the positions of the Prime Minister and cabinet are far more vulnerable than that of the president, who is removed from the nuance of daily politics.

Thus failing to earn support through tangible reform, it is likely that Skvernelis’ positions may become ever more like A. Butkevičius’ last year.

Scenario two: Conflict between Skvernelis and Grybauskaitė

Former PM Butkevičius’ popularity was slashed only at the end of his term through the eruption of numerous scandals and the outrage at rising prices post-euro adoption. The Skvernelis government will have no euro to adopt and with natural economic growth, voters may be given no real reason to dislike the Prime Minister.

Even political scandals may have little impact on Skvernelis, particularly if they are linked to the “Farmer” party in Seimas due to its leader R. Karbauskis striving to distance the functions of Seimas and cabinet. At the same time this distances S. Skvernelis from any issues R. Karbauskis’ party may face, given the separation of Seimas and cabinet.

If Skvernelis and Grybauskaitė remain at the top of the ratings, there are two potential scenarios that could play out. On one hand D. Grybauskaitė may opt to confront S. Skvernelis, something attempted during his term as Minister of the interior, but this only led to reverse results, raising Skvernelis’ popularity. Furthermore D. Grybauskaitė‘s term is ending, while S. Skvernelis’ may only be beginning.

The matter comes down to D. Grybauskaitė‘s plans. If she intends to move on to international politics after her time as president, then S. Skvernelis is only important to her insofar it helps her reach the wider waters of international politics. If President Grybauskaitė wishes to remain active in domestic policy, perhaps aiming for the seat of Prime Minister herself, she would be forced to prove she is still one of the key players of Lithuanian policy, which would inherently lead to rivalry with S. Skvernelis.

Scenario three: Skvernelis and Grybauskaitė – the new dream team

There is another possible scenario for the relations of PM Skvernelis and President Grybauskaitė, if their ratings remain high. There are whispers in the political couloirs that the two could end up trading seats in 2019.

This is worth considering because currently S. Skvernelis appears to be striving to showcase his position as an independent player. If he has greater political ambitions, he will either have to get R. Karbauskis to be his assistant or to seek a new political platform. Given the popularity of non-partisan politics in Lithuania currently, S. Skvernelis could form a duumvirate with D. Grybauskaitė in 2020, creating a semi partisan movement, which could employ some of the more popular municipal level politicians to sail to a landslide victory in the 2020 Seimas elections.

This scenario is particularly likely if S. Skvernelis manages to take credit for all the positive achievements of the cabinet, while all criticism is diverted to the Seimas “Farmer” side, who would be portrayed as an obstruction to progress and reform.

Political scientist – Skvernelis’ popularity won’t last

Political scientist Algis Krupavičius pointed out to the Alfa.lt news portal that S. Skvernelis’ popularity can only be linked to the “honeymoon” between voters and politicians. With the main face of the “Farmers”, R. Karbauskis, being embroiled in various scandals as of late, naturally public support shifts toward S. Skvernelis.

The expert notes that while for the first few months of work, the cabinet can expect high ratings, this is only a temporary matter, particularly given that the ministerial cabinet has to make numerous difficult decisions which may have varied reception from the public, logically leading to a loss of popularity as time goes on.

Meanwhile the potential conflict between S. Skvernelis and D. Grybauskaitė is too early to discuss, Krupavičius notes. He explains that their strategic positions differ and the previosu conflict that D. Grybauskaitė had with A. Butkevičius was due to very real competition in the Presidential elections three years ago. At the point Grybauskaitė had to show she is the number on politician in Lithuania, leading to conflict, thus given that there’s time yet to the next elections, matters are hard to predict.

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