A week ago, we saw the first opinion polls conducted after the launch of the official election campaign. Although things can change dramatically over the coming six months before October's general elections, looking at "ground zero" situation can tell us much about how the campaign may develop and what results to expect.
Liberal leader Eligijus Masiulis, conservative leader Gabrielius Landsbergis and social democrat leader Algirdas Butkevičius
© DELFI montažas

Recent poll results are a serious warning call for both the ruling Social Democratic Party and their ideological nemesis, the conservative Homeland Union - Lithuanian Christian Democrats. There is a growing chance that parties in the middle - the Liberal Movement and the Peasant and Greens Union - will get to lead the formation of the next government.

The latest opinion polls (by Vilmorus and Baltijos Tyrimai) are important in one more respect. They surveyed voters after the popular former minister of the interior Saulius Skvernelis had thrown his lot in with the Peasant and Greens so the results can give us an idea of how the move affected the party's popularity and its standing in relation to other parties.

The popularity of the Peasant and Greens Union has indeed grown. The poll by Vilmorus suggests a 4-point jump (to 11.1%), propelling it into the second spot among all the parties (it was previously number six).

The Social Democrats continue to top the ranking (15.7%), but they are the ones who suffered the biggest fall in support - their popularity dipped over 5 points.

Other parties' fortunes have not changed that radically. The Baltijos Tyrimai poll tells a similar story.

The Social Democratic Party continues to lead, but it has lost 8.2 points, while the Peasant and Greens raised their popularity by 7.5 points. At 12.3%, the Union is now effectively on an equal footing with the Conservatives and the Liberals.

If the Social Democrats won as many parliament seats as they secured in the 2012 elections, it would be a huge success. While the polling results do not essentially exclude such a possibility, the line-up of other parties will not be in their favour. It is likely that the Peasant and Greens' popularity will continue to grow. Skvernelis, who has been dismissed from his ministerial post, is now free to conduct an intensive campaign, which will benefit the Peasant and Greens.

The Social Democrats could expect to enter a coalition with the Greens after the elections and remain in government, but there is a catch. The latter have publicly stated they will not join any coalition that would include the SocDems' current partners, the Labour Party and the Order and Justice party, both under criminal investigations. Unless the Greens change their mind, the Social Democrats may find it difficult to form a coalition.

They could rely on support from the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania, but it is unclear if this party will be able to repeat the success of the last elections and clear the 5% threshold to get into parliament.

So far, the party has not been getting good numbers. On the other hand, they have proven to be difficult bedfellows - and their seats may not be enough to help form a majority in parliament.

Then there are also the liberals, but they would be more inclined to enter a coalition with the conservative Homeland Union. The Peasant and Greens Union has, too, indicated it would not rule out partnering up with the Conservatives.

If voters' opinions remain unchanged, such a centre-right bloc (Homeland Union + Liberal Movement + Peasant and Greens) could secure enough seats to form a government.

The President's Palace would definitely favour such a set up, which also increases its chances of success. However, the Homeland Union should hold off on the celebrations just yet, because if their main opponents, the Social Democrats, are kept out of government, the conservatives themselves could end up playing the role of the junior partner in the coalition.

Polling numbers have not been promising for them. Both Vilmorus and Baltijos Tyrimai polls put them slightly behind the Liberal Movement. And even if they tend to do better on election days than in opinion polls, the conservatives are unlikely to secure enough seats to be the dominating force in such a centrist coalition.

The fact that the party's new leader Gabrielius Landsbergis has little political experience and is not favoured by voters will not help the conservatives' standing either.

So the 2016 elections could be historical in that they will bring centrist parties into power, ending the era of alternating Conservative and Social Democratic dominance.

Although something similar has happened before, with the second government of Rolandas Paksas after the 2000 elections, it did not last long. Partly because the Social Democrats and their partners had a strong hold in parliament, with 50 seats.

Neither the Social Democrats, nor the conservatives can even dream about such a result now, and therefore centrist forces (the liberals and the greens) will have a bigger role to play.

That is, of course, provided that they manage to agree between themselves. One of the potential obstacles could prove to be their rather diverging economic and social policies.

One more factor, which is likely to play against the Social Democrats and the Conservatives who traditionally govern the country, is the support of non-partisan mayors of Lithuania's biggest cities.

The direct mayoral elections last year showed that the parliamentary parties, save for the liberals, had lost their hold on the key cities - and this could harm them in October's elections.

The election campaign has just started and things could change considerably. However, both the social democrats and the conservatives will have to make a major effort to reverse the current trends and prevent centrist forces from claiming victory.

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Liutauras Gudžinskas is lecturer at Vilnius University's Institute of International Relations and Political Science

BNS
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