Before the "black Thursday" in mid-May, when prosecutors revealed that MP Eligijus Masiulis, leader of the Liberal Movement, was suspected of taking a €100,000 bribe from one of the largest business groups in the country, the liberals enjoyed the second-highest rating among Lithuanian parties.
In April, polls suggested that the Liberal Movement could expect to pocket 15.5% of the vote. This month, the party's rating fell to 6.6%, barely above the 5% threshold needed to win parliament seats.
"I don't think that [the liberals] will be able to recover in the three months that remain [of the election campaign], unless all the investigations fail and prosecutors apologize to Masiulis. Clearly, that will not happen," says political scientist Lauras Bielinis of Vytautas Magnus University in Kaunas.
"Therefore, I think, the liberals must think strategically and concentrate on the next elections in four years."
The political future of the Liberal Movement will depend on the outcomes of the investigation, Bielinis believes, and whether investigators will unearth any more skeletons. "Judging by what we know now, this is not the end, there could be many other revelations, so the liberals are in a tough spot," he says.
Bielinis predicts that some of the liberal voters will run across to the conservatives, some might vote for the Peasants and Green Union.
"I think that the social democrats will, too, draw some benefit. Voters will not necessarily switch from liberal to social democrat, but they will take note that all the small scandals linked to the social democrats are nothing compared to the cases of the liberals or the Labour Party," Bielinis says.
The liberal voter
Meanwhile public relations expert Mykolas Katkus says that due to a specific structure of the liberals' electorate, nothing is lost yet for the liberals, even in this year's elections.
The liberal voters consist of three distinct groups, Katkus says.
The first group includes the faithful old-timers who have been voting for the Liberal Movement for years. For them, the party represents values, professionalism and competency. Voters of this category cannot really see any other party they could vote for. Moreover, they feel great respect for liberal leaders like MEP Petras Auštrevičius, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius, MPs Eugenijus Gentvilas and Gintaras Steponavičius.
Interestingly, voters of this category are concentrated in the city of Klaipėda.
"In my opinion, the party should primarily concentrate on retaining this group, it numbers more than 5%, enough to comfortably cross the elections threshold," Katkus says.
The second group consists of the "new converts" from Vilnius and other major cities, most of them drawn in by the new generation of liberal leaders, like Vilnius Mayor Šimašius. For them, the Liberal Movement represents active, modern and civicly-minded political organization which shares their values of tolerance and freedom.
"These are the people who are now most disappointed, they turned away from the liberals and are most at a loss. For the liberals, it will be vitally important to win back this group before the elections, since they are likely to come to vote. Their irritation with the incompetence of the incumbents will trump their disappointment about the liberal corruption scandal. For this generation, Šimašius' public persona and ability to manage the situation will play a crucial role," Katkus says.
This group of voters could be described as "hipsters" or "the Facebook generation", Katkus adds. If the liberals truly concentrate on winning them back, they may succeed. In all, Katkus says, the party could win up to 10% of the vote.
Voters that are not coming back
The third group of liberal voters are less loyal and were mostly attracted by the party's well-managed image campaign. They saw the Liberal Movement as a young, competent organization with a clean record, although previously these same people could have voted for any "outsider" party.
"This is the part of the public very susceptible to political promotion, image, winner appeal. In their voting behaviour, values and convictions may play a little lesser role than image, political technologies and the like. The liberals, along with Antanas Guoga and Eligijus Masiulis, had managed to lure these voters with their successful electoral campaigns," Katkus says.
The Liberal Movement would have had to fight for this part of the electorate with the social democrats or the greens, Katkus says.
"I think the liberals have to accept that they will hardly get the 5 or 10% of the vote that these voters could have brought them," according to Katkus.
"First, they need to deal with party loyalists and convince them that the party is worthy of their trust. The second group ("Facebook generation") will put off making the decision how to vote until August-September. This is when you need to concentrate on reaching out to them," is Katkus' advise.
The fiercest fight for the liberals will be over voters who are considering to vote for the conservatives or skip the polls altogether, he adds.
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