Beach politics rule: the epoch-making collapse of the Lithuanian Social Democrats

After the previous unsuccessful election in 2016 – where voters punished the social democrats for liberalising the Labour Code – in the 2020 parliamentary election, the party achieved its worst result in 20 years. Lithuanian politics shifted even further to the right.

A strong social democratic Party and a strong Labour Code had for many years made Lithuania an exception from other Central and Eastern European countries. Although an economically liberal clan ruled the party, in an otherwise highly conservative society, the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania (LSDP) strongly opposed the conservatives on issues of a nationalist "freedom struggle" and the erosion of workers’ rights.
After liberalising the Labour Code during the last government, the social democrats crushed the support of their most loyal electorate. It is symbolic that the former LSDP leader Algirdas Butkevičius decided to join the Liberal Party in the new parliament.

Did the 2020 elections show that left-wing politics are no longer relevant to Lithuania? The picture on the ground suggests otherwise: a high poverty rate (above 20% in 2019); statutory support for large capital, while 80% of private businesses in Lithuania are small and struggle to compete with  foreign companies; weak protections of workers’ rights due to a broadly promoted individualism; the ever diminishing quality of the sciences and the education system; extremely low pensions; the neoliberalisation and destruction of the public sector; the weak position of women’s rights (women earned on average 16.6% less than men in 2019), still negatively affected by the austerity cuts of the conservative-liberal government; countless human rights violations… This is a reality that requires a leftist political approach.

The ruling Peasants Greens Party was able to stop the swinging pendulum between the social democrats and conservatives. Having stayed in power for four years, Peasants Greens still won a significant number of mandates and came second behind the conservatives. This election’s clear losers are the Social Democrats and with them the entirety of Lithuanian left-wing politics that they had been entrusted. 

For the first time since 2000, the LSDP has suffered such a crushing defeat. It is bitterly ironic that for the first time it is no longer relevant to talk about the party’s nomenclature past, neoliberal policies or the neglection of human rights questions. Because the party has revived. It got rid of the old nomenclature guys, announced a left-wing Manifesto, elected a new, young party leader, and left the ideologically intersecting coalition with the Peasants Greens. 

Yet instead of continuing to purely and fiercely express their position in Seimas and the media or actively educating their members, during the Peasants Greens party’s government they went into an opposition coalition with their ideological opponents – the conservatives and liberals. A small Social Democrat fraction simply dissolved in the shadow of the Conservatives. The final moments of their own demise began with voting against the left-wing proposals of the ruling party (such as the establishment of state pharmacies, mandatory bailiff income declarations or support for young, rural families by supplying them with interest free loans for first-time properties). By colluding with the Conservatives and Liberals, the Social Democrats not only became invisible but also lost confidence in the eyes of left-wing voters.

Many criticised the LSDP election campaign as sluggish and unmemorable. I would say that there was no LSDP election campaign at all. Before the election, general attitude towards Social Democrats were favourable. People felt quite sympathetic towards the announcement of party’s new and more leftist approach.  There appeared to be a desire to find a third option in order to break away from the Conservatives–Peasants Greens fight. At the time it appeared that due to the reluctance to choose between two evils the support for the Social Democrats could only grow. But instead of communicating with the public, taking pro-active stands on actual issues (for example, Belarus), the party’s elite was silent, as if they had already counted their posts in the new government. Having written a really good election manifesto, LSDP failed to highlight the main slogan from it and position it as key to the campaign.

The second most damaging element for LSDP’s election chances was its list of candidates. The list reflected the chaos in the party. No ideological consistency or party order could be found. The rivalry between the departments and the individual candidates lasted far too long. When the time came for a unified national campaign, candidates were still running separate campaigns in different party divisions. What leader Gintautas Paluckas outwardly emphasised as a universal party democracy inwardly turned into a "secretary" democracy – those working as party coordinators and secretaries campaigned for themselves rather than forming an overall strategy for the electoral list. Those who did not necessarily have much to say to the nation and were not known to the general public were granted high positions on the party list. This ignored the importance of promoting candidates able to communicate the main ideas of the party programme and those with public recognition, rather than those apt at networking and self-promotion behind the scenes. The party leader and his board should have had a final say. 

In addition, no attractive names were entered into the list. The only one who could have attracted voters and won the party a few extra mandates – Professor Romas Lazutka – changed his mind last minute. According to him, after seeing what was happening with the party’s preparation for the elections, he didn’t want to risk his reputation.

Also significant was the fact that the electoral list of the party supposedly taking a strong turn towards more leftist politics did not include any left-wing activists. The list was void of activists from various leftist groups and trade unions, those who had long been loyal to the party and had worked hard to disseminate and defend left-wing ideas under previous leadership. Those party members who had worked for many years to promote LGBTQ+ issues and held established positions in European left LGBTQ+ organizations were replaced by independent candidates. In previous elections, the party board, realising that these progressives would not be ranked high in the "party democracy" sections, nevertheless gave them significant positions on the list by the decision of the board. This used to be a strategy even of more nomenclature party.

Single-member (majoritarian) constituencies in Vilnius were handed over to the Conservatives without a fight. The Social Democrat’s list looked like a preposition for a different election, one in eight years’ time. Perhaps by then these candidates would have built up a rapport with their constituents. New reputations need to be cultivated over time but the election needed to be won now. It would have been possible to apply a dual strategy, attempting to win at least one single constituency rather than throwing candidates into the fight by declaring defeat before the match. More so when they were expected to compete without any party financial support.

The party leader, Gintautas Paluckas, gave up his constituency in Vilnius, in which both he and the whole party had invested a lot, and chose to be a candidate in a provincial constituency in Utena. Hoping for a guaranteed victory in a Social Democratic stronghold, he became a political helicopter for a party division that had always prepared newcomers well, eagerly awaiting the national elections. The Social Democrats in Utena were not thrilled by such an appointment and as a result did not organise as actively as they could have. The result was the defeat of party leader against an unknown Conservative candidate. In this case, defeat in Vilnius would have been much more honourable.

The party elite, chosen by the leader as the main ideological and tactical support group, are most visible in public. They are the main shapers of the party’s image.

The new LSDP party elite was not significantly different from the Conservatives in their attitude and speaking style. The rhetoric expressed by the LSDP leader is ideologically correct, but with the Conservatives taking a more liberal and catch-all approach, moving away from their previous arrogance. Conservatives chose tactics to speak more FOR something (or, in other words, to speak about nothing in particular) further complicating the electoral tactics of the Social Democrats. Instead of becoming sharper critics of right-wing politics, LSDP chose to be even softer so sparking speculation that they are negotiating a future coalition with the Conservatives.

Left-wing politics are inseparable from relations with non-governmental organisations, trade unions, small and medium-sized business groups, and a wide range of left-wing activists. Unfortunately, the LSDP did not foster links with trade unions, who received more legislative support from the ruling Peasants Greens during their last term. In recent years, trade unions in Lithuania have increasingly turned to left-wing politics, spread left-wing ideas among their members and hoped for a classic European deal with the Social Democrat party. Unfortunately, there were many sighs of frustration from unionists, who saw LSDP pay more attention to bailiff lobbyists.

The 2020 election has become a sombre milestone for the collapse of left-wing politics in Lithuania. A clear example of its demise is neighbouring Poland. Left supporters initially welcomed LSDP’s move towards the left with great joy and hope.  But by the time of the election, left-wing voters expressed their frustration by voting for other political forces, ranking one or another left-wing politician on other party’s lists. They did so out of despair and a desire to show LSDP that it is not enough to announce a renewal and write a professional speech. The party needed to demonstrate this renewal through practice and offer names and faces that voters can trust. Instead of strengthening the position of the left, a new pendulum has emerged and is already taking root in Lithuania. The pendulum swings between the semi-ideologies: populist liberal and conservative parties and the less regressive, yet just as populist, peasants.

The most potent ideological symbol of this election became a Sandy Beach (La Plage) built in a public plaza of Vilnius. Freedom Party member and Mayor of Vilnius Remigijus Šimašius spent 200,000 euros of tax payer’s money to install this spectacle, with the aim of modernising a space where hangings for centuries and torture of national partisans by the KGB had taken place. This had the clear intention of distancing the new supporters of a "freedom vibe" from the old and "boring" generation of the past. The imitation of the beach and the stormy reaction it solicited from the Peasants Greens (who accused this to be an immoral act) became the most discussed political topic throughout the campaign, although it did not contain any actual policy, only a desire to cause controversy. If the leader of Peasants Greens party, Ramūnas Karbauskis, had not started to resent and moralize, the beach would have been perceived for what it was — a sandy cat’s urinal, built in a bizarre place. Beach politics rule.