Beach Politics Rule: The Epoch-Making Collapse of the Social Democrats

On the night of the first round of national elections in Lithuania, my head was spinning with possible article titles: the colossal defeat of the left, the era defining collapse, the epoch-making disaster of the socialdemocrats. I tried to remember the main slogan of their campaign but to no avail. Although I followed the campaign

On the night of the first round of national elections in Lithuania, my head was spinning with possible article titles: the colossal defeat of the left, the era defining collapse, the epoch-making disaster of the socialdemocrats. I tried to remember the main slogan of their campaign but to no avail. Although I followed the campaign closely during the election, the slogan was impossible to recall. I checked on the LSDP (Lithuanian Social Democratic Party) website to –refresh my memory. Even here the slogan is difficult to find. After searching through various webpages, it revealed itself to be "To respect, to hear and to defend. Everyone." Even after two rounds of the campaign, I had failed to memorise this poetic line. The long-awaited breakthrough of the left-wing party did not happen, to the great disappointment of leftists in Lithuania.

Predictable Downfall of Social Democracy

After the previous unsuccessful election in 2016 – where voters punished the Social Democrats for liberalising the Labour Code and Social Democrats gained only 17 seats (in previous elections they had 42) – LSDP cleansed itself from its ex-soviet nomenclature circle and announced a path towards a clearer leftist approach. However, the 2020 election didn’t improve the party’s position. In fact, they have lost even more seats in parliament in 2020 (only 13 mandates gained) and Lithuania has found itself in the midst of a right-wing ocean.

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, the LSDP strongly opposed the Conservatives on issues of "national freedom struggles" and the erosion of workers’ rights. As the discourse of national patriotism became more and more levelled throughout the years, labour relations and the defence of the less fortunate remained the essential principle determining the voter distribution of the electorate. After liberalising the Labour Code, the Social Democrats crushed the support of their most loyal electorate. 

Continuing Deteriorations in Lithuania

Despite the election results, the need for left-wing politics in Lithuania remains high: 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… 

Political System: Changes and Scandals

It is clear that right-wing populism and a superficial and short political memory have won. In this sense, Lithuania fits global trends. Representatives of right-wing populism, The Freedom and The Labour parties, won the battle for proportional representation, while the Conservatives and the Liberals secured the victory for the majoritarian mandates. As if one Liberal party in Seimas (Lithuanian parliament) was not enough, Lithuania now has two. 

After the party’s orchestration of the biggest corruption scandal seen in independent Lithuania was uncovered, where leader of Liberal party Eligijus Masiulis was taken to trial (the process is still ongoing) the Liberal Party (Lietuvos Liberalų Sąjūdis) split. The original party simply changed leadership. The newly formed one called itself "The Freedom party" and announced straight forward goals of legalising single gender partnerships and decriminalising marihuana. There is not much difference between the two liberal parties, except for the new one’s more aggressive support of neoliberalism. Given the results of the election, it appears both have managed to convince voters that it’s time to forget the MG Baltic (Lithuania’s largest commercial media entity), that is on corruption trial for bribing political leaders, scandal. 

Election Outcomes and Possibilities For Left Opposition

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 (including throughout the coronavirus pandemic) Peasants Greens still won a significant number of mandates and came second after the Conservatives. 32 seats gained by Peasants greens is still very significant for Lithuanian parliament, even if they lost almost half of their seats.

Unfortunately, this election’s clear losers are the Social Democrats and with them the entirety of Lithuanian left-wing politics that they had been entrusted. 

Still, even if left opposition is quite weak with only 45 seats (32 PG, 13 LSDP) there is still some solace for Left politics. There is a need for left-wing politics in Lithuania, there is also a voter for it, if one diverse in education and living standards. While the right-wing electorate is more homogeneous –its class interests clear, and its age demographic reflective of the young Conservatives taking over its leadership – there are few minor differences left between Lithuanian liberals and conservatives. (One exception is the Christian flag of the Conservative party).Those representing and supporting the left are much more fragmented and opposed. 

This is why left-wing ideology has always sought to expand education and deepen class solidarity. In the absence of it, there is a conflicting gap between socio-economic and human rights issues. The way left-wing voters distributed their votes confirms this: some voted for the Social Democrats; the former stable LSDP voter stayed loyal to a splinter nomenclature LSDDP (as the splinter group mainly represents ex-nomenclature politicians, their systematic voter is connected by positions in governmental and local government institutions), other groups of the left voted for the Peasants Greens, acknowledging implemented positive socio-economic changes over the past four years. The most fluctuating electorate – workers with lower education – voted for the so-called Labour Party.Those on the left who do not necessarily understand human rights in combination with socio-economic justice voted for the Freedom Party with the view of achieving greater equality for the LGBTQ+ community. 

Ironic Defeat After New Left Approach of Social Democracy

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 voters, 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). Peasants Greens by their social-economic policy became much more on the left than Social Democrats. 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.

Election Campaign and Electoral List of Social Democrats

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. 

Difficulties in Strategy and Tactics

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, attemptingto 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 young politicians from their own group 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 so to say "ideologically correct", but with the Conservatives taking a more liberal and catch-all approach, moving away from their previous arrogance, the image of the Social Democrats was supposed to shift further to the left and become sharper. Conservatives chose tactics to speak more "FOR something" as they called it (or, in other words, to speak about nothing in particular) further complicating the electoral tactics of the Social Democrats. 

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.

Milestone for The Collapse Of Left-Wing Politics In Lithuania

The 2020 election has become a sombre milestone for the collapse of left-wing politics in Lithuania. Lithuania is a very conservative country, any more radical leftist approach to politics is considered as nostalgic for the soviet past and is quickly disregarded as probably in co-relation with Kremlin. Communist party is illegal according to Constitution. Many on the left, despite their level of radicalism, realise that a strong Social Democratic party is the guarantor of civilised politics in Lithuania, of giving some hope for more just social-economic policies. Peasants Greens, even though they introduced quite few of these policies, their attitude towards democratic freedoms or human rights is appalling. A clear example of its demise is neighboring 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 party.

Global trends show that such fragmentations on the left can only be reconciled with a clear understanding of the integrity of economic and human rights policies, as well as a sense of class solidarity. Only when a scientist, a student, an artist and a worker walk together in the name of justice and realise that any discrimination against a minority is a violation of these principles is it possible to mobilise the left voter.

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 for before mentioned reasons) became the most discussed political topic throughout the campaign, although it did not contain any actual policy, only a desire to cause controversy. Social Democrats had nothing – neither strong agenda nor charisma – to reproach this. 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. 

See an election analysis also here

The article was written for the Lithuanian magazine "Lūžis" of the transform! Member organisation DEMOS institute of Critical Thought, Vilnius