Green peasant blues in Lithuania

Against the backdrop of the current rise in neo-nationalism and the growing xenophobia in the EU and across the Atlantic, one could say that the recent Lithuanian elections, which ended on 23 October, almost seemed to pass with bucolic tranquility. But it is a prelude to yet another phase of a deepening post-democratic crisis affecting national democracies without a politically mobilized precariat in the region.

Perhaps this tranquility is due to the superficially Arcadian nature of the winning party. The way this formerly provincial fringe party describes itself in English (see, for example, their website) is “Lithuanian Peasant and Greens” (winning 56 seats of the 141 available in the Lithuanian Parliament, the Seimas). This sounds both anachronistic – after all, there is no such strata as “peasants” anymore, only farmers, agro-businessmen and the rural precariat – and modern at the same time. Although critics with ties to the establishment were scandalized by the eclectic narrative of a party trying to appeal both to a socially conservative rural precariat, a progressive urban intelligentsia and workers in precarious circumstances who have recently migrated to towns and are struggling to make a living, the majority of the electorate trusted them over the established conservatives (31 seats), the former ruling social democrats (17 seats) and the liberal party, who has been relatively unscathed by lobbyism scandals but still trailed on only 14 seats.

One reason for this is that the majority of the electorate is very concerned not about the national security and big-business-friendly narratives of the conservatives and the liberals, nor with failed promises of “sustainable growth” from social democrats, but about diminishing and precarious employment and falling consumer power, all contributing to poverty indicators that are still higher than the EU average (see Eurostat) and one of the highest rates of emigration. Since the left has no articulated position or distinct political parties in Lithuania, peasant-green eclecticism (pro-family, anti-abortion, ignoring LGBT concerns, but promising better working conditions and raising standards of living for the precariat) does seem to be the “best of a bad bunch” for the non-owning classes.

Social democrats still managed to turn the tables by negotiating a role in a majority coalition with the peasants and greens, even gaining hold of the ministry of finance along with other administrative posts. Their leader Algirdas Butkevičius, heavily criticized for being an opportunistic survivalist, did not step down and is further suppressing the internal left-progressive opposition. This ultimately transforms nominally “left” SocDems into the open setting of political entrepreneurship, collusion with investor interests and the de facto rejection of discernible social justice and redistribution.

The leader of the so-called “Peasants and Greens” is himself a relatively experienced entrepreneur and politician – hardly a role model of left reformism or even revolutionary politics. Agro-businessman Ramūnas Karbauskis once transformed his native Naisiai village into a nationally recognized theme park with a multi-season soap opera on national TV, eight museums and a theater. After a decisive victory and successful coalition negotiations with the SocDems, Mr. Karbauskis is now faced with the challenge of creating a functioning government. As his prime minister, Mr. Karbauskis has chosen his main election partner Mr. Saulius Skvernelis, a popular law-and-order strongman from the police force and the ministry of the interior. But other ministerial and parliamentary official postings are being increasingly met with criticism or raised eyebrows, not only in the hostile liberal/conservative media but along left and progressive fringes as well. A pro-family Catholic theologian has been appointed as the parliamentary committee chair for human rights and social issues, a director of young Catholic charity “Caritas” as minister of social and work affairs, there are controversial figures at the helm of the parliament and education ministries who have no experience, old soc-dem nepotism in the ministry of finance and so on – these are structural conflicts waiting to happen that the young political entrepreneur Mr. Karbauskis will struggle to solve and no one believes he will be much “leftier” than other regional entrepreneurs-turned-politicians.

And there will be strong conservative-liberal opposition with emphasis on the military spending justified by the Kremlin threat, an almost McCarthy-era-style witch-hunt against “Russian agents” and advocacy of investors’ greed. Pushing a Peronist “Naisiai democracy” while happily working in a Karbauskis investment domain does not seem as easily achievable or an effective way to face the Trump-era of global neoliberalism.