Lower election threshold in Lithuania – more democracy or chaos?

The Lithuanian legislature, Seimas, has lowered this week the parliamentary election threshold to 3 per cent for political parties and 5 per cent for coalitions. Supporters of the initiative touted it as a sign of mature democracy in the country, while its opponents called it a Trojan horse designed for political parties on the margins of politics to enter Seimas.

Previous attempts failed

The majority of analysts that BNN spoke to criticised the bill, claiming that it works for the spearheads of the initiative, the ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, the Social Democratic Labour Party, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance, the political group «For Lithuania’s Welfare», and also several members of the non-attached political group. The former has seen a slump in its support from 16 to 6 per cent over the last year, and the others, with the respective support of 3,5 and 3,3 per cent in recent polls, scramble on the bottom of most polls.

The minimum number of 71 lawmakers, necessary for the adoption of the bill, had registered to vote, and 60 MPs voted in favour, one was against and eight lawmakers abstained. The opposition conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (HU-LCD), the liberals and the social democrats did not vote. Previous attempts by ruling parties to adopt the amendments have failed.

Oppositions asked President to veto bill

Unhappy with the bill, Gabrielius Landsbergis, chairman of Lithuanian Conservatives (HU-LCD), Julius Sabatauskas, an influential Social Democrat, Viktorija Čmilytė – Nielsen, Rasa Budbergytė, chairman of the Seimas’ Social Democrats’ fraction, appealed to President Gitanas Nausėda, asking it to veto it. «The changes of the Election Law will further increase political instability in the country. It is  evident that they would cause even higher defragmentation of the current political system. They would pave way for many parties with few members to Parliament. Last but not least, voters will get confused by the very long list of parties on the ballot,» the opposition’s statement says.

Speaking to BNN, Julius Sabatauskas called the parliamentary work «very chaotic» already now, so, with the bill in place, more disarray would be inevitable, according to him. «Without a doubt, with the bill enacted, it will be very hard to put together parliamentary fractions. Even more difficult will it be to form and maintain stable coalitions. It is clear that the ruling Farmers and Greens, with the parliamentary majority, struggles now to find and adopt common decisions,» he argued.

The initial bill version stipulated the lowering of the election threshold for political parties in the multi-member constituency to 4 per cent and to 6 per cent for coalitions. This version was also backed by the presidential office.

The amendment was initiated by liberal MP Simonas Gentvilas motivating his decision with the wish to harmonize the regulation for Seimas and local elections. Now in Lithuania, there are 4 and 6 per cent thresholds for local elections.

PM in favour of the amendment

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, whose view often counter those by Ramūnas Karbauskis, LFGU chairman, embraced the lowering of the parliamentary election threshold. The PM believes that it will lead to more voters being represented in the Seimas.

«(There will be) more democracy, higher representation… At the 5 per cent threshold, several hundred thousand votes go into the wastepaper basket, (which means that these voters) are not represented. The cut to 3 per cent reduces that number…Let’s leave it to voters to decide if they want to have traditional parties (in the Seimas) or perhaps less popular ones,» he said. Skvernelis admitted however, that a higher fragmentation in the parliament might make it more difficult to form government coalitions.  Some suspect that Skvernelis minds his own interests first – he has recently registered the slogan «For the Fatherland», which is believed to be followed by the same name new political party chaired by Skvernelis.

A «bulldozed» bill

Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Behaviour and Institutions of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University, told BNN that, with the bill in action, the winners will be the initiators of the amendments, i.e. Social Democratic Labour Party, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance, whose support is in the range of 3 per cent.

«The ruling Farmers and Greens, who also voted for the bill, will be able to count on their help, especially that the mentioned two parties are in the LFGU-led ruling coalition. There are quite a few other political parties whose support is around 3 per cent, like Laisvės Party (Freedom Party), Order and Justice Party (OJP), also a new party that split away from OJP,» Ieva Petronytė- Urbonavičienė said.

According to her, the bill has been «bulldozed» and comes as a surprise to all. «Especially considering that we have less than one year until the new parliamentary elections. The bill means a completely new dynamics of the elections – there will definitely be a lot of new names as a result,» the analyst predicted.

Lithuania cannot measure up itself against old democracies

Arvydas Juozaitis, a participant of 2019 Lithuanian presidential race and, now, chairman of «Santalka Lietuvos gerovei – Lietuva yra čia», a new political party, told BNN that those behind the bill are „dishonest“ with themselves.

«It had nothing to do with more democracy in Lithuanian elections – it is all about satisfying the narrow political interests of the parties that registered such amendment. With the new threshold, there will certainly be more chaos in our legislature. As a state, we are not as mature as the old democracies, like Denmark and Finland, which election threshold is even lower,»Juozaitis emphasised. To the remark that the bill is in favour of its own political party, Juozaitis dismissed vehemently the notion, claiming that the party aims at a double-digit presentation, percentage wise, in 2020-2024 Seimas. «Or 30 mandates in 141-seat Lithuanian Parliament,» he said.

Political parties lack quality

Andžej Pukšto, a lecture of political sciences at Kaunas Magnus University, told BNN he is neither for nor against the election law amendments. «The lowering of the threshold is not bad as such. But we tend to forget that we still elect half of our lawmakers in single-member constituencies, which is a relict in the Western world. Secondly, our political parties, even big ones, lack quality in terms of their programmes, visions. I am afraid that those smaller parties have even less of that. Some of the small parties, which now see a chance, are on the verge of populism and extremism. I really doubt if Lithuania wants to see them in its Parliament,» the analyst accentuated. «It will likely be more difficult to form both ruling coalitions and oppositions in future,» he added.

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