The third most important elections in 2019
Lithuania before the EP elections
In Lithuania the levels of interest on EP elections are low. Despite a huge surge in the number of candidates and the emergence of new Eurosceptic voices, the EP elections are getting nowhere near as much coverage as the local elections in March and the presidential elections on 12 May. Would this be the case if European institutions were to pay more attention to cross-border issues, such as Russian aggression and the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus, not far from Vilnius?
The mayoral and municipal elections in the first half of March have taken centre stage in Lithuania, along with the presidential election on 12 May, just days before the European elections. Even when local elections are over and the results are known to the public, national and regional media will continue to focus on presidential candidates. But European elections have always been considered less important than national ones in Lithuania, so this is no surprise.
A new grassroots democracy?
Despite the dearth of national media coverage, 14 political parties are listed for the EP elections. The mainstream candidates announced so far are fairly predictable and most of the larger parties of the Left, Right and Centre are more or less pro-European. For the first time, however, public election committees have been allowed to nominate their own candidates. Thus, in addition to the ‘traditional’ parties, there is now an array of hastily formed quasi-political or quasi-civic groups seeking election to the European Parliament. It is to be seen whether this move at long last introduces an element of grassroots democracy or, on the contrary, whether it simply provides an alternative route in for ‘Manchurian candidates’.
No less than eight such public committees, with 378 candidates in total, have been registered, despite the fact that only 11 MEPs will ultimately be elected. In 2014, parties aligned with the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe group (ALDE) secured three of these seats, with two going to the Liberal Movement. The main centre-right party Homeland Union (EPP group), the Social Democratic Party (S&D) and Order and Justice (part of the populist eurosceptic EFDD group) each won two seats.
European elections have always been considered less important than national ones in Lithuania.
Of the other contenders who currently hold a single seat, it will be interesting to see whether the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union can regain ground after a surprisingly poor showing in the local elections and upset the liberal conservative consensus in May. Meanwhile, the largest election committee (of 141 candidates), a group incorporating several well-known eurosceptics, has adopted a slogan urging citizens to ‘take back our state’. In addition to candidates openly critical of the EU, some electoral committees are run by politicians who have fallen out of favour, or businessmen with mixed reputations looking to regain influence. The former president Rolandas Paksas, who was impeached and removed from office in 2004, is one of several candidates looking to return to ‘big politics’.
A bureaucratic goliath, nuclear power and Russia
Criticism of EU policies and institutions has recently been more prominent in Lithuanian media. Besides dismay at the distractions of European bureaucracy and the supposed weakening of national institutions, there is concern at the hesitant stance of European institutions towards the threat posed by Russia and the lack of interest in halting the hasty construction of the Astrava nuclear power plant in Belarus, not far from Vilnius. But while some disillusionment with the EU (and national policies) has been conspicuous, it would be premature to talk of despair.
First published on 3 April 2019 at Eurozine.
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Mood of the Union
In the Mood of the Union, partner editors of Eurozine from across the continent, together with further journalists and analysts, will be reporting on attitudes towards the elections and what is at stake at the national level. The aim is to provide a more detailed glimpse than one would usually catch from the bird’s-eye view of national media. The series is curated by Agnieszka Rosner and edited by contributing editor Ben Tendler.