In 2016, the populist Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS) took center stage in Lithuanian politics after unexpectedly winning a plurality in the legislative Seimas (Navickas 2017). The party recruited electable politicians from all corners of politics, but it was successful because voters organized against the deep corruption of incumbents, rather than on the nativist issues that have been characteristic of populism throughout Europe (Aleknonis 2016). In fact, minority representation increased at the national level at the same time LVŽS took office. A greater obstacle to inclusion unexpectedly comes from the largest minority-interest party, Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance (LLRA–KŠS). The ethnic populism of LLRA–KŠS has allowed the party to maintain its power by effectively dominating the bloc that it claims to represent.
Ethnicity and national identity have been mainstays in Lithuanian politics ever since the country reemerged from the USSR in 1990. For ethnic Lithuanians, the movement for independence was driven by a desire for self-determination following a long history of repression and Russification. Today’s Lithuania is highly homogenous (84% ethnic Lithuanian) and its majority identity is represented automatically in national politics. Appeals to ethnicity lack salience with the majority of voters even if nationalism is still common. But whereas nationalism defines Lithuania from its neighbors, populism instead looks inward to classify loyalties in society (Müller 2016). For LVŽS, this meant separating honest citizens from corrupt elites, but it did not include an ethnic test. Even when LVŽS founder Ramūnas Karbauskis proposed to provide a national costume to every child, it was unpopular in his own party (Navickas 2017). Lithuanians overwhelmingly trust their minority residents, and appeals to ethnicity are more likely to weaken LVŽS than they are to help it.
Whereas LVŽS appeals to a civic identity, LLRA–KŠS defines its membership exclusively by minority status. LLRA–KŠS was founded to represent the voice of Lithuanian Poles (6.6%), but it has dominated minority causes since it first won seats as the Union of Poles in Lithuania in the re-formed legislature in 1989. Its platform revolves around language recognition issues that are also relevant to other groups, and an early alliance with the Russian community (5.8%) allowed LLRA–KŠS to become the only minority-interest party to pass the country’s electoral threshold (Kazėnas 2017). LLRA–KŠS is the de facto national party for minority interests, and its status only reinforces the credibility of its claims. However, its monopolization of the minority vote has undermined representation in mainstream parties who have little reason to take up their concerns. This might not be a problem on its own, but LLRA–KŠS has been criticized for not seriously addressing the issues that it relies on to mobilize its base when it is a position to do so. The party is now allied with the ruling government, but its focus has shifted to generic social and infrastructural initiatives and revealed the disconnect between party leaders and the voters it is meant to represent.
LLRA–KŠS’s sudden meandering reflects the fact that populist parties thrive when their causes are marginalized (Müller 2016). The party legitimizes its position in the community by claiming that it brings voice to a sidelined population. For them to maintain power after obtaining it, they must deliver results to justify their continued need for power. This is an immediate conflict of interests on the scale that LLRA–KŠS operates. The minority-based party is committed to mobilizing a narrow support base, and it is constrained by an equally narrow platform. In this case, LLRA–KŠS has used the 2010 expiration of the Law on Ethnic Minorities and its protection of native-language spelling as a rallying cry for the past decade. The party cannot be blamed for the slow progress on its replacement, but there is no question that this single issue has been immensely valuable for driving turnout. The loss of this key demand would weaken its claim to power long-term unless they can find an alternative cause to generate the same excitement.
LLRA–KŠS fills a mostly uncontested niche, and its limited scope has also allowed it to achieve a high degree of political consolidation. Party leaders are thus able to control their legislative agenda to avoid exhausting their platform, and to act without fear of voter reprisal. Like most populists, members of LLRA–KŠS have used this power to engage in corruption (Müller 2016). One beneficiary is Jaroslav Narkevič. Since becoming the Transport and Communications Minister in August, he has already uprooted civil management, stacked its posts with party allies, and funneled funding back to his home district. Party leader Valdemar Tomaszewski made it clear that LLRA–KŠS prioritizes its inner circle above all else. As pressure mounted against Narkevič from the President and some LVŽS partners in December, Tomaszewski suggested that, as a Christian party, perhaps the best course of action was to practice forgiveness during the holiday season.
The undemocratic nature of this minority-party is more fully visible in greater Vilnius. LLRA–KŠS has controlled politics in these districts for the past thirty years and created an informal ethnocracy (Howard 2012). Like Narkevič in the Seimas, the corrupt local politicians that rely on ethnic support predictability funnel patronage and government jobs to their co-ethnics. This is not only discriminatory; clientelism undermines the quality of democracy by creating an uneven playing field and reinforcing single-party rule. Major national parties have accused LLRA–KŠS of using intimidation and deception to control election boards. Ethnic Lithuanians are not the only ones cut out of representation, either. The minorities who increasingly join alternative parties or launch independent campaigns are blocked by the same exact party machine. In short, minorities can only be sure their voices are heard if they fall in line with LLRA–KŠS.
Populism can quickly become exclusionary when a movement gains a large enough majority to overwhelm its opposition at any level of government. LLRA–KŠS also reveals something else: the same effect can occur if a party achieves effective control over a particular demographic. Ethnic organization can be an effective way for minorities to promote their common interests, but it still does not guarantee their representation. The implications of LLRA–KŠS’s hold on power make this clear. By investing their identity into a single entity, Lithuania’s minorities have become vulnerable to a noncompetitive party that puts its power before their interests.
Image Credit: Paluszkiewicz, Marian. May 4, 2019, Vilnius. Kurier Wileński Gazeta Polska. https://niezalezna.pl/270005-wielotysieczna-parada-polskosci-polskie-barwy-narodowe-i-muzyka-na-ulicach-wilna-zdjecia.
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