Lithua­nia’s gov­ern­ment – hardly a suc­cess story

The Baltic Times - - OUR COMMENTARY - Kes­tutis Girnius is a Lithua­nian jour­nal­ist and com­men­ta­tor of US des­cent

Lithua­nia’s Prime Min­is­ter Saulius Skver­nelis does not mince his words. Re­act­ing to Pres­i­dent Dalia Gry­bauskaite’s acer­bic com­ments about the work of the gov­ern­ment, he re­sponded in kind. “Dur­ing the last eight years, the po­si­tion (that by the pres­i­dent) that has been cho­sen is to mon­i­tor, eval­u­ate, crit­i­cize from the side­lines - but, in fact, to do noth­ing of sub­stance.” Even when he was the In­te­rior Min­is­ter, Skver­nelis did not shy away from crit­i­ciz­ing the pres­i­dent, the then Chair­man of Par­lia­ment Loreta Grauziniene, and other politi­cians who crossed him. Po­lit­i­cal cal­cu­la­tions, as well as an at­tempt to cre­ate an im­age of him­self as a man will­ing to speak truth to power, prob­a­bly played a role in his ac­tions. But so did his hot-tem­per and the pro­cliv­ity of Lithua­nian politi­cians to speak first and think later.

For some time, Skver­nelis was Lithua­nia’s most pop­u­lar politi­cian, usurp­ing the rank­ing that Gry­bauskaite has held al­most con­tin­u­ally since her elec­tion in 2009. In re­cent months his pop­u­lar­ity has de­creased, but he re­mains the sec­ond most fa­vored politi­cian. That is not an in­signif­i­cant achieve­ment. With some ex­cep­tions, prime min­is­ters are not the dar­lings of the elec­torate, in con­trast to the pres­i­dent whose pop­u­lar­ity seems en­demic to the of­fice. The prime min­is­ter can­not avoid deal­ing with the bread-and-but­ter is­sues that are of the great­est con­cern to the or­di­nary man – taxes, the la­bor code, salaries, pen­sion, so­cial se­cu­rity, and the like. What­ever de­ci­sion he makes, par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing con­tro­ver­sial is­sues, he in­vari­ably dis­pleases many vot­ers. The pres­i­dent can stand aloof or de­cide when and in what form he/she will in­ter­vene. And Gry­bauskaite is a mas­ter of the art.

The jury is still out on the new gov­ern­ment and Skver­nelis as Prime Min­is­ter. Ini­tially the pres­i­dent was very sup­port­ive of the new cab­i­net, not sur­pris­ing, con­sid­er­ing that her of­fice had sub­stan­tial in­put in de­ter­min­ing its make-up. But dur­ing her re­cent an­nual ad­dress and in sub­se­quent com­ments, she has been ex­tremely crit­i­cal. She ham­mered the gov­ern­ment and the rul­ing coalition for their po­lit­i­cal ar­ro­gance, lack of com­pe­tence, and ‘bull­doz­ing’ the leg­is­la­tion through par­lia­ment with­out proper dis­cus­sion and con­sul­ta­tion. Gry­bauskaite skew­ered the gov­ern­ment for adopt­ing a La­bor Code (only 10 per cent of re­spon­dents in a re­cent poll ap­proved of it) that she claims fa­vors em­ploy­ers and fails to ad­dress the needs of work­ers, and thus will need to be amended. She also knocked the pro­pos­als for re­struc­tur­ing Lithua­nia’s sys­tem of higher ed­u­ca­tion and re­vamp­ing the gov­ern­ing struc­ture of Lithua­nia’s state forests, two of the gov­ern­ment’s pri­or­i­ties.

The pres­i­dent’s crit­i­cism is harsh, per­haps overly so. The pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ment spent more than two years seek­ing to find a con­sen­sus on the La­bor Code but failed. Skver­nelis and his col­leagues do not have a clear vi­sion about how to re­or­ga­nize the coun­try’s uni­ver­si­ties. That said, the no­to­ri­ous ter­ri­to­ri­al­ity and petty bick­er­ing of aca­demics have not helped to ex­pe­dite the process. The gov­ern­ment’s plans for re­form­ing the state forests are stalled in part be­cause of the ob­jec­tions of the ju­nior party of the coalition, the So­cial Democrats. They ar­gue that the gov­ern­ment plan to elim­i­nate all 42 forestry en­ter­prises, plac­ing them un­der uni­fied con­trol will fur­ther beg­gar the ru­ral re­gions by elim­i­nat­ing im­por­tant jobs. Sim­i­lar ob­jec­tions have been voiced about re­duc­ing the num­ber of uni­ver­si­ties. There is a gen­uine dilemma. Cen­tral­iza­tion and op­ti­miza­tion are ad­mirable goals, but they are likely to fur­ther im­pov­er­ish the re­gions, whose re­ju­ve­na­tion is a cen­tral aim of all Lithua­nian po­lit­i­cal par­ties.

The gov­ern­ment has made un­forced er­rors. Al­though there is broad agree­ment that the avail­abil­ity and use of al­co­hol must be cur­tailed sharply, the zealots in charge of shep­herd­ing through the leg­is­la­tion made a num­ber of silly sug­ges­tions that less­ened sup­port for its cause. The gov­ern­ment phased out the 7 per cent VAT rate on heat­ing, bump­ing it up to the stan­dard norm of 21 per cent, in­fu­ri­at­ing pen­sion­ers and other so­cially dis­ad­van­taged cit­i­zens. Here is an­other case where eco­nomic or­tho­doxy clashes with po­lit­i­cal re­al­i­ties.

Colum­nists are al­ready won­der­ing whether the gov­ern­ment will fall apart and whether Skver­nelis will re­sign. In both cases the spec­u­la­tion is pre­ma­ture. The rul­ing coalition be­tween the dom­i­nant Lithua­nian Peas­ant and Green Party (LVZS) and the So­cial Democrats is a mar­riage of con­ve­nience rather than a firm al­liance. But the reasons for form­ing the coalition in the first place still hold, namely that it serves the in­ter­ests of both par­ties more than any other al­ter­na­tive. Skver­nelis has hinted sev­eral times that he will re­sign if his plans are thwarted by the cab­i­net or par­lia­ment. Cur­rently this is just pos­tur­ing. Pres­i­den­tial elec­tions are two years away, and Skver­nelis is widely be­lieved to be in­ter­ested in run­ning. Leav­ing the gov­ern­ment now would brand him as a quit­ter with­out the for­ti­tude de­manded of a head of state. It would also leave him with­out a proper fo­rum to ex­press his ideas and re­main in the pub­lic lime­light. But by his blunt­ness, he has made him­self an en­emy of pres­i­dent Gry­bauskaite, and that will make the task of gov­ern­ing even more chal­leng­ing.

“Colum­nists are al­ready won­der­ing whether the gov­ern­ment will fall apart and whether Skver­nelis will re­sign. In both cases the spec­u­la­tion is pre­ma­ture. The rul­ing coalition be­tween the dom­i­nant Lithua­nian Peas­ant and Green Party (LVZS) and the So­cial Democrats is a mar­riage of con­ve­nience rather than a firm al­liance.”

Kes­tutis Girnius

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Latvia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.