Lithuania’s government – hardly a success story
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.”