Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN
Having been in power over the last three years, Social Democrats have guarded their leading position safe, which makes it pretty unique in the modern Lithuanian politics, where the political pendulum tends to swing from the right to the left and again and again.
What is the secret of the popularity of the Social Democrats? According to the experts that BNN talked to, it has to be chalked up to several reasons: magnetism and charisma of the SD leader, Algirdas Butkevičius, upswing economy (certainly, with the thrust from the global recovery), shake-up-free management of the country and, certainly, the down-to-earth rhetoric, which makes the Social Democrats seem as a bunch of chummy guys.
Steady, long-lasting support
No wonder with the nuggets in the lineage, the Social Democrats have been enjoying high public support in opinion polls and the recent one, done by pollster Spinter tyrimai, has not been an exception: 20.1 percent of the respondents say they would vote for Social Democrats today, leaving far away the runner-ups.
In the survey, a whopping 35.2 percent believe that Butkevičius, the chairman, suits best for the position of Prime Minister. Notably, all those behind him have scored single-digit numbers.
«For me, the Social Democrats’ success is about the enormous popularity that the party’s leader Algirdas Butkevičius basks in. It has been boosting the party ratings, obviously,» Vytautas Dumbliauskas, a Lithuanian political analyst, told BNN.
The affinity for the party honcho cannot be explained in a word, he insists.
«I reckon all is about his simplicity, that down-to-earth attitude he has. As you see, he’s rubbing shoulders with everyone and people appreciate it. He even tends to change his takes on many things, but in his case, it is seen as a human thing. It obviously does not have any detrimental effect,» the analyst notes.
To the remark that the smooth sailing is also about the lack of far-reaching, key decisions on the country’s public life –Conservatives, their predecessors, with crisis flaring, had to tackle tax issues, for example –Dumbliauskas disagrees: «Look, they have taken on the Labour Code reform. Had not they had courage, they would have not started it, especially with just over a year till the parliamentary election left.»
If the reform is enacted in its current shape, it has potential of setting off the SD ratings, he says, adding he «cannot grasp» why Social Democrats started it at the end of the parliamentary term.
«A very risky, suicidal move,» Dumbliauskas believes.
Ideology does not rule party agenda
The long best, neatly crafted traditions of the party are also to be considered, he is convinced.
«Late Algirdas Brazauskas had cemented the party for years to come and Butkevičius, his successor, has come off as a right, very effective one, one able to ramp up the party foundation.»
The Social Democrats, he notices, exercises an ideology-free approach and apply it on the state’s policies.
«One will hardly find manifestations of Social Democratic ideology in the decisions. If we were to stack up Social Democrats and Conservatives (known officially as Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, HU-LCD-L.J), we’d find quite a good deal of ideological things in the latter’s decisions across the lines,» Dumbliauskas noted. «Some people obviously do not like that.»
Also characteristically to the Social Democrats, their rhetoric is free of verbal punches and an elaborate- a plum in the mouth- language.
«This is what many of the Conservatives, with their patriarch Vytautas Landsbergis, are notorious for. Most of the people disdain the way of talking and vote against them in elections,» the analyst says.
Late Brazauskas, the modern Lithuanian SD founder, has never sneered at his political opponents, including Conservatives, Dumbliauskas notes.
«Meanwhile, Andrius Kubilius (the former HU-LCD chairman) and Rasa Juknevičienė, one of the party’s stalwarts, would love to tease their opponents. Ordinary people do not like it.»
Asked about the SD chances in the parliamentary election next year, Dumbliauskas said they were «still rather good», but cautioned there might be a blowback from the Labour Code overhaul if the Seimas nods to it this autumn.
«As I said, the timing for that kind of reform is adverse to any party, the Social Democrats, too. People do not like the amendments serving employers’ interests, not the ordinary John’s. And look, media has been instigating flares over the matter. It remains to be seen how the other parties, especially Labour Party, which electorate overlaps with Social Democrats’ will juggle with the card,» Dumbliauskas said. “In the worst scenario, Social Democrats might see their high approval ratings crumbling.»
Still a lot remains to be seen
He believes HU-LCD will pocket the usual 10 percent of votes in the election next year, while the high prospects of the Liberals might be over-exaggerated.
«They electorate base is smaller than the Conservatives’. Now many who «float» between the election, I mean voting-wise, might be still on the Liberals’ side, but the support is not solid. They can run away any time,» Dumbliauskas noted.
He believes that most of the Liberal supporters have been fascinated by Antanas Guoga, an Australian entrepreneur, philanthropist and, currently, MEP.
«He has repeated the phenomenon of Viktoras Uspaskichas, the founder of the Labour Party. People like success stories and Guoga obviously has a good one,” the analyst points out.
Electoral Action of Poles, a party built on the ethnicity, he believes, stands pretty good chances in the parliamentary election if it manages to keep up unity with the Russian population.
«Obviously, as before each Parliament election, there will be some new political entities popping up. I heard that sharks from the country’s large capital mull getting together for the election,» Dumbliauskas said.
No serious alternatives for Social Democrats
Vytautas Bruveris, a commentator and columnist at the daily «Lietuvos Rytas», says the SD’s high ratings are about lack of serious alternatives.
«The other parties are not up to the Social Democrats. We see neither their work nor new ideas. Secondly, the Social Democrats circumvent any dangerous, scandalous situations. They have not been entangled in any notoriety over their actions. Third, the general situation, both in the state and world, works for good of Social Democrats. There are no shake-ups, thence no flare-ups. For many people, it seems like stability mean people yearn and people credit Social Democrats for it,» Bruveris told BNN.
Asked about the ill-effects on the party of the much-discussed Labour Code amendments, he says a lot depends how the opposition parties will play around the issue.
«Labour Party first of all and trade unions that until now would support Social Democrats,» he noted. «Personally, I believe the unionists will not to push the issue too far. In other words, they will not want to harm the Social Democrats.»
Phenomenon of modern Lithuanian politics
«The Social Democrat Party is a real phenomenon of Lithuanian politics. If we were to take a look at the Lithuanian history from 1990, when the multi-party system started forming, we will hardly find another party, which would remain for so long the most popular party while in power. This is an exceptional case, just because there apparently have not been so long periods of such preponderance,» Algis Krupavičius, a political science professor at Kaunas Technology University, told LRT.lt
According to him, in the past, the opposite would happen most of the time: the ruling party would gradually lose its popularity and give up the power for the opposition parties, as a rule.
Not the Social Democrats.
«The other parties, like the Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats, for example, had seen their ratings fallen. Although the party bottomed out, it, however, never surpassed the usual 10 percent vote mark. The Lithuanian Liberal Movement has obviously spiked their ratings after the successful European Parliament and municipal Council election. As an opposition party, it enjoys popularity, but their high support rating is unstable,» the analyst notes.
Good business atmosphere worldwide
Concurring, Vladas Gaidys, head of Vilmorus, a polling and market research centre, says that the ruling-parties’ ratings tend to edge down more often.
“A downward trend would not necessarily follow some bad works or intentions, but rather a series of certain circumstances. Say, in 1995, there was collapse of banks, which stymied the-then Social Democrats plans in the parliamentary election next year. The Conservatives won the election, and their start was promising, but then the economic downturn came, which coupled with grand-scale privatization and frenetically rising prices, have erased the support,»Gaidys reminds.
So what are the fulcrums of the Social Democratic foundation?
For Jurga Tvaskienė, an analyst from the daily Lietuvos Žinios, it is all about the party’s talking.
«Over the years, they have mastered the art of communications. As the party has been in power not a single time, it has learnt to lay out its decisions earlier and clearer, not at the last moment,» she notes.
Importantly, despite the friendliness with large capital, the Social Democrats are positioning themselves as people rubbing elbows with the hard-working blue-collar workers.
And they do not feel nauseated, the analysts underline.
«Social Democrats keep this modest take and try to hear all sides around. The party does not try to pull decisions through as if a bulldozer. It rather seeks to debate issues and find a compromise,» Krupavičius says.
So at the end of the day, the party’s ride in the first wagon might last another four years.