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Lithuania: Government’s support edges down, PM unscathed despite controversies

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Lithuanian Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

The trust in the Lithuanian government fell nearly five per cent in September, month-on-month, and the dissatisfaction among Lithuanians in it is likely to grow ahead of the coming elections to municipal Councils, European Parliament and President’s office.

Twenty nine percent of those surveyed had a positive or rather positive opinion about the government’s work in August, and the number stood at 24.6 per cent in September.

At the start of summer, in June, the Cabinet’s activities were positively evaluated by 27.7 per cent of respondents, in May – 32.4 per cent, April – 30.7 per cent, March – 33.9 per cent and February – 31.6 per cent.

However, Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis, who is believed to be the presidential candidate of the ruling Farmers and Greens Union, LVŽS, circumvented the public mood swings unscathed – 18.4 per cent, a rise of 1.1 per cent from the previous month, believed last month that Skvernelis was the best for the position of prime minister, a poll by pollster Spinter tyrimai revealed last week.

Most political experts agree that the reduction in the Government support is not a surprise, as with the Government’s mid-term nearing, people are getting more demanding and rightly question the Cabinet’s achievements. In addition, in summer time, people have tendency to pay little attention to a Government’s performance, a result of holidays.

«If we were to look at the history of Lithuanian governments, they were always better evaluated than the Parliaments. There is this engrained perception among Lithuanians that members of Parliament just idle and bicker while governments and their heads do something for all,» Vytautas Dumbliauskas, associate professor at Mykolas Romeris University and a political analyst, told BNN.

Behind the lower Government approval is also a pretty strained relation between the Prime Minister and the media, analysts say.

The animosity spiked last week, when the Government revealed its plan to require fee from journalists accessing the Centre of Registers’ data. The amendments presented to the Cabinet by the Ministry of Transport and Communications, which is tasked with reforming of the Centre of Registers, envisioned free access to the Centre of Registers information, however they were rejected in the Cabinet meeting.

Amid the outcry, Skvernelis argued that the draft amendments had to be corrected as lawyers found shortcomings in them. With the news media outlets demanding access to the tape of the governmental meeting, PM announced that the cabinet chancellery had destroyed the recording.

The incident just capped a series of contentious decisions by the Government, among which are the overhaul of Pension Funds, the network of hospitals, an initiative to close down little shops and in gardeners’ settlement and so on.

Mykolas Katkus, head of the communications agency Fabula and a public relations specialist, believes that, with a cabinet’s term reaching its midpoint, the heads of cabinet – ranging from Andrius Kubilius to Algirdas Butkevičius – would often face more scrutiny and criticism from journalists. This cabinet’s case is no exception, the expert says.

«To me, it appears that Skvernelis’ honeymoon with the news media has reached its end. There is nothing particularly strange about this. Usually, all cabinets, which reach the midpoint of their term, eventually seek to regulate relations with the news media and reach a certain end of their honeymoon. For a time, a certain part of the news media criticised the head of cabinet, but overall, Skvernelis was viewed far more favourably in the media than, say, Ramūnas Karbauskis, chairman of the LVŽS. Now the sort of honeymoon has ended, there appears to be no trust left and every action of the cabinet is viewed with much criticism,» Katkus reasoned.

Meanwhile political scientist Šarūnas Liekis says that the scandal over the pay-per-view Centre of Registers data showed that the Government, like the other previously, has not learnt to consult the public and especially – interest groups.

«Prime Minister Skvernelis’ cabinet has been no exception. None of the cabinets made use of the consultation model. Little information, little consultation with interest groups, just sorting out affairs as they see fit. This causes problems. Decisions must be coordinated with interest groups, the Journalists’ Union in this case. No one wants to do this, no one wants to take it up because they are not thinking it is a value, interest groups are not viewed as serious partners. All that is beyond the institution of the ministerial cabinet is viewed as an obstruction. The weakening of civic society is an indicator of this situation. The state not only fails to create opportunities for civic society to influence its decisions, but is even ruining civic society,» Liekis commented to lrt.lt.

When asked, why Skvernelis failed to contain the situation and a conflict erupted between the government and the news media, the political scientist reminded that the current prime minister worked in the police system all his life, thus it is likely still difficult for him to resolve dilemma in the political arena and seek compromise.

«All of Skvernelis’ life has been spent in a statutory institution. He gives commands to, for example, three police stations, the rest salute and execute the commands, but here it is more difficult – the government is no statutory organisation. In this situation, it is a clash of two different cultures,» Liekis accentuated.

Vilnius University Institute of International Relations and Political Science (VU TSPMI) lecturer Mažvydas Jastramskis advised to not limit oneself to a single survey’s data and to watch for trends to come.

«The change over one month could simply be coincidental…Institutional exhaustion can be as one of the reasons, why the cabinet’s ratings are not rising…A number of factors are piling up: people’s expectations are large, they cannot be fulfilled over two years, scandals are appearing, problems, ongoing issues. With time passing, there is an erosion of cabinet ratings » Jastramskis said.

Yet Prime minister’s ratings remained stable amid the controversies he and his Government were engulfed lately.

«People often evaluate individuals based on personal traits, while they expect results from the cabinet as an institution,» Jastramskis explained.

«There is no correlation between popularity of a state institution and its head. The anecdotal minister of the Government, which Health minister Aurelijus Veryga is in many eyes, takes the brunt of the public’s anger. Lithuanians like Skvernelis for his straight-forwardness and exuberance,» Dumbliauskas accentuated to BNN.

The ratings of the ruling LVŽS have also been little affected by a slew of adverse factors.

The Farmers and Greens enjoyed 18.3 per cent support in September and the Conservatives with 19.2 per cent were on top of the Spinter tyrimai poll.

Jastramskis says that two political powers have established themselves and are seen by voters as alternatives to one another – the TS-LKD and LVŽS.

«This is good because it is clear, who is in power and answers for decisions, as well as what the main alternative is. Thus, it is clear that the «Farmers» have to answer for their decisions. The main alternative is the TS-LKD. So bipolar competition is good for democracy,» Jastramskis claimed.


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