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Lithuanian Conservatives’ tensions: can the party split?

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Gabrielius Landsbergis

Linas Jegelevičius for BNN

The Conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats (TS-LKD) have risen to unseen heights lately – although in the opposition now, in 2016 parliamentary election the party racked up a record support in its 30 years’ history. With the Lithuanian Liberal Movement mired in corruption scandals, the Conservatives have gracefully embraced throngs of liberals who see their political future with the liberally-inclined TS-LKD chairman, Gabrielius Landsbergis, who is deservedly credited with the strengthening of the party.  Yet, against the rosy backdrop, Landsbergis, who is grandson of Vytautas Landsbergis, the chairman of the 1989-1990 Lithuanian Supreme Council- Reconstituent Seimas, is lately compelled to stave off increasing accusations that he has taken Conservatives towards liberals just too far.

A letter in June blasting the TS-LKD leader

First, in late June, there was an audacious public letter from Jonas Rimantas Dagys, a political turncoat who in the ranks of TS-LKD made name for himself as a hard-liner with anti-abortion and anti-gay views. The MP lashed out at the TS-LKD leader, Gabrielius Landsbergis, claiming the party under his leadership has lost its face, betrayed core values and has fully embraced liberal winds.  Therefore, he said, he was compelled to suspend his TS-LKD membership. Having swiftly convened the party council decided not to put Dagys on the 2020 Seimas (Parliament) election ballot.

Although some analysts pondered then that bitter Dagys can attempt to further hammer a wedge in the party’s unity, by calling on all Conservative hardliners to resist what he called «ongoing liberalization» of the Homeland Union- Lithuanian Christian Democrats, he however did not exert in the direction.

Conservative MP wants «alternative» opinion

But this week a new blast for the Conservatives has come from the party’s young generation, Paulius Saudargas, son of Algirdas Saudargas, the signatory of the Independence Restoration Act, who asked the party’s praesidium, a ruling body, to officially allow party members to hold and promulgate an «alternative opinion», one different from the officially recognized line. In other words, those disagreeing would be entitled to voice their own, or «alternative» opinion, running counter to the official stance.

«If we accepted it, it would be a big stride towards democracy. Now we adopt decisions in the party either by a majority of votes, which, agree or not, is based on the bulldozer principle, or by discussing, I’d rather say «polishing» the issue until the «polished position” becomes so «washed out» that it loses any interest to the others,» Saudargas said in an article this week.

In 2017, when TS-LKD held internal primaries for the party’s leader, it was Saudargas, the leader of the Christian Democrat wing of the Conservative party, who threw gauntlet, to no success however, against Landsbergis junior.

Disagreements were entrenched from scratch

«The relative, often visibly undetectable enmity between the two units of the party is more or less palpable from 2008, when the-then Homeland Union, a new-era Conservative party, merged with their much older siblings, the Lithuanian Christian Democrats. There have been quite a few flare-ups between the two on many issues until now, but they would always be ironed out, as a rule internally, without letting the public know of disagreements,» Vytautas Dumbliauskas, associate professor of Mykolas Romeris University (MRU), told Baltic News Network (BNN).

However, the latest major discord between the two wings could not have come at a worse time – during the presidential elections last March and May, when a group of well-known Conservatives exhorted fellow party members to support independent Gitanas Nausėda, not Ingrida Šimonytė, the official presidential candidate of TS-LKD.

Šimonytė was openly lambasted by some of the Conservatives for presumably her «too liberal» stance on Conservatives’ core values, like family issues. Šimonytė, who is single, has spoken out for a cohabitation law, one encompassing same-sex couples.

New divisive issues

When asking the TS-LDP leadership to allow to have «other» opinions in the party, Saudargas did not directly mention liberalization of the party, but did bring the issues of artificial insemination and gay rights as divisive the party «to an extent».

«Since the Homeland Union and the Lithuanian Christian Democrats united in 2008, a whole lot new issues have emerged, trying our unity. Back then we were not dealing with many what I call «challenges of values». Now we are facing them,» Saudargas emphasised.

He also regretted in his article an «insufficient» role of the Lithuanian Roman Catholic Church, which, according to him, is being pushed to the margins.

However now the bottom-line question is this: how the seemingly irreconcilable positions of the party’s two wings can be adjusted to a point, where the tensions are defused, at least for now? How will Gabrielius Landsbergis respond to the recriminations on TS-LKD’ liberalization? Who will the grassroots  side with?

Perhaps there are more questions than the answers now, agree analysts that BNN spoke to.

Landsbergis needs to court tough Christian wing

«What Saudargas and some other Conservatives want is an open discussion in the party on many issues. I disagree they seek antagonism with the party leader, Gabrielius Landsbergis, as it would lead them to nowhere. And those who bristle against the leadership accusing it of the betrayal of party values do not stand any chance – Landsbergis holds firmly the reins of the party so far and a breakaway group (some speculated Dargis may proceed with establishment of a hard-line Conservative party – L.J.) has neither time nor resources for that,» Lauras Bielinis, professor of  Kaunas Vytautas Magnus University, told BNN.

According to him, Landsbergis will be «compelled» ahead the 2020 Seimas election to «clearly» voice his stance on such acute social issues like artificial insemination or same-sex marriage.

«I believe he has no many other choices now than stick with the Christian wing of the party. In doing so, he will placate them and secure their support in the election, but the flipside would be a possible loss of liberally inclined voters,»the analyst underscored.

Merits of Landsbergis junior

Meanwhile, Dumbliauskas, of MRU, is convinced that the fear of being pushed out of active politics to the margins prevents many Conservatives hardliners, like Paulius Saudargas, Laurynas Kasčiūnas, Audronis Ažubalis, from breaking away.

«But they are young and smart and understand well that, should they proceed the way, their days would be counted. Those bristling against Gabrielius Landsbergis should remember that it is him who put Conservatives so high. If not for him, TS-LKD would have not come up with a record 276 thousand votes in the multi-constituency» the analyst underlined. «I do not believe Landsbergis can suddenly repudiate his liberal views and switch to the hardliners,» he added.

An inevitable internal split?

According to political scientist Vytautas Sinica, Landsbergis junior directing party ideology toward a more liberal paradigm was leading to an inevitable internal split from the beginning.

«The final stage is G. Landsbergis’ victory in the chairman election in 2017. The TS-LKD members have expressed consent for the changes he has initiated, though most party members likely expressed support for the surname and not the programme of change…. I believe that this is understood by both Žygimantas Pavilionis and Paulius Saudargas, who lost in the party leader election. I cannot imagine how, given their views, they see their place in this party. The Christian Democrat wing of the TS-LKD will either have to separate from the party or relinquish its ideological basis and be absorbed into the Conservatives. But the Christian Democrats have already missed the ideal opportunity to separate because their ideological niche is now firmly occupied by the «Peasants» (the ruling Farmers and Greens, (LVŽS),» he said in a commentary a couple of years ago. He could not be reached for the article this week.

TS-LKD tops polls

TS-LKD remains the most popular party in Lithuania, the latest survey by Vilmorus showed. The ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union came in second. The monthly changes for both parties were within the bias range. 15.5 per cent said in July they would vote for the HU-LCD, and 12.2 per cent would support the LVŽS. The Labour Party jumped into the third position with 8.1 per cent, followed by the Social Democratic Party of Lithuania (7.1 per cent) and the Order and Justice party (5.7 per cent).


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