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Ceturtdiena 20.02.2020 | Name days: Smuidra, Vitauts, Smuidris

One single vote left the Lithuanian election system intact

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Lithuania, Seimas, election threshold, Naglis Puteikis, Gitanas Nausėda

Linas Jegelevičius for the BNN

The understanding that Lithuania’s election system needs changes is nearly overwhelming, but the ruling Farmers and Greens’ (LFGU) attempt to lower the Parliament election threshold in parties’ multi-member constituency from current 5 per cent to 3 per cent suffered a setback this week.

One vote short

Having jerked in December the election plank down to 3 per cent for political parties and 5 per cent for coalitions, the «farmers» came this week one vote short of rejecting President Gitanas Nausėda’s veto. The head-of-state has spoken against the drastic change and previously backed a 4 per cent threshold for parties and 6 per cent for party coalitions.  Nausėda argued that lower election thresholds would lead to greater fragmentation of the Seimas and make the Government less stable.

On Tuesday, 70 lawmakers voted in favour of lowering the bar to 3 per cent, 51 were against and two MPs abstained. At least 71 votes in favour were necessary for the amendments to be adopted.

Representatives of the ruling Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union, the Social Democratic Labour Party of Lithuania, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance and some members of the non-attached group voted for the rejection of the presidential veto. Meanwhile, the opposition conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats, the liberals and the social democrats voted against the lowering of the election bar.

So, for now, political parties will have to aim at gaining at least 5 percent of the national vote in the multi-member constituency to get seats in the parliament and coalitions will have to clear a 7 percent threshold.

Accusations flying on the Seimas floor

The preparation for the Tuesday voting triggered a wave of flare-ups on the parliament floor, with the ruling coalition and the opposition trading accusations. Citing phone calls to lawmakers from President’s advisers asking to support President’s veto, Naglis Puteikis, a MP, accused President’s Office of breaching the Lithuanian Constitution.

Conservative Jurgis Razma urged Puteikis to provide «evidence» for the claim and rebuked him for «unsubstantiated» allegations. Žygimantas Povilionis, a Conservative MP, argued that the lowering of the election threshold in some foreign countries has paved way for radical political forces to the legislature.

Gabrielius Landsbergis, chairman of Lithuanian Conservatives (HU-LCD), feared that the changes of the Election Law will increase political instability in the country.  «It is evident that, if adopted, they would have caused even higher defragmentation of the current political system. They would have paved way for many parties on the fringe of the political spectrum to Seimas».

Following the nail-biter voting, Ramūnas Karbauskis, leader of the LFGU, stayed calm and, likewise his fellow party members, chalked failure off to ostensible pressure from the President’s Office.

«Prior to the voting, I received a phone call from presidential adviser Povilas Mačiulis. Other parliamentarians also received such calls from President’s Office. I am not going to reveal the content of the calls, just let me tell you that such things cannot be said to members of Seimas,» Karbauskis told Lithuanian media.

Election system needs revision

This parliament will probably not get back to the election threshold lowering issue, Karbauskis, said after the Tuesday voting.

«I don’t think it’s worth going back to this issue, the issue is resolved. We can only be glad that members of that party which made the decision in 2000 not to hold the second round of voting in the Seimas election with three months before the election were clapping hands so loud today,» Karbauskis told journalists at the parliament.

However, the understanding that Lithuania’s election system needs revision is growing and it seems that President’s Office will be orchestrating the efforts.

Mačiulis said following the voting: «We are already speaking with party leaders and leaders of the political groups that we need to have a broader look into the whole system and probably even change it radically, but it’s very important not to do that at a time when the Seimas election is not far away as it reminds of parallel from sports…It would the same if weaker teams asked to make the gates wider ahead of the football championship in Qatar because they cannot score». «There are also suggestions and discussion that perhaps it would be changed from the mixed to the proportional system,» the presidential adviser added.

PM argued for election changes

The amendment to the Law on Elections was initiated by liberal MP Simonas Gentvilas motivating his decision with the wish to harmonize the regulation for Seimas and local elections. Now in Lithuania, there are 4 and 6 per cent thresholds for local elections.

Those in favour of the amendments, argued that, with them in force, there will be more democracy and higher representation of the political spectrum in the country.

«Let’s leave it to voters to decide if they want to have traditional parties (in the Seimas) or perhaps less popular ones,» Saulius Skvernelis, Prime Minister of the Government, has said but admitted however that a higher fragmentation in the parliament might make it more difficult to form government coalitions.

Lithuania not a mature democracy yet

Ieva Petronytė-Urbonavičienė, Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Behaviour and Institutions of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University,  told BNN that, with the amendments in force, the winners would have been the initiators of the amendments, i.e. Social Democratic Labour Party, the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance, whose support hovers around 3 per cent.

Andžej Pukšto, a lecture of political sciences at Kaunas Magnus University, told BNN that a lower threshold is not a bad idea, but reminded that Lithuania, unliked Western democracies, elect half of its lawmakers in single-member constituencies, which is a relic in the Western world. Secondly, according to the analyst, Lithuanian political parties, even big ones, lack quality in terms of their programmes, visions, so with smaller parties in Seimas, the quality of the legislative process would suffer.

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