Lithuania's Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis has just days left to present his new cabinet. With the time nearly up, why is the make-up of Lithuania's new government far from clear?
Why does there have to be a new government?
With the general election almost a year and a half away, there is no formal reason for a change of government. However, several factors are at play.
First, after the inauguration of a new president, the Constitution demands that the government return its powers and be reappointed anew. It could be a pure formality, if it wasn't for the promises that were made before the election.
Prime Minister Skvernelis, who himself ran for the presidency, had claimed the election would be a vote of the people's confidence in his performance and that he would quit if he did not at least advance to the run-off. He didn't. After a few weeks of toing and froing, however, he dismissed his pledges as a burst of emotion and set out to reshuffle his government.
At the same time as Skvernelis was campaigning for presidency, the leader of the biggest ruling party, the Farmers and Greens Union, raised the stakes even further. Ramūnas Karbauskis said that the presidential election, as well as the local elections and the European Parliament elections at around the same time, would also be a vote of confidence in his ruling coalition. Should the party perform poorly, Karbauskis suggested, it might leave the government.
The attempt to rally supporters this way did not work out quite as planned, the Farmers and Greens did worse than the main opposition party. However, still a leader of the biggest parliamentary group, Karbauskis then said he was dissolving the ruling coalition and launching talks to form a new one.
The new coalition agreement was signed in early July.
Is the new coalition different from the old one?
It is, kind of, but not really. Previously, the Farmers and Greens (49 MPs) were in a coalition with the Social Democratic Labour Party (LSDDP, 11 MPs), had a cooperation agreement with the Order and Justice party (7 MPs) and were informally backed by the Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania–Christian Families Alliance (LLRA-KŠS, 8 MPs).
The new agreement brings all the four groups into a formal coalition with a slight majority of 75 votes in the 141-seat legislature.
Clearly, the new coalition partners need to have their representatives in the government, hence the reshuffle. Under the agreement, the LSDDP will nominate the ministers of foreign affairs and agriculture; the LLRA-KŠS wants the Ministries of the Interior and Communication; and the Order and Justice should get to appoint the minister of defence.
So what's the problem?
Tensions between different branches of government, between parties and even within the ruling party have prevented a smooth implementation of the agreement.
The first obstacle was the Farmers and Greens Union's own parliament speaker. According to the new agreement, the post was to go to the LSDDP, but its current holder, Viktoras Pranckietis, refused to step down, saying the Seimas speaker is elected by the parliament as a whole and is not subject to inter-party agreements. With the help of the opposition, Pranckietis survived a vote to remove him and the resolution of the impasse is nowhere in sight.
Then there are the ministerial appointments. The Constitution demands that the prime minister coordinate with the president who thus has a not insignificant power to at least turn down candidates he or she doesn't like.
President Gitanas Nausėda has indicated he plans to use that power. He has already said he saw no reason to remove the current Minister of Communication, Rokas Masiulis, and have him replaced by the candidate proposed by the LLRA-KŠS, Jaroslav Narkevič.
President Nausėda is even more adamant about keeping the Minister of Defence, Raimundas Karoblis. Traditionally, parliamentary majorities would take into account the president's preferences for this post, which makes it likely that the Order and Justice party will not get the only ministry it negotiated.
There are also signs of tension between the Farmers and Greens' leader, Karbauskis, and the prime minister (who owes his post to the party, but is not its member). Skvernelis has so far avoided siding explicitly with either the president or the ruling party, but seems to have grown weary of Karbauskis' unilateral moves.
The latest episode involved the nomination of Lithuania's candidate to the European Commission. While Skvernelis and Nausėda were coordinating the shortlist, Karbauskis said his party would only support Virginijus Sinkevičius, the 28-year-old minister of economy and a relative political novice, for the post. Skvernelis has conspicuously refrained from giving his endorsement.
Can the coalition break up?
Both the Order and Justice party and the LLRA-KŠS could leave the coalition, if they failed to secure the government posts they negotiated with the Farmers and Greens Union.
The departure of either one of them would deprive the coalition of a majority in the parliament. However, both have good reasons not to leave, says political scientist Lauras Bielinis of Vytautas Magnus University.
The Order and Justice party, which has seen its political fortunes contract significantly over the years and has even struggled to maintain a political group in parliament, needs the publicity afforded by being in power, according to Bielinis, which is why “they are interested in staying in the coalition”.
The LLRA-KŠS, while enjoying a more stable electoral base, would hardly win anything by turning their backs either. It is more likely that both parties will demand compensations for the foregone posts, but stay with the Farmers and Greens.
Moreover, even if the formal coalition did collapse, an informal one would very likely continue, according to political scientist Virgis Valentinavičius of Mykolas Romeris University.
“The Order and Justice and the LLRA-KŠS were hitherto in the coalition informally, so they would continue to vote with the Farmers – if not under a coalition agreement, then out of spiritual and political kinship,” Valentinavičius believes.
The two parties are ideologically much closer to the ruling party than to the opposition. They might use their non-aligned status as a leverage to secure certain concessions for themselves, but would unlikely attempt to derail a vote on, say, the government budget, according to Valentinavičius.
Who would have power in case of a minority government?
If it came to a minority government, it would open up space for the president to play a more assertive role in domestic politics, Bielinis says.
“A minority government would mean that the situation in parliament is controlled by the opposition groups. Luckily, they do not agree among themselves,” he says. “We would see a lot of chaos until the general election and it would create opportunity and conditions for the president to assert himself as a balancing leader.”
Valentinavičius agrees, adding that President Nausėda is already in a stronger position than Skvernelis and Karbauskis, due to their purported feud, and could use it to lead the government formation.
However, he thinks the president “does not seem to want to take initiative”, instead hesitating and contradicting himself.
Can there be an early general election?
When leaders of the opposition parties met with the new president last month, one of the issues they discussed was the possibility of calling early general election. The president's adviser then said that the likelihood was low, but “all kinds of things happen in politics”.
Neither of the big parties, in power or in opposition, would really want an early vote, says Valentinavičius.
The Farmers and Greens Union has already realised its popularity is on the decline and many in its ranks would rather keep a cushy seat for a year and a half than risk it.
Nor is the conservative Homeland Union–Lithuanian Christian Democrats, the main opposition party, secure that it could beat the Farmers and Greens, according to Valentinavičius.
The Social Democratic Party, another opposition force, has performed well in this year's elections, but it, too, would prefer to wait a little more for its polling numbers to grow.