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2020.04.14 17:30

Horse-cart campaigning and no alcohol. Lithuania's first election 100 years ago

On this day a hundred years ago, Lithuania held its first ever parliamentary election, marked by universal suffrage, extended to both men and women, polarising campaign and unexpected results.

In April 1920, Lithuania's status as a sovereign country was still far from secure. It had declared independence two years prior and had managed to drive out foreign armies from most of its territory, but it had yet to secure the de jure recognition from key governments, including those of the United States and France.

Read more: Losing and finding Lithuania's Act of Independence

The absence of a legitimate government was one of the obstacles. The country's effective leaders had been picked from the delegates of Vilnius Conference of 1917 which was held under German occupation.

“For this, Lithuania was denounced in international arena as a German project" and viewed suspiciously by the victors of World War One, says historian Alfonsas Eidintas.

A democratically-elected parliament was essential if Lithuania was to continue successful state building. A general election under universal suffrage – extended to both men and women – was called for mid-April.

Towns across the country were soon covered with campaign billboards. However, posters and budding national press were not yet the key vehicles for campaigning.

“One had to climb onto soapboxes, go to market squares after Sunday masses, or speak from moving carts,” Eidintas says.

Christian democrats emerged as the most popular party by promising to break up large estates and distribute lands to landless peasants.

While the leftists were making very similar promises, they were viewed much more suspiciously by rural and small-town voters.

“If a leftist or a more liberal agitator comes and starts saying: we must separate the church from the state, religious instruction must not be obligatory at schools or you may be married not just by a priest, but by a lay authority as well, [...] this does not go well with the conservative public,” explains historian Artūras Svarauskas.

The vote was called on April 14–15, in the middle of the week, but long queues formed outside polling stations.

By all estimates, the turnout was huge, between 70 and 90 percent, even though full voter registries were not available yet. Many voters did not even have any identification documents.

“A parish priest could write a letter, identifying you and vouching that you were a member of the parish,” says Svarauskas.

Lithuania had also put a complete ban on selling alcohol a month before the vote “to have a sober election,” according to Svarauskas.

The results were not what the political leaders had expected. The party of Antanas Smetona, the acting president and one of the most popular politicians at the time, claimed under two percent of the vote and failed to win any seats.

The reason may have been that Smetona categorically refused to endorse breaking up large estates and giving land to peasants.

The winners were the Christian democrats and their leader, “Mykolas Krupavičius, a priest whom Smetona called ‘a bolshevik’,” Eidintas says.

According to him, Krupavičius had understood that the communists in Russia won over the masses by promising peace and land – and how massively significant popular support was.

“What else can you promise in Lithuania [other than land]?” he says.

The newly-elected Lithuanian parliament was also very youthful, a third of its members were under 30.

The biggest accomplishment of the first Seimas of Lithuania was the 1922 democratic constitution, “an example of democracy not just for Lithuania, but perhaps for Europe,” according to Eidintas.

At the same time, however, the Christian democratic government did not shy away from censorship and imprisoning its critics. Smetona himself was put into jail for publishing an article.

The Christian democrats lost the following election in 1926 which brought victory to the left opposition. However, a military coup that same year soon put an end to their government.

Army officers offered power to none other but Smetona himself who had failed to win the popular mandate the second time. He ruled the country until World War Two and did not call a parliament for a decade. Even then he agreed to hold elections under one condition – only his party could take part.