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© DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

The people are drawing away from the so-called establishment political powers, instead minor protest, populist and more radical parties are gaining momentum, lzinios.lt writes.

"I believe that four million voices can gather for more than the centennial hymn. That with the same fervour and belief we will participate in elections, parties, movements and communities," the president shared her hope in her final annual address. Seemingly for the first time she also emphasised the importance of political parties: "However weak, tired and bled out political parties may be, so far they are the most assured basis of the democratic development of the state."

There are currently 24 active political parties in Lithuania, uniting a total of 120.4 thousand members. The president expressed regret that over three years, only two thousand more joined, despite more than that signing up to participate in Misija Sibiras and national defence.

The formerly most numerous Labour Party has faced the greatest losses in the past three years – a decline of almost 8.7 thousand members.

For accuracy's sake, based on statistics from the Ministry of Justice, the number of party affiliated individuals increased over three years by 4170, from 116,224 individuals in 2015, to 120,394 this year.

Impressed by more radical rhetoric

The past three years' growth champion is the Centre Party. It has grown fourfold – from one thousand to four. With former Conservative, MP Naglis Puteikis, who is known for radical statements, taking charge of the party and managing to obtain 9.3% of the vote in the 2014 presidential elections, the Centrists have gained muscle.

Until then a little known party, with its new member and leader it is now represented in the parliament and is thus included in sociological surveys. The increase is good here as well: over the past year, around 5% of respondents were prepared to vote for the party. It would be more accurate to say that this number is prepared to vote for N. Puteikis because even individuals interested in politics would struggle to name even a few other members. Thus, this is practically a one man party.

It is unlikely that such favour to N. Puteikis' party could be matched by the second party in terms of membership growth – the Emigrant's Party. Over the past three years, it more than doubled, now having a member count of 4.5 thousand. As for where it finds new members, Emigrant's Party chairman Juozas Murauskas answers: "In the airports." Around half of the party's members live abroad, while others are returnees from emigration. "Everyone talks about emigration, but they only care for the emigrants' money and until the "Farmers" entered power, nothing was done for the people," J. Murauskas says.

Nevertheless, the party chairman concedes that while the party is gaining in membership, it is not performing any particular activities in between elections. No gains have been made on the electoral front either. In the 2015 municipal elections, the party ran candidates only in Kaunas, but withdrew from competition, when J. Murauskas, who had been aiming for the post of mayor, was removed from the candidate listing for an undisclosed conviction. He himself explains that back in the Soviet era he was the victim of a provocation in offering him a bribe and was convicted, supposedly he has specified this fact in certain places, as apparently the Central Electoral Commission had advised him.

But now, according to J. Murauskas, the party council has gathered and decided that it must no longer stand idle – it is necessary to participate in elections. J. Murauskas even intends to pass party leadership to a younger member, just that he cannot decide whether to do so prior to the municipal or the Seimas elections.

The Centre Party's case shows that handing party leadership to a famous individual, the party's popularity can jump to the Seimas election barrier. Especially when in the background of the scale of emigration the party can expect support.

The Nationalist and Republican Union grew by 1.6 thousand members, the Trade Union Centre – by 1.2 thousand. Parties uniting Russian speakers have grown, as has Darius Kuolys' Lietuvos Sąrašas, Stanislovas Buškevičius' Jaunoji Lietuva, even Drąsos Kelias or Vytautas Šustauskas' Šustausko Kovotojų už Lietuvą Sąjunga.

Thirst for authority and posts

The party ranks are augmented by a thirst for authority and posts. The Lithuanian Farmer and Greens Union balanced around the 3 thousand member mark before their electoral victory, now having risen to 4.3 thousand members.

The Liberal Movement also rose steeply after the successful 2015 municipal elections and with expectations of success in the 2016 Seimas elections. The corruption scandal, which shook not only the liberals, but also the whole party system, encouraged some liberals to leave the party, but the constantly promised revival once more increased the party's member count. Nevertheless, the Liberals are starting to break at the seams, some even considering participating in the municipal elections as civic movements in regions, making the party's future forecasts ambiguous.

However, the other parliamentary parties have strewn their human resources. The greatest loss over three years was that of the Labour Party, losing almost 8.7 thousand members. Internal disputes are breaking apart parties, but the Labourites' walkout can also be explained by another reason: some entered the party for the chance to obtain government office, leaving similarly. With the Labourites' fiasco in the 2016 Seimas elections, over 4.7 thousand members relinquished their membership.

Other major parties also declined. The Social Democrats ruined themselves: by breaking apart, they roughly shared their ratings in half and if Seimas elections were held now, each half would hover around the 5% barrier. Even if the two parties' declared member counts were put back together, it still lost 779 members. Order and Justice declined by almost 1.5 thousand, the Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrats – by almost 400.

Statistics reveals that with the elections nearing, party membership rises: for example in October 2016 during the Seimas elections, total membership climbed to 121,747, which is almost 1.4 thousand more than now. After the elections, the losers' ranks experienced declines – in October 2017, party membership was now 115.4 thousand, 6.4 thousand lower than a year ago.

While the Ministry of Justice has no data of party membership by region, analysts notice "targeted" entry into parties: in the regions, ruling party membership rises because only this way one can expect a post in institutions owned by the municipality.

Electoral surprises may loom

While it is the small, often populist parties that are rising the fastest, they are nowhere to be heard between elections. Emigrants' Party chairman J. Murauskas explains that the small, non-parliamentary parties do not receive state funding, thus have nothing to operate on. On the other hand, he concedes that the party is currently not "strategizing" any programmes. And during electoral campaigns, the minor party representatives often opt to cuss at major party representatives with a colourful vocabulary, rather than proposing strategies. One must admit – such populist rhetoric sometimes works: during every election, new "saviours" keep popping up.

Up to the recent so-called security report scandal, according to public opinion and market research company Vilmorus director dr. Vladas Gaidys, party popularity had settled: two leaders – the Conservatives and the "Farmers" and after them – the rest. In May, the Labour Party jumped to 10%, but the sociologist predicts that it is unlikely it will retain this. The ratings could be due to the party having received particular attention – it had its congress, Viktor Uspaskich returned to leadership.

The split up Social Democrats have split their own ratings. The Liberal Movement is faced with a crisis, but V. Gaidys says he is not a sceptic regarding them, whatever the name of the liberal political power, the scandal is ongoing over several individuals in Vilnius, in the regions, the Liberals are not related to it, furthermore what is now being stated was approximately already known, thus a major fall could be avoided. This claim is substantiated by V. Uspaskich's story – court proceedings were ongoing, but in the 2012 Seimas elections, the Labourites performed decently.

V. Gaidys points out: "Now the differences between parties that trail behind the two leaders are minor, thus it cannot be dismissed that during the elections, we could face surprises. When almost all the main parties compromise themselves, some small, non-rated party can jump out or in the municipal elections – a civic election committee and gather many votes." The Vilmorus director explains that only the parties, which have representatives in Seimas, are included in surveys because listing all 24 would leave people confused. Thus surprises could happen and not necessarily favourable ones for democracy.

Crisis of traditional politics not only in Lithuania

Nevertheless, V. Gaidys reminds that even without such major shocks as now, parties never earned much favour among Lithuanian citizens. Vilmorus has been monitoring favour to parties since 1998 and over the past 20 years, this figure has hovered between 5-10%, also falling to 3% once. The current 5.5% do not show total disappointment. The percentage rises after elections, seemingly trusting promises and then falls again.

Lithuania is no major exception. Based on Eurobarometer data, while parties are somewhat better received in many EU countries, there is no single state, where there are more people, who trust parties than otherwise. People specify three main reason: parties promise much and do nothing; deal in only intrigue; care for only themselves and not the people.

Lithuania is not the only to face a crisis of traditional parties – based on research by the European Journal of Political Science, establishment parties have been overcome in a number of countries by various movements, the memberships of traditional parties are contracting and populist or other novelties are expanding. The overall party member numbers have declined in most countries since 1990, though in Estonia, Italy, Spain and France they have grown. Only up to 1% Latvians, Poles, Brits, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovakians and Irish, while around 17% of Austrians do. In EU countries, this number averages at 4.7% of citizens with voting rights. A similar portion of party affiliated individuals is present in Lithuania as well, though several years ago it was only at 3%. But the number of residents is declining, while the number of party members rose by 12.7 thousand since 2012.

It is clear that in Lithuania, same as some other countries, the so-called establishment parties (it was likely them that the president had in mind, urging to strengthen party democracy) are experiencing crisis. Dalia Grybauskaitė predicts that the future will certainly belong to political parties, who "will not solely rely on the name of one leader, but their ideology, companions united in views and ideas." However, as statistics show, people are most inspired to join less mature, protest, more radical parties. If mature parties do not cleanse themselves and rebound, will be unable to find new means of drawing more of the public, new surprises await in elections.

Political scientist prof. dr. Jūratė Novagrockienė notes that with the ongoing attack against practically all so-called establishment parties, it is natural that those thinking about political opportunities are considering perhaps joining smaller entities or some party, where one could expect to enter power, obtain some post.

"Civic committees can provide added values at the municipal level. This is displayed by Visvaldas Matijošaitis' Vieningas Kaunas. But at the national level we need strong parties, which feel responsibility. What are the "Farmers" doing now? There is no political responsibility to be seen, what political consequences can be caused by this. Perhaps this is what forced the president to return to the topic of parties because they are the entity, which takes political responsibility. It is very bad for the state if parties do not take such responsibility or have a distorted understanding of it," J. Novagrockienė stresses.

Thus, when urging to unite with parties, it would be best to add – it would be good if the increases are not random.