Democratic Hollowing in Lithuania

This article was produced as a case study for the Democratic Erosion project.

7180 words

I. Introduction

            Lithuanian democracy is consistently ranked highly by Freedom House for its robust and stable electoral institutions and political freedoms (“Lithuania” 2020).  Democratic procedures are clearly defined in the country’s 1990s constitution and individual rights are extended broadly and respected in practice (Stiftung, Vilpisauskas, and Jahn 2019).  The legal institutions of democracy are stable, and the Baltic region has generally been an exception to the type of democratic backsliding that is now seen in many post-Soviet democracies (Csaky and Schenkkan 2018).  However, the quality of substantive representation has not advanced significantly in decades.  Lithuania is now firmly in an era of democratic hollowing (Mair 2006). 

            The distance between the country’s citizens and elected politicians has widened unmistakably since the nation formally joined the European Union in 2004.  At that time, President Rolandas Paksas was impeached for bribery and removed from office to ensure a smooth transition into the EU.  The prevalence of corrupt politicians in government has eroded public trust in elected representatives.  The left-wing Lithuanian Social Democrat Party (LSDP) and conservative Homeland Union – Lithuanian Christian Democrat (TS-LKD) parties have typically alternated power since independence.  Voters exercise their recourse to remove incumbents from office, but they have often been unable to replace them with better alternatives.  This has created a cycle of mutual withdrawal (Mair 2006) in which voters more often take chances with fleeting protest parties and mainstream parties continue to operate without their input.  Peripheral parties have become more competitive as public confidence has eroded, and the Lithuanian Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS) was the first among them to win its own plurality in 2016. 

            Significantly, Lithuanians now appear to embrace the technocratization of government and politics and risk becoming further isolated from the democratic process.  Independent bureaucrats dominate the presidency, and surprise breakouts like LVŽS form around effective administrators without an ideological foundation.  There is an increased risk of democratic erosion when effective government is more valued than democratic deliberation.  Despite the unsettling nature of these patterns, voters still identify with the values of liberal democracy and have prevented structural erosion from taking hold.  The combination of already low civic engagement and low public trust led to the hollowing of Lithuania’s democracy and civic society has weakened to such an extent that citizens are unable to self-organize in a meaningful way.  Without the restoration of public trust, the country is likely to persist in an equilibrium in which it neither transforms into an illiberal system, nor substantially improves. 

II. Democratic Origins

            The modern Lithuanian republic is officially a continuation of the brief interwar democracy (1920 – 1926) that was absorbed by the Soviet Union and reemerged in 1991 (Broderick 2000).  Resistance against Soviet rule centered around demands for ethnic self-determination, and glasnost inspired the founding of the nationalist Sąjūdis movement to press the government for greater freedom of expression.  The movement won the right to organization in 1988 and political parties resurrected from the interwar era pushed for the reestablishment of the Seimas legislature.  The USSR relented to the demands and held elections in 1990.

            The nationalist candidates endorsed by Sąjūdis won a majority of the legislature and immediately declared independence based on the illegal annexation of the interwar state.  The USSR embargoed the breakaway republic and confrontation peaked when the Soviet Army occupied Vilnius by force in January, 1991.  The Lithuanian public overwhelmingly approved a referendum on independence the following month and proceeded to break with the Soviet Union to the fullest extent possible.  Compared to the relative autonomy of the Visegrád states, the Baltic nations were more thoroughly integrated into the administrative superstructure of the USSR and devoted significant resources to recreating an independent state and reclaiming national identity (Palubinskas 2005).  Lithuania turned to the EU and NATO for diplomatic and institutional support to create a model Constitutional and Procedural democracy.

            The nation succeeded by these standards.  The 1992 Constitution has been in service since its creation and provides checks and balances through its separate executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Representation in the unicameral legislature is decided in a mixed electoral system that balances direct elections with a party-list system.  This was originally a compromise between Sąjūdis and the Communists that has provided a de facto obstacle for single parties to consolidate majoritarian power (Aleknonis 2017).  The Lithuanian system is not wholly protected against the possibility of single-party domination, but there has been enough electoral competition to prevent this from happening.  The risk of any one individual dominating politics is also restrained.  The President is mostly confined to foreign affairs, but does have veto power and appoints the Prime Minister to the Seimas, who must in turn be confirmed by the legislature.

            Elections are administered effectively according to clearly defined procedures with oversight by the permanent and independent Central Electoral Commission (OSCE 2017).  The central CEC itself is chaired by a Seimas appointee and is composed of representatives from all elected parties and a majority of non-partisan appointees by the Ministry of Justice and the Lithuanian Bar Association.  Irregularities are taken seriously and addressed.  Accusations of vote-buying in 2012 led the Constitutional Court to order two municipal elections be recast after the CEC had certified the initial results (OSCE 2013).  Almost all other accusations of vote-buying that year were considered to be more harmful to public confidence than to electoral results, but they nevertheless decreased in frequency in later elections (OSCE 2017).

III. Democratic Hollowing and the Closing of Civic Space

            The formal institutions of democracy have remained stable, but they do not on their own provide substantive representation.  The informal civic space has atrophied as citizens have lost faith in their elected officials and disengaged from political life.  As described by Mair (2006), democratic hollowing occurs in a cycle of mutual withdrawal in which citizens and elected officials drift further apart from one another.  The rights of citizens to participate in democracy are well protected, but Lithuanians have never consolidated a strong tradition of civic activity (Kenins-Kings 2015).  On the other side, politicians have never fully engaged with the electorate, and the two groups generally act independently of each other.  Without active deliberation between them, voters have found it difficult to select politicians who represent their interests.  Unresponsive and corrupt politicians make it into power with alarming regularity and citizens have become frustrated with the process. 

            Mair contends that parties themselves are central to representation and their weakness is a clear deficit to democracy.  Even without direct representation, Scarrow (2002) illustrates that individuals who are interested in civic participation can use other forms of organization to influence politics and soften the fallout from party weakness.  Unfortunately, civil life is virtually absent in Lithuania and its emptiness is self-sustaining.  Citizens interpret the incapacity of their poorly developed civil society as evidence that they are unable to effect change.  They are discouraged from engaging in this sphere at all and are unlikely to reach the threshold at which participation can become influential. 

            This has all but guaranteed stagnation.  Dahl (1992) describes civic competence as a necessary component of representative government.  A functional democracy depends on the presence of adequately competent citizens who possess the technical knowledge to practice politics.  In Dahl’s assessment, the scale of democracy, availability of information, and complexity of public issues in modern politics make greater demands on the abilities of citizens before they are able to function satisfactorily in the public sphere.  There is a steep barrier of entry for those who are not already involved in civil society to join it anew.  Those who lack political literacy must depend on competent citizens to guide their development, but the draining of civil society has left a critical lack of opportunity for withdrawn citizens to reengage in participation.  Competence is concentrated among the political elites with whom they do not deliberate.

            Citizens have been frustrated with politicians for so long that they no longer expect to be represented by their elected officials.  The constant turnover of politicians in Lithuania is not without cause, and it is unlikely now that parties will suddenly become a venue in which citizens can build their collective competence.  Voters’ experience with democracy has left them resigned to remove officials, but disinterested in grassroots deliberation.  As is to be expected in a hollow democracy, the electorate has already rejected politicians as representatives and begun to exchange them for candidates who can serve as administrative experts (Mair 2006).  The state itself is still functional despite the presence of ineffective politicians, and non-elected civil servants are assumed to be the constant in government that has allowed continuity between administrations.  The procedural framework of democracy is still useful to remove ineffective politicians, but voters at this stage are willing to defer to civil servants and effective technocrats to make decisions on their behalf (Mair 2006).

            Here, the resurrection of civil society has become even less likely.  Technocrats might be more effective and morally preferable to politicians, but they are not equipped to help citizens build their competence.  Their greater presence in government serves as a cover for citizens to disengage more completely.  If they suddenly find themselves interested in reconnecting with government, they will face an even greater challenge to connect with their expert administrators.  Lithuania is entering this stage of hollowing now, and there is a high chance that non-engagement will become thoroughly entrenched as opportunities for deliberation evaporate.  

            In order to best address the character of Lithuanian democracy and assess its stability, this paper engages briefly with democratic backsliding nearby to establish the diverging paths of post-Soviet democracies.  It then re-focuses on Lithuania to examine how hollowing has progressed in this context and what this implies for democratic quality.  Finally, it will be appropriate to revisit Lithuania’s backsliding neighbors to examine some of the overlapping features of the current governments to gauge what risk there is of this hollow democracy entering into a more aggressive form of decay.

IV. International Context: When does a hollow democracy begin backsliding?

            Both democratic hollowing and backsliding have risen throughout central and eastern Europe, but they do not always coincide with one another (Greskovits 2015).  The hollowing that has occurred in Lithuania has not yet allowed illiberal leaders to begin actively transforming government.  Politicians regularly abuse their power in Lithuania, but they have not fundamentally affected the country’s legal framework and they are eventually held to account when they act outside of it.  Lithuania’s path might be explained by a combination of culture its and post-independence development. 

            Dawson and Hanley (2016) suggest that liberal values may never have been as strong in eastern Europe as once believed.  The existence of liberal institutions alone does not convey legitimacy to the original ideas that they were founded on.  Anti-democratic trends in the Visegrád by leaders and their followers express that their post-Soviet governments and their corresponding civil societies are not aligned with one another.  Government restructuring should be expected when it is designed to enforce values that “almost no one identifies with” (Dawson and Hanley 2016).  This does not adequately explain the Baltic situation where legal structures are typically unchallenged.  Citizens demand changes in individual actors, but they do not express interest in institutional changes.  Politicians have not been able to build popular support based on illiberal values.

            In what Voigt (2013) identifies in Estonia as a culture of national-liberalism, the liberal values that are needed to support democracy are widespread in the Baltics, but citizens do not necessarily identify themselves as the caretakers of civil society or government.  Instead, the state itself is accepted to embody the national community and citizens have minimal responsibility to participate in government.  Broderick (2000) identified a similar phenomenon in Lithuanian independence.  Self-determination was the only true objective of Sąjūdis and it was this spirit alone that engaged the population.  Activism started and ended with the pursuit of statehood.  In contrast, Poland’s Solidarity deliberately avoided the statehood question and focused its energy into building a vibrant and lasting civil society (Ost 1990).  A major source of the divergence between these nations today can be traced back to the difference between Lithuania’s fleeting sense of collective ability and Poland’s consolidation of a free-standing civil society to sustain it beyond its independence movement.

V. Civic Society: Non-participation

            Voter participation has decreased substantially since independence (IDEA 2020).  Turnout was above 70% for the first two cycles of both the parliamentary and presidential elections between 1990 and 1998.  Since then, it has held at about 50%.  This rate has become stable and does not appear to be decreasing further, but participation is far below that of other European states.  The most recent Seimas election saw 50.6% of the electorate vote, compared to the 75.6% parliamentary average in the EU.  Elections are offset on separate cycles and voters do not obviously appear to favor elections in one branch over the other.  Low enthusiasm is a response to national politics at large.

            Elections for the European Parliament follow the same cycle as the presidential ones and roughly share the same participation rate.  The only exception was in 2009, when the European election was held separately and saw a turnout of 21% compared to the presidential 51.8%.  The huge disparity reflects the widely held belief that the democratic European Parliament lacks real power compared to the non-elected European Council and Commission (Mienkowska-Norkiene and Kavoliunaite 2010).  Here and at the national level, non-participation is an expression of citizens’ lack of confidence in their ability to enact change through voting. 

            Participation in formally organized parties has never been ingrained in political culture.  After independence, party registration increased from 2.6% in 1999 to a modest 5% in 2007 without further growth.[1]  Parties are now stagnant at best, and the majority lose what members they have.[2]  The largest party by size, LSDP, had an estimated 20,000 registered members in 2012 (Smith 2020).  That number fell by nearly 20% by 2020.  LVŽS is now the largest party represented in the Seimas, but its sudden growth in 2016 did not reflect any change in participation by regular citizens.  The outsider party’s size plateaued far below most mainstream parties and rests at 4,350 today, down from 4,850 in 2012.  LVŽS has fewer members now that it has 53 seats in parliament than it did when it had just one. 

            Lithuania’s largest parties descended from the Sąjūdis nationalists and the reformed Communists (Aleknonis 2017) who did not find it necessary to consult with constituents as decision-makers.  The conservative TS-LKD and left-wing LSDP inherited this tradition and do not cultivate deep voter engagement.  Grassroots campaigning is literally a foreign concept in Lithuania that was not imported by major parties until 2008 when a Homeland Union candidate ran an uncommonly effective campaign by employing the door-to-door campaigning that he observed while living in the UK. (Smith 2020)  There is evidence that parties are interested in employing these tactics to win votes, but it is less clear that they will be used to solicit new members.

            Parties still consider themselves to be mostly self-sufficient organizations (Mair 2006) that do not have many reasons to expand their ranks.  Party elites insist on keeping a tight control on actual policy decisions and candidate selection even if they are willing to accept feedback from their registered members (Smith 2020).  The closed selection process is used to supply posts to their high-ranking officials.  This structure projects little benefit to would-be members who would not be given opportunities for their representation.  Citizens return the distance of party leadership and miss the networking benefits to build their competence.  The abysmal level of party membership also conveys a legitimacy problem (Scarrow 2002).

VI. Precursors to Hollowing: Party Legitimacy

            Without input legitimacy, parties are more heavily scrutinized based on their governance.  The state’s inability to adequately address economic inequality and corruption have been persistent challenges that have called politicians’ effectiveness and commitment to public service into question.  Ost (2015) describes the popular expectations of the political class that presided over capitalist reforms in post-Soviet Europe.  The politicians who implemented reforms excused, if not sanctioned, the emergence of inequality as an expected part of market reforms.  They assumed implicit ownership over the process of restructuring and its consequences. 

            The Baltics were successful in creating market economies fueled by heavy foreign investment, but a minority of the population disproportionately benefited from the reforms.  Lithuania’s income inequality is among the highest in Europe, reaching a height of 22.9% in 2017 with little improvement since (EAPN 2018; BNS 2020).  Roughly one third of the country’s pensioners live in some form of poverty.[3]  Market liberalization and the decline of small-scale agriculture have had a significant impact on the country’s large rural population.  Local community was heavily invested in the achievements and glorification of farmers before market reforms exposed rural economies to foreign investment and industrialization and drained their relative wealth (Klumbytė 2010).  The loss of both a sense of community and the resources to support organization have contributed to individuals’ disassociation from the new civic space and inhibited their development as competent participants (Dahl 1992).  Citizens are disinvested in the economy, and they are cognizant of their separation from the state.

            Their lack of political networks with each other and with parties aggravates this distance without presenting an obvious means of participation.  Those who are most affected by inequality lack the resources to self-organize effectively.  This was apparent when the 2009 financial crash was severe enough to inspire rare moments of protest against the government’s planned austerity measures.[4]  Mass mobilization was used to approach the state directly, but it was ineffective without underlying networks between voters and parties.  The conservative TS government encountered this opposition outside its party structure and did not experience the pressure that could be exerted by active citizens who express themselves along internal party channels.  In what has become a recurring theme, voters outed the ruling party when the opportunity presented itself in 2012 with little real effect.  The Social Democrats who replaced them continued the same policies.[5]  The government’s inability to address inequality with any level of efficacy has created a lasting crisis of output legitimacy for the ruling parties.  Compounding this is that voters are unable to exert real pressure, and unpopular policies transcend elections.

            Both inequality and corruption are identified with the elected politicians who introduce the market system and who now exploit their positions to profit from it.  Government transparency has improved since joining the EU in 2004, but corruption is still common (TI 2020).  The anti-corruption legislation required for acceptance into the EU helped to dramatically reduce the low-level bureaucratic bribery that was common in the Soviet Union, but it has shifted it upward to higher levels of government (Åslund 2017).  Corporate corruption is extremely common with high-ranking politicians to the extent that it is sometimes practiced openly by political appointees.[6]  Those who engage in it reinforce their exclusive ownership of the market system that they helped create and the economic inequality that it sustains.  Foreign-owned Alstom Power is alleged to have paid up to 1.5 million euros in bribes to Economy Minister Viktor Uspaskich between 2002 and 2010.[7]  In one of the country’s most damaging cases, the MG Baltic corporation used systematic bribery to penetrate deeply into government (Cerniauskas 2017).  The company bought influence with members of all major parties and allegedly gained full control of the Liberal Movement Party.[8]

            Corruption is not tolerated by the public and those who vote actively seek to purge it when it is exposed.  However, they only enforce accountability retrospectively by removing politicians after they have abused power.  The chairman of the Liberals Movement Eligius Masiulis was one of the country’s most popular politicians and was considered a presumptive frontrunner to become the next Prime Minister (Navickas 2017).  The allegation that he received a 100,000 euro cash bribe from MG Baltic forced him to resign and derailed his political ambitions.  Scandals like this are hugely important to levels of public trust.  The regularity with which new ones emerge has led voters to become more despondent about the state of democracy and their ability to play a meaningful role in the system. 

VII. Electoral Volatility

            The public has gradually become more invested in protest parties as an alternative to those who have held power.  Their choices reflect the growing distance between the public and elected government and the advance of democratic hollowing is apparent in the embrace of volatile voting patterns (Mair 2006).  When voters choose outside parties, they are often quick to dispose of them in the next election cycle.  The short-lived National Revival Party (TPP) was founded by a television producer and his celebrity colleagues who campaigned on the premise that even media personalities would make better politicians than those in power (Navickas 2017).  TPP won 16 seats in the 2008 parliament, and promptly disappeared.  In the following 2012 election, voters turned to the anti-pedophile Way of Courage party created to bring national attention to a specific criminal incident.[9]  Without professing any other ideology, the party won 8% of the national vote and gained 7 seats in parliament.  Outsider parties have adapted to recognize voter outrage, but even they have not opened themselves up as conduits for real deliberation.  Their platforms are also developed internally, if at all, and presented to voters with minimal consultation.

            This pattern has continued with the 2016 success of LVŽS.  Voters sought another protest party in the aftermath of MG Baltic, and party leader Karbauskis provided an attractive alternative that won 56 seats to become the largest party in parliament (Valentinavicius 2017).  The Farmers party is not technically new to national politics, but it previously had only marginal, fleeting success as an agricultural-interest party.  Karbauskis reorganized the group as a self-declared non-political party and recruited a diverse coalition of popular leaders with the intention of creating a “government of experts” (Navickas 2017).  The movement is the pinnacle example of a successful party in Mair’s hollow democracy.  Having become isolated from familiar parties, constituents search for moral or effective candidates without regard to ideology. 

            A combination of sanctioning of candidates and the selection of appropriate representatives is inherent in an electoral democracy (Fearon 1999).  The voters in Lithuania rely on sanctioning as an accountability mechanism because they are mostly disconnected from the selection process.  While they have the legal opportunity to participate in party systems, the majority never have, and many of the rest have pulled back.  The opportunity for selection then occurs in general elections, but by this point the pool of available candidates has been narrowed by parties themselves.  Citizens have forfeited the primary selection process to organized parties.  Without active engagement, they leave the prospect of voting for an agreeable candidate up to chance.  The notable electoral success of LVŽS was a result of Karbauskis’s personal skill in selecting candidates who did appeal to voters as moral actors.  The National Resurrection Party boasted none of the qualifications that the former officials of LVŽS could, but they still managed to gain a foothold in parliament.  When selection occurs, it is within the framework presented to voters. 

            Now in power, members of LVŽS have engaged in the same cycle of corruption and continued to erode public confidence.  Karbauskis is the owner of agricultural conglomerate Agrokoncernas, and he has been the subject of numerous investigations since assuming office.  The members of LVŽS are diverse, but Karbauskis is a prototypical oligarch who has been directly contributed to the country’s vast inequality.  A 2006 agricultural regulation was designed to combat the centralization of agriculture by limiting land ownership to 500 hectares.  Karbauskis avoided the regulation by dividing his company’s 22,000 hectares among family members to operate as subsidiaries (Davidonyte and Cerniauskas 2018).  In addition, he has used this subsidized structure to absorb the property of farmers indebted to Agrokoncernas and consolidate his own wealth and power in the sector. 

            Part of the reason that LVŽS was successful as an anti-establishment party was based on its appeal to the disaffected rural population.  Karbauskis has made it more difficult for his own base to engage with him by depleting their resources and increasing the organizational costs of deliberation (Dahl 1992).  By disengaging with the electorate, he has also left them without leadership.  Voters turned to Karbauskis as an outsider, but they are not loyal to him personally or to his party.  Individual party members can still be popular despite their affiliation with the party because voters also recognize that its members are as disconnected from LVŽS philosophically as they are.  Karbauskis himself is somewhat closer in nature to the political class that he campaigned against than most of the technocrats that he recruited to fill party ranks. 

            Voters in a hollow democracy recognize party elites like Karbauskis as transitory and disposable (Mair 2006).  Despite his seniority, he is arguably one of the least valuable candidates to the electorate and his popularity began to decline immediately after he took office.[10]  His support base is already tenuous, and his actions have typecast him in the same aloof role as other politicians.  Agrokoncernas has been the subject of multiple corruption investigations, including the failure to disclose foreign acquisitions per campaign finance laws.[11]  In another incident, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs launched an investigation into whether or not Karbauskis posed a threat to national security after his company imported fertilizer by a Putin ally under sanction.[12]  Karbauskis was cleared of wrong-doing in the latter incident, but the stigma of a state investigation is not helpful among his other scandals.  LVŽS rallied around MP Karbauskis in 2018 to prevent opposition from launching an investigation into his company’s abuse of land ownership restrictions and exploitation of EU subsidies.[13]  The party itself has placed its political control at risk by engaging in the same activity that their voters are known to sanction.  Voters have lost any assurance that even the peripheral parties they elect share their same interest in accountable democracy (Mair 2006). 

VIII. NGOs as Party Alternatives

            Withdrawal will continue as long as these patterns are repeated and leave citizens deprived of the networks that could be used to sharpen their competence.  NGOs should be an alternative means for citizens to organize outside of political parties (Scarrow 2002), but they are affected by many of the same problems.  The quantity of organized groups has increased significantly since independence while participation has dwindled.  Somewhere between 10-14% of citizens were estimated to be active in civic organizations in 2011 compared to the 22% of 1990 (Ziliukaite 2012).  With likely half of the number of participants, the number of NGOs rose from 1,300 to 22,250 between 1994 and 2011.  The groups that exist are shallow and ineffective without the members to fill them.

            These organizations should provide a venue for citizens to engage with policy specialists as an entry point into the complexity of governance (Dahl 1992).  NGOs provide citizens with an enhanced space to engage with each other and formulate better-informed preferences based on their expanded connections.  The intermediary space that they occupy between voters and politicians should be used both to provide representation and enhance civil competence without parties to provide these functions.  Their potential is undermined by the dominance of organizations created by businesses or municipal leaders.  These top-down groups are often created to capture EU or government resources and are hollow for the same reasons that parties are.  They are treated much the same as a result and the effects on public confidence penetrate into the entire sector.  Half of the population does not trust the integrity of NGOs (Ziliukaite 2012).  This is actually a marked improvement over previous years, but personal donations to these groups have dropped (CSW 2019).

            The grassroots organizations with the potential to enhance civic engagement are dramatically underfunded and unable to conduct active outreach.  In 2010, 90% of NGOs had four or fewer staff and lacked the financial or structural capacity for expansion (Ziliukaite 2012).  Their potential to build civil networks and competence are trapped without a sudden surge in participation akin to the one seen at independence.  As Ost (2018) suggests, it is not enough for entry-level participants and small groups to launch a civic revolution on their own.  They require the support of better resourced organizations to uphold enthusiasm long enough to transform into a self-sustaining movement.  The fragmented grassroots NGOs lack the opportunity to pool resources in their current form, and they are enfeebled by non-participation.  Average citizens have lost sense of their role in this arena as well.

IX. Technocratization: Outsourcing Democracy

            Technocrats are considered the final alternative to unresponsive partisans and voters turn to these leaders based on their faith that they can provide effective governance (Mair 2006).  There is a disconnect between elections and quality governance in the public consciousness.  Voter turnout for European elections is low, but popular support for the EU is second only to Poland’s (Wike et al. 2019) despite the fact that its democratic elements are not considered useful.  The output legitimacy of the EU is more highly valued than the perceived absence of democratic legitimacy.  The elevation of democratic processes above the state level is one of the modern challenges to civil competence (Dahl 1992), and the prevalence of liberal values in the EU structure has benefitted Lithuanian society without requiring participation from average citizens.  The expectation that the European Union can be relied on to provide individual liberties from above the state (Voigt 2013) contributes to hollowing by validating democratic outsourcing.  The implication for domestic politics is that Lithuanians are more receptive to the legitimacy of effective civil servants than they are to elected politicians who have failed to deliver representative government.

            Besides the success of LVŽS technocrats, independents with bureaucratic backgrounds have dominated presidential elections for far longer with Paksas as the exception.[14]  The nation’s presidents are specifically elected because of their apolitical backgrounds and they are generally held in high regard for the same reasons in office.  Former banker and economist Nausėda achieved an approval rating of 85% in 2019 without any prior political experience.[15]  The presidency’s distance from domestic affairs is not the only reason voters prefer these figures.  Prime Minister Skvernelis is one of the nation’s most popular officials as the head of the legislature, but he won the position based on his own bureaucratic record as the Minister of Interior.[16]

            Lithuanian bureaucracy is not democratic, but it has the moral authority and output legitimacy that politicians have lost.  The civil service was designed in a meritocratic, career-based model that is relatively resistant to internal corruption (Palidauskaite, Pevkur, and Reinholde 2010).  Setting aside politically appointed Ministers, government positions are earned by qualified advancement rather than through open positions, and strict hiring practices make nepotism difficult.  A 2003 addendum to the Law on Public Service established the breach of public duties or ethics as grounds for administrative dismissal and the supremacy of law and transparency were codified in a set of guiding principles for civil servants. 

            This lends to the attractiveness of civil servants as candidates.  Those who persist in the system have proven themselves to meet the ethical standards of government held by society.  Those who rise through the ranks further show a measure of competence.  In a country where unknown candidates flood elections, an honorable service record is a huge advantage for their selection.  However, the glorification of bureaucrats is based on the false premise that the public does not have any impact on the civil service.  Popular disdain for corruption is more likely to reach the daily lives of civil servants than the more distant political class, and the public is unaware of the importance of even limited, passive pressure for enforcing social values.  Voters only recognize that their version of electoral oversight has been ineffective. 

Government without Politicians

            Entrusting the state to elected experts, no matter how effective they are, will impede the development of public competence.  Dahl (1992) considers all policy areas to have become sufficiently complex in modern societies as to require a deep level of expertise that is often narrow.  The best qualified officials to act as authorities in a given area are not well suited to reach outside of their paradigm.  These officials might be competent civil servants, but technocrats lack the generalist skill to negotiate policy development between sectors.  This role is normally provided by elected politicians who gain office based on their ability to mediate specialized interests.  The deliberative space between citizens and officials is already vapid in Lithuania.  If voters commit themselves to choosing policy experts over politicians, they erode effective deliberation within government as well. 

            The limitations of the country’s closed administrative tradition are apparent compared to more inclusive systems.  The creation of an EU-directed strategy for sustainable development was comparatively inferior in the bureaucratic Lithuanian system because centralized planners failed to engage with private or municipal stakeholders (Mžavanadze 2009).  Ineffective politicians lack legitimacy with voters now, but there are still limits to the capacity of an elected technocracy.  Effective government without civic engagement is still disconnected from popular demands and will drift further away from democratic practices.  The expertise of insular technocrats is far enough removed from the general public (Dahl 1992) that their dominance in government is likely to create greater distance between voters and government.  Both sides must come closer together to develop a sustainable civil society.

X. Democratic Prospects

            Democratic hollowing can only be reversed with the restoration of civic engagement.  While citizens remain disengaged, government has taken the lead to restore public trust.  Many politicians have newly taken it upon themselves to increase transparency.  Close to 60% of MPs voluntarily reported their meeting with interest groups and lobbyists in 2018, nearly doubling the number from the year before.[17]  Unelected bureaucrats have taken initiative to address corruption through community outreach.  The Special Investigation Service promotes an anti-corruption program to engage with everyone from high-school students to active politicians and government employees (Palidauskaite, Pevkur, and Reinholde 2010). Prevention officers from these agencies have been installed in government Ministries and have made slow progress in identifying and prosecuting corruption.[18]  Political pressure by high ranking politicians has at times been useful for ousting corrupt ministers as well.  President Grybauskaitė’s intervention in 2018 finally prompted the Minister of Agriculture to resign after violating land use limits and misusing EU farming subsidies, despite resistance from LVŽS.[19]  However, similar pressure campaigns are still typically ineffective against elected officials.

            Reforms to increase corporate transparency were introduced in 2018 for the nation to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  State corporation boards that were formerly dominated by partisans were fully depoliticized.[20]  These reforms follow measures taken in 2012 to limit the influence of corporations in party politics.  In an attempt to restore the accessibility of parties, corporate donations were banned entirely in 2012.[21]   Prior to this, private corporations accounted for the majority of funding for mainstream parties, regardless of their professed ideology.  Party funding is now largely restricted to a combination of membership fees, individual donations, and state funding.

            These are positive steps toward creating a civil sphere, but there is a long way yet to go for an active civil society to consolidate.  In the meantime, progress will depend on the preservation of the formal structures that exist now.  The rise of LVŽS is often presented as the nearest equivalent to parties like PiS and Fidesz.  LVŽS is well represented in government leadership, but it is still far from achieving the single-party domination that has made democratic backsliding possible in these countries.  There are still some notable parallels regarding their leadership that deserve attention to highlight their differences.  Karbauskis’s use of Agrokoncernas to capture EU finding is a move that closely resembles similar action in backsliding Hungary (Gebrekidan, Apuzo, and Novak 2019).  Unlike Orbán, Karbauskis did not manipulate the subsidy system to benefit a network of party loyalists.  He has worked instead for the enrichment of himself and the personal family members who operate his unofficial holdings (Davidonyte and Cerniauskas 2018).  This is a subtle difference, but it is the difference between an aspiring autocrat and a kleptocrat. 

            Party leader Karbauskis and PM Skvernelis have both expressed support for the illiberal Polish regime or its actions at different times.  Skvernelis praised PiS as an example for his own party to follow[22] and Karbauskis has to some extent imitated the informal strategy of PiS leader Kaczyński.  The Polish leader has been effective in directing PiS from the party’s sidelines, shielding him from the political repercussions of policy and actions taken by government leaders.  Karbauskis likewise chose to defer leadership while he continued to operate as a representative of parliament, but he does not exercise the same command of his party (Davidonyte and Cerniauskas 2018).  Karbauskis delegated the role of Seimas Speaker to LVŽS recruit Viktoras Pranckietis.  In 2019, he led a failed initiative to remove Pranckietis from his post and revealed how limited his control over the ruling coalition really is.[23]  PM Skvernelis is also regarded as a party leader,[24] but his policy frequently conflicts with Karbauskis’s and his hypothetical departure is often speculated to split the party.[25]  The structure of LVŽS is more fragile than that of PiS or Fidesz since it is bound neither by well-defined leadership nor by ideology.

            Despite its size, LVŽS is still a protest party that does not represent a well-defined or active constituency.  It will not be possible for LVŽS to consolidate power in the Visegrád model without loyal supporters and the number of scandals that Karbauskis himself has been involved in make it likely that he will become a victim of the same sanctioning as the incumbents that he has helped displace.  The party’s current iteration is still in its first term and its longevity will not be known until the October 2020 election.  The regular rotation of these parties is emblematic of a hollow democracy, and Lithuania has years of precedent to indicate that this trend will continue.  LVŽS is unlikely to be an exception.  It does not have positive appeal to voters who are as uninvested in this party as they are to any other.  Within a year of its gains in the 2016 election, the party’s popularity fell to less than 13%.[26] 

            The continued rotation of power is the most effective form of accountability in Lithuania.  The Agrokoncernas scandals have not been resolved in the current government, but parties still demand transparency from their opponents[27] and make it possible for detached voters to at least identify and sanction wrongdoing.  It is reasonable to believe that oversight will continue as long as parties continue to alternate power and administrative departments can operate with autonomy.  The trend of independent presidents has appeared to balance partisanship and corruption in the Seimas, but this particular safeguard is directly connected to individual leaders. 

            Clearly defined legal procedures in combination with the absence of civil participation have ironically worked together to maintain the status quo in Lithuania.  Constitutional amendments require referendum approval by a simple majority of registered voters.  The system was institutionalized during the independence movement when civic engagement was at its height.  The earliest referendums drew high turnout to declare independence, demand the ejection of Russian soldiers, and to approve the new constitution.  Today, low participation blocks substantive change for better or for worse.  An immensely popular amendment to allow Lithuanians abroad to hold dual citizenship was approved by over 70% of those who voted in 2019, but the roughly 50% turnout translated to 38% of the total electorate.[28]  The design of the Lithuanian system relies on an active civil society to even dismantle it from within.  Formal institutions are unlikely to be altered dramatically in their current state, and may provide some protection against democratic breakdown occurring before the possible emergence of a robust civil society.


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