Green wins keep Baltic populism in check – but for how long?

Green wins keep Baltic populism in check – but for how long?
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Do Europe’s Green parties hold the key to curbing the far right? This could certainly be the case in Latvia and Lithuania where Green parties have entered governing coalitions with pro-EU, socially-inclusive and pro-labour policies. Latvia even has the European Union’s first Green president in Raimonds Vejonis, even though he is a somewhat controversial figure on the centre-right of the political spectrum.

In Lithuania, the Union of Peasants and Greens won October’s elections and formed a new government together with Social Democrats. Led by the businessman and philanthropist turned politician Ramunas Karbauskis, the Peasants and Greens won a surprise victory with promises to repeal recent labour liberalisation, tackle the country’s alcohol abuse crisis and introduce progressive taxation.

Dovilė Šakalienė, a Member of Parliament who made a name as a human rights expert and radio host, says she joined the party to further the causes of children’s rights, the inclusion of people with disabilities and suicide prevention.

“I went from being an advisor and critic to a decision-maker,” she told Equal Times. She was amongst those whom the party recruited in an attempt to bridge marginalised rural voters with the younger, left-leaning urban population.

In Latvia a party with a similar name, the Union of Greens and Farmers, is also part of the ruling coalition. The party’s Raimonds Vējonis won the presidency in 2015. This is despite the fact that both Latvia and Lithuania have experienced the sharpest decline in rural populations in the EU.

In Estonia, the Greens are not in the government, but the governing coalition has also avoided including right-wing populists. The government is currently formed of the Centre Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the conservative Pro Patria and Res Publica Union.

The Centre Party is popular amongst the country’s sizable Russian-speaking minority, and its appeal as a coalition partner increased when the party rid itself of its pro-Russian leader, Edgar Savisaar, in favour of Juri Ratas, the former mayor of Tallinn.

Due to ethnic tensions between the Estonian-speaking majority and the country’s sizable Russian-speaking minority, an anti-EU or anti-immigrant stance is not enough to unite ethno-nationalists and pro-Russian anti-establishment politicians. Historically, the Russian minority has been less optimistic about Euro-Atlantic relations, and more likely to be marginalised due to higher unemployment and absence of citizenship for some.

Amidst fears of Russia’s meddling, Baltic voters have turned away from conventional far right parties, preferring centrist parties that promise ‘law and order’. It would be overly optimistic to say that these centre-left parties are immune to populism. But at present, they are refusing to ride the wave that’s rolling over the EU – hostility towards migration and refugees, anti-EU sentiment and promises of political shake-up.

 

Appeasing the working class

The Brexit campaign in the UK along with Donald Trump’s US presidential election victoryhave both been commonly viewed as a working class revolt against the neoliberal order. However, surveys show that Estonians and Lithuanians are amongst the most optimistic about the future of the EU, making Euroscepticism difficult to sell.

In Lithuania, trade unionist Raimondas Tamošauskas, who represents regional unions in the tripartite council, told Equal Times that he was optimistic about the new government. “The first step is delaying putting the new labour code into effect,” he said. The liberal labour reform, similar to that in France, would have entered into force on 1 January 2017, curbing annual leave, introducing zero-hour contracts, and making it easier for companies to fire workers.

Lithuania has the most unequal income distribution in the EU, yet Tamošauskas believes that earlier governments “considered businesspeople to be the only socially disadvantaged group worth government assistance.”

In his words, the new ruling party “listens to trade union concerns”. Several trade unionists hold high positions in the party. Amongst them, deputy chairperson Tomas Tomilinas was an activist of the Trade Union of Salaried Employees, mostly representing retail workers.

Vytautas Bakas, previously from the Officers’ Trade Union, now heads the parliamentary Committee of National Security and Defence. Algirdas Sysas, who heads the Committee on Social Affairs and Labour, used to be the chair of Lithuanian Trade Union Confederation.

However, there is some skepticism about whether electoral promises will be followed up. The first major reform voted by the agrarian Greens in Lithuania was not on taxation or combating social exclusion, but on restricting assisted conception. During the following months, the ruling coalition increased taxes for freelancers and reduced the number of MPs.

Šakalienė, who was against the conception restrictions, believes that disagreements within the party are healthy. “I am a good example of how, when faced with disagreements over hasty decisions, the party leadership reacts immediately and constructively,” she said.

Meanwhile, President Vējonis of Latvia signed controversial amendments to the Education Law last year, which allow for the dismissal of teachers over vaguely defined ‘disloyalty’ to the state. The amendments, which are said to target mostly Russian-speaking teachers, were passed despite pleas from the teachers’ unions.

Freedom of speech has also been in question in Latvia, with new legislation aimed at subversive elements within the Russian minority against a political backdrop of concerns over Russian meddling in domestic politics. Latvia has the largest Russian minority in the Baltic region, comprising about 27 per cent of the population.

Those developments aside, Baltic Greens have helped to keep populist movements at bay by balancing tough, sometimes patronising, action with pragmatic and inclusive policies. A model for the rest of Europe? Given the fact that key elections will be taking place across the continent this year, that concept will be put to rigorous testing.