President of Lithuania Gitanas Nausėda in Lviv. (Image Credit: President of Ukraine Official Photostream | CC0 1.0 DEED)

The Untouchable: Gitanas Nausėda cruises towards re-election

The first round of Lithuania’s presidential election was held this year on the 12th of May. The incumbent President Gitanas Nausėda comfortably won the round with 44% of the votes.  He will face the current Prime Minister and previous presidential opponent Ingrida Šimonytė, in a final round on May 26th, in what is expected to be a trouble-free victory. Despite there being eight candidates and a range of scandals, no one has been able to challenge Nausėda. He has led the pre-election polls with 30-40%, followed by millionaire lawyer Ignas Vėgėle and Šimonytė both polling around 10%.

The election was initially viewed as a popular vote between Šimonytė’s unpopular right-wing government and Nausėda. During Nausėda’s term, they clashed on several occasions, such as the government opening a Taiwanese trade office in Vilnius, disagreements on who should represent Lithuania in the European Council, and the appointment of ambassadors.

However, the candidacy of Ignas Vėgėle, a millionaire lawyer who became a high-profile opponent of COVID-19 restrictions and has profiled himself with populist positions, propelled him to be the main challenger to Nausėda in the polls, overtaking Šimonytė. Also, the late candidacy of Remigijus Žemaitaitis, a highly controversial MP whose anti-semitic remarks had him expelled from both his previous party—  the conservative Freedom and Justice party—and from parliament, made the expected Nausėda-Šimonytė rematch less likely. But Šimonytė was eventually able to remain the top main challenger to Nausėda, receiving just under 20% against Vėgėle’s 12%.

The Lithuanian PM Ingrida Šimonytė visited the Luhansk Oblast and met with the Ukrainian PM Denys Shmyhal on February 11, 2022, before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine (Image Credit: Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine | Wikimedia Commons | CC BY 4.0 DEED)

Nauseda’s status as a high-profile banker and political outsider helped him win the presidential elections in 2019. He promised to strengthen the welfare state and tackle poverty. Having the majority of his support from small towns and the countryside in 2019 and currently. Ignas Vėgėle criticised him for using the presidency and public funds to campaign in Lithuania’s rural areas.

Nausėda has had an unclear stance on LGBTQ+ issues throughout his term, leading to the eventual legalisation of same-sex partnerships—a dominant topic in Lithuania. He has taken a somewhat unclear position on the topic over the last year but indicated that he will not sign any laws that make same-sex partnerships too similar to traditional marriages. During the middle of his term, Nausėda took clearer positions on other LGBTQ+ issues. When a law designating information about LGBTQ+ relationships as harmful to children was to be repealed, he called it a ‘’green light to denigrate family’’. He also supported Hungary in the European Council over a similar law and sent a video message to the Family Defence March— a rally organised by the right-wing Lithuanian Family Movement—in May 2021, endorsing a traditional definition of marriage. Having been criticised for this by domestic and foreign LGBTQ+ groups, there still seems to be majority support in Lithuania for Nausėda’s position on same-sex partnerships.

As the President of Lithuania, the largest Baltic country, Nausėda could be considered the most powerful Baltic leader today. Unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania has a semi-presidential system where the President is the main foreign policy leader. In this position, Lithuania and Nausėda personally, alongside Estonia and its Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, have become two of the most vocal, visible and trusted supporters of Ukraine. Nausėda also hosted Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and US President Joe Biden, among others, during last summer’s NATO summit in Vilnius. Biden even gave a speech at Vilnius University, in which he praised Lithuania’s and the other Baltic countries’ leadership in supporting Ukraine—the summit was declared a success by the president’s adviser.

Lithuanian PM Gitanas Nausėda together with the Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Zelenskyy during Zelenskyy’s official visit to Lithuania on January 10, 2024 (Image Credit: President of Ukraine Official Photostream | CC0 1.0 DEED)

Despite Nausėda’s popularity and the unusual amount of visibility given to Lithuania during the last five years, his term has not gone by without personal scandals. Last year it was revealed that Nausėda had failed to disclose his past Communist party membership during the Soviet occupation of Lithuania. Although the cover-up was not illegal, and with communist party memberships not being unusual for politicians of his generation, it has been considered conventional for politicians to disclose this information. During the election campaign, he has also gone against election campaign laws by planning to offer coffee to supporters before being forced to backtrack on this. Most recently, he has been investigated by the parliament for his ties to Belarusian fertiliser companies prior to the 2019 presidential election. A compromising development, given Nausėda’s earlier resistance to EU sanctioning against fertiliser exports from Belarus. 

Despite all of this, nobody has been able to seriously challenge Nausėda and his most probable upcoming second-term re-election. Whether the Belarusian fertiliser scandal will continue to develop into an eventual second term—unless a surprise result takes place on May 26—remains to be seen. The parliament’s investigative commission did not initiate impeachment proceedings against Nausėda, mainly because of the little amount of time left before the election.

Although he has seen many scandals, facing an unpopular Prime Minister in the run-off, having been able to navigate the controversial same-sex partnership issue, and being viewed as a ‘’tall and handsome’’ representative of Lithuania who has led a successful NATO summit and support for Ukraine, Nausėda’s chances of reelection later this month seem almost untouchable. 

By Simon Jyrkäs

May 24, 2024

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