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Lithuania votes – or does it?

Date: 13 May 2003

Champagne all round on the night of 11th May, 2003, as Lithuanians voted to endorse membership of the EU. Officially, 91% had approved the move on a  turn out of 67%.  But there were some bumpy moments along the way, as it looked, for a time, as though few were voting in the two-day nationwide referendum. Since at least 50% of the voters had to participate in the poll for it to be valid the turnout was at least as important as the “Yes” or “No” choice. In fact, as voting ended on 10th May, the first day of polling, only 30.6% of the electorate had voted, including 7.6% postal votes. If enthusiasts for EU entry had already had the opportunity to vote, how many more would appear at the polls on Day 2?

Focus on Turnout as Lithuania Votes on EU Entry

VILNIUS (Reuters) – Lithuanians resume voting on Sunday in a referendum on EU entry expected to give huge support for membership, but low turnout threatens to spoil the party. …

The two-day referendum needs a 50 percent turnout to be valid and the former Soviet republic has seen a frantic campaign over the past week urging people to vote.

Turnout figures from the election committee showed 23 percent of voters had cast their ballots by the end of voting on Saturday, and with 7.6 percent voting by post a total 30.6 percent had participated ahead of Sunday’s final day of polling.

Political analyst Raimundas Lopata said hopes had been raised by the postal voting. “But now the figures are less encouraging,” he added.

President Rolandas Paksas put on a brave face, saying: “The situation is under control, and given the turnout level we see at this moment I think we will be able to cross the barrier.”

He said the turnout was being followed minute-by-minute and hinted that measures might be taken on Sunday to prevent a flop. [BHHRG itals] On Saturday, special buses were operating in Vilnius suburbs taking voters to polling centers.

Government sources told Reuters political leaders were near panic behind closed doors.

Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas told Reuters: “It’s going to be hard to sleep peacefully, but I would not say the situation is tragic.”

Opinions polls suggest turnout will be just above 50 percent. They also show about two thirds of Lithuanians favor joining, with the naysayers trailing at just 13 percent. ….

Many see the Lithuania vote as a critical test ahead of referendums in Slovakia next week and Poland in June, which have similar turnout requirements and struggle with voter apathy. …

Polls reopen at 6 a.m. on Sunday (11 p.m. EDT Saturday). Preliminary results are expected two to three hours after polls close at 10 p.m. on Sunday (3 p.m. EDT). 

By Bryan Bradley 

 May 10, 8:06 p.m. ET 

By 10 a.m. on Sunday, 11th  May, 4 hours after the polls re-opened – Reuters reported that the numbers actually voting in person had jumped to 27.8% (from the day before’s 23%)  which meant that from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. another 4.8% (excluding the postal votes that had already been accounted for) had turned out to vote. It wasn’t promising.

Reuters reported on Sunday:

The two-day referendum needs half the electorate to cast their ballots to be valid and the ex-Soviet republic has seen a frantic campaign over the past week urging people to vote.

Turnout figures from the election committee showed 27.8 percent of voters had cast ballots by 10 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Sunday, four hours after polls reopened, and postal votes of 7.6 percent brought the total participating to 35.4 percent.

Polls close at 10 p.m., with the first results expected two to three hours later.

“Turnout this morning is almost the same as yesterday,” committee chief Zenonas Vaigauskas told Reuters.

Asked if he expected turnout to fall short of the threshold, he said: “It’s hard to say, time will tell.”

But, four hours later, by 2.49 p.m., another 17.8% had voted – nearly as many as voted in person during the whole day on 10th May. Without waiting for the polls to close, the pro-European government started to celebrate – there seemed no question that any significant number of those who had been encouraged (cajoled?) to go out to the polls might have voted ‘no’. 

Lithuania Voters Seen Supporting EU Bid

.c The Associated Press

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) – Lithuania’s two-day referendum to join the European Union received enough votes to become valid Sunday, boosting chances the country will become the first former Soviet republic to vote itself into the bloc.

Election officials said nearly 60 percent of the nation’s 2.7 million registered voters had cast ballots – exceeding the required 50 percent minimum. Results of the referendum are expected late Sunday night at the earliest, although pre-referendum opinion polls showed overwhelming support for joining the EU.

Supporters of joining the EU exulted in the new figures after Saturday results showed that just 30 percent of registered voters had cast ballots. After Saturday’s turnout, Lithuania’s staunchly pro-EU leaders urged residents to go to the polls on the referendum’s final day…. 
Associated Press Writer Liudas Dapkas contributed to this report.

11th May,  Posted 2.49pm Lithuanian time

And, why wait for the votes to be counted …

VILNIUS, May 11 (Reuters) – Lithuanian leaders, hoping to win solid backing to join the European Union, got a crucial break on Sunday as turnout in a two-day EU poll crept above a key 50-percent requirement about midway through the voting day.

The small Baltic country is one of 10 mostly ex-communist states hoping to join the 15-nation EU in May next year.

The two-day referendum needs half the electorate to cast their ballots to be valid and the ex-Soviet republic has seen a frantic campaign over the past week urging people to vote.

“As the day is not over yet, it looks like we will be able to celebrate,” a committee spokeswoman told Reuters, adding that results by 2 p.m.]  showed participation at about 50 percent. [BHHRG itals.  – notice that there was no question of counting the votes before knowing on the result]

Polls show about two thirds of Lithuanians favour joining the EU, with naysayers trailing at just 13 percent.

Preliminary figures from the election committee showed about 42.5 percent of voters had cast ballots by 2 p.m. (1100 GMT) on Sunday, eight hours before polls close. Postal votes of 7.6 percent brought the total participating just above 50 percent.

Voter activity jumped around midday on Sunday, with analysts saying the low turnout had given the electorate a sense of urgency previously lacking in a one-sided campaign.

“We were out of town yesterday, but saw the low turnout on TV and knew we had to come back and vote,” said Elena, a middle-aged doctor, after voting with her family in Vilnius.

While President Rolandas Paksas had put on a brave face after Saturday’s poor showing at the polls, saying he expected turnout to cross 50 percent, government sources told Reuters that political leaders had been near panic behind closed doors.

But Lithuanians suffer from political fatigue after more than a decade of post-Soviet reforms that have propelled the country of 3.5 million to the doorstep of NATO and the EU, and massive campaigning failed to create much enthusiasm. ….

A thumbs-up in Lithuania would be seen as a positive signal before Polish and Slovakian polls, and would give a boost to pro-EU camps in its more euro-sceptic Baltic neighbours Latvia and Estonia ahead of referendums in September, analysts say.

The first voting results are expected two to three hours after polls close at 10 p.m.

[As reported by Bryan Bradley on 11th May, 2003, at  08:10 ET.]

No-one bothered to count the votes before determining what the  validating turnout of 50%+ meant.  Yet predicting Lithuanian elections had not always been so easy.

BHHRG had noted a dramatic sea change in the complacent belief that the Lithuanian electorate would always do as it was told when Rolandas Paksas was unexpectedly elected the country’s president on 5th January despite all predictions that the incumbent Valdas Adamkus would hold onto office. [see BHHRG: Lithuania’s Winter of Discontent: Presidential election 2003] Mr. Adamkus was supposed to be very popular for leading Lithuania into NATO and  the EU. However, on the ground, BHHRG found little enthusiasm for the former US government official. Turnout in both rounds of the election was low – circa 53%.

Lithuania was assumed to be the most “enthusiastic” candidate country from the three Baltic States, therefore, its referendum was held first. When the presidential election demonstrated that even the best laid plans could go wrong, the Lithuanian government changed the rules so that voting took  place over a two day period rather than the normal one. Why this should be necessary in a small country with 2.6 m. voters was not explained. However, it meant that “measures” could be taken if things looked bleak at the end of day one to, as it were, put them right on day two. Lo and behold, this is what happened.

According to the head of the central election office in Vilnius, local priests urged their congregations to cast their votes on leaving church that Sunday morning, something which must have resulted in a rush to the polling stations as by lunchtime the magic 50% threshold had been crossed.

“The church is important to activate, as Lithuania is a very Catholic country, and leaders need to get out and tell people their future is in danger,” Central Election Committee chief Zenonas Vaigauskas told Reuters. 

“Religion and nationalism are the only things able to mobilise people quickly, and now they have to use that to get Lithuania into the EU,” he added. 

Who knows – perhaps this is what happened. But suspicions remain. For one thing, the Catholic church had been urging its flock to vote ‘yes’ for some time so, why did the message only get home on the morning of Sunday 11th May? BHHRG also concluded that the image of Lithuania as a Polish-style community of the faithful is much off the mark. There are few churches in the countryside and regular worship is fitful after 70 years of Soviet-imposed  “scientific atheism”.

It might also be asked: Is it  right  for priests to urge their congregations to vote at all while an election is underway?  An even more egregious example of such a breach of any normal election rules occurred on the night of 10th May – in the middle of the poll – when the president, prime minister and chairman of parliament had all come on state television and urged people to go out and vote – yes, of course.

Lithuanian Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas even canceled a planned visit to Estonia to campaign for voter turnout.

“This is not an ordinary election where people are voting for a new parliament or government,” he said in a nationwide broadcast late Saturday. “This is something that only happens once in the history of a nation. We lose this opportunity and we might regret it later.”

President Rolandas Paksas and Parliamentary Speaker Arturas Paulauskas also made public appeals.

[See:  “Lithuania Voters Seen Supporting EU Bid” by MICHAEL TARM of  Associated Press.]

The Prague-based Transitions On-line carried a striking report on 12th May confirming the President’s prescience when it reported  that “After he and his family voted on Saturday morning [10th May], President Rolandas Paksas  accurately predicted turnout would reach 64 percent.” In this extraordinarily volatile poll, the President was preternaturally precise about turnout.

Transitions On-line also reported that the biggest supermarket chain the Baltic States, VP Market had offered a discount to anyone bringing into its stores an “I’ve already voted” sticker. Since this was an either/or poll with a minimum threshold, to vote was itself to take sides (since abstention defied  the Establishment without openly taking sides against Lithuania’s ruling elite)   and therefore a discount was an inducement to take sides in reality for the ruling point of view. According to ToL :”national television… showed large crowds waiting for the promised goods.”

BHHRG can confirm that apathy in Lithuania towards all government initiatives is widespread. People have lost faith in promises of a better life for, despite the hype,  thousands of ordinary people in the country have no work and no hope. For them EU entry will be just another disappointment. Also, many are aware that much of the economic pain they have suffered already is brought about by government policies to prepare them for EU entry. Enthusiasm for Europe comes from young people who see it as a golden opportunity to leave the country and work abroad. According to a recent report about callers to a EU help-line in Slovakia …

“..young people were now calling to ask about finding work abroad, especially in Brussels…

“Slovakian hotline for solving EU conundrums”

The Baltic Times May 8-14, 2003

Of course, anti-EU campaigners have had few resources at their disposal. This has been markedly so in the post-Communist applicant countries – only 46% voted in Hungary’s recent EU referendum.  The low turnouts are a reflection of this ‘one-party’ approach.  In Lithuania all the media, political parties, the church and relevant academic experts supported entry. Buses toured the country spouting the EU message and youths dressed as ostriches visited puzzled villagers with the message “ only ostriches hide  … be sure to vote”.

In other words, the result was a foregone conclusion so, why bother?

However, in the New World Order’s desire to present all its decisions as democratic, ‘the people’  are meant to slog out to the polling stations and put their crosses, Soviet-style, against the name of the chosen candidate, party or ‘initiative’. If they don’t “other measures”, to use President Paksas’s sinister expression, will be used to get the right result. One can’t help wondering what those “other measures” were that caused a rush of voters to the polling stations on the morning of Sunday 11th May and brought about the “right result”.

Needless  to say, Lithuania’s neighbours in the queue are watching the example closely.According to Transitions On-line on 12th Maythe head of Latvia’s Central Electoral Commission, Amis Cindaras, “who was present to observe the procedural details of the [Lithuanian] referendum said he was impressed by the special [!] buses provided by the authorities to take rural voters to the nearest polling stations. ‘We should do something similar in Latvia,’ he said.” Lithuania has set the precedent. Who among the candidates to the EU will dare buck the trend?