July 4, 2006

Lithuanian Defence Minister Gediminas Kirkilas has become the Baltic state’s 14th prime minister since independence in 1991 as lawmakers overwhelmingly endorsed his nomination to the key post, ending a weeks-long political crisis.

In an electronic poll, 86 legislators voted for Kirkilas, who was nominated to the post last week by President Valdas Adamkus, 13 voted against and five abstained.

A simple majority of lawmakers who took part in the vote was needed for Kirkilas to get through.

A lawmaker since 1992, Kirkilas was supported not only by his Social Democrat Party and other groupings in a centre-left coalition, which has 53 seats in parliament, but also by the largest party in parliament, Labour.

Labour has 31 seats in parliament, but not all its lawmakers were present for the vote.

Kirkilas will replace fellow Social Democrat Algirdas Brazauskas, who quit in May when his coalition government collapsed after two government ministers from Labour were accused of corruption by Adamkus.

The opposition Social Liberal Party also voted for Kirkilas, while the Conservatives agreed not to take part in the vote — on condition that no members of Labour were named to the cabinet.

Kirkilas has 15 days to form a cabinet, which then has to be approved by the president.

He will start his duties as premier after the single-chamber, 141-seat parliament approves the programme of the new government.

In a speech to his fellow lawmakers before the vote, Kirkilas said the programme of his government would be “built around three trees: education, healthcare and social protection.”

“Economic growth is the soil, which will help the trees to grow,” Kirkilas said.

Joining the European Union’s borderless Schengen area will be high on his future government’s foreign policy agenda, the current defence minister of the new EU and NATO member state said.

Kirkilas’ confirmation as prime minister came after weeks of political flux in Lithuania, which has been dogged by political instability since it regained independence in 1991 as the Soviet Union crumbled.

Last month, Lithuanian lawmakers rejected Adamkus’ previous nominee for the premiership, Kirkilas’ Social Democrat party-mate Zigmantas Balcytis.

Balcytis is the current finance minister and has been acting prime minister since Brazauskas resigned. He only managed to win support in parliament from the centre-left coalition set up by the Social Democrats to try to get his candidacy approved.

“Balcytis was seen by the opposition as the direct successor to Brazauskas, while Kirkilas has no such shadow,” said Alwydas Lukosaitis of the Vilnius Institute for Political Science and International Relations.

“Kirkilas is also helped by his personality: more politicians know him, he is communicative and tends to stand out in a crowd,” Lukosiatis said.

“Finally, the opposition seems to understand that, if they had rejected Kirkilas, the situation would have become very complicated. It seems that nobody wants early elections,” he added.

Although Kirkilas’ election to the premiership was a positive step in resolving Lithuania’s latest political crisis, the road to political stability was not entirely clear of obstacles.

The new prime minister admitted after he was confirmed in office that forming a new government will “not be an easy task.”

The Conservatives said they agreed not to vote against Kirkilas, on condition that Labour is not invited to the new cabinet.

And the National Farmers Union, which is part of the centre-left coalition formed by the Social Democrats, has said it wants three government posts, against the single ministerial portfolio it had in the Brazauskas cabinet.