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Lithuanian President Nauseda: A socialist and moralist

Konstantin Eggert
May 26, 2024

Long thought to be a lightweight, newly reelected President Gitanas Nauseda is now Lithuania's most popular politician. An independent, he's economically liberal but holds conservative views on LGBTQ issues and abortion.

Gitanas Nauseda speaking into reporters' microphones, smiling
Gitanas Nauseda won Lithuania's presidential election in May 2024Image: Ints Kalnins/REUTERS

The image of Gitanas Nauseda as "tall and handsome" became something of a meme on social media back in 2019 when he won the Lithuanian presidential election for the first time.

But it was a bit of a double-edged compliment. As the chief economist of a bank for many years, he was viewed by many as outwardly impressive but politically insignificant.

Five years later, the 60-year-old from the port city of Klaipeda is Lithuania's most popular politician. On May 26, he was reelected in a runoff for a second term . His opponent — as in 2019 — was the current Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte of the center-right Homeland Union (TS-LKD), who conceded soon after the vote count began.

Lithuania's president is popular and independent

"Nauseda has benefited in part from the fact that the government under Simonyte is unpopular," said political scientist Lauras Bielinis from Kaunas University. The president has repeatedly criticized the cabinet, something that many voters like, she added.

The coalition government, made up of the TS-LKD and two liberal parties, managed to lead the country out of the economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, salaries and pensions have been rising, but so have the price of goods and rent. Most citizens have blamed the government for this increase.

Lithuania's Prime Minister Ingrida Simonyte, a presidential candidate, casts her vote at a polling station
The conservative government under Ingrida Simonyte (right) is unpopularImage: picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Nauseda has also taken a stand on social issues. Bielinis said the president has positioned himself as a head of state who is free of political parties, often using his speeches over the last five years to convey the message of working for the common good. 

The president was able to connect with "the most diverse strata of society" in both urban and rural areas, said Vilnius University political scientist Ramunas Vilpisauskas. Only in the capital, Vilnius, do politicians from the conservative TS-LKD and liberal parties have more support than the head of state.

"Nauseda's views on the economy are actually left wing and he advocates a welfare state. But when it comes to morality, he is more to the right," said Vilpisauskas.

Catholic and anti-LGBTQ+

Nauseda holds conservative Catholic views on abortion and LGBTQ+ issues. When representatives of the coalition parties introduced a bill on same-sex partnerships to parliament a few years ago, they met with protest from parts of the population. Nauseda supported the opponents, albeit cautiously.

Critics have said Nauseda has kept that issue off the agenda for many years. "If it comes up again, Nauseda will seek a compromise, but we can't expect him to make any concessions," said Bielinis.

Polls predict that the ruling alliance of conservatives and liberals will be defeated in parliamentary elections this fall, with a new coalition of social democrats and the conservative-green Farmers and Greens Union taking power.

Observers believe Nauseda will more easily find common ground with these lawmakers on economic and social issues. Unlike most European social democratic parties, Lithuanian social democrats and farmers are quite conservative in their views on morality.

For Lithuania, Warsaw is closer than Brussels

In Lithuania, the prime minister administers domestic policy, while the president deals with foreign affairs. Both politicians and the public largely agree that Russian President Vladimir Putin and China are enemies, that the United States is the country's most important ally and that NATO membership guarantees security. Since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia eight years later, support for Kyiv has been a cross-party consensus issue in Lithuanian politics.

Polish President Andrzej Duda (l), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (m), and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda (r) in Kiev in 2023
Polish President Andrzej Duda (left), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (center), and Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda met in Kyiv in June 2023Image: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

Immediately after his first inauguration in 2019, Nauseda took an unexpected step, making his first official visit not to Brussels to shore up European Union relations, as his predecessors had done, but to Warsaw to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The two countries have no shortage of bilateral ties. For two centuries, until the early modern period, Poland-Lithuania existed as a joint republic. Between the world wars, Poland occupied the Lithuanian region of Vilnius, and there are still disputes over the rights of the Polish minority in Lithuania.

Nauseda has attached great importance to ongoing cooperation with Poland, something that paid off when Russia invaded Ukraine. Today, Warsaw considers the two countries' security to be inextricably linked.

Nauseda: good relations with Trump and NATO

Nauseda is patient and persistent in his relationship with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. And like Simonyte's cabinet, he wants a Bundeswehr brigade stationed in Lithuania as soon as possible to increase the country's importance on NATO's eastern flank.

Germany to station 4,000 troops in Lithuania

When it comes to US relations, Nauseda has found common ground with both former President Donald Trump and current incumbent Joe Biden. Should Trump return to the White House, Lithuania may find favor with Trump, as the country spends more than 2.5% of its gross domestic product on defense, exceeding the agreed 2% target for NATO partners frequently referenced by Trump.

Taking on antisemites and Putin supporters

In terms of domestic policy, Nauseda will face major challenges in his second term of office. For the first time since Lithuania regained its independence over 30 years ago, a politician who has expressed antisemitic views, Remigijus Zemaitaitis, has entered the country's political stage.

Zemaitaitis received 9.2% of the vote in the first round of the presidential election, and candidates from his right-wing nationalist party Dawn of Nemunas could enter parliament in the fall.

And then there is the pro-Kremlin presidential candidate Eduardas Vaitkus, who has called for the country to abandon its support for Ukraine and for Vilnius to recognize Crimea as Russian territory and reach an agreement with Putin. He achieved an average of 7.3% in the election. However, around Vilnius, where many Poles live, as well as in the predominantly Russian-speaking city of Visaginas, Vaitkus received more than 40% support.

"Unfortunately, a section of our society — fortunately not the majority — has not understood and accepted the political and social changes of the past three decades," said political scientist Bielinis.

Nauseda has already taken a stand on the success of Zemaitaitis and Vaitkus, saying their voters are "our citizens" and they must be addressed.

"That's exactly the job of the president, to communicate with people and convince them," he said.

This article was originally written in Russian.