RIGA - Signatures are now being gathered to conduct a referendum on legislation that President Vaira Vike-Freiberga twice refused to sign into law, the first time in Latvian history that such a measure is being put into motion. The month-long signature gathering campaign began April 3 and will last until May 2. The results will be announced on May 10.
During the four weeks the Central Election Commission will have to gather the signatures of 10 percent of Latvia's voting population, or 149,064 signatures, for each of the two bills in order to send the amendments to a popular referendum. Voters are able to sign for the amendments separately.
The amendments, which were supported by the government and Parliament, would drastically change parliamentary oversight of Latvia's law enforcement agencies. In the president's opinion, they would harm the delicate balance of forces in the country and jeopardize the country's standing with security allies.
The CEC has set up 615 signature collection stations and hired 6,000 - 7,000 employees to operate them for four hours per day, including holidays and weekends. The number of signature gathering stations far exceeds the minimum of one per every 10,000 voters.
The CEC has also set up 32 collection points in 27 different countries where Latvians can sign in support of the referendum. The commission is working in cooperation with the office of citizenship and migration to check all the signatures.
The operation will cost approximately 360,000 lats (512,200 euros) in employee wages, with some estimates for the total cost of the operation as high as 500,000 lats.
The use of the signature campaign to initiate a referendum has drawn harsh criticism from the ruling coalition and passionate praise from the opposition. Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis said a referendum is an inappropriate way to deal with the bills.
"I do not think that the nation would be the best advisor in this situation. I believe that it is an issue for the professionalism of politicians. They have to deal with it," he said.
Krisjanis Karins, leader of the opposition New Era party, voiced support for the president's initiative. "It opens an irreversible path toward a referendumâ€¦ The MPs are not stopping this bill, so now the president is asking the people to do it," he told The Baltic Times.
Arnis Cimdars, head of the CEC, said in an interview with Latvian public radio that there is a "lack of clarity" among voters about the campaign. He said that for many people it was unclear whether the vote would be to withdraw the amendments or to subject the amendments to a general referendum.
In an effort to clarify the issue, the CEC has released a special 20-page booklet where voters can read about the bills and how they will change Latvian law.
The amendments to national security laws sparked enormous controversy and nearly plunged Latvia into a political crisis. The government initially pushed the amendments through using a special law which allows them to pass bills while Saeima (parliament) is in recess, a move which the president blasted as brazen and unnecessary.
The president vetoed the bill, sending it to parliament for revision. When Parliament sent it back to her desk unchanged on March 10, the president still refused to promulgate the amendments, exercising her right under article 72 of the constitution. Government leaders, meanwhile, argue that the bills work to improve coordination among government institutions with regards to security, and that the amendments would be considered a normal set of laws in most other countries.
This was the first time since Latvia regained its independence that a president has twice refused to promulgate a bill and resorted to the will of the people as arbiter.
The exact locations of the stations, their working hours, and a copy of the special booklet containing information about the two national security amendments can be found on the CEC's homepage.