RIGA - Latvian voters turned out in droves to support President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in her standoff with Parliament over a series of amendments that would change the face of national security in the Baltic state, setting the stage for an unprecedented referendum.
According to the Central Elections Committee, nearly 215,000 registered voters signed on in support of a referendum on the amendments 's or 14.4 percent of all registered voters 's far more than the 149,000 required to hold the ballot.
The CEC announced that the referendum would take place on July 7.
"I think that far more people turned out than anyone expected," Vita Terauda, director of Providus, an NGO monitoring political and democratic issues in Latvia, told The Baltic Times.
"The importance is far wider than just what surrounds the bills themselves. The political implications will be at least a red flag to the government for how they work with the political process," she said.
Government ministers should pay "more attention to society and to the opposition," Terauda added. "If there is a significant amount of participation [in the referendum], then I hope the government will take a look at what that means," she said.
The referendum was initiated by Vike-Freiberga's refusal to sign the amendments into law after Parliament had overridden her earlier veto. The president criticized the amendments both for their content and the hasty way they were pushed through Parliament.
Initially, the government used an obscure clause in the constitution allowing it to pass amendments when Parliament was in recess. Vike-Freiberga blasted ministers for the action, pointing out that the recess clause was written for an earlier era when the main form of communication was the telegraph.
In this day and age, Parliament could easily be convened at a moment's notice to discuss urgent legislation, the president explained.
The amendments would have drastically changed parliamentary oversight of Latvia's law enforcement agencies. In the president's opinion, they would have harmed the delicate balance of forces in the country and jeopardized the country's standing with security allies.
Vike-Freiberga issued a statement thanking voters for their support. She noted that "many people who wanted to take part in the collection of signatures had to overcome difficulties in finding polling stations."
Krisjanis Karins, leader of the opposition New Era party, also expressed surprise at the results considering the difficulties some voters faced.
"It was overwhelmingly successful. I am convinced that this shows a big vote of no confidence from the voters," he said.
"Many regions are showing that upwards of 20 percent of the voting population are going to sign, which is an incredible amount of activity considering the time and location of the polling stations," Karins told The Baltic Times.
Karins, a former economy minister, argued that the massive voter turnout represents a huge dissatisfaction with the government, which should consider stepping down over the results.
The turnover "shows the ruling coalition's lack of respect for public opinion," he said. "The president was ignored, experts were ignored, international commentators were ignored, and the people were ignored. This is a reflection of how this coalition has gotten it wrong. They have managed to alienate not only the opposition but also the people."
If a majority of voters support the president and mark the ballot against the amendment, the question is what impact this will have on the ruling coalition, which consists of the People's Party, the Greens and Farmers Union, Latvia's Way/Latvia's First Party and For Fatherland and Freedom.
Former Constitutional Court chairman Aivars Endzins has argued that the government should step down. "In my opinion, the activity of residents in the signature collection campaign is a sign that the Latvian government should step down as it is the fault of the government," Endzins said in an interview with the daily Diena.
Terauda was a little bit more cautious in her analysis, contending that only with a strong voter turnout in the referendum itself should the government consider stepping down.
"I think if the referendum attracts enough to be legitimate, and by that I mean half of the voting population, then that is a strong signal to the government that the people are not happy with the work that they have so far been doing. A natural political step would then be to dissolve the government," she said.
Despite some of the drastic consequences that could result from the initiation of a referendum, Terauda sees this as a positive indication of a strong democracy in Latvia.
"It's a positive sign that different aspects of balance of power are growing in Latvia, but I think the jury is still out as to whether it means an energetic electorate or an apathetic one," she said.
In an attempt to reduce the political fallout generated by the crisis, the government has already repealed the National Security amendments, albeit the move was too late to halt the referendum process.
What's more, Parliament has passed an amendment to the constitution annulling the right of the government to push legislation through while parliament is in recess.
"From what I've read and from the people I've talked to, 100 percent said that theirs was a vote against the government and against [Prime Minister Aigars] Kalvitis. What should follow from such a massive vote of no confidence is a stepping down of the prime minister and of the government," Karins said.