Low turnout invalidates referendum

  • 2007-07-11
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

I DO: More than 338,000 voters came to the referendum, despite a record number of weddings. Some voters were still in wedding gowns.

RIGA - Latvia's unprecedented referendum on changes to two national security laws failed to gain a quorum, thereby negating the popular ballot, though voters overwhelmingly backed former President Vaira Vike-Freiberga's dissatisfaction with the disputed legislation.
A total 337,747 voters took part in the July 7 referendum 's or 23 percent of registered voters 's far shorter than the 453,730 necessary for the ballot to be valid.

A combination of weather, an extraordinary number of weddings and consternation over what the referendum was exactly about conspired to keep voters away from the voting precincts.
Still, some 95 percent of those who voted were in favor of abolishing the legislation 's consisting of amendments to two national security laws 's which, if passed, would have drastically changed the nature of criminal investigations in Latvia.

Initially the amendments were passed by the government in the beginning of January after ministers used a little-known clause in the constitution allowing them to pass legislation while Parliament is on break.
Vike-Freiberga castigated the Cabinet, which then turned to lawmakers to pass the amendments, which essentially would have empowered certain lawmakers to probe ongoing criminal investigations.
The president twice refused to sign the amendments into law and instead turned to the people to decide, a power the president enjoys in accordance to the constitution.
Vike-Freiberga, who left office on July 7, thanked all who voted, opining that the turnout would have been much better had the referendum been scheduled for another day.
"I think the choice of the date for the referendum played a considerable role. The referendum was organized on a date many people marry. So the newly married and their friends and relatives as well as the invited guests would not arrive," Vike-Freiberga told Latvian National radio on July 9.

She also hinted at cases where voters were indirectly inhibited from getting to the ballot boxes. "It is quite understandable that a certain number of citizens do not turn out for the referendum," she said.
Still, the 95 percent support she did receive highlights the extreme voter dissatisfaction with the controversial legislation. Some politicians and analysts said this lopsided result amounted to a vote of no-confidence.
"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," Krisjanis Karins, leader of the opposition New Era party, told The Baltic Times about the signature gathering campaign to spark the referendum.
New Era demanded that the government resign despite the unexpectedly low voter turnout, a statement that Kalvitis dismissed as grandstanding.
Karins and other New Era members said that they would put pressure on the government to resign when Parliament resumes its fall session.

Ruling coalition politicians put their own spin on the event, saying that more referendums were needed to gauge public opinion and give the people a chance to voice their level of satisfaction with the government.
Not surprisingly, very few ministers or members of the ruling coalition, however, turned up for the vote.
Vita Anda Terauda, director of Providus, an NGO monitoring political and democratic issues in Latvia, said that if the ruling coalition's response to the referendum is limited to this, "then that is a truly sad thing."
"I would hope that the ruling coalition would take the viewpoint of 300,000 individuals seriously. To me, the number of people is quite a substantial signal that many people aren't happy. Even though it did not achieve the quorum necessary, some of the message that comes out of this should create a climate of change [in the government]," she told TBT.

Terauda explained that the true reason behind the referendum was "mystifying" for many people.
"If we had a question of an actual clear issue on confidence in the government, then we clearly would have had the quorum. I think that the turnout with such a muddy issue is in fact an encouraging sign," she said.
The president of the Central Election Committee, Arnis Cimdars, defended the choice of date for the referendum, saying it is difficult to measure the effect of the date on the voter turnout.
He noted that they did not have very much choice in choosing the day, as they would receive even more criticism for holding it over the Midsummer holidays and could not wait until the wedding and festival season ended.
The CEC plans to approve the results of the referendum, which in total cost some 2.5 million lats (3.6 million euros), before July 16.

The amendments, meanwhile, are unlikely to be resurrected. They were repealed by Parliament in March, but by that time Vike-Freiberga had decided that the referendum should go ahead in order to give the people the chance to express their opinion on both the amendments and the government.