Controversial Latvian referendum shot down

  • 2008-08-05
  • Talis Saule Archdeacon

RIGA- A landmark referendum that would havegiven Latvian citizens the right to directly dissolve the legislature bypopular vote has failed to gather enough signatures to become a reality,preliminary results indicate.

However, the high proportion of voters whofavored the amendments 's nearly 97 percent 's prompted President Valdis Zatlersto call for Parliament to consider adopting similar amendments despite thefailed vote.

"We have to act more and speak less. Therights of the people to dissolve the parliament have to be included in theconstitution as soon as possible. If 40 percent [of the population] wants that,the duty of the parliament is making it possible," the president toldjournalists on Aug. 3.

If passed, the laws would make Latviathe only country in the European Union where the citizens could directlydissolve Parliament through a popular vote.

Initially proposed by the LatvianFederation of Free Trade Unions, the referendum was supported by oppositionparties and numerous non-governmental organizations. It was opposed by both theruling coalition and by Parliament itself. 

The Aug. 2 referendum required 50 percentof the eligible voting population 's amounting to 757,697 people 's toparticipate in order for the vote to achieve quorum. Only 40.17 percent ofvoters, 629,064 people, however, turned out to cast their ballot.

According to preliminary results providedby the Central Election Commission, an astounding 608,601 's 96.75 percent ofthose who took part in the referendum 's supported the amendments.

The amendments would have altered articles 78and 79 of the constitution to allow signatures from one tenth of the votingpopulation to initiate a legislative vote followed by a referendum on thedissolution of Parliament.

"Electors, in number comprising not lessthan one-tenth of the electorate, have the right to submit… a draft decisionabout dissolution of the Saeima [Latvian parliament] to the president, who shallsubmit it to the Saeima. If the Saeima does not adopt it without change as toits content, it shall then be put to a national referendum," the amendmentproposal read.

The proposal that the president is due topresent to Parliament is the same in essence 's it will allow the people todirectly dissolve Parliament 's but differs in many of the "technical" aspects,the president's press secretary said.

The president was preparing to present thedocuments to Parliament as The Baltic Times went to press on Aug. 6.

The president's proposal is based on therecommendations of a panel of experts he put together weeks before. The panelcontained various legal experts whose goal was to create a proposal which wasmore legally sound than the one prepared by the trade unions.

Currently only the president has the powerto dissolve Parliament, and in so doing the head of state is forced to put hisown job on the line.


Most of Latvia'spolitical heavyweights have spoken out on the important issue, leading to awide range of strong opinions on the referendum results.

In the run up to the referendum,Parliamentary Speaker Gundars Daudze, for his part, urged voters not to takepart in the referendum. In a July 30 interview with the Baltic News Service, hesaid that if the amendments passed they would "threaten the foundations ofdemocracy."

Following the vote, however, Daudze saidworking with the president's version of the amendments would be one ofParliament's main priorities this fall.

"The law edition has to be completely clearbefore the end of the fall session. If the bill is adopted in the firstreading, it would be ideal," Daudze told journalists on Aug. 4.

On Aug. 4, Prime Minister Ivars Godmanissaid simply that "debate should continue" surrounding the issue. He said thepresident's proposal would still have to be modified before the legislationpasses it.

Opposition leaders, meanwhile, havepredictably used the opportunity to call for the president to immediatelydissolve Parliament.

"The huge number of the referendumparticipants show that the current ruling coalition has run bankrupt. In areally democratic state the coalition would respect the opinion of the peopleand step down from their positions in parliament and government with honor,"the opposition New Era party said in a press release.

"By dissolving a disrespected parliament,the president would enter the history as a just and decisive leader of thestate that ended political injustice and opened an opportunity for cooperationof the people and politicians for the benefit of the state," the press releasesaid.


The referendum was widely seen as a chancefor people to express their outrage with the government over its poor economicpolicies and a slew of corruption scandals.

"I think most people are voting becausethey want to make problems for the government. Otherwise they [the government]will just keep thinking they can do whatever they want," said Arnis, who casthis vote for the amendments in the eastern Latvian town of Livani.

"I came to vote because I wanted to seesome changes in Latvia," a woman named Brigita told news portal. "I doubt thereferendum will bring enough votes because it requires too many, but we havehope. We cannot live without hope."

In an effort to save face, ruling coalitionleaders have argued that the referendum shows voters are unhappy with theentire political body, not just the current government.

"The vote was on the work of thegovernment, but also on the parliament in general. The opposition parties couldbe expected to have high ratings otherwise, which was not the case. Actually,the people are dissatisfied with the power as such, including the opposition,"For Fatherland and Freedom head Roberts Zile told Latvian public radio on Aug.5.

Many voters have lost faith in thegovernment after seeing inflation spiral to more than 17 percent in recentmonths. The country's economic growth, meanwhile, is expected to drop to nearzero 's with many experts even predicting negative growth rates by the end ofthe year.

Voters are also upset with the huge numberof political scandals that have rocked the country. The government has changedhands an astounding 14 times since the country regained independence in 1991.

In October, a decision by the previousgovernment to fire a popular anti-corruption prosecutor led to the largeststreet demonstrations the Baltic state has seen since the Soviet breakup.

The movement to amend the constitution andgive voters more power over Parliament began shortly afterward.