People power vote shot down

  • 2008-08-06
  • By Talis Saule Archdeacon

THEN AND NOW: People power was at it height 17 years ago during the singing revolution. Nowadays things are a bit more tame.

RIGA - A vote giving people the right to throw out their politicians has failed to pass, preliminary results indicate. 
The landmark referendum would have altered the constitution to give Latvian citizens the right to directly dissolve the legislature by popular vote.

However, the high proportion of voters who favored the amendments 's nearly 97 percent 's prompted President Valdis Zatlers to call for Parliament to consider adopting similar amendments despite the failed vote.
"We have to act more and speak less. The rights of the people to dissolve the parliament have to be included in the constitution as soon as possible. If 40 percent [of the population] wants that, the duty of the parliament is making it possible," the president told journalists on Aug. 3.
If passed, the laws would make Latvia the only country in the European Union where the citizens could directly dissolve Parliament through a popular vote.

Initially proposed by the Latvian Federation of Free Trade Unions, the referendum was supported by opposition parties and numerous non-governmental organizations. It was opposed by both the ruling coalition and by Parliament itself. 
The Aug. 2 referendum required 50 percent of the eligible voting population 's amounting to 757,697 people 's to participate in order for the vote to achieve quorum. Only 40.17 percent of voters, 629,064 people, however, turned out to cast their ballot.

According to preliminary results provided by the Central Election Commission, an astounding 608,601 's 96.75 percent of those who took part in the referendum 's supported the amendments.
The amendments would have altered articles 78 and 79 of the constitution to allow signatures from one tenth of the voting population to initiate a legislative vote followed by a referendum on the dissolution of Parliament.
"Electors, in number comprising not less than one-tenth of the electorate, have the right to submit… a draft decision about dissolution of the Saeima [Latvian parliament] to the president, who shall submit it to the Saeima. If the Saeima does not adopt it without change as to its content, it shall then be put to a national referendum," the amendment proposal read.

The proposal that the president is due to present to Parliament is the same in essence 's it will allow the people to directly dissolve Parliament 's but differs in many of the "technical" aspects, the president's press secretary said.
The president was preparing to present the documents to Parliament as The Baltic Times went to press on Aug. 6.

The president's proposal is based on the recommendations of a panel of experts he put together weeks before. The panel contained various legal experts whose goal was to create a proposal which was more legally sound than the one prepared by the trade unions.
Currently only the president has the power to dissolve Parlia ment, and in so doing the head of state is forced to put his own job on the line.

Most of Latvia's political heavyweights have spoken out on the important issue, leading to a wide 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 take part in the referendum. In a July 30 interview with the Baltic News Service, he said that if the amendments passed they would "threaten the foundations of democracy."
Following the vote, however, Daudze said working with the president's version of the amendments would be one of Parliament's main priorities this fall.

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

On Aug. 4, Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis said simply that "debate should continue" surrounding the issue. He said the president's proposal would still have to be modified before the legislature passes it.
Opposition leaders, meanwhile, have predictably used the opportunity to call for the president to immediately dissolve Parliament.

"The huge number of the referendum participants show that the current ruling coalition has run bankrupt. In a really democratic state the coalition would respect the opinion of the people and 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 history as a just and decisive leader of the state that ended political injustice and opened an opportunity for cooperation of the people and politicians for the benefit of the state," the press release said.

The referendum was widely seen as a chance for people to express their outrage with the government over its poor economic policies and a slew of corruption scandals.
"I think most people are voting because they want to make problems for the government. Otherwise they [the government] will just keep thinking they can do whatever they want," said Arnis, who cast his vote for the amendments in the eastern Latvian town of Livani.
"I came to vote because I wanted to see some changes in Latvia," a woman named Brigita told news portal. "I doubt the referendum will bring enough votes because it requires too many, but we have hope. We cannot live without hope."

In an effort to save face, ruling coalition leaders have argued that the referendum shows voters are unhappy with the entire political body, not just the current government.
"The vote was on the work of the government, but also on the parliament in general. The opposition parties could be 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 faiththe government after seeing inflation spiral to more than 17 percent in recent months. The country's economic growth, meanwhile, is expected to drop to near zero 's with many experts even predicting negative growth rates by the end of the year.
Voters are also upset with the huge number of political scandals that have rocked the country. The government has changed hands an astounding 14 times since the country regained independence in 1991.
In October, a decision by the previous government to fire a popular anti-corruption prosecutor led to the largest street demonstrations the Baltic state has seen since the Soviet breakup.

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