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Latvia: Failed Referendum

As blogger Julian Frisch said, “there are still referenda in the European Union that are not EU-related”. On the 2nd of August a referendum took place in Latvia, on amendments to the Satversme -Latvia's Constitution- that would make it possible for the people to initiate the dissolution of the Saeima -Latvia's Parliament. This referendum is the result of a long process that was put into motion a few months ago for the first time in Latvian history. Asier Blas, a Spaniard living in Riga, explains it in his blog Cartas del Este [Spanish]:

El primero es reunir unas 10.000 firmas. Posteriormente, estas son comprobadas por Comité Central Electoral, y si estas son verificadas de forma satisfactoria, el Gobierno letón pasa a hacerse cargo de la recogida de firmas habilitando lugares de recogida de firmas en todos los pueblos y ciudades del país para que la gente pueda firmar a favor de la propuesta del referéndum. Si en un mes, el 10% del censo electoral firma, el referéndum se celebra. Al respecto, no está de más recordar que en Letonia hay aproximadamente 500.000 personas de origen ruso o descendientes de rusos que no tienen ciudadanía letona y por lo tanto, no tienen derecho a voto en ningún tipo de elección.

The first [step] is to gather 10,000 signatures. Afterwards, they are checked by the Central Electoral Commission, and if they are verified positively, the Latvian Government is then in charge of it providing facilities for the signature gathering in every town and village in the country, so that people can sign in favor of the proposal for a referendum. If in a month the 10% of the registered voters sign, the referendum takes place. In this regard, we should keep in mind that in Latvia there are approximately 500,000 people of Russian origin or descendants of Russians that don't have Latvian citizenship and therefore don't have the right to vote in any kind of election.

Those 10,000 signatures were collected during the fall and winter of 2007, during the demonstrations against corruption. The blog All About Latvia described one of those protests in a post from October last year titled “We've forgotten we're a democracy”:

Foreigners here observed that to make Latvians come out in such large numbers, you have to really piss them off.

And people are pissed.

When the government played political intrigues in the run-up to presidential elections and people protested outside the parliament and their calls fell on deaf ears, the people patiently took that in.

When the government have ignored signs of overheating economy from the Latvian Central Bank, international credit agencies and local macroeconomic experts, the people patiently took that in.

When the government decided to deal with the Loskutovs factor, attempting to circumvent the law regulating the anti-corruption agency that have been successfully fighting corruption, they’re pissed and they want blood.

Pēteris Cedriņš of the blog Marginalia was one of the 213 000 persons that signed in favor of amendments to the Constitution last April during the one-month signature gathering by the Electoral Commission. He justified it with the following words:

I signed… because I trust our people — our nation — a lot more than I trust our so-called elite. When the Government threatens us with “chaos” — the only response can be that the Government has long been dragging us into a half-light oozing lies and sinister lucre. As Laila Pakalniņa suggested, we — the people — could at least have an instrument with which to respond in extremity.

However, he expressed his concerns about such amendments to the Constitution:

… the proposed changes are risky. As experts in the law and politics have pointed out, rallying the people to “throw the bums out” will probably always be pretty easy. The next time we choose from our 60-odd parties in a flurry of kompromat, slick advertising and shady financing, assuming that the people are given this power, it's possible that someone can fund a “throw the bums out” campaign the next day. In this country, smaller than many a city, “political technologies” can be employed like shots in the dark, from guns without serial numbers.

A few days ago Veiko Spolitis of the Baltic blog wrote a post about the pros and cons on the referendum, from a newspaper article that asked several politicians to give their views on the matter. He concluded by saying:

…so called political elite in this country with rather few exceptions really think that their voters are stupid, and thus the politicians are locked into their imaginary power bubble.

However, in spite of the general excitement about the referendum and the hopes that many Latvians had put into the positive change in the political scene of their country that it was supposed to bring, it ended up being declared invalid because of an insufficient turnout. For a referendum to have validity in Latvia, no less than 756,000 registered voters must take part in it, while only 627,530 voters came to the polls on Saturday. Vitaliy Voznyak of the blog The 8th Circle commented on the disappointing results:

The low turnout, around 40%, doomed the grassroots effort.

Nevertheless in a country with 1.5 million eligible voters when 607,901 of its citizens so directly register their discontent with political behavior of their politicians, those in Saeima better straighten out.

Even if they did not succeed, Latvians have laid out an example for others in the Baltic region and beyond on participatory democracy, an example that hopefully will be followed elsewhere.

Pēteris Cedriņš of Marginalia attributed the low turnout to the sunny weather:

Summer in Latvia is short and sweet, not conducive to traipsing to polling stations — many people head for the countryside on the limited number of balmy weekends. Still, with 995 of 998 precincts reporting, 608 202 persons voted in favor of the amendments, 18 831 against.

That means, however, that the “servants of the people,” as our Members of Parliament so love to describe themselves, can relax and return to misrule unhindered

A few weeks ago All about Latvia had already predicted the turnout dilemma:

…the August 2 referendum, when Latvians decide for what they care more – their country or their summer holidays. For holiday-loving Latvians, it’ll be a tough choice to make.

For Baltic Features, the sun helped avoid the worst case scenario for the government:

Thank god it was a sunny day on Saturday, which persuaded enough people to have a day at the beach instead of a day kicking the administration out.
Why? Because whoever is at the helm for the next few months is going to preside over the most painful period in Latvian history since independence was won back in 1991. Unemployment will soar, homes will be repossessed, prices will continue to rise and it’s now too late to do anything about it thanks to the government’s dithering.
[…]
It’s not pleasant to want the worst case scenario to unfold – real people will experience real pain – but unless it happens there’s a nasty chance the usual suspects may have been able to rehabilitate themselves by the time the next general elections come around.

Photo of the Latvian Parliament by khoogheem

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