Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Another referendum?

There is a strong possibility for holding two referendums in Latvia this year. Causes for holding constitutional and consultative referendums are different, but it all started in the October 2006 parliamentary elections. After the elections it was widely acknowledged that clear winners (People's Party (TP) and Union of First and Latvian Way parties (LPP)) breached election campaign limits. The case was brought to the court and the Senate of the Latvian Supreme Court made the decision on 13.11.2007 stating that those parties breached the law, however, breaches were not as significant as to invalidate the election result.

Aigars Kalvītis government aparently did not pay attention to previously mentioned court's decision and followed customs of realpolitik - to pass as many unpopular laws during the first year of governance as possible. The government folloved this custom, but in most cases totally disregarding existing legal norms, thus the discontent about the Kalvītis government culminated in the November 3, 2007. With the snowy sleat pouring from the sky, that gave the event famous "Umbrella" or Cappuchino revolution name, about 9-13 thousand members of the civil society gathered in Riga dome square and among many other issues also caled for snap elections in Latvia. Amidst rising inflation and with unreformed salary system for state employees [that Kalvītis government smugly refused to revise] the Union of Free Trade Unions started collecting signatures to amend articles 78 & 79 of the Latvian constitution (Satversme)at the end of October 2007.

Those amendments are specific technical issues. According to present script the only power able to initiate snap elections and dissolve the parliament in Latvia is the president. However, in order to dissolve the parliament the president risks his own position, because if president's motion is not supported by the 50% of all eligible voters then the president should loose his post (Art. 48). Union of Free Trade Unions proposed that not only president should have the right for initiating the dissolution of the parliament, but also 1/10 of electorate.

In December 20, 2007 the required number of 10 000 signatures was collected to initiate the procedure for constitutional referendum. Just prior that date on December 17 the president created the constitutional commission. The commission of prominent legal experts has to give their legal opinion about the articles 48, 78 and 79 of Satversme. The commission published their initial conclusions last week, stating among other coclusions that the position of Union of Free Trade Unions is fully comaptible with constitutional principles. The final document of the commission should become public in about next two weeks. It means that the collected and verified 10 000 signatures already have their legal weight.

In order to hand those signatures for verification to the Central Electoral Bureau (, however, the Trade Unions had to wait till February 1, 2008 because in the meantime Latvian new government was formed. There are another two weeks left till the deadline of April 10, 2008, when the collection of signatures should end. The latest data from shows that 45 773 signatures are already collected, and that is about 30% of the circa 150 000 signatures needed to initiate the referendum for constitutional amendments.

Today the "Kas notiek Latvijā?" TV discussion was devoted to the referendum. Overwhelming majority of the telephone voters agreed with the popular motion that the 1/10 of the electorate should have the right to dissolve the parliament. In order to understand where would Latvia find itself after April 10, 2008 it is essential to know positions of major political parties.

Political party positions

The existing Quadriumvirate (Peoples, Latvian First, Union of Greens & Farmers and Fatherland parties) is strongly opposing the referedum. It should be like this because TP+LPP+ZZS+TB/LNNK (governing right wing conservative coalition parties) "won" elections in 2006. However, and as I said earlier, the election campaign rules were breaced and in reality TP+LPP simply stole elections. When the incumbent PM formed the government during last X-mas, Ivars Godmanis considered the issue of snap elections simply unacceptable, because according to him "it would create chaos in Latvia". Even most of politicians in their speeches accept that citizens should have the right to dissolve the parliament, still they say that they will not sign to initiate the referendum.
The former MP Māris Krastiņš (TP) in the TV show said that instead of this referendum there should be greater participation of citizenry through the political parties, thus he suggested that the official number that has a right to form a political party in Latvia (presently inexcusably low 200) should be amanded.
Former PM Andris Bērziņš (LPP) suggested that folks should worry more about inflation and low wages. So the customary muddling of issues at stake is continued. It is no wonder, if the Latvian minigarch Andris Šķēle in his long and informative interview to Latvijas Avīze openly mocked not only organizers of the referendum but also the persons who left existing parties and are now organizing parties on their own. It means that also he feels that the Latvian political landscape is being transformed at the moment you read these lines. TB/LNNK has already ceased to be parliamentary party, and gallups show that most probably three out of existing four coalition members would not even squeeze into parliament if elections should take place tomorrow.

Thus the newly formed Center party by Messrs Pabriks & Štoekenbergs as well as newly founded Conservative Democrats party (Kalniete & Kristovskis) are openly stating that they are PRO referendum. It is only obvious, because they have to create their party support base and there is no better opportunity than an upcoming referendum. In addition, also the second referendum signature collection for change in pension laws should start in two weeks. Promoter of the second referendum is Messrs Pabriks & Štokenbergs newly founded party support organization "Other politics". The Godmanis government behaved extremely irresponsibly, however, because they failed to hold both signature collection campaigns simulatenously and thus to save considerable expenses (about 1 mln Euro) to the state treasury.

On the wave of upcoming referendum also existing opposition parties New Era (JL) and Reconciliation Centre (SC) try to mobilize their rank and file members. JL is organizing the informative campaign, and apparently the biggest campaign should start during the last week of the signature collection process. During the TV show tonight the new leader of JL Ms Solvita Āboltiņa said that the strategy of JL is to focus their propaganda campaign on the last week. The predominantly ethnic Russian represented SC is holding low profile so far however.

Future scenario

Governing Quadriumvirate is loosing members but still somehow holding to the power [even Andris Šķēle in his interview to Latvijas Avīze revealed that dissagreements about the end of the administrative reform would initiate the fall of the existing coalition government]. Opposition is divided, and the whole Latvian political landscape is being reconfigured, thus what about chances for the positive outcome in the referendum? Not big would be the simplest answer considering the outcome of the last year's referendum. Nevertheless, most of the signals seem to be good for the positive outcome of the referendum at this moment.

Approval ratings of the government & parliament have stagnated below the mark of 19%, and it means that only about 1 out of 5 persons considers present Latvian "governors" as legitimate. Inflation is the highest in the EU, corruption is endemic, rural folks are hemorragheing out to Riga and further to Ireland, and price hikes for electricity and gas are expected in May 2008.

The understanding of the general electorate about peculiar details of constitutional changes are vague however (therefore the need for informative campaign). Such position was underlined tonight also by the leader of Trade Unions Mr Pēteris Krīgers. He stated that those who give their signatures for the upcoming refrendum should give it in spite of the cynicism of the governing elite and thus for salvaging people's own conscience. I gave my own signature and the reason I signed for the upcoming referedum was simple.

Because there is no precedent of snap elections in Latvia there is kind of wrath of untouchability above Latvian politicanos. MP's simply believe that they can do whatever they want, and till next elections voters shall simply forget about their misdeeds and vices [it has unfortunately followed such trend all these years]. Thus, I believe that with snap elections it is a perfect occassion not only to empower the civil society, but it would also break the artificial spell of untouchability among the mandarins of post-Soviet nomenklatura.

The head of the Central Electoral Bureau Mr Artis Cimdars mentioned that during signature collection campaign prior last year's referendum 30% of the needed number of signatures were given during the last three days of the campaign. Thus there is a widely held belief that Latvian citizenry shall leave the issue till the last moment, and somehow collect circa 150 000 signatures needed. Probably the signatures would be collected, but the issue is also about the positive referendum outcome, and here the participation rate for positive outcome is 454 490 (half of electors participating in the October 2006 elections). The way for snap elections would be open, if half of the previously mentioned number (227 246) would say - AYE - in the referendum. Interesting detail is that the 227 246 electors would be only 15% of the total numer of electors in Latvia, and reason for such a low number is the participation rate in the last parliamentary election (60.98% = 908 979 electors).

Nevertheless, next two weeks are essential for positive outcome of the referendum. Even more, during the two weeks there is a need for someone among opposition statesman/women to show strong leadership, and, so convince the citizenry that change of the existing situation would not culminate only in referendum, but that there is someone to lead the country out of political and economic malaise also after hypothetical referendum.

P.S. For those of you reading in Estonian I wrote a piece last week (March 12, 2008)

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