Polls open in language referendum amid predictions of high turnout

ALA aicinājums

The American Latvian Association distributed this reminder to its members to participate in the Feb. 18 referendum and to vote against Russian as a second official language.

Around the world Latvian citizens are going to the polls Feb. 18 to cast a simple ballot in one of the most emotional issues in the country’s brief history as an independent state.

Voters are casting ballots in a national referendum to decide whether Russian should be given equal status in the constitution to Latvian as an official language. While many observers have predicted voters will turn down the proposal, the margin of defeat will be closely watched.

Outside the homeland, Latvian citizens are voting at one of 85 polling stations in 41 countries. The first to vote were Latvians in eastern Australia, followed by western Australia, Japan and China. Polls there are closed, while those in North and South America are halfway through their day.

Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. local time.

An estimated 54,554 eligible voters are found outside the homeland, according to the Central Election Commission in Rīga.

As final preparations for balloting in the United States were being made Feb. 17, Raits Eglītis, office manager for the Rockville, Md.-based American Latvian Association (Amerikas latviešu apvienība, or ALA), said the organization has worked to keep 15 polling stations designated across the United States. Turnout in the United States could be substantial compared to previous votes, Eglītis suggested.

The ALA also departed from its usual neutral stance on political issues.

“This time ALA also has taken a position to vote against (the referendum),” Eglītis said. The organization sent a notice to its members urging them to be active in the referendum and to defend Latvian as the sole official language.

In New York, Normans Penke, Latvia’s ambassador to the United Nations and a member of the local election commission, noted that 350 ballots had been ordered for the voting that will take place in the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Latvia to the United Nations. If more are needed, they will be provided, Penke added.

By 8 p.m. in Latvia, according to the Central Election Commission, a total of 981,858 people—more than 63 percent of all eligible voters—had cast ballots.

The total included 6,274 who by 4 p.m. had cast ballots at 31 of the 85 polling stations abroad. That’s nearly 83 percent of the total in last year’s referendum on dissolving the Saeima, when 7,547 votes were cast abroad.

President Andris Bērziņš, on a state visit to Poland, voted in the Latvian Embassy in Warsaw, according to his press office.

A full list of polling stations abroad is available from the Central Election Commission’s website, www.cvk.lv.

Andris Straumanis is a special correspondent for and a co-founder of Latvians Online. From 2000–2012 he was editor of the website.

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