More than 212,000 Latvian citizens, well more than the number required, have signed petitions calling for a national referendum on controversial amendments to two security laws, according to provisional data released May 3 by the Central Election Commission in Rīga.
Meanwhile, the Latvian parliament, the Saeima, on May 3 struck language from the constitution that allows the government to issue orders while parliament is in recess that have the power of law. The security law amendments were first pushed through by emergency decree while the Saeima was enjoying its January recess.
Latvian media reported heightened activity at various locations around the country May 2 as citizens made use of the last day of the petition drive. It now appears almost sure that a referendum will be held on amendments to the National Security Law and the State Law on Security Institutions—an action some observers have said will be a vote of confidence in the government and the parliament.
The number of signatures represents 14.23 percent of the number of voters in the last parliamentary election. To call a referendum on either question, 10 percent or 149,064 citizens had to sign the petition.
More than 930 Latvian citizens abroad signed the petitions at one of the 32 embassies or consulates that were designated for the signature drive.
The election commission still has to certify the petitions, but if the number of signatures stays above the 10 percent barrier then the referendum must take place no sooner than one month and no later than two months after the date of certification, the commission said in a press release.
The number of citizens abroad who signed the petition more than doubled in the last week of the drive. The greatest activity was reported at the Embassy of Latvia in Ottawa, Canada, where an organized effort to bus citizens from Toronto helped push the total number of signatures to 180. The embassy in Washington, D.C., was second with 141 signatures, followed by 133 signatures in London and 123 in Stockholm, Sweden, according to data provided by the election commission.
No one signed the petitions in embassies or consulates in Austria, Azerbaidjan, Belarus, Portugal or Turkey.
Using Article 81 of the constitution, the amendments were pushed through in January by a Cabinet of Ministers decree while the Saeima was in recess. The parliament approved the amendments on Feb. 1, but President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga vetoed them. The parliament overrode the veto on March 1. On March 10, Vīķe-Freiberga for the first time in her eight-year presidency invoked her constitutional power to freeze implementation of a law, which set in motion the call for a popular referendum.
Just days before the petition drive began April 3, the parliament rescinded the changes, returning the security laws to their original wording before January’s decree. However, the petition process was already in motion and had to continue.
The Saeima now also has removed Article 81 from the constitution, the LETA news agency reported.
Among changes in the security laws was the makeup of the National Security Council, which has oversight of the country’s security institutions. Under the amendments, the council would be led by the prime minister and would consist of the ministers of defense, foreign affairs, interior and justice—rather than the heads of the security institutions themselves. Some critics said the amendments were an attempt by Prime Minister Aigars Kalvītis to consolidate power, while others raised concern about politicians having access to sensitive information. The government argued the amendments would lead to more effective use of security resources.
A number of diaspora organizations voiced their support for the referendum and urged citizens abroad to sign the petition.
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