Will the referendum change Latvia’s politics?

Latvia’s political intrigues took another turn when by May 2 enough citizens had signed for a referendum to be held on President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s halting of the government’s security services legislation.

In Latvia’s complex system of parliamentary and presidential checks and balances, the president has the power first to return a bill first passed by the Saeima, but then if the bill is passed again unaltered, the president has a further power of refusing assent for two months. This automatically triggers the collection of signatures to see if a referendum is to be held.

This was the first case in post-Soviet, independent Latvia that the president has taken this step. Vīķe-Freiberga—and many others—argued that the security services legislation allowed too many parliamentarians and their officials access to state secrets, concerns also expressed by the NATO defense alliance. And the president warned such access may also be used for internal politics and gain by “oligarchs.” I have previously written about the extraordinary response to this by the government and ruling coalition: they immediately moved to repeal this and other controversial legislation, claiming continually that a referendum was not needed and hoping not enough signatures would be collected. The government-friendly newspaper Neatkarīgā Rīta Avīze, owned by coalition accomplice and now jailed Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, as late as the morning of May 3 still ventured an article that “most likely, not enough signatures would be collected.” For the ruling coalition, the referendum has been its first major obstacle to an otherwise arrogant and roughshod career of dodgy legislation and appointments, and of ignoring advice and criticism. The question now is will it be fatal for a coalition that only a few months ago looked so invincible?

Two considerations are relevant here.

First, the saga of the referendum is by no means over. When the referendum is held, the question must be approved by 50 percent plus one of those participating, and there can be little doubt about such a result. But for the referendum to count, it has to attract at least half the number of the voters who voted in the previous Saeima elections. With around 61 percent of those eligible voting in 2006, in this case some 453,730 citizens are required to cast a vote one way or the other, just over double the number who signed petitions to hold the referendum. Getting these votes out may not be easy, particularly if the government is successful in portraying the referendum as now unnecessary. Judging from the fury of comments on Internet and letters-to-the-editor pages, Latvia is deeply divided over this issue. 

If the referendum does not get the required numbers, the ruling coalition no doubt would claim a victory and endorsement of its policies and legitimacy. The stakes are very high.

Second, the brouhaha surrounding this referendum and the coalition’s politics has seen numerous voices asking for the resignation of this government. It should be said at once that there is no necessary link between such a referendum result and the staying or going of a government; they are quite separate issues. Yet the question is not going away.

For those now suddenly fascinated by what other surprises the Latvian constitution holds, in fact the president does have the power to call a new Saeima election. If she announces such a decision, a referendum must be held, and if the referendum supports the president, then the Saeima is dissolved and new elections are held. If the referendum does not support the president, then the president must resign—a remarkably fair constitutional requirement it would seem. Some have been calling for this, and in response some of the wilder conspiracy theories emanating from government supporters are that such a course of action of creating a false crisis for the president to act was precisely planned by the “usual suspects”: the president, the Jaunais laiks (New Era) party and the Soros Foundation.

The strongest voices calling for resignation of the government come indeed from the oppositional New Era, still trying to overcome its own internal wrangling over leadership and direction, but the president seems in no hurry to move at all. Nevertheless a referendum result supporting the president would put extra strains on the coalition.

Adding drama to this mix is the position of the president herself. Vīķe-Freiberga’s term ends in two months and the ruling parties are doing everything to try to find “their” candidate for this position. A highly politicised presidential selection by the Saeima is likely, which the ruling coalition hopes will never be against its legislation.

The referendum on the halted security legislation will be held between one and two months time. But a number of other issues may have an impact on how all this is played out.

The much-delayed border agreement with Russia has been signed and now must be ratified by the Saeima, confirming present borders and ipso facto giving up Latvia’s claim to the Abrene region that was part of pre-war Latvia. This will now be challenged in the Constitutional Court, with an uncertain outcome, but one likely to only be decided in the northern autumn. But there is considerable public concern over this agreement, which came without the previously desired accompanying declaration of Latvia’s historical relation to Russia and its border.

Much more immediate are recent events in Estonia and the widespread disturbances there over relocation of a Soviet war memorial from the centre of Tallinn to a military cemetery. Egged on by a massive anti-Estonian campaign from Russia, the resulting two-day violent confrontations put a question mark over the wisdom of Estonia’s politicians’ desires to tamper with such a symbol, and over the course of social integration in Estonia more generally. They also underlined Russia’s still antagonistic relations with Estonia, a heady mix with lessons for Latvia.

Within Latvia two more issues hold unpredictable potential. Great anticipation exists over the pending trial of Lembergs, with many of his political and business colleagues increasingly distancing themselves from him. This seems to be having little impact on other powerful co-oligarchs such as Andris Šķēle and Ainars Šlesers, who continue to exert influence even though suggestions of malpractice and corruption increase. The thuggish Šlesers, head of Latvijas Pirmā partija (First Party of Latvia), has also become politically active on a new front, forging closer link to the pro-Moscow Saskaņas centrs (Harmony Center) and together with Interior Minister Ivars Godmanis proposing that noncitizens be allowed to vote in municipal elections. Godmanis wants—wait for it—a referendum on this issue, a potentially explosive proposal and one in which, among others, Russia will be deeply interested. It is all stirring the pot, and hoping, inter alia, to take attention away from the referendum at hand.

The coming referendum on halting the security legislation comes at a politically rollercoaster time.




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