Cablegate: Latvia to Hold July 7 Referendum On Security Laws

DE RUEHRA #0344/01 1341331
R 141331Z MAY 07




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Latvia to hold July 7 referendum on security laws

Ref: Riga 192

1. Summary: Latvia's Central Election Commission (CEC) has announced
that the necessary signatures in support of holding the referendum
on amendments to national security laws were collected and the
referendum will be held on 7 July 2007, the day President Vaira
Vike-Freiberga's term of office expires. In early March, President
Vaira Vike-Freiberga suspended amendments to the national security
laws passed earlier by the Saeima (parliament) arguing that adoption
of the amendments could result in abuse of power by the government
and political forces over national security agencies (reftel).
Although parliament has repealed the laws, the referendum process
went forward as mandated by the constitution. While the opposition
hopes to use the referendum to bring down the current government,
there is no legal link between the two. End summary.

2. According to the CEC 214,966 citizens signed petitions to hold a
referendum regarding amendments to national security laws (149,064
signatures were required), following the President's unprecedented
use of her constitutional authority to delay implementation of the
laws for two months. The CEC scheduled the referendum for July 7,
the same day when the President's term in office expires. This is
also the last day the referendum could have been held. CEC Chair
Arnis Cimdars told us that the use of the maximum time permitted by
law was needed to arrange for an off-cycle referendum like this.

3. In order to be valid, half as many people as participated in the
Saeima elections last October must participate. Therefore, 453,730
voters must cast ballots. A simple majority is needed for the
electorate to repeal the laws.

4. Although the referendum will be held as required, the legal
consequences are minimal. Gunars Kusins, legal advisor to the
Saeima, explained to us that Parliament had passed legislation,
which the President has signed, which effectively repeals the laws
in question. According to Kusnis, the legislation passed says that
if the required number of signatures are not gathered for a
referendum, or the necessary numbers of voters do not participate in
it, or if a majority does not vote for repeal of the laws, then the
laws return to the text that existed in December, before all the
controversy began. Of course, if the referendum is valid and the
majority votes for repeal, that will be the controlling action. In
that situation, parliament would be effectively barred from
readopting the same amendments. According to the Latvian
constitution, the will of the people trumps the votes of their
elected representatives.

5. Although the legislation effectively nullifies the significance
of the referendum, the opposition has wanted to imbue the vote with
political consequences. The New Era (JL) party was particularly
active in calling people to participate in the signature drive and
will be active in getting out the vote on July 7. New Era Chairman
Krisjanis Karins told emboff that the referendum drive has
reenergized his party, which has been through difficult times
internally of late, and predicted that the referendum would succeed
and people would send a message to the government with their vote.
Another New Era member of parliament went further, saying the
government would be "shamed" into resigning following the outcome of
the referendum. The Russian-based opposition party Harmony Center
has called for the government to step down over its mishandling of
the security laws, but did not actively support the signature
campaign, noting that Parliamentary action made it an unnecessary
expenditure of funds.

6. Not surprisingly, the government has been low key in its response
and Prime Minister Kalvitis (People's Party) has been clear that the
vote will be only about the security laws and not a referendum on
the governing coalition.

7. In interviews May 10 and 11, President Vike-Freiberga urged
citizens to participate in the referendum and lamented that
"political forces" have led to its scheduling on her last day in
office, leaving her no time "to assess the results" and consider
whether to dissolve parliament.

8. Comment: It is hard to imagine enough voters participating in
the ballot. July is the most popular month of vacations and
Latvians spend the weekends in their country homes. Additionally,
the date of 7/7/07 is considered lucky and is overbooked for
weddings. We believe that there is little chance that the required
number of eligible voters (almost 2 times more than the number of
people who participated in the signature collection drive over a
four week period) would turn up for the referendum. Even if it was
successful, the possibility that the ruling coalition would
interpret a positive public vote as a call for resignation is
extremely low. This is not a group moved by the argument of "shame."
The opposition runs the risk, though, of having their own words
used against them. An unsuccessful referendum would allow the
ruling coalition to say that voters are satisfied with the
coalition's work. The President's interviews last week suggest that
while she might have hoped to use the referendum to force a
dissolution of parliament (which would require another referendum),
she will not do so, despite the hopes of many in the opposition, NGO

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