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Cablegate: Latvia to Hold Two Referenda in August

VZCZCXRO6318
RR RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN
RUEHLZ RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHRA #0439 2071454
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
R 251454Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY RIGA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 5111
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS RIGA 000439

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV LG
SUBJECT: Latvia to hold two referenda in August

Ref: Riga 151

1. Summary. Traditionally, the August vacation season has been down
time in Latvian politics, but this year Latvians will be called on
to mobilize twice for public referenda. On August 2, Latvian
citizens will be asked to vote on constitutional amendments
providing voters with the power to dismiss the Saeima (Parliament)
through a national referendum. On August 23 they will vote on
amendments setting the minimum pension at the official subsistence
level. Opinion polls show strong support for both proposed
amendments. However, it is very unlikely that the required minimum
number of people will vote for either of the amendments to become
law.

2. Both draft amendments were proposed by private groups and were
supported by Latvian citizens in signature-gathering drives in
numbers sufficient to place them on the Saeima agenda. The Saeima,
however, voted against both proposed amendments. The ruling
coalition stated that in general it agrees with the proposal that
the Constitution should grant the people the right to initiate
Saeima's dismissal, but objected to the wording of the proposed
amendment, arguing that it was too vague. The main argument against
the pensions amendment was that the proposal is nothing more than
populism and that it would wreak havoc on the national budget.

3. According to Latvian law, after Saeima rejection of both
proposed amendments, the Central Election Commission (CEC) set dates
for holding referenda on the proposals. The CEC noted that it was
legally impossible (because of restrictions on the time between
review by the Saeima and the referendum date) to hold both votes on
the same day, which according to advocates of the amendments would
have increased the turnout and saved state money. It is estimated
that each referendum will cost about 2.1 million lats ($4.7 million
USD).

4. So far, neither advocates of the draft amendments (mostly the
opposition parties) nor the ruling coalition have conducted any
highly visible campaigns for or against the proposed amendments.
The ruling coalition has taken its usual passive stance, limited to
statements that referenda are a waste of money and that they will
not participate in any of them. Meanwhile, almost all opposition
political parties have voiced their support for the proposed
amendments and plan to hold some kind of referendum promotion
campaign. For instance, several opposition parties and well-known
public figures established an NGO called "For the Rights of
People!", to conduct awareness-raising activities to call people to
vote for the proposed constitutional amendments. Contrary to the
ruling coalition, Latvian President Zatlers has clearly voiced his
view that the public and political parties should take active part
in the referenda, though he has not revealed his stances on the
issues discussed.

5. The required level of turnout for the referenda to be considered
valid is very high. In both cases, participation in the vote must
be half of voters who participated in the last Saeima elections.
Additionally, the referendum on the constitutional amendment
requires "yes" votes from half of all eligible voters (756,400).
This number is over 3 times the number of people who participated in
the signature drive for the amendment, and is not far from the total
turnout in the last Saeima elections (908,979).
6. Comment. Considering the high requirement for the number of votes
needed and the fact that August is the most popular month in Latvia
for vacations, it is very unlikely that either of the referendums
will draw the required number of votes to be considered valid and
result in the adoption of the proposed amendments. Thus, the most
significant result of the referenda will probably be the cost of
running the voting. The proposed pension amendment could bolster
political support in the next elections for those political groups
who have aligned themselves with the pension changes. As for the
constitutional amendments on the people's right to dismiss the
Saeima, other legislative initiatives and proposals may follow. For
instance, President Zatlers has voiced that he could also initiate
constitutional amendments regarding Saeima dismissal procedures.

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