Cablegate: Referendum On Popular Rights to Dismiss Saeima Falls Short

DE RUEHRA #0453 2171346
R 041346Z AUG 08



E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Referendum on popular rights to dismiss Saeima falls short
of required turnout

1. Summary. According to provisional results, the August 2
referendum on amending the Constitution to give the public the right
to initiate the dissolution of the Saeima (Parliament) failed to
meet the required voter participation to be considered valid. 43%
of all eligible voters participated in the vote, but this fell short
of the 50% required for a constitutional amendment. Of those who
participated, 97% voted yes to the proposed amendment. Under
Latvian law, the referendum is ruled ineffective and nofurther
action is legally required, however, President Zatlers has announced
that he will convene an extra-ordinary Saeima session (most likely
on August 6) to address the situation. He will likely submit at a
later date his own proposed constitutional amendments on the rights
of the people to initiate a dismissal of Saeima, which were
developed by legal experts on the President's Constitutional
Commission. End summary.


2. 628,831 people (roughly 150,000 short of the required 757,607 -
or 50% of all eligible voters- needed to be valid) participated in
the referendum. 96.75% voted for the proposed constitutional
amendments, while 3% voted against. The August 2 referendum had the
third highest level of participation in Latvia's history, after the
referendum on Latvia's membership in the EU in 2003 and amendments
to the Naturalization Law in 1998.


3. The significant number of people who supported the constitutional
amendments has forced all political forces, even those that
previously did not support the amendments, to voice their readiness
to amend the Constitution and grant Latvian citizens the right to
initiate a dismissal of Saeima (currently only the President can
initiate a dismissal). PM Godmanis, leader of the Union of the
Greens and Farmers Brigmanis, and People's Party Saeima faction head
Kucinskis have said that they are ready to consider/initiate
constitutional amendments on the public's right to initiate a
dissolution of Saeima. The opposition parties, which lobbied for
the amendments, are convinced that the results of the referendum
show extreme frustration with the current legislature and are
calling on President Zatlers to dismiss the 9th Saeima. For his
part, the President announced that he will convene an extraordinary
session of Saeima to discuss the results of the referendum He is
also expected to propose his set of constitutional amendments which
would grant the public the right to initiate a dismissal of the
Saeima (though he has not explicitly called to dismiss the current
Saeima), although this may not happen until the fall. The draft
amendments to be proposed by the President have been drafted by a
widely-respected team of experts on constitutional rights.

4. Comment. Though the August 2 referendum on the constitutional
amendments will be considered legally invalid due to falling short
of the required number of voters, the overall turnout was higher
than expected. This stronger than expected turnout, and the
overwhelming vote in favor by those who did participate, is too
significant to be ignored by Latvia's political forces, and it is
quite likely that some form of amendments to the constitution
granting the public the right to initiate the dismissal of Saeima
may be adopted after all. The fact that the president will likely
submit a draft written by eminent legal scholars is also good
because the version voted on in the referendum drew some criticism
for being poorly worded. Some political experts are containing
their optimism, believing that the support for the constitutional
amendments voiced by the ruling coalition post-referendum does not
mean anything and that they will do everything possible to kill
President Zatlers' amendments in the fall session. On a positive
note, the referendum process exposed some encouraging developments
in Latvian politics, namely that considering all circumstances, the
number of people who voted in the referendum was surprisingly high
(higher than the total number of the voters who voted for the ruling
coalition parties in the last Saeima elections), showing that civil
society is an active force. A well-planned move by investigative
journalists from the Latvian television program "Nothing Personal"
to announce the names of political forces and politicians who had
been funded by indicted Ventspils Mayor Aivars Lembergs, to
represent his interests in Saeima, just a night before the
referendum might have contributed to the higher turnout.


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