Cablegate: Zatlers Ups Pressure On Parties to Allow Public to Dismiss

DE RUEHRA #0726 3311323
R 261323Z NOV 08



E.O. 12958: N/A

1. Summary: Latvia`s president Valdis Zatlers, who has so far
struggled to find his signature issues in domestic politics, has
seized on the idea of amending the constitution to allow the public
to initiate a dismissal of Saeima. It is tough because the
amendments must be passed by Saeima and Zatlers' options to force
action are limited. While he could call for dismissing Saeima, this
would be difficult in Latvia's current economic crisis, but the
president is earning respect from even former critics for his stand
on this issue. End summary.

2. Currently, the constitution allows to President to initiate
dissolution of Saeima at any time and for any reason. If he does
so, the question is put to a referendum and if it passes, new
elections are called. If it fails, the President is removed from
office and the Saeima elects a new head of state.

3. Growing public discontent with the actions of the current Saeima,
most notably the dismissal of the anti-corruption chief, resulted in
an August referendum on amendments to the constitution designed to
give voters the authority to disband the parliament. Despite legal
criticism of the drafting of the amendments as ambiguous, the
proposal ultimately failed only because of the constitutional
requirement that more than 50% of citizens eligible to vote must
cast ballots in favor of a constitutional amendment proposal for it
to pass. This threshold was narrowly missed, with more than 40% of
eligible voters supporting the amendments. Coalition parties, which
had opposed the amendment, responded to the public support by
agreeing to draft a new version of amendments giving the public the
right to initiate a dismissal of Saeima. President Zatlers announced
his support for the idea and urged action by the end of the year,
but a parliamentary subcommittee quickly deadlocked.

4. Unexpectedly, Zatlers used his speech on the 90th anniversary of
the founding of the Latvian state to call for the Saeima to move
quickly to adopt the amendments. What is normally a hortatory
address on Latvian history and culture took on a political tone that
was well received by the crowd gathered by the Freedom Monument.
The President followed it up by calling in the heads of all parties
in Saeima to hear their views on the issue and call for action.

5. The challenge Zatlers faces is that constitutional amendments
require a 2/3 majority in Saeima and, rhetoric aside, it is unclear
whether even a majority of Saeima support the concept of a publicly
initiated dissolution. And even among supporters, there is no
agreement on the details, especially on the minimum required
participation of voters in a recall vote.

6. Beyond the bully pulpit, though, Zatlers has few levers to call
for action. He does have the right to submit a proposed text for
the amendments, but he runs the risk of whatever wording and
structure he chooses being immediately associated with one of the
political parties, which could make it difficult for him to find the
2/3 majority needed for adoption. Instead, the President has
submitted "guidelines" of what he would like to see without getting
in to too many specifics. His ultimate weapon would be to call for
a dissolution of Saeima and the necessary referendum, which he would
almost certainly win. But that would leave Latvia with a caretaker
government and legislature that could only meet on issues the
President proposes for as much as six months, something that could
be very risky and cumbersome in the current economic situation

7. There is a possibility that two-thirds of Saeima could agree to
amendments that change the President's role in the process. One
possibility would be to remove the requirement for the President to
go to a referendum or risk his job when calling for a dissolution,
but limit the circumstances and times when he could dissolve
parliament. This is unlikely to satisfy the public, who are
suspicious that Saeima would ever elect a President willing to use
this power.

8. Comment: The Latvian president is a primarily ceremonial role and
the incumbent has to define his role in Latvian politics himself.
Zatlers' predecessor, Vaira Vike-Freiberga, earned public
appreciation for her success on the international stage and her
tough lines against corruption at home. Zatlers has so far struggled
to define his role and earn public trust. The constitutional
amendments seem to be the area of domestic policy he has decided to
devote political capital to address. If Saeima passed the
amendments and granted voters the desired chance to disband the
parliament, Zatlers could with good reason claim it was his
achievement. But getting to that point is very hard and the
President runs the risk that if he fails at this, his influence and
stature would decline.


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