Election Referendum on dissolution of Saeima in Latvia

The referendum on dissolution of Saeima will be held on 23 July and it seems that the voters might support Zatlers’ motion to dissolve Saeima. According to the internet poll by TNS Latvia, 84 % of the respondents replied that they would vote for dissolution, while only 4 % would vote against. If Saeima is dissolved, the parliamentary elections will be held no later than 23 September 2011.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 29, 2011

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On 28 May 2011, President Valdis Zatlers addressed the nation and called for a referendum for dissolution of Saeima, the Latvian parliament, just seven months after the parliamentary elections. This step was historic for at least two reasons. First, it was the first time when a President uses the powers vested in him by Article 48 of the Constitution of Latvia. Second, the forthcoming referendum on dissolution of Saeima has good chances to be successful. It means that this might be also the first time in the history of Latvian democracy when Saeima is dissolved.  

The dissolution of Saeima is a risky business for any incumbent President in Latvia. The main reason why Saeima has never been dissolved before is the intricacy of the Constitution. The framers of Latvian Constitution restricted the presidential power to dissolve Saeima by stipulating that only the citizens have the power to dissolve Saeima in a referendum called by the President. However, Article 50 stipulates that if the majority of voters do not support the dissolution of Saeima, the President is considered to be fired.

The reason for calling the referendum, cited by the president, was the failure of Saeima to approve a police search at the home of Ainārs Šlesers, one of the leaders of the party association “For Good Latvia” (PLL) and a successful businessman.

Šlesers is often cited as one of three main Latvian “oligarchs”, i.e. powerful businessmen with a direct (or allegedly direct) influence in the politics. Iveta Kažoka, policy analyst at the think tank “Providus”, notes in her blog that, in Latvian context, the term “oligarch” denotes a person whose personal business and political interests have entangled to such a degree that they can no longer be separated. She notes that there is something “parasitic” in an oligarch’s relations with the state and that “oligarchs” often have become rich due to their political influence. However, the misuse of their political influence for personal gains translates not only in an increased enrichment of “oligarchs”, but also to stop or delay a criminal investigation against them.

This seems to be case with Šlesers, because Latvia’s anti-corruption office, known also as KNAB, had launched an investigation of the corruption allegations implicating Šlesers and also two other “oligarchs” Andris Šķēle and Aivars Lembergs. The president touched this issue in his televised address recalling all the personal sacrifices that the people had made in order to overcome the recent economic crisis: “For whose sake were these sacrifices made? Was it in order to increase the profit of oligarchs, to let the country be robbed, to let rule of law become a meaningless slogan?”

Saeima’s refusal to carry out the search at the home of Šlesers was particularly embarrassing to the Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis and his party “Unity” (V) which gained the largest representation in last year’s parliamentary elections, running on a strong anti-corruption and fiscal austerity platform. Its coalition partner Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS), however, has close ties with Aivars Lembergs and ZZS has recently delayed or stifled many of V’s economic and anti-corruption initiatives. ZZS’ frustrating behavior gave also rise to complaints about the new government’s incapability to govern. This was reflected also in extremely low confidence ratings of Saeima. According to opinion poll by SKDS, only 15 % of respondents rather or absolutely agreed with the statement that the present Saeima works better than the previous, while 52% rather or absolutely disagreed with the statement.     

Zatlers made the decision to call for a referendum in a peculiar political context, just a few days before the presidential elections. According to the Constitution, it is Saeima which elects the president by a simple majority vote. Therefore Zatlers had to ensure a parliamentary support for its candidacy amounting to at least 51 votes. However, only V (33 votes) and PLL (8 votes) gave an explicit support to his re-election. While the radical nationalist party VL-TB/LNNK (7 votes) agreed to support Zatlers, the ZZS (22 votes) seemed, at the beginning, unconvinced and proposed the free vote on the issue. However, it is very doubtful exactly how freely the deputies from ZZS could vote, because, on 23 May, five parliamentarians from ZZS proposed Andris Bērziņš, a wealthy ex-banker, as the alternative presidential candidate.

A few days after Zatlers’ decision to call the referendum, PLL withdrew its wholehearted support to Zatlers and made clear that PLL has decided to allow the free vote over the presidency. Šlesers made clear that he thought Zatlers should involve in politics and compete for the post of prime minister, instead of running for presidency. The pro-Russian party Harmony Centre (SC) did not express its support to either of the candidates and was an effective “king-maker” with 29 votes.

Due to this particular political context, Zatlers’ decision to call for referendum on dissolution of Saeima can be interpreted not only as a reaction against the corrupt influence of “oligarchs” in the politics. Doubtlessly, there were many occasions when the President could have expressed his dislike with the “oligarchic” character of Latvian politics before. There are good reasons to think that Zatlers took this unprecedented step in order to gain political capital by strategically posing as an anti-establishment, anti-oligarch and anti-corruption candidate.

While this strategy has been effective in the previous parliamentary elections in Latvia, it failed absolutely in the presidential elections. Zatlers lost the presidential office to his opponent Bērziņš who won the post with 53 votes on 2 June. After the defeat in elections, Zatlers made an appearance at the presidential palace in Riga to speak with the assembled citizens: “I do not regret a single word that I have said. It is our obligation to express our attitude in the referendum that I have called.”

The strategic interpretation of Zatlers’ decision seems to be confirmed when he made clear that he sees his future in the politics. While V offered Zatlers to top the party’s list in the parliamentarian elections, Zatlers has not decided so far whether to establish a new party or to join to an already existing party.

Zatlers seems to be also the winner of this political crisis. According to the opinion poll by Latvijas fakti, 79 % of voters express positive attitude to Zatlers. The support has increased for V from 11,7 % in May 2011 to 14,7 % and for VL-TB/LNNK from 5,4% to 8,8%. The biggest looser have been ZZS whose ratings dropped from 15,1 % to 10,5 %. The two smaller parties which form LPP would not be elected in Saeima if the parliamentary elections were held in June.

The referendum on dissolution of Saeima will be held on 23 July and it seems that the voters might support Zatlers’ motion to dissolve Saeima. According to the internet poll by TNS Latvia, 84 % of the respondents replied that they would vote for dissolution, while only 4 % would vote against. If Saeima is dissolved, the parliamentary elections will be held no later than 23 September 2011.

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