Central Europe Review: politics,

society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 22
22 November 1999

The Amber Coast T H E   A M B E R   C O A S T:
Latvia's Campaign Against Democracy

Mel Huang

In the past few weeks, against the backdrop of a national referendum on proposed amendments to the law on pensions, the development of Latvia's political culture took an abrupt and disastrous turn. With the pension system collapsing in on itself, the government passed a set of unpopular changes to the law, namely the gradual rise of retirement age to 62 and the restriction of payments for working pensioners. The opposition managed to push through enough support to stage a referendum, which spurred the head of Latvia's government to employ some very anti-democratic methods in order to quash this unexpected setback.

Andris Skele

Prime Minister Andris Skele, a vehement opponent of the referendum, took an unprecedented step and told people not to vote. With fears on the horizon that election turnout could steadily drop, as it did in neighbouring Estonia, such a suggestion by the head of the government is irresponsible and reprehensible. And yet, when the turnout came in at a miserably low 25 per cent, Skele hailed the success of the democratic process.

Beyond that, the Skele-led government created a near constitutional crisis by trying to circumvent the entire referendum process. Following the success of opposition groups in organising a referendum on the government-sponsored changes to the law on pensions, the government passed a different, watered-down set of changes to the same law. In other words, discarding the referendum results and making a sham of the process.

The referendum process

The Latvian Constitution is among the most liberal and oldest basic laws in Europe. Adopted in February 1922, it still features some of the provisions that had failed the test of time in inter-war Europe. One such provision is the possibility to stage referenda. Along with subsequently passed laws, one way of forcing a measure to referendum is via parliamentary support. If more than one-third of the membership of the Saeima - that is, 34 out of 100 members - signs a petition, then authorities must organise a petition drive. If more than ten per cent of eligible voters sign such a petition, then a national referendum on the issue is held.

In the case of the referendum on changes to the law on pensions, the process followed such a path. The centre-right government of Andris Skele passed a set of changes to the law that angered the opposition. Despite the ruling coalition, with its 61 seats, having a commanding majority, more than one-third of the Saeima in the opposition managed to move the dispute to a petition drive. Although response was slow at first, a spurt at the finishing line pushed the signatures far above the needed ten per cent, or 134,195 eligible voters.

On referendum day, 13 November, a whopping 94.18 per cent of the voters who cast their votes made their displeasure known by voting against the government-sponsored changes. However, on the downside, the overall turnout was a mere 25.08 per cent. As this failed to reach the minimum criterion, which states that turnout must be at least half that of the turnout of the last parliamentary elections (the referendum turnout made up only 32.25 per cent of the last parliamentary turnout), the referendum was declared null and void. Nevertheless, the opposition hailed the overwhelmingly negative result of the vote as a sign of the government's unpopularity; the government stressed that the low turnout meant the referendum was useless.

Risking democracy

Latvia is in line with the majority of the world's democracies in not enforcing mandatory voting. Therefore, voter turnout will always be an issue, whether the vote is for a referendum, parliament or local council. Over the past nine years, since the restoration of independence, a clear trend, as in nearly every country in the region, has been the political alienation of a growing number of eligible voters. Turnout continues to drop, as the novelty of democracy wears off and both apathy and antipathy increase.

Before and after the referendum, Prime Minister Andris Skele made many comments about it. Prior to voting, he told people not to vote, calling it "unnecessary"; after the referendum, Skele scolded the opposition, saying that referenda should only be used "properly." An even more worrisome comment came from Welfare Minister Roberts Jurdzs, who - with his job now saved - suggested that the referendum result "will be healthy for the entire society." Also, it really did not help when President Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who lived in Canada nearly all her adult life, added: "Not going to the referendum was, so to say, one way of voting." Canadian civics teachers would no doubt have a stroke upon hearing that.

This is exactly why it is reprehensible and irresponsible that Andris Skele, the prime minister of the country, could advocate not voting. Spoiling a ballot is a different story, but by not voting, citizens forsake their responsibility as members of a democratic society. Prime Minister Skele has always been accused of being less than democratic in his style of rule, but this has been thus far the biggest and most overt example of this tendency. He jeopardised the development of his nation's political culture just to remove a nuisance from his side. This move has also cheapened the institution of referendum, which could spark trouble if opposition groups decide to fold their arms and abuse the simple process of initiating them.

Making a mockery of the system

Even before Skele went out and told people not to vote, he had already made a mockery of the Latvian constitutional system by circumventing the referendum. Skele was no doubt livid after the opposition succeeded in raising the ten per cent support needed for the referendum; he stated that he had underestimated the discord among the public. However, his government then controversially introduced a new and softer version of the same changes to the law on pensions and railroaded it through the Saeima, which Skele and his coalition control.

The approval of the new set of changes placed President Vaira Vike-Freiberga in a strange and confusing situation. The opposition begged her not to promulgate the new changes, citing a possible constitutional crisis and moral dilemma in passing a law that was being blocked by a referendum campaign. Cleverly, the government drafted the law so it would take effect only if the voters decided in favour of keeping the changes - thus taking some of the fuel of the referendum campaign away from the opposition. There was also the chance of a legal quagmire ensuing in the event of the other possible scenarios, such as an annulled vote. However, the President wisely did not promulgate the changes and stated that she would do no such thing until the referendum results had been finalised. But the Skele government managed to control the situation despite the referendum results.

Too late for damage control?

Is it too late to control the damage done not by the referendum but by the reaction of Prime Minister Skele and his government to it? Will this adversely affect turnout in the future, especially for referenda? What happens if such a scenario repeats itself several times a year, whenever the government chooses to swipe away a nagging thorn in its side with the same "don't vote" suggestion.

Prime Minister Skele and his government should take a long look at the events surrounding the law on pensions and weigh carefully the damage they have caused to Latvia's still-growing political culture. The last few months have stymied, if not pushed back, the development of this fragile part of Latvian society. Voting is an important part of any democracy and must be nurtured; Prime Minister Skele should have realised that before waging such an "unnecessary" campaign.

Mel Huang, 18 November 1999

Archive of Mel Huang's Amber Coast articles.



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