Sunday, February 17, 2008

Referendum time?

Latvian Constitution allows popularly initiated referendums but the procedure is quite complicated. For the first stage, the proposal for the referendum needs to gather 10,000 signatures. If the signatures are gathered and verified by Central Electoral Committee, the process passes into the second stage. The Latvian government takes over the signature gathering process and it has to open places in every town and village where people can sign in favour of the referendum. If in one month, 10% of eligible voters sign, a referendum is held.

In practice, most of referendum ideas don't get out of the first stage. Since our independence in 1991 until last year, we' ve only had two proposals gathering 10,000 signatures. One, in early 1990s, was attempting to make citizenship laws extremely strict and fell slightly short of 10% in the second round. The other, by Social Democrats in 2000, was a law prohibiting the privatization of the national energy company, Latvenergo. It successfully passed both stages.

Now, we have two legislative proposals heading into the second stage of this process at the same time. The first proposal was born during the anti-government protests of last year. It would amend the Latvian constitution to allow for dissolution of parliament and early elections via a referendum (initiated through a similar 10,000-and-then-10% signature process). The main parties behind the proposal are Latvian trade unions and Aivars Endzins, the former judge and opposition's presidential candidate in 2007. Some of signatures were gathered during the anti-government protests, the rest throughout the fall and the winter.

The Central Electoral Committee has now successfully validated the signatures and the second stage will begin on March 12. If it succeeds, we can expect a referendum in June or July. And, if the referendum succeeds, I expect an attempt to dissolve the current parliament via the new law. And if that all works, we'll have early elections sometime in the second half of 2009. (All those signature-gathering processes are quite slow...)

The second proposal would raise the minimum old-age pension from 49 lats (70 euros) per month to 135 lats (190 euros). Latvian salaries have been growing quite quickly since 2000 but the pensions have not and many retirees have trouble making the ends meet (if they don't have children who can help). The signature gathering was started by a group of unhappy senior citizens and, a few days ago, Aigars Stokenbergs-lead "Society for different politics" group (which will likely turn into a left-of-center opposition party soon) stepped in. Now, they have the 10,000 signatures and the next steps will follow soon.

I am generally skeptical of referendums on money issues, since they can lead to people voting for impossible combinations of low taxes and high salaries/benefits. But it's a disgrace for Latvia to have people receiving 70 Euro/month retirement benefits.

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