Thursday, August 28, 2008

Post-referendum notes

The Latvian referendum season is now over and the country is moving on to other exciting things... like over government trying to decide how to cut 1/5 of all programs in 2009 budget, while spending 2.5 mln lats (3.5 mln euro) on renovating president's residence. As usual, everyone is outraged but that doesn't change anything.

The conclusions from the pension referendum:
  1. People don't always vote for more money. Before the referendum, I made a parallel with Hungary which had a referendum on fees for doctor visits and university education this spring and voted for free services, overwhelmingly. Latvia looked like the exact parallel: government saying "The government can't afford that" (higher pensions, in our case), opposition saying "Not it can". The difference was that there was more at stake. The Hungarian fees were quite symbolic, the Latvian pension increase more substantial. Both as a benefit to people and as a cost to state budget. Yet, Latvians did not show up for the referendum. Why?
  2. The government stepped forward. As I described in my previous post, the government did come up with its own pension increase plan, which gave roughly 1/2-2/3 of the increase promised in the referendum proposal. The retirees deserved an increase and they got one, although a smaller one.
  3. Quiet campaign. Unlike with the Constitutional referendum (where I got bombarded with "Dissolve the parliament" message from every billboard and TV ad), this campaign was much quieter. It felt as if many of opposition's parties had quietly agreed that increasing pensions more would indeed increase the already-growing-due-to-recession budget deficit by too much. Some of them stated "We support higher pensions" in one or two interviews but did not really attempt to campaign and make sure that people show up for the referendum. Even Stokenbergs' Society for (not so) different politics spent more than 100,000 lats to advertise for gathering signatures in favour of holding a referendum and less than 10,000 lats to advertise for the actual referendum. Did they disbelieve the proposal, as well?
  4. Referendum fatigue. This is the third referendum in 1.5 years, with the previous two (security laws and Constitutional changes) having no result. There's some point at which people's attention starts to turn off. Latvia may beyond that point.
With referendums over, the Latvian politics looks like it used to be. The government is unpopular and so is the opposition. If they hoped for some political gains, they were wrong. Except for ethnically Russian parties, everyone else in the opposition is now at 2-3% range in opinion polls. More than 50% of Latvians are undecided or not going to vote, and that number has been slightly increasing in the last few months.


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