(AFP) – Aug 1, 2008
RIGA (AFP) — Latvians were voting Saturday in a referendum that could give the Baltic state's electorate the constitutional right to dissolve parliament, a power supporters say is needed to clip the wings of arrogant politicians.
The drive to give voters the ability to force new elections to the 100-member chamber was piloted by the country's left-wing opposition, riding a wave of public discontent with the centre-right government, which in turn has urged a "no".
"The referendum does not solve anything. It just offers the prospect of a new election," Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis warned on Latvian radio ahead of the vote.
A "yes" would change the constitution to allow referendums on dissolving parliament provided supporters collect the signatures of one-tenth of Latvia's 1.5-million-strong electorate.
The ballot opened Saturday at 7:00 am (0400 GMT) and was due to end at 10:00 pm (1900 GMT), with an initial tally expected an hour later. Official results, however, were not expected to be made public for two weeks.
A recent poll by the Market Data survey institute found 72 percent were likely to vote "yes", and only nine percent "no".
But polling agencies have focused on turnout, seen as the key test.
Under Latvian law, at least half voting-age citizens must take part in a referendum for the result to be valid.
The Market Data poll found that 59 percent of respondents would vote, and 26 percent would stay away.
The "yes" camp also includes campaign groups which say the Latvian scene has become a preserve of self-interested politicians.
"This will make MPs more responsible towards the voters. This will give us an instrument to hold parliament to account," Lolita Cigane, the leader of the Latvian chapter of Transparency International, told AFP.
Ieva, a 29-year-old voter who did not give her last name, backed that view, saying politicians "feel no accountability towards the people".
"The possibility of dismissing parliament would stand as a warning to MPs that they have to take public views into account," she told AFP.
But 59-year-old Anna disagreed, explaining that "parliament is elected once every four years and has to work during that time" and warning that the spectre of lawmakers being kicked out would "destabilise the system".
Latvia, which broke free from the crumbling Soviet bloc in 1991 and joined the European Union in 2004, has suffered regular bouts of political strife over the past two decades.
Its current government is its 14th since independence, with Godmanis, who also steered the country to freedom in the 1990s, seen as a safe pair of hands.
Public discontent came to a head last year under Godmanis' centre-right predecessor, Aigars Kalvitis, whose three years in office made him Latvia's longest-serving premier.
Although Kalvitis was also the first premier to be returned to office at the polls, winning the last parliamentary elections in October 2006, he fell foul of a swathe of the public.
Last October and November, thousands hit the streets of Riga in the largest demonstrations since the anti-Soviet rallies of the late 1980s, protesting against Kalvitis' sacking of the national anti-corruption chief, with whom he had a long-running feud.
Critics claimed the sacking -- after a probe by state auditors exposed the purported misuse of funds by anti-graft officials -- showed Kalvitis' lack of respect for the rule of law because he overstepped his powers to hire and fire officials.
Opponents also charged Kalvitis with paying too little attention to the concerns of ordinary people in Latvia, which tops the EU economic growth table but is also gripped by rampant inflation.
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