Latvians vote to sack their Parliament

July 23, 2011 - 5:29 PM
Latvia Referendum

Latvians cast their ballot at a polling station during referendum to dissolve Parliament in Riga, Latvia, Saturday, July 23, 2011. It is the first such referendum since the Baltic country of 2.2 million people broke away from the Soviet Union 20 years ago, and if successful, will result in snap parliamentary elections in September.(AP Photo/Roman Koksarov)

RIGA, Latvia (AP) — Latvians voted to sack their Parliament in a historic referendum Saturday as the recession-weary country attempts to dismantle a culture of graft existing between politics and business.

With more than 57 percent of ballots counted, 94.8 percent of voters supported the legislature's dissolution, according to Central Election Commission data, setting the stage for snap a parliamentary election in September.

Only a simple majority was needed to sack Parliament, regardless of voter turnout. Commission data showed that less than 45 percent of registered voters participated.

It was the first such referendum since the Baltic country of 2.2 million people broke away from the Soviet Union 20 years ago.

Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said he voted for sacking the legislature, the Saeima, since a new election would be an "opportunity to ensure that forces supporting the rule-of-law would have a majority" in a new legislature.

The referendum was called for in May when former President Valdis Zatlers used his presidential power to dissolve Parliament — a decision that must be supported by a majority of voters. Zatlers was angered that lawmakers had blocked an anti-corruption probe involving top legislators and businessmen.

The following week, Zatlers lost his re-election bid when legislators — who in Latvia elect the president every four years — opted for challenger Andris Berzins, a millionaire lawmaker.

Many Latvians share Zatlers' concerns that wealthy businessmen-politicians — known as oligarchs — have too much influence in politics through their personal and business links with lawmakers, or by getting into Parliament themselves.

Inara Slucka said on Saturday she would vote for sacking the legislature. "It's a new opportunity to change the situation, to do something about corruption, which is problem number one in Latvia," she said.

Pensioner Andres Apsitis said he would vote against the dissolution since new elections would mean spending money the country doesn't have. "Any new Parliament will not be any better than the old one," he said.

Latvia is emerging from a deep recession that in three years cut nearly one-fourth of economic output.

In December 2008 the European Union and the International Monetary Fund stepped in to rescue the country from bankruptcy with a euro7.5 billion bailout program, but the aid did little to alleviate widespread discontent as the government slashed spending and raised taxes.

Unemployment eventually reached nearly 25 percent, and tens of thousands of people left the country to find work in Sweden, Britain and Ireland.

Politicians anticipated Parliament's demise, and in recent weeks have entered a campaign mode.

Two right-wing nationalist parties — For Fatherland and Freedom and All for Latvia! — have agreed to create an alliance, and on Saturday the ex-president officially formed his own organization, Zatlers' Reform Party, that intends to participate in September elections.