Trade unions win support for referendum on people’s right to dissolve parliament

On 19 April 2008, the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia concluded its signature collection campaign which sought changes to the country’s Constitution in relation to the right of the people to dissolve parliament. During the campaign, over 250,000 signatures were gathered, 30% more than the figure required to bring about a referendum. The achievement was recognised as a milestone in the development of trade unionism.

Trade unions galvanise civil society towards action

The collection of signatures on the right of the electorate to dissolve Latvia’s parliament (Saeima) began after the trade unions failed to reach agreement with the government on maintaining social dialogue on issues of public importance. Moreover, the government ignored trade union demands with regard to the social partners’ participation in the state budget approval process, setting wages for employees of public sector organisations – such as schools and healthcare institutions – and guarantees to increase these wages. The country’s continued unstable economic situation and the government’s arrogance increased public support for the mass protests organised by the trade unions in the autumn of 2007 and the complex procedures required to amend laws relating to voter initiatives (LV0710029I).

Civil society powers to amend laws

In accordance with these procedures, the electorate can initiate the amendment of laws through a referendum. In order to launch a referendum, the first step is to collect 10,000 voters’ signatures, which have to be affirmed by notaries. Once these have been gathered, they are submitted to the Central Electoral Commission (Centrālā Vēlēšanu komisija, CVK), which then initiates another round of signature collecting on specifically formulated amendments to the law. In the event that a quantity of signatures equivalent to 10% of turnout at the last parliamentary elections is collected, the electorate has confirmed its support for the proposed amendments. Parliament must then either adopt the proposed amendments as formulated for the signature campaign or declare a referendum on exactly this version of the amendments.

In order for a referendum to be valid, at least half of the number of voters at the last parliamentary elections must turn out. For the amendments to be adopted, at least 50% of the voters in the referendum must support them.

Amendment proposals

The amendments to Latvia’s Constitution submitted by the Free Trade Union Confederation of Latvia (Latvijas Brīvo Arodbiedrību savienība, LBAS) propose that the range of matters over which the electorate has the right to decide through the mechanism of a referendum should be expanded to include dissolving the current parliament and electing a new one. At present, only the state president can initiate a referendum to dissolve parliament, and that office is elected by parliament. In the event that voters in a referendum do not support an initiative taken by the president, he or she is removed from office. This condition is a serious impediment to a president taking radical measures.

However, dissolving parliament will still not be an easy process if the amendments become law, as the abovementioned procedures and voting proportions will have to be respected. The same rules apply to other vital issues, for example leaving the European Union.

Thanks to the united action by the trade unions and the public, the signature collection drive was a success. The signatures of over 250,000 citizens of Latvia supporting the amendment of the Constitution were collected within the designated period, exceeding the required number of signatures by more than 30%. The signature campaign concluded on 19 April 2008.

Victory for trade unions

Regarding the signature collection campaign, Chair of LBAS Peteris Krigers commented:

The people have become aware of their strength, and our civic consciousness has increased. The people have unambiguously demonstrated their desire to improve the Constitution; therefore the State President now has the unique opportunity to see this amendment approved by parliament and thereby avoid the need to hold a referendum.

The General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), John Monks, received the announcement sent by LBAS to international organisations about its victory on the referendum. He immediately congratulated the LBAS leadership and Latvian trade unions for their initiative and active stance in influencing national political and economic processes.

Commentary

The trade unions’ achievement is a milestone in the development of civil society in Latvia. During the signature collection, the trade unions emphasised that they are not political organisations and that the campaign was initiated and driven by civil society rather than political parties. The trade unions were compelled to take on the role of leading the process as Latvian civil society does not seem well organised. Due to a lack of funding, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not firmly established in Latvia, while political parties are divided between those with few members and those in power. Between elections, only political parties which have representation in parliament are active in the intervening period.

The trade unions’ success also raised public awareness of the trade unions’ importance in society and generated solidarity between the unions themselves.

Raita Karnite, Institute of Economics, Latvian Academy of Sciences

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