Under Latvian law, if at least one third of the Saeima's 100 deputies express the desire, prorogation of the law can be temporarily suspended, and lawmakers must then start a public signature collection drive to force a referendum on the matter. In order to be successful and force a referendum, at least one tenth of eligible voters (almost 155,000 signatures) must back the move within one month.
Signature collection started on March 10 and runs until April 8.
However, it was immediately clear that the public has much less interest in the matter than the opposition lawmakers, reported LTV's De Facto on March 20.
From March 10 to March 15, just 846 eligible voters had signed throughout Latvia, which is 0.55 percent of the number of signatures required for initiating a referendum.
"The law on ports is difficult for an ordinary voter and everyday citizen to understand. The amendments are over 20 pages. There is a need for explanatory work," said Kristīne Bērziņa, Chairwoman of the Central Election Commission (CVK), which is responsible for implementing elections and referendums, about the low turnout.
Unlike elections, the CVK cannot actively encourage the public to participate in signature collection drives. But if even the politicians who endorsed the collection of signatures don't even bother to promote it, activity will inevitably remain low.
The month-long constitutional administrative process is expected to cost 828,952 euros of which 576,390 is required for the salaries of signature collectors and other officials. Official signature collection points have even been estalished overseas.
In all, 296 signature collection points have been established for the collection of signatures, of which 265 signature collection points are in Latvia and 31 signature collection points abroad. To date, not a single voter has taken the opportunity to sign at one of the signature collection points established abroad. Signature collection places in Latvia work four hours a day, also on weekends, during the working hours set by the municipal election commissions. Information on the addresses and working hours of the collection places is available on the website of the Central Election Commission (CEC) , as well as by calling the CEC reference phone 67049999. 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Information on the places where signatures are collected is also available in municipalities.
"I don't know, I think that the amount could be spent somewhere else more efficiently," said the chairwoman of the CVK. However, once started, it is not possible to cancel the collection of signatures.
The main opponents of the law change are the Greens and Farmers Union (ZZS), long linked with associated "Latvia and Ventspils" party boss Aivars Lembergs, a convicted criminal currently serving a five-year sentence and under U.S. sanctions.
Asked whether the money spent on collecting signatures could not be spent more efficiently, the chairman of the ZZS Saeima faction Uldis Augulis answered that the future of ports is an important issue. If Russia had not started a war in Ukraine, there would be more people willing to sign up. Now people have other news, Augulis suggested.
ZZS alone would not have been able to force the issue to the signature collection stage. It was supported by another opposition party, Harmony, as well as a few independent deputies who perhaps saw an opportunity to thumb their noses at the ruling coalition.
"There is a saying that democracy and the rule of law come at a high cost," said Valerijs Agešins, a prominent member of Harmony, who repeated a call for people to sign up. He believes that people should be given a say. Agešins said that the municipalities of Rīga and Ventspils had made great efforts to develop the ports, but now the state will come and spoil their work.
In recent years, however, large ports, which were dependent on Russian and Belarusian cargo, have not been doing too well and the impsition of historic sanctions against both countries for their democratic failings and connivance in the invasion of Ukraine are unlikely to revive the ports' fortunes any time soon. The Port of Ventspils has accumulated a debt of 30 million euros, which the state will now have to deal with.
The collection of signatures against changes in the management of the ports of Rīga and Ventspils will take place until April 8. The most active signatories so far are in Ventspils – but even there the number represents little more than 1% of those entitled to vote.
Latvian citizens from the age of 18 have the right to participate. To participate in the collection of signatures, a passport of a Latvian citizen or an identity card of a Latvian citizen must be presented. Participation in the collection of signatures is possible only by signing in person.
"It is important to note that the collection of signatures takes place in order to decide on a referendum to repeal this law. If the voter supports the adoption and entry into force of this law, then it is not necessary to participate in the collection of signatures. On the other hand, if the voter believes that the law should not enter into force and supports the holding of a referendum on the repeal of this law, then they must go to sign," explains the CVK.
You can read the amendments which seem to be generating such minimal public interest here: “Amendments to the Law on Ports”.
In the unlikely event that 154,868 voters sign the referendum proposal by April 8, the CVK will have to announce a referendum on the matter within three days, which must take place no earlier than one month and no later than two months after promulgation. That, inevitably, will involve a whole new set of administrative and electoral necessities being enacted at even greater expense, the net result of which could very easily be support for the original law and a return to square one.
There does remain one potential way out of this labyrinthine procedure. The constitution provides that a referendum on a suspended law shall not take place if the Saeima votes on it again and if not less than three quarters of all deputies are in favor of its adoption – but that would require at least eleven opposition Saeima deputies to switch sides.
The most likely outcome remains a general lack of interest resulting in the existing laws being promulgated later than originally planned and 800,000 euros being wasted.