RIGA, Latvia — 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 some 73 percent of ballots counted, 94.7 percent of voters supported the legislature’s dissolution, according to Central Election Commission data early Sunday, setting the stage for a snap parliamentary election in September.
It was the first such referendum since the Baltic country of 2.2 million people broke away from the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
The dissolution is a victory for Valdis Zatlers, the man who risked his presidency — and lost it — when he called for the referendum in May after lawmakers blocked an anti-corruption probe involving lawmaker, Ainars Slesers, who is known for his cozy relations with businessmen.
The following week lawmakers struck back by rejecting Zatlers’ re-election bid and instead installed challenger Andris Berzins to the presidency.
Zatlers could be vindicated again in the upcoming election, since the party he just formed — Zatlers’ Reform Party — is poised for a strong showing in the upcoming election.
The party, which held its inaugural congress Saturday, is tied for first place in opinion polls with the center-left Harmony Party
Many Latvians share Zatlers’ concerns that wealthy businessmen-politicians — known as oligarchs — have too much influence on lawmaking and the courts in the tiny country of 2.2 million people.
Inara Slucka, who was headed to a voting station Saturday, said she would vote for sacking legislators. “It’s a new opportunity to change the situation, to do something about corruption, which is problem number one in Latvia,” she said.
Prime Minister Valdis Dombrovskis said he voted to boot Parliament, 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.
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 €7.5 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.