Freedom in the World
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The public’s deep distrust of Latvia’s government in the face of a deepening economic crisis was underscored by a major protest in January 2009 which turned violent and resulted in more than two dozen injuries. In response, President Valdis Zatlers issued an ultimatum that the government pass certain reforms or he would call for a referendum to dissolve Parliament. After the government collapsed in February and a new coalition led by the New Era Party was formed the following month, several key reforms were adopted. The new government spent much of the rest of 2009 imposing budget cuts in the midst of an extremely severe contraction of Latvia’s economy.
In the face of a deepening economic crisis, thousands of Latvians marched on the Parliament building in January 2009. The protest began as a peaceful demand for the government’s resignation, but it escalated into the most violent protest the country had experienced since independence after several hundred people threw stones at the Parliament building and looted stores. More than two dozen people were injured, and more than 100 were detained by police. The following day, President Zatlers issued an ultimatum that the government adopt key reforms, including constitutional amendments which would provide for the appointment of a head of the KNAB, allow the public to dismiss Parliament by referendum, and increase oversight of economic development. If the reforms were not passed by the end of March, Zatlers said he would call for a referendum to dissolve Parliament.
The new government spent the rest of 2009 enacting spending cuts as Latvia suffered one of the deepest economic recessions in the world. Real GDP declined by about 18 percent at the end of the year, and unemployment had reached around 20 percent. Meanwhile, public dissatisfaction with the country’s dominant parties continued to increase; the new Civic Union party and Harmony Center led in June European Parliament elections, and Harmony Center also won a majority in Riga’s June municipal elections.
Latvia is an electoral democracy. The constitution provides for a unicameral, 100-seat Parliament (Saeima), whose members are elected for four-year terms. Parliament elects the president, who serves up to two four-year terms. The prime minister is nominated by the president and must be approved by Parliament. The October 2006 legislative elections were free and fair. Resident noncitizens may not vote in either national or local elections.
Women enjoy the same legal rights as men, but they often face employment and wage discrimination. There are 22 women in the 100-member Parliament. Domestic violence is reportedly a serious problem. Latvia is a source for women trafficked for the purpose of prostitution, mostly to Western Europe. In 2009, the government initiated a five-year antitrafficking program in conjunction with domestic NGOs and international organizations.