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Latvian vote on sacking parliament falls short

RIGA (Reuters) - A Latvian referendum on whether to give people the right to dismiss parliament outside regular elections failed to win enough backing, but an opposition party said a high turnout showed the legislature should go anyway.

With ballots in 966 of 998 voting centres counted by 2230 GMT, more than half a million people, 591,697, had voted in the Saturday referendum for the right to dissolve parliament.

But this was short of the 757,607, or half the eligible electorate, needed for a constitutional change. Remaining ballots were unlikely to make up the gap.

The vote had tapped into popular discontent with the ruling parties, after allegations of high-level corruption and amid an economic slowdown combined with soaring prices.

“The policies of the parties in power are bankrupt and the president has the chance to do what people asked him to do on November 3 (2007),” Solvita Aboltina, chairman of opposition party New Era, was quoted as saying by newspaper Diena.

She was referring to a protest last year which demanded the president dissolve parliament.

The next election for the 100-seat parliament is due in 2010. The opposition had backed the referendum, but the four-party coalition, led by Prime Minister Ivars Godmanis, was against and had lobbied strongly against it.

The size of the turnout could create pressure for change. A team of experts under President Valdis Zatlers has drawn up more detailed proposals on mechanisms to dissolve parliament, including one involving a referendum.

Latvia has since 2004 been a European Union and NATO member, but living standards are well below those in the West. Critics of parliament accuse it and the government of corruption and working in favour of a select group of businessmen and allies.

Anger has grown as an economic boom, with growth figures in double digits in recent years, has turned into a slump this year due to the credit crunch. Inflation has hit nearly 20 percent.

“I don’t trust politicians. They only lie and steal and make promises they never keep. Now they will be forced to do what they say,” said pensioner Elsa Karpova, 71, after voting.

Others disagreed. “I voted against changing the constitution. It’s good enough. I don’t want Latvia to become like Switzerland where they have to vote all the time to make things happen,” said Maris Aboltins, 28, a computer specialist.

Writing by Patrick Lannin; editing by Andrew Roche