Greenpeace/Vidmantas Balkūnas
A few days before the referendum Greenpeace flew an airship over Vilnius calling to say „NO“ to nuclear power. | © Greenpeace/Vidmantas Balkūnas

Lithuanians have voted for a future without nuclear power. However, will the referendum decision prevail over political agenda?

Gintare Jonusauskaite, Baltic Environmental Forum Lithuania, gintare.jonusauskaite@bef.lt

Just a month ago, on 14 Oct 2012, the Lithuanian nation voted for a new Parliament and participated in a referendum regarding the construction of a new nuclear power plant. The changes in the new Parliament were by and large as expected: left wing and populist parties have received more than half of all the votes and are likely to form a government coalition, thus making the last administration led by the conservative party to move to opposition. Unlike the parliamentary elections, the results of the referendum have brought quite a few surprises to be discussed below.

Nuclear issue is important for citizens

The first surprise was that this referendum has attained a sufficient participation rate for its results to be legitimate. Judging from the records of the past decade, Lithuanians cannot boast being active voters. Be in parliamentary, municipal or even presidential elections, the participation rate more often than not has stayed under 50%. These historical trends made many worried that the 50% participation quota for a referendum will hardly be attained. However, 53% of eligible voters have come to vote on nuclear power future in Lithuania.

It was the first time in Lithuania, since its independence in 1991, that a referendum on a question, upon which the main political parties disagree, has gathered enough votes to be decisive. The only other referendums that turned out to be successful were held on widely publicly accepted issues, like voting on: the acceptance of Lithuanian Constitution in 1992, the withdrawal of the Soviet army in 1992, and on the entrance into the European Union in 2003. Obviously, the issue of nuclear power has become important enough for a bigger part of the nation, and they have come to put their opinion forward.

Two of three voters say: “NO!”

The second astonishing outcome of the referendum is that 63% of voters said “NO” to further developments of a new nuclear plant. The expectations of the results were not that optimistic, since surveys showed about 30% of voters being without a firm position on nuclear power. A bigger share of respondents always indicated a negative attitude towards a new nuclear energy project; however, heated public debate could always mix the cards.

Many concerns were raised due to an overwhelming media campaign on the nuclear issue, which was publicly funded. It was dominated by pro-nuclear advertisements, one-sided expert interviews, while lacking an open attitude to information sharing and fruitful pros and cons discussion of possible energy futures. The most staggering move of the government was employing the fear of Russia element into this campaign. Often anti-nuclear campaigners were publicly accused of alleged links to Russian interests and disseminating ideas that are threatening to national security. Such a strategy to convince Lithuanian public to go nuclear did not pass unnoticed by Greenpeace international (see their reflection). They have sent an official letter to the Prime Minister of Lithuania inviting to discuss nuclear issue relying on facts rather than propaganda accusations. There was no official reply to this letter or a change in the nuclear advocate’s debate strategy. In spite of rather chaotic debates, Lithuanian citizens have made their choice very clear.

Consultative or mandatory?

The third reason to be surprised is the vast misunderstanding, into which the new Lithuanian government has put itself.

It was the same left wing political parties that are now likely to form a government who supported a notion in the Parliament to hold this referendum. It must be stated that prior to the vote in the Parliament, two citizen campaigns have been trying to initiate a referendum by collecting the necessary 300 thousand signatures. Though both citizen initiatives haven’t reached their targets, they did give rise to the wider nuclear discussion in the public, and have triggered the proposal in the Parliament. However, it seems that the politicians had proposed a referendum without fully inspecting its legal implications.

According to the Law of Referendum, there can be two types of referendum in Lithuania: mandatory and consultative. A mandatory referendum must be held whenever certain specified questions, concerning Lithuania’s sovereignty, membership in the international unions, or changes in the Constitution statements, are considered. These decisions cannot be made in any other way but a mandatory referendum. A referendum on any other question can be organized when the Parliament, the President proposes it or when 300 thousand of citizen signatures are collected. If a certain legislative document is developed and proposed for a referendum-based decision, it is a mandatory referendum and the proposed legislative document becomes approved as a result of the voting. Meanwhile, consultative referendums are organized when a certain question is posed for the nation to decide, but the Parliament has a right to choose in what legal form to implement the decision within a month after the referendum.  Notably, if voters’ participation quota is met, all decisions made either through mandatory or consultative referendums are imperative to be implemented in the legislation.

One may argue that the term consultative referendum can be slightly misleading, given the legal implications of its results. And one may joke that the politicians who suggested organizing this referendum, did not read into the law much further than the possible referendum titles. Running up to the voting, most political parties’ leaders were referring to it as an advisory tool to facilitate public discussion on the nuclear energy prospects in Lithuania. However, once the results arrived, the anti-nuclear activists started speaking loudly about the legal implications. The referendum, possibly initiated as a political pre-election campaign, turned out to be strong enough to limit the space for action for the newly elected government regarding nuclear energy development in Lithuania.  

Too good to be true

Environmentalists in Lithuania and abroad have greeted the outcome of the referendum with great enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment. However, soon it appeared this is too good reality to be true and the fight is far from over yet.

Highest profile politicians, including the Prime minister of the last administration as well as the leaders of the parties who initiated this referendum, even the President; neither has referred to the referendum results as legally binding. The leaving Prime Minister keeps speaking about the importance to continue the negotiation with the project developer Hitachi and partner countries. Representatives of the newly elected parties also refer to possibilities of modifying the current project and “asking the people once again” when more precise calculations are present. If the work on Visaginas nuclear plant feasibility study for will be continued, it means that millions from national budget will be allocated on the course of action which the majority of nation disapproves.

 The ignorance of referendum results makes one to question the principles of democratic and legally operating state, and to what extent the opinion of the majority of citizens is respected. Lack of democratic principles in the public discussion has also been observed prior to the election, relating to the accusations of Russian interests. Also there was a worrying incident when two prominent anti-nuclear activists from Belarus, Mr. Mikhail Ulasevich and Ms. Tatjana  Novikova, have been denied an entrance on the Lithuanian boarder, though they were invited to speak at a nuclear conference at the Parliament and had valid visas. In the light of these events, a group of environmental NGOs and activists have presented pro-nuclear campaign leaders with a bunch of teddy-bears reminding them of the recent Swedish protest campaign against lack of freedom of speech in Belarus.

With the new Parliament being just first days in action there can be sensed the calm before the storm. Many decisions are left for them to take. How the outcome of the referendum will be implemented in legislation? How the negotiations with Hitachi will proceed?  What should be told to the countries who intended to be partners in this project? Shall democracy values prevail? There is still time to express solidarity with majority of Lithuanian nation and its choice to stop new nuclear projects.

 

 

To ensure the transparency of the line of thinking provided in this post it must be stated that the author holds personal opinion against nuclear power.

 

 

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