IN LATE May, Slovak MPs found themselves debating constitutional changes that comprise the ruling party’s remedies for the judiciary and the conservative definition of marriage, as the changes were tabled much earlier than expected.

Originally slated for discussion at June’s session, the unexpected change of plans prompted both human rights watchdogs and political transparency organisations to call on parliamentarians to slow the process. Opponents range from those that say the changes introduce an exclusivist definition of marriage, and those who disagree with Smer’s judicial reform plans. Dozens gathered in front of the parliament building on May 28 in protest.

Last minute move

The amendment was first introduced in the run up to the presidential election jointly by the ruling Smer party and the opposition Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), in what observers called an attempt to promote the parties’ respective candidates, Prime Minister Robert Fico and KDH MP Pavol Hrušovský.

Security clearances for judges, one of the main changes introduced by the revision, have been a bone of contention, with the KDH originally saying they would not support them. That was the reason why parliament was scheduled to debate the draft amendment no earlier than June. Smer and the KDH made a last-minute decision during the May parliamentary session to put the amendment on the programme on May 29. The decision that was criticised as too quick, came two months after the presidential election.

The KDH and Smer unexpectedly wrapped up their talks on May 27 and presented the final draft amendment to the other opposition parties just hours before the evening session of parliament’s constitutional affairs committee, which passed it to the plenum for debate on May 29.

The Fair-Play Alliance watchdog group criticised the way Smer and the KDH debated the amendment as non-transparent and arrogant to both citizens and judges.

“Both parties lead behind-the-scenes talks about such serious changes, they do not publish their outcomes at all and make them available to their fellow MPs in the last moment only, they do not allow any public or expert discussion and they put the constitutional changes on the programme from one day to another,” Zuzana Wienk of the Alliance told the media on May 27, calling it “an approach worthy of Vladimir Putin”.

Clearances a concern

The amendment joins two unrelated issues. While the KDH brought up the traditionalist definition of marriage as a unique bond between a man and a woman to be grounded in the Constitution, Smer proposed several changes that were to be part of reforms to the judiciary.

Opposition Most-Híd MP Lucia Žitňanská reacted to the development, saying that the proposed changes will stop the judiciary from opening up to public control, a tendency which she as a minister under the government of Iveta Radičová introduced and which now allowed, for instance, the public to put pressure on the Judicial Council and eventually prevent Štefan Harabin from getting re-elected into the top justice post.

“The amendment goes against the concept of an open judiciary,” Žitňanská told a press briefing on the morning of May 28, explaining that the most important measure that the amendment introduces - security clearances for judges - mean that evidence on judges and voting on their trustworthiness will take place behind closed doors.

“Who will guarantee the public that only dishonest judges will be excluded and that there won’t be those politically uncomfortable judges or the real fighters against the local clans, among them?” she asked.

Justice Minister Tomáš Borec does not share these concerns.

“I’m convinced there are respective assurances to make sure abuse does not occur,” Borec said, as quoted by the SITA newswire, explaining that a judge who is not deemed eligible for a judicial post will be able to appeal to the Constitutional Court.

Another former justice minister, Daniel Lipšic of the NOVA party, on the other hand, proposed top-secret-level security clearances by the National Security Authority (NBÚ) to assess the character of the judges and make sure they have not had problems with corruption and they do not have links with the underworld. According to Lipšic’s proposal, all judges should be required to ask for a security clearance within three years since the amendment becomes effective.

The Fair-Play Alliance also expressed worries about how security clearances for judges could be easily abused.

“Besides, their trustworthiness is questionable due to the fact that Štefan Harabin, too, has a clearance,” Wienk told the media.

Secular character of laws

Meanwhile, LGBTI rights organisations and other NGOs protested against the definition of marriage that the KDH endorsed as part of the joint draft amendment. On May 28, when parliament debated the amendment, they organised a protest gathering in front of the parliament building, which dozens of people attended to express their dissatisfaction about including the definition of marriage in the constitution. The organisers voiced concerns that such a move would turn any family arrangements other than so-called traditional marriages (single parent families, divorced families, etc) into second-class families.

The ETHOS civic association recalled in its reaction that based on the constitution, Slovakia as a state “is not bound with any ideology or religion” and that based on the international documents of which Slovakia is a party, any laws or policies that are related to morals and traditional values cannot be based on one tradition and one religion only.

“The amendment introduces into our constitution a principle based on the Church’s moral condemnation of ‘unsettled relationships’ (unmarried couples, single parents, divorced people etc), which is absolutely unacceptable in a modern democratic state,” ETHOS head Ivan Hamráček wrote in the statement.

On May 22, the government’s advisory bodies, the Labour Ministry’s Gender Equality Committee and the government’s Human Rights Council debated the proposed amendment.

The committee expressed concerns about the proposed definition of marriage as one that is not in accordance with one of the main principles of the Family Law, which secures protection to all forms of families. The committee believes that such a provision in the law could seriously threaten the already existing pro-family policies of the state, among them those protecting single parents or divorced parents and their children, its deputy chair Adriana Mesochoritisová wrote.

The Committee did not recommend that parliament pass the proposed revision.