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EDITORIAL

Constitutional reform: It will have been worth it

Member of Parliament Peter Kresák reminds one somewhat of Wayne Gretzky - hair long at the back and cropped on top. That's where the physical resemblance ends, though. Kresák, a law professor by trade, smokes like a champion, and has never been known for his "wicked slapshot".
But when one reflects on the constitutional amendment (136 changes and counting) he has been largely credited with scripting, the comparison to 'the Great One' doesn't seem so incongruous after all.
Slovakia's existing Constitution, drawn up by a small team of legal 'experts' in 1992 (former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar claimed to be one of them), is simply rotten. It is above all a document that supports centralised state power and is conducive to authoritarian government.

Member of Parliament Peter Kresák reminds one somewhat of Wayne Gretzky - hair long at the back and cropped on top. That's where the physical resemblance ends, though. Kresák, a law professor by trade, smokes like a champion, and has never been known for his "wicked slapshot".

But when one reflects on the constitutional amendment (136 changes and counting) he has been largely credited with scripting, the comparison to 'the Great One' doesn't seem so incongruous after all.

Slovakia's existing Constitution, drawn up by a small team of legal 'experts' in 1992 (former Prime Minister Vladimír Mečiar claimed to be one of them), is simply rotten. It is above all a document that supports centralised state power and is conducive to authoritarian government. During the 1994 to 1998 Mečiar administration, which was responsible for the anti-democratic excesses that saw the country relegated from the NATO and EU expansion 'first division', the Constitutional Court was unable to force the government or parliament to retract legislation that violated the constitution. The Court produced 17 verdicts to this effect during that time, but was consistently ignored by the executive branch (e.g. the decision that then-Interior Minister Gustáv Krajči was obliged to distribute May 1997 referendum ballots containing all four questions on NATO membership and direct presidential elections, which he unsmilingly refused to do).

It was also desperately untried. No one seemed to have spent much time calculating how its provisions would work in practice, leading in 1997 and 1998 to a parliament unable to muster the 90 votes necessary to elect a new president when Michal Kováč's term ended - and no other way of resolving the impasse. Presidential powers thus devolved to the Mečiar government in March 1998, and were used to cancel another referendum (against the Constitution) and to exhonorate those guilty of the 1997 referendum fiasco and the kidnapping of Kováč's son.

The 1992 Constitution also contained communist-era pearls such as "the right to work" and the right to free schooling and medical care. The first 'right' is, of course, unenforceable in a capitalist economy, while the second and third, in preventing official extra billing, have led to corruption and bribery becoming endemic in these sectors, and have made paupers of those of the nation's educators and medical staff not on the take.

It also answered the heady nationalism which attended Slovakia's impending declaration of independence, making the "We" in the preamble who declared constitutional principles as their own "the Slovak nation" rather than a more inclusive "We, the citizens of Slovakia".

Criticising Slovakia's Constitution, of course, is not equivalent to criticising the country itself. It's more a matter of acknowledging that those who wrote the thing seemed to have served many of their own interests, or to have obeyed their communist-fostered instincts (a supreme faith in executive power, a deep suspicion of dispersal of or limits and checks on this power, and a mistrust of Gypsies and Hungarians).

Many in the legal community have called for the Constitution to be scrapped and a new one written, despairing of amending a fundamentally flawed document to reflect the democratic principles espoused in a new century. What Kresák and his co-authors have come up with, though, is a fine effort in a world governed by the limits of what is politically possible.

No, the immunity of members of parliament from prosecution is not to be removed, a decision that renowned Bratislava lawyer Ernest Valko calls "entirely a matter of politics" given that MPs themselves will have to approve the changes. And yes, the right to work, free school and medical care still obtains, given that the former communist SDĽ party is a major part of the ruling coalition (citizens will continue to receive the shop-worn fruits of these rights from the same barren dispensaries as before).

But the amendment gives the Constitutional Court real power to enforce its decisions, widens control on the executive branch, shucks the state of significant duties by bringing government closer to the people, and gives citizens an Ombudsman to complain to (lightening the burden of the listless police).

What's more, it seems that the government will be able to muster all its parliamentary votes (save one disgruntled former Army commander for the SDĽ, who is seeking revenge for not having been appointed as the new Defence Minister) and get the amendment through this month. When one considers that around this time last year Parliamentary Speaker Jozef Migaš and three party sycophants were churlishly preparing to support a vote of no-confidence in their own prime minister, the constitution amendment is a truly encouraging sign that the government has put behind it a troublingly adolescent element.

It will have been worth the wait.

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