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Vital constitutional reforms passed by parliament

A series of amendments to the Slovak Constitution were approved by the narrowest of margins when 90 of 91 ruling coalition MPs in the 150-seat parliament voted in favour February 23. The reforms are seen as vital to Slovakia's western integration ambitions; the vote capped the longest parliamentary debate in Slovak history, with speeches stretching for 105 hours over three weeks.
The reforms were passed despite wholesale resistance from the opposition. Shortly before the final vote, members of parliament from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS) rose in unison to sing the Slovak national anthem in protest of the vote.
The opposition said it was angry that Speaker of Parliament Jozef Migaš had the day before ended debate on the reforms, announcing the vote even though not all opposition MPs scheduled to speak had taken the podium.


A relieved cabinet (above) applauded the passing of the constitutional amendments while an angry and defeated opposition walked out.
photo: TASR

A series of amendments to the Slovak Constitution were approved by the narrowest of margins when 90 of 91 ruling coalition MPs in the 150-seat parliament voted in favour February 23. The reforms are seen as vital to Slovakia's western integration ambitions; the vote capped the longest parliamentary debate in Slovak history, with speeches stretching for 105 hours over three weeks.

The reforms were passed despite wholesale resistance from the opposition. Shortly before the final vote, members of parliament from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) and the Slovak National Party (SNS) rose in unison to sing the Slovak national anthem in protest of the vote.

The opposition said it was angry that Speaker of Parliament Jozef Migaš had the day before ended debate on the reforms, announcing the vote even though not all opposition MPs scheduled to speak had taken the podium.

When the results of the vote, confirming the passage of the reform, appeared on the electronic tabulation board in parliament, the opposition walked out. Meanwhile, coalition MPs collectively stood and burst into applause.

Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda seemed particularly excited, leaping from his chair and giving a 'high-five' to Peter Kresák, an independent member of parliament who had been the principal author of the constitutional reform.

The amendment, among other changes, establishes an independent Judicial Council aimed at increasing judicial independence, strengthens the powers of the Supreme Control Office and the Constitutional Court, paves the way for a vital reform of public administration, and brings Slovak legislative principles into line with those in the European Union.

International observers congratulated the country's leaders for pushing the reforms through parliament. EC Commissioner for Integration Günther Verheugen said that although the constitutional reform was an internal affair of Slovakia, he was pleased with its passage as it was "crucial for the country's integration ambitions".

EC Spokesman for Enlargement Jean-Christophe Filori also said that the EC was "very satisfied" with the vote, adding that the body was especially gratified that the amendments would enable public administration reform to move ahead. The changes would strengthen Slovakia's judicial independence, he concluded.

Hurdles overcome

The result of the vote had been in doubt for weeks. The coalition almost failed to reach consensus when Jozef Tuchyňa of the ruling Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ) refused to support the reforms. Without Tuchyňa, the coalition held only 90 seats in parliament - the minimum required to pass the reforms - meaning that the coalition could not afford to have even one additional MP dissenting or abstaining.

Tuchyňa said February 21 that he would not support the constitution because "it polarises our society too much, and I don't want to be a part of that". Besides, he added, he had to go abroad on a "working trip" and would therefore not be in parliament for the vote.

The next day, he announced that he was officially leaving the SDĽ's parliamentary caucus to become an independent MP.

In December, Tuchyňa had been selected by the SDĽ to succeed Pavol Kanis as Defence Minister. But due to his Communist army training, he was seen by the coalition as a liability to the country's NATO ambitions.

Political analyst Grigorij Mesežnikov, of the IVO think-tank in Bratislava, said he believed Tuchyňa had not supported the reform because he was still angry over the ministerial snub.

"This was a gross mistake on Tuchyňa's part," he said. "He did this because he has unfulfilled political ambitions resulting from the coalition's refusal of him as the new Defence Minister."

SDĽ head Migaš said he was disappointed with Tuchyňa. "I prefer real men in politics, not someone who changes his view after something happens to them," he said.

Coalition unity faced other threats during the debates, as individual government parties pushed for additional special interest reforms to the original proposal. The most controversial overture was put forth by the Christian Democratic Party (KDH), which lobbied for the inclusion of a ban on abortions.

The KDH proposal was voted on in parliament February 23 but fell short of the required 90 votes needed, gaining only 59.

Notwithstanding the occasional hiccup, Mesežnikov said, the end result showed that the coalition could "unite at key moments", despite the efforts of individual parties to "make themselves visible to the electorate during the debates, such as the KDH's abortion ban proposal".

Coalition relief

Having successfully passed the reforms, members of the coalition said they were gratified and relieved that the long debates had been concluded.

"We've gone through some extremely stressful times here over the past few weeks," Dzurinda said to journalists moments after the vote. "But I'm glad we have this majority in parliament, and that we've used it for the good of the citizens of this state."

The SDĽ's Migaš said that after the "three week parliamentary marathon" he was "tired but happy".

"This was the longest and the most expensive parliamentary debate in the history of Slovakia," he said, noting that the proceedings had been televised in their entirety by the public Slovenská Televízia (Slovak Television - STV) at an estimated cost of 3.78 million Slovak crowns ($78,800).

Béla Bugár, Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) head and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, said that the debates had featured 79 speeches, of which 57 were delivered by opposition deputies whose "critical contributions often lasted longer than an hour, but still failed to deliver concrete suggestions for improvement".

Moreover, Bugár continued, there had been 1,473 reactions to speeches (which are limited to two minutes in length), also delivered mainly by the opposition.

Opposition ire

The opposition held a different opinion on the passing of the reforms. HZDS representatives said they were angered that the opposition had been "ignored" throughout the reform process, and that they had not even been invited to participate in the drafting of the amendments.

"The opposition was ignored in an inhuman and undignified manner," said HZDS deputy Vojtech Tkáč. "The coalition was aware of their majority in parliament, and they decided they didn't 'need' us for the passage of the constitution."

He added that the opposition was convinced that the new constitution would "improve nothing for the citizens of this country". His party colleague Ivan Gašparovič warned that the opposition took their exclusion from the process as a "mandate to change the constitution in the future."

The IVO's Mesežnikov said he was not surprised by the opposition's critical stance on the reform's passage.

"The constitutional reforms introduce increased democratic measures, create conditions for the decentrali-sation of state powers, create checks against potential political misuse of institutes like amnesty-giving," he said. "In general, these are principles which aren't in line with how the HZDS and the SNS do politics."

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