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MP truancy is "outrageous"

Slovak members of parliament are making few friends among the public these days. Paid over three times the national average wage, MPs frequently fail to show up for work, holding up important parliamentary business such as passing laws crucial for EU and NATO entry, as well as solving the country's record unemployment.
To make matters worse, MPs have complained about poor job conditions, drawing a storm of abuse from a public which considers their jobs luxurious as it is.
Marián Mesiarik, an MP for the ruling coalition Party of Civic Understanding, complained of poor working conditions in parliament on March 20, saying he spoke for over 30 of his colleagues. That same day, however, the scheduled parliamentary session was called off when not enough MPs showed up for work. The following day's sitting was also cancelled.


Political analysts and MPs themselves say that parliament is all too often largely vacant.
photo: TASR

Slovak members of parliament are making few friends among the public these days. Paid over three times the national average wage, MPs frequently fail to show up for work, holding up important parliamentary business such as passing laws crucial for EU and NATO entry, as well as solving the country's record unemployment.

To make matters worse, MPs have complained about poor job conditions, drawing a storm of abuse from a public which considers their jobs luxurious as it is.

Marián Mesiarik, an MP for the ruling coalition Party of Civic Understanding, complained of poor working conditions in parliament on March 20, saying he spoke for over 30 of his colleagues. That same day, however, the scheduled parliamentary session was called off when not enough MPs showed up for work. The following day's sitting was also cancelled.

Absenteeism, political analysts and MPs themselves admit, is common among Slovakia's legislators. But is it a case of laziness, or, as the opposition asserts, the use of "a legitimate political tool" to forestall government laws that the opposition does not agree with? And with the nation's business bearing the brunt of MPs' behaviour, does their reasoning matter?

"Slovakia is behind on its legislative agenda for EU and NATO entry, and this is partly due to the lack of discipline shown by MPs", said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Bratislava-based Institute for Public Affairs think tank. "Regardless of whether MPs represent opposition or government parties, they have to remember they bear responsibility for acting in the country's best interests."

Whys and wherefores

The opposition, whose MPs have the worst attendance records (see chart), defends its record as natural given their deep objections to the way the government is running the country. Tibor Cabaj, head of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) parliamentary caucus, which with 43 MPs is the largest in parliament, said April 3 it was "an MP's right - not a duty - to attend these meetings".

As the bell rang for parliament to begin its scheduled session that day, only 18 MPs were present in the chamber. A debate on Slovakia's 20.8% unemployment rate, set for 21:00, had to be abandoned at 19:30 for the scarcity of MPs present in the chamber.

"The HZDS has purposely not attended some parliamentary meetings," Cabaj said. "But this is because we were protesting against the ruling coalition and the decisions it was making in parliament. This is a legitimate political tool."

Passage of laws requiring changes to the Slovak Constitution needs 90 of the total 150 MPs to vote in favour. For other laws, the support of a simple majority of MPs present (with a minimum attendance of 76 necessary to hold the vote) is required for approval.

Thus, when less than 76 coalition MPs show up in parliament (the coalition holds 91 seats), the opposition can force the session to be cancelled by not coming in to work, thereby blocking the business of parliament, if only temporarily.

It's a tactic the opposition has embraced since 1998 elections. Mesežnikov said the opposition had "frequently taken advantage of the fact that there were less than 76 coalition deputies in attendance. When this happens, all the opposition has to do is simply not present themselves."

Cabaj said that his party's voters understood and supported the HZDS' tactics. "When we meet people outside Bratislava we get positive reactions," he said. "People understand that we have no choice but to obstruct parliamentary sessions."

But Cabaj said that HZDS had a rule governing absences not mandated by party strategy, according to which he could fine MPs up to 2,000 Slovak crowns per day ($40) for not attending sessions. MPs are paid 35,400 crowns ($720) per month, over three times the national average. Cabaj would not say if he had yet to issue any fines.

While Mesežnikov faulted the HZDS for not attending to the nation's business for reasons of party strategy, however, it is clear the opposition tactics could not succeed were ruling coalition MPs to show up for work on a more regular basis.

This is a truth coalition members admit. Gyula Bárdos, leader of the government Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK) parliamentary caucus, said: "Absenteeism has frequently been raised at coalition meetings. Not only is it an MP's duty to attend parliamentary sessions, but that MP must also be an active participant."

The attendance and activity of SMK MPs were monitored by party leaders, he continued, with MPs showing poor results potentially not being nominated by the party for election during the next trip to the ballot boxes.

Despite the good intentions of caucus leaders, however, the problem has proven difficult to combat. SMK chairman and Deputy Speaker of Parliament Béla Bugár said individual parties could levy fines, but the Speaker of Parliament himself had no power to punish absent MPs.

"When the head of a parliamentary caucus says that his deputy will miss the session because he or she was on a field trip, for example, the speaker has to excuse the missing deputy," Bugár said. "But he has no power to check why the MP actually missed the session."

Nor does parliament itself keep 'user-friendly' data on MP attendance rates. Ján Knap, head of the organisational department at the legislature, initially refused to send The Slovak Spectator information on attendance rates, reasoning that the terms of the Freedom of Access to Information Law had only taken effect January 1, 2001, meaning he was not obliged to send data on attendance before this date. When Knap's assistant eventually sent the information, it came in a 20-page e-mail ordered by parliamentary session, rather than by MP or party.

Knap could also not say how many parliamentary sessions had been interrupted or cancelled for low attendance since 1998.

Political analysts say they understand that MPs are busy, but add that they should never skip sessions, especially when crucial laws are being discussed.

"When vital legislation is being discussed in parliament, it's outrageous how relaxed some of these MPs are about their jobs," said Miroslav Kusý, political analyst with Comenius University in Bratislava.

The behaviour of MPs has not impressed the public either. "This kind of work ethic should not be tolerated," said Ivana Dobríková, a secretary in Bratislava who said she was angered by MP absenteeism. "These MPs don't realise that they should be model workers, and that includes attendance. Are they taking their jobs seriously?"

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