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Public riled by MPs playing hookey

Slovak anger at job absenteeism among the country's politicians deepened August 22 after Viliam Sopko, head of the parliamentary immunity committee and a coalition deputy for the reformed communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), released a report showing a dismal attendance record by some committee members.
The report, which singled out opposition deputies in particular for absenteeism, had been eagerly awaited after the committee's high-profile failure on three separate occasions to pass a decision on taking former secret service boss Ivan Lexa into custody. The sessions on the arrest of Lexa, who is facing charges including the 1995 kidnapping of the then-president's son, Michal Kováč Jr., failed after absences left the committee short of a necessary quorum for the vote.
Sopko's report showed that between November 10, 1999 and August 8 this year the attendance rate for immunity committee meetings ran at 62% overall with the highest attendance of any opposition deputy being that of Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) deputy Tibor Cabaj at 57%. The figure matched the lowest attendance rate of a coalition deputy, Peter Tatár of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK).

Slovak anger at job absenteeism among the country's politicians deepened August 22 after Viliam Sopko, head of the parliamentary immunity committee and a coalition deputy for the reformed communist Party of the Democratic Left (SDĽ), released a report showing a dismal attendance record by some committee members.

The report, which singled out opposition deputies in particular for absenteeism, had been eagerly awaited after the committee's high-profile failure on three separate occasions to pass a decision on taking former secret service boss Ivan Lexa into custody. The sessions on the arrest of Lexa, who is facing charges including the 1995 kidnapping of the then-president's son, Michal Kováč Jr., failed after absences left the committee short of a necessary quorum for the vote.

Sopko's report showed that between November 10, 1999 and August 8 this year the attendance rate for immunity committee meetings ran at 62% overall with the highest attendance of any opposition deputy being that of Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) deputy Tibor Cabaj at 57%. The figure matched the lowest attendance rate of a coalition deputy, Peter Tatár of the Slovak Democratic Coalition (SDK).

The irresponsibility shown by the MPs, who earn more than three times the national average wage, has angered ordinary Slovaks. "Just as everybody else has to go to work, MPs must realise they too are doing a job, especially if it's an important one like this," said 36 year old secretary Jana Ježková from Nitra. "They get paid for the work, so it's not an excuse to say it's a holiday season and I'm not coming to work for two months."

Under the Slovak parliamentary system, every one of the 150 members of parliament has to serve on a parliamentary committee. Each committee carries out studies within its particular field, and recommends legislative changes to parliament.

According to Sopko's list, opposition deputies had the worst attendance record. Oľga Keltošová, an HZDS deputy, did not show up to any of the meetings during the monitored period. Party colleagues Irena Belohorská and Peter Baco attended only twice.

However, the HZDS deputies have disputed the report's figures. "It's a lie, Sopko manipulated the statistics against us," said Belohorská. "Many times we [opposition deputies] came to meetings and the coalition members weren't there. Of course, the statistics don't include these cases."

While the opposition has said Sopko intended to discredit them by making the attendance list public, parliamentary officials and analysts have pointed out that the overall attendance of parliamentary sessions by current ruling coalition members themselves has been poor. "The attendance discipline of the current coalition deputies in [committee] meetings and in parliament sessions is worse than that of the former coalition parties between 1994-1998," said Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs think tank.

Béla Bugár, deputy speaker of parliament and leader of the governmental Hungarian Coalition Party agreed. "We should be worried about every minute we lose for the lack of discipline of coalition MPs. Not only are we wasting time when important legislative work could be done, but we are losing the credit of voters, and we are creating an image of a government that is not able to govern at all," he told The Slovak Spectator on August 23.

"I could accept that the immunity council wasn't able to take a vote during the summer holiday. However, with important questions like this [the Lexa arrest], the consequences can be negative," said Mesežnikov, adding that it was in the best interest of individual political parties to reiterate the need for discipline among their MPs, especially with the heavy workload awaiting them after the summer parliamentary break.

According to Jozef Stahl, head of the Supreme Control Office (NKÚ) - an independent body set up to monitor and control the workings of state organs - "MPs should be available 24 hours a day".

"It's understandable that they cannot work day and night, but if there is an important visit scheduled to come on Saturday, it's not acceptable [for a public official] to say that it's his day off," he said.

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