MP immunity to be cut to minimum

MPs from both the coalition and opposition say they are ready to support a recently proposed constitutional change that would narrow their parliamentary immunity to a minimum.
Since the fall of communism in 1989, and the creation of an independent Slovakia four years later, the country's MPs have enjoyed what some observers have called "feudalism-like privileges", including the right not to testify to police authorities if they are a witness to a serious crime.
The immunity has also served to protect MPs if they themselves are suspected of transgressing the law. Existing laws make it very difficult to arrest an MP or put him or her in custody, because their parliamentary immunity gives them special legal protection.

MPs from both the coalition and opposition say they are ready to support a recently proposed constitutional change that would narrow their parliamentary immunity to a minimum.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, and the creation of an independent Slovakia four years later, the country's MPs have enjoyed what some observers have called "feudalism-like privileges", including the right not to testify to police authorities if they are a witness to a serious crime.

The immunity has also served to protect MPs if they themselves are suspected of transgressing the law. Existing laws make it very difficult to arrest an MP or put him or her in custody, because their parliamentary immunity gives them special legal protection.

Even if an MP is caught in the middle of a crime, it is not possible to take action against him or her unless permission is granted by the parliamentary immunity committee.

But recently a group of MPs from the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ) led by legislator Tomáš Galbavý submitted a change to the Slovak constitution that would eliminate the excessive rights of MPs.

Galbavý said the existing immunity for MPs was unnecessary, angered the common people, and created an sense of inequality between citizens and their elected representatives.

"The [generous immunity] is the target of massive public criticism. We are not overlords who should enjoy above-standard legal protection," said Galbavý.

According to the proposal, MPs would only enjoy immunity on parliamentary premises and would be protected only for their voting and statements presented in parliament.

"MPs should only be granted immunity in relation to their work in parliament as is common in developed democracies," Galbavý said.

Unlike when changing regular laws, any changes to the constitution - as would be required in this case - must be supported by a so-called constitutional majority of votes, that is 90 out of the total 150 MPs.

Support of both the opposition and coalition is therefore crucial, since the ruling parties have only 78 MPs in parliament.

But many opposition politicians have "absolutely no problem supporting the change", said Ján Kovarčík from the opposition Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS).

"I would even support a complete elimination of immunity as long as it does not limit MPs' legislative work," Kovarčík said.

Another opposition MP, Róbert Kaliňák, said he thought the measure was "rational", and head of the Slovak Communist Party (KSS), Jozef Ševc, said his comrades are also in favour of the change.

"We don't yet know the details of the proposal, but I think there will be no problem for us to support the change. If this is in line with Western standards, we should definitely harmonise the legislation," said Ševc.

Similar initiatives directed at eliminating what Guyla Bárdos, head of the parliamentary caucus of the Hungarian Coalition Party (SMK), called remnants of totalitarian times, have been put forward in the past, most recently in early 2001, when parliament passed a rewritten constitution.

At that time, MPs expressed support for narrowing their immunity, but in the end, the measure was rejected.

Observers now fear the situation might repeat itself when Galbavý's proposal is discussed in parliament, which is scheduled for the parliamentary session starting at the end of April.

"[MPs] may be talking nice to the media now but their true attitude towards the change will soon show when parliament votes on the measure. We will see then who really supports that change and who doesn't," said Emília Sicáková-Beblavá, head of the anticorruption watchdog organisation Transparency International Slovakia.

Ľubomír Lintner, deputy chairman of the ruling New Citizen's Alliance (ANO) party, who also supports the narrowing of MP immunity, said that he was counting on the 100 new MPs who were elected to parliament in the most recent general elections in September 2002 to push the measure through.

"When people enter politics they usually get used to the advantages the power carries very quickly and they want to use those advantages," Lintner said.

"There is no reason at all for an MP to enjoy greater legal protection than any other citizen of this state. I hope that the 100 new MPs who came to Slovakia's parliament brought with them a new vision, and I am relying on their backing the change," he said.

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