When immune absentees run the country

SOME say it is a mission. Others would respond that it’s a job, just like many others. Either way, being a member of parliament brings benefits that very few other jobs offer, but also carries responsibilities that not all the deputies who have taken the oath seem able to uphold.

SOME say it is a mission. Others would respond that it’s a job, just like many others. Either way, being a member of parliament brings benefits that very few other jobs offer, but also carries responsibilities that not all the deputies who have taken the oath seem able to uphold.

From time to time the Slovak press ranks the most frequently-absent members of the Slovak parliament: those deputies who skip more than just a couple of votes and discussions each year.

Two party leaders in particular can normally be relied upon to post strong performances in this roll-call of ignominy: the chairmen of two of the present governing coalition’s parties, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia’s (HZDS) Vladimír Mečiar and the Slovak National Party’s Ján Slota.

Most recently, the Sme daily reported that Slota has rarely been present at meetings of the parliamentary committees which consider draft legislation. Slota – at least notionally - sits on three committees: the human right committee, the committee which oversees the operation of the Slovak Intelligence Service, and another overseeing the decisions of the National Security Office. Out of 30 sessions of the human rights committee Slota attended just one, according to Sme.

Slota’s inclusion on the human rights committee has been interpreted by some as something of a mockery given his controversial proposals regarding the Roma community, so his absences hardly come as a surprise.

According to parliament’s own regulations, deputies who miss more than two committee meetings should face cuts to their salaries. Sme calculated that if Slota had been penalised for his absences, his parliamentary income since his election would have fallen by about Sk700,000.

Mečiar also has a pretty shameful record of parliamentary absence, especially since losing the parliamentary elections in 1998. According to the financial daily Hospodárske Noviny, his discipline in the current parliamentary term has improved compared to the last. But given that he missed three-quarters of all votes held between 1998 and 2002, that’s not much of a boast.

When confronted by the media about their less-than-stellar performances, some deputies mumble they had other commitments, or that they were meeting their voters, or that they were visiting the regions - any of which they apparently consider more important than sitting in the chamber, listening to the endless orations of their colleagues.

SDKÚ deputy Tomáš Galbavý once justified his absence from a parliamentary session by referring to the rhetorical efforts of a Smer party deputy and telling the Pravda daily: “I was not ready to listen to some of my colleagues,”.

Of course, meeting the voters and visiting the regions are all legitimate activities, but not at times when committees are discussing legislation which will end up affecting some or all of the population. At times listening to the speeches delivered by some deputies must seem like cruel and unusual punishment. But deputies are paid for all this, and paid pretty well.

The salary of parliamentary deputies recently went up from Sk56,400 to Sk60,500 (€1,869): far above the average salary in Slovakia, which last year stood at Sk20,146.

The deputies also have a taxpayer-funded assistant who receives up to Sk40,000 per month. The state also pays to rent deputies’ offices, and doles out non-taxable monthly bonuses that further boost their income by tens of thousands of crowns.

A little discipline is perhaps the least that voters can expect in return.

Parliamentary deputies in Slovakia also have a wide-ranging immunity from criminal prosecution. While there is no doubt that this immunity would be useful if it acted only to protect their political independence, in Slovakia it has mainly served to obstruct or prevent prosecution of crimes far more serious than expression of free thought.

No government, regardless of its hue, has found enough political will to either completely remove or limit deputies’ immunity.

Many find it absurd, for instance, that deputies should be exempt from fines arising from driving offences. In 2005, this immunity saved one drunken MP from the consequences of his reckless driving, briefly triggering some attempts to narrow the terms of parliamentary protection.

However, MPs from across the political spectrum refused to cut their privileges and rejected a law prepared by former justice minister Daniel Lipšic, claiming they would face trumped-up court cases and investigations.

The Speaker of Parliament, Pavol Paška of Smer, also came up with a proposal to pare their immunity, only to find that support for the move among parliamentary deputies was conspicuous by its absence.

Yet doing their job and attending parliamentary discussions - excruciating though it might sometimes seem - is the least that citizens should expect from their immune elected representatives, some of whom seem to think they are rather “more equal” than others.

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