THE SAGA of plans to curb the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by members of parliament and then the failure to do so is one of the oldest stories in our book of politics. It has become one of the most well-known pieces of political theatre and is repeatedly performed, regardless of which parties are ruling the country.
The principal actors in the play are recast after each parliamentary election as the new government takes office, so at least the leading characters change. But the play called “Curbing Immunity” repeats the same classic dramatic structure: exposition, rising action, a climax, falling attention and denouement.
During the first act, a group of “enlightened” politicians, mostly at the beginning of their electoral term or shortly before being elected, agree that maintaining the law that gives MPs immunity from prosecution is wrong and that it has only rarely been truly used as a shield to protect the political independence of parliamentarians.
Rather it should be seen as a relic of the past that some politicians keep polishing and cherishing as though it was the determining factor in allowing them to express their opinions in a democratic society.
Just as in a classic Greek drama, the exposition act ends in a provocative moment, which in Slovakia means another draft law is submitted to curb immunity, one like those many in the past which have never won enough support, or to spice up the action even more, a referendum is announced which includes a question on whether the immunity of deputies should be curbed.
A referendum might, of course, make the less experienced theatre patron assume that in this particular version of the play the nation might get closer to that long-heralded act of ending MPs’ immunity – but that theatre patron will most probably be sorely disappointed.
Already in this stage of the drama’s rising action, it will likely become clear that the turnout for the referendum will not reach the required minimum of 50 percent of all voters and the debate will again be relegated to a secondary conflict occupying the stage in parliament. But a failed referendum can also serve for some politicians to take no action in parliament on the basis that 'the people didn’t want it after all'.
The climax comes in the next act, accompanied with all the heated debate typically packed onto issues that do not have any direct connection with whether MPs should enjoy immunity from prosecution or not. Then some political martyrs will take the stage and express their fears that they will become targets of persecution, prosecution and all kinds of threats if their trusty umbrella of immunity is taken away.
But while the climax in a classic Greek play is the point where things turn better or worse, on the Slovak political stage this is where things will remain just the same. And thus the denouement is just as predictable, as the nation continues to allow its elected leaders to enjoy the privilege of immunity that MPs have used in the past to avoid being fined for driving offences or to avoid or hinder prosecution for criminal actions.
Just to give a sense of how notoriously well-known this farcical play has become, perhaps the reader should know that limiting MPs’ immunity has been the subject of eleven parliamentary debates but has never garnered enough support to be passed.
Under current law, parliament must approve the removal of an MP's immunity and only then can that deputy be prosecuted. Similarly, judges and the general prosecutor can only be prosecuted if the Constitutional Court strips them of immunity. MPs, judges and the prosecutor also have immunity from prosecution for minor offences.
Sceptics say that with the country’s requirement that a constitutional majority is needed to change the law, there will always be enough deputies who will vote against consigning their immunity to the dustbin and perhaps there are even those who lift their hands to curb immunity while silently hoping for the vote’s failure once again. Yet this acid comment could be inspired only by a lack of genuine effort by the political elite and the fact that the issue has mostly always been taken hostage in fights between the opposition and ruling political camps.
There is general agreement among political analysts, and even among journalists, that MPs’ immunity should apply only while a politician is performing his or her representational role and should in no way help to preserve the deformed philosophy that politicians are an elite group who deserve special privileges that other citizens do not share.
Perhaps when fewer people go into politics only to get access to these special privileges and more enter parliament who truly want to serve the public, then it will not take an additional 20 years for Slovakia to take this giant step. But for now, the same play has again taken the stage.
20. Sep 2010 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová