MPs remain above the law

ANOTHER attempt to curb the immunity from prosecution of MPs and judges failed on October 26. The demise of the draft constitutional law was predictable given the long-lasting reluctance of Slovakia’s parliamentarians to give up their privileges.

ANOTHER attempt to curb the immunity from prosecution of MPs and judges failed on October 26. The demise of the draft constitutional law was predictable given the long-lasting reluctance of Slovakia’s parliamentarians to give up their privileges.

The opposition argued that its reluctance to support restricting MPs’ immunity to statements in parliament stemmed only from the fear that the ruling coalition might criminalise deputies from Smer or the Slovak National Party (SNS) who were in government for four years until this past summer.

Of 136 deputies present, a majority, 75, voted in favour of restricting immunity. Among them was every deputy present from the ruling coalition parties, i.e. the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Freedom and Solidarity (SaS) and Most-Híd. Two SNS MPs also voted with the ruling coalition: Anna Belousovová and Rudolf Púčik. However, at least 90 votes were needed to change the constitution. The ruling coalition currently holds 79 seats in parliament and therefore needed the support of 11 opposition MPs to pass the legislation.

The draft amendment to the constitution was submitted by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová and endorsed by her cabinet. Radičová had originally hoped that the change would initiate what she called “a new kind of relations” between citizens and MPs.

Nevertheless, the vote does not mean that parliamentary deputies will necessarily enjoy full immunity to the end of their present election term. Radičová said that her government will continue working towards ending their immunity from non-criminal misdemeanours, which means that deputies could end up being fined for offences such as traffic violations, just like anyone else.

The deputy factions of the ruling parties have now been tasked with submitting a parliamentary draft to achieve this. In order to have it passed the ruling coalition does not need the three-fifths majority required to pass a constitutional amendment.

“There is only one reason to reject the limitation of immunity,” said Radičová. “It is [to allow] violation of the law. An honest and decent deputy has nothing to fear.”

According to Radičová, parliamentary deputies must adhere to the same laws they pass or submit since this is how they contribute to the rule of law as well as the principles of justice.

Smer’s deputy chairman, Pavol Paška, said that his party colleagues had clearly stated that they would be unwilling during this election term to support any restriction of deputies’ immunity through a change to the constitution. Paška also said that no one goes into politics with the intention of using MPs’ immunity to break the law and then escape punishment.

“It's some kind of phobia that has been created here ... that a public official is a person who wants nothing else but to break the law and commit misdemeanours,” Paška said, as quoted by the TASR newswire.

Smer says it is now ready to discuss the cancellation of MPs’ immunity from misdemeanours. However, Smer secretary-general Jan Richter said that his party would support the proposal only on condition that the change was also applied to ministers, who would no longer be able to use government cars with flashing lights on their roofs, for example.

Immunity limits have now been the subject of parliamentary discussion on 11 occasions, but have always failed to garner enough support from MPs to be passed. Under the current law, parliament must approve the removal of a deputy’s immunity, and only then can he or she be prosecuted. Similarly, judges and the general prosecutor can only be prosecuted if the Constitutional Court strips them of immunity. MPs, judges and the general prosecutor also have immunity from punishment for minor offences such as fines for speeding.

Political scientist and president of the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) Grigorij Mesežnikov said that he had not seen any effort on the part of Smer to help the coalition pass a constitutional law which would limit the immunity of MPs.

“But the main problem of this party [i.e. Smer] is that they are worried,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator in October. “Not about political criminalisation, but about the possibility that limiting immunity could harm some members of the Smer parliamentary caucus.”

According to Mesežnikov, this could occur if investigations were started at ministries into matters dating back to the Smer-led government of 2006-2010, or even into some cases from before 2002 [involving party funding]. This could have led them not to support limits on MPs’ immunity, he added.

Among the promises that the Mikuláš Dzurinda government gave the public in 1998 and 2002 was that it would limit the immunity of members of parliament. In 2005 there were two attempts by the Dzurinda government to keep its word, but since then deputy immunity has not been curbed in any significant way.

Then, as now, the ruling coalition did not have the necessary votes to pass the immunity measure in parliament since the vote required a constitutional (three-fifths) majority.

But most observers and political analysts agree that MPs’ immunity should apply only to their performance of their jobs.

“Everything that happens beyond the execution of one’s public position should not be part of the immunity,” Mesežnikov told The Slovak Spectator.

The Slovak Parliament had postponed a vote on curbing MPs’ and judges’ immunity, which was originally to have taken place in early September, to a date after a recent referendum which included a question on the issue. The referendum, initiated by SaS, was invalid due to insufficient turnout. Nevertheless, on the question of whether or not to limit deputies’ immunity from prosecution, 95.40 percent of the almost one million people who did turn out voted in favour of doing so, while only 1.73 percent voted against the change.

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