Court ruling leaves prosecutor vote in limbo

THE CONSTITUTIONAL Court has added another twist to the increasingly complicated saga of the selection of Slovakia’s next general prosecutor. It has again blocked the ruling coalition’s attempt to allow MPs to choose the prosecutor by means of a public vote in parliament.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL Court has added another twist to the increasingly complicated saga of the selection of Slovakia’s next general prosecutor. It has again blocked the ruling coalition’s attempt to allow MPs to choose the prosecutor by means of a public vote in parliament.

The court on June 15 issued a provisional ruling that halts the validity of a decision by MPs to revise the parliamentary discussion order, thereby changing the original, secret method of selecting the general prosecutor to a public vote by MPs. The court said the rule change must be suspended until the court reaches a verdict over its constitutionality. However, the ruling did not reinstate the validity of the previous legislation, which regulated secret ballots, meaning that there is now no valid process for filling one of the country’s most senior jobs.

The ruling coalition has gone to considerable lengths over the past six months to change the secret method of voting previously used by MPs to select the general prosecutor into a public vote. However, the legislation, produced by the four-party coalition led by Iveta Radičová and approved by parliament, was challenged at the Constitutional Court by acting general prosecutor Ladislav Tichý. Tichý got his job by default when the term of the previous general prosecutor, Dobroslav Trnka, expired in February. The Constitutional Court’s decision allows Tichý and Trnka (who was appointed by Tichý as his deputy in February) to effectively retain control of the Office of the General Prosecutor for an indefinite period.

In their first responses to the ruling on June 15, the ruling coalition leaders said they would respect the court’s decision, while opposition leader Robert Fico described the ruling as confirmation of what he called the ruling coalition’s “undemocratic and unconstitutional tendencies”. Smer has openly backed Trnka’s bid for another seven-year term as general prosecutor. By contrast, Prime Minister Radičová has strongly opposed Trnka’s bid, and has on several occasion stated that she will resign if Trnka is selected by MPs.

Opinions differ on whether any vote at all can be held until the Constitutional Court rules conclusively.

According to the court provisional ruling, the next general prosecutor can be selected by MPs only after it decides on how they should be allowed to do so. Court spokeswoman Anna Pančurová said, as quoted by the TASR newswire, that the “decision to halt the validity [of the legislation] does not renew the validity of the previous legislative measure”.

June 17 vote to go ahead – in secret

Speaker of Parliament Richard Sulík had previously announced that a public vote for the position, in which coalition nominee Jozef Čentéš and opposition-backed Trnka were due to be candidates, would take place on June 17. Sulík said explicitly at the time that his call for candidacies was not intended to pre-empt the Constitutional Court’s decision.

Following the June 15 ruling, Sulík decided to press ahead with the vote on June 17, but using a secret method. “In order to observe the strange ruling of the Constitutional Court, by which we were banned from voting publicly, the election, upon the proposal of 15 coalition deputies, will be secret,” he said, as quoted by TASR.

Ballots papers will be for the first time be sealed in envelopes before being cast in a ballot box, and MPs will use voting booths similar to those used by citizens in elections. According to Sulík this will guarantee that no one questions the ballot.

Ahead of the vote, deputies will vote on a change to the parliamentary discussion order allowing the use of envelopes.

Commenting on the court’s June 15 ruling, Sulík said that it proved the court was not an independent institution and that it was taking political orders, the SITA newswire reported.

As the Slovak Spectator went to press late on June 16, other members of the ruling coalition and legal experts were still debating whether a valid vote could be held on June 17 for the prosecutor job.

According to Jozef Vozár of the Institute of State and Law of the Slovak Academy of Sciences, it cannot be stated unambiguously how parliament should proceed now since this is the first such case in Slovakia, with the court’s decision coming only two days before the vote itself. Vozár said, as quoted by TASR, that parliament now has to interpret the situation since the valid law has lost its validity and the previous legislation has not been revalidated.

The leader of coalition party Most-Híd, Béla Bugár, said that the ruling coalition should proceed with the secret ballot.

“This is no longer normal, that on the one hand the opposition and on the other hand the General Prosecutor’s Office and the Constitutional Court are fighting against the ruling coalition,” Bugár said, as quoted by TASR. “We have the strength to elect [the general prosecutor] normally in a secret ballot and not to take into consideration claims that someone is spreading about efforts to bribe some [deputies].”

Čentéš, the candidate of the ruling coalition, had in a surprise move pulled out of a secret ballot held on May 17, saying that it had been linked to allegations of MPs being blackmailed and bribed and that he did not want to be part of it any more. The vote, in which Trnka was the only candidate, ended inconclusively after Trnka failed to receive the votes of more than half the MPs present. Čentéš has since said that he is ready to run in a future secret ballot, according to the Sme daily.

SDKÚ deputy Tomáš Galbavý said he acknowledges the court’s authority to halt the validity of the law, but finds it strange that the court has decided that the old legislation is not valid either. He said this could produce a dangerous precedent for the future, possibly resulting in legislative chaos.

Opponents of a public vote to choose the next general prosecutor presented the court’s interim decision a victory for their point of view.

“The decision has confirmed undemocratic and unconstitutional tendencies on the part of the ruling coalition, which aggressively and unfairly wants to change the rules of the game for the election of general prosecutor,” said Erik Tomáš, director of the press department of Fico’s Smer party. “Smer believes that the general prosecutor will be elected secretly and in line with democratic principles.”

Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič responded that electing the general prosecutor in a secret ballot is “more democratic” since it allows deputies to make their decision independently, driven by their conscience and not based on instructions from party headquarters.

Another appeal to the court

Sulík has also turned to the Constitutional Court. On June 7 he asked it to reject Tichý’s case on the grounds that Tichý, as acting general prosecutor, is not entitled to submit motions to the court. According to parliament’s lawyers, only the general prosecutor is entitled to approach the Constitutional Court.

“Currently, Slovakia has no general prosecutor. The first deputy does not have the competencies according to the constitution that the general prosecutor has as a constitutional official,” Sulík said in parliament on Tuesday, June 7, as quoted by SITA.

Complications around the secret ballot emerged after the ruling coalition failed on December 2, 2010, to get Čentéš selected as general prosecutor after at least six coalition deputies used the anonymity of the secret ballot to vote with the opposition Smer party in favour of Trnka. Trnka missed out on reselection by just one vote on that occasion, and the disloyalty of the rogue coalition MPs opened the door to speculation about a plot to unseat the prime minister, who had promised to resign if Trnka were chosen.

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