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EDITORIAL

One less perk of office

ONE of the oldest stories in the book of Slovak politics is now being retold once again. But this time it seems it might have a different, rather more satisfactory ending for the citizens of this country. Election campaigns always generate talk about withdrawing parliamentary deputies’ immunity from criminal prosecution, but somehow the promises and declarations never even get close to being enacted.

ONE of the oldest stories in the book of Slovak politics is now being retold once again. But this time it seems it might have a different, rather more satisfactory ending for the citizens of this country. Election campaigns always generate talk about withdrawing parliamentary deputies’ immunity from criminal prosecution, but somehow the promises and declarations never even get close to being enacted.

Over the past two decades, the law that gives MPs special status in the eyes of the criminal law, a relic of the past which has rarely, if ever, been properly used to protect parliamentarians from political, police or judicial pressure, has had many critics among politicians' own ranks. But when it came to actually ending it the political will has always proved lacking.

When parliament has actually debated whether to lift an MP’s immunity – such as in the case of Gustáv Krajči, a former interior minister suspected of thwarting a referendum on Slovakia’s NATO entry, or Ivan Lexa, a former boss of Slovakia’s intelligence agency accused of serious crimes – the actual reasons for maintaining their protection have often been far from principled. Most recently, former construction minister Igor Štefanov successfully used the armour of his Slovak National Party (SNS) deputy’s mandate when the police tried, during the last parliament, to look into his role in one of the shadiest deals in Slovakia’s recent history, the bulletin-board tender.

In fact, those parliamentary debates about lifting an individual deputy’s immunity and surrendering that person to criminal prosecution painfully revealed the misery of Slovak politics and the reasons why some people became politicians in this country.

This time, however, it seems that the political will – across the Slovak political spectrum – does exist and if the public is to believe Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška, who said that an agreement to end deputies’ immunity is “99.9-percent final” and that his Smer party would back a constitutional amendment, this relic may finally be consigned to the legal archives and history books.

Once the amendment to the constitution, which needs 90 votes, is approved by the 150-seat parliament – where Smer controls 83 seats and now has a commitment from opposition parties to support it – deputies will cease to be ‘immune’ from September 1, when the country celebrates the 20th anniversary of the adoption of its modern constitution.

Those who worry that the loss of immunity might for some reason open the gates to political vengeance and that a variety of pressures, through abuse of police and the judiciary, will henceforth be applied to MPs can relax: their status will continue to protect members of parliament from being prosecuted for statements they make in official parliamentary forums or for the way they vote in parliament.

The promise comes at a time of massive disillusionment among at least half the nation with politics and political leaders, and with many people believing that far too many politicians enter the public sphere merely to access the special privileges that they think public service provides. The word ‘politician’ is viewed by far too many people as a euphemism for parasitism on public funds or a four-year ride of self-enrichment.

The public currently awaits answers to questions that emerged during the rampage of the so-called ‘Gorilla file’, an unverified document based on the bugging of an apartment by the Slovak intelligence service that purportedly describes high-level political corruption in 2005-6 during the second government headed by Mikuláš Dzurinda. And the last thing it wants is to be fobbed off with time-worn phrases such as “no crime was committed” or the tactic of penalising the least important figure in a mega-scandal for an insignificant procedural failure instead of isolating the big fish in a transparent bowl.

The fact that this initiative has finally achieved support from across the political spectrum gives some hope that it will be passed; in the past the cancellation of deputies’ immunity has fallen hostage to the political struggle between the opposition and ruling political camps.

But before anyone pops the champagne, the law itself means little unless the country has judges with integrity, prosecutors free of political influence, and police able to gather evidence without shredding what has already been collected.

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