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UPDATED: Smer deputies elect Čižnár to top prosecutor job

AFTER a political and judicial tug-of-war over one of the most powerful posts in the country, one which has lasted more than two years, Jaromír Čižnár, a former law-school classmate of Prime Minister Robert Fico, was elected by ruling Smer party MPs to become Slovakia’s general prosecutor on June 18. The opposition parties did not take part in the secret parliamentary vote, arguing that the country already has a general prosecutor-elect – Jozef Čentéš – whom parliament elected back in June 2011, but whom President Ivan Gašparovič has since refused to appoint. A complaint lodged by Čentéš against the president’s refusal to appoint him is pending at the Constitutional Court, with Čižnár saying that he will step down to make way for Čentéš only if the court rules that Čižnár had violated Čentéš’ civil rights by seeking election.

General Prosecutor Jaromír Čižnár(Source: Sme)

AFTER a political and judicial tug-of-war over one of the most powerful posts in the country, one which has lasted more than two years, Jaromír Čižnár, a former law-school classmate of Prime Minister Robert Fico, was elected by ruling Smer party MPs to become Slovakia’s general prosecutor on June 18. The opposition parties did not take part in the secret parliamentary vote, arguing that the country already has a general prosecutor-elect – Jozef Čentéš – whom parliament elected back in June 2011, but whom President Ivan Gašparovič has since refused to appoint. A complaint lodged by Čentéš against the president’s refusal to appoint him is pending at the Constitutional Court, with Čižnár saying that he will step down to make way for Čentéš only if the court rules that Čižnár had violated Čentéš’ civil rights by seeking election.

“It is irrelevant what happens in the future,” Prime Minister Robert Fico responded on June 19 to media questions about whether his government is prepared for the possibility of the Constitutional Court siding with Čentéš, as quoted by the TASR newswire, adding that Čižnár is the legitimately and democratically elected candidate.

Of the 82 deputies present – all of them members of Smer – every single one voted for Čižnár, who must now be formally appointed by President Gašparovič before he can take office.

According to Fico, if the president appoints Čižnár to the post of general prosecutor, and if Čižnár does not do anything illegal, he will serve in the post for the next seven years, the Sme daily reported.

Meanwhile, 60 opposition deputies called on Gašparovič on June 20 to refrain from appointing Čižnár until the Constitutional Court decides over Čentéš’ complaint. The deputies argued that appointing Čižnár might have a long-term negative impact on the stability of Slovakia’s legal system.

All opposition MPs walked out of the parliamentary chamber just prior to the vote, after debating the election of the general prosecutor on June 18, with Speaker of Parliament and Smer nominee Pavol Paška deriding them for “fleeing like rats from a ship”.

“Let’s finally offer Mr President a candidate for whom the people are waiting,” Paška said, as quoted by Sme, a few minutes before the vote. He did not specify in what way “the people” had objected to Čentéš, who has faced sustained opposition principally from Gašparovič and Paška’s own Smer party.

The election took place in spite of the fact that the Constitutional Court has yet to rule on a complaint by Čentéš in which he is seeking to have just such a vote blocked. The opposition parties called it a black day for the constitution in Slovakia.

“After a very long time, during which the public had been traumatised by this issue due to the failures and inability of the opposition, Slovakia is close to having a general prosecutor,” Fico said, as quoted by the SITA newswire, shortly after his party’s MPs elected Čižnár. “A man with high professional and moral credit among the prosecutors has been elected. However, it is necessary to wait for the decision of the president.”

While it took Gašparovič almost two years to give a definite response to Čentéš’ appointment, the president was expected to start considering Čižnár’s appointment the day after his election, according to TASR. Presidential spokesman Marek Trubač said on June 19 that the president would start dealing with the proposal for the appointment of the candidate when he received it, with spokesman of the Slovak Parliament Pavol Chovanec saying the same day that “the proposal will be delivered to the president this afternoon”, TASR reported.

The Slovak president is not bound by a specific deadline for appointing the general prosecutor, and based on a 2012 decision by the Constitutional Court is entitled, under certain circumstances, to reject parliament’s candidate.

Meanwhile, Paška said he believed that the president would not find anything wrong with Čižnár and would not prevent his appointment to the post, but added that it is up to the president how he proceeds.

“Since the name of Mr Čižnár started appearing no one has doubted his professional qualities, moreover the course of the elections have not been spoiled by persuading the deputies, stamping or controlling; the election was legitimate,” Paška said, as quoted by SITA. “I believe that the president will decide in such a way that the Office of the General Prosecutor will have a boss at the soonest opportunity.”

Čentéš, the first general prosecutor-elect, who is still awaiting the Constitutional Court’s ruling on his two complaints regarding Gašparovič’s refusal to appoint him, said he would not comment on the election, adding that he would “insist on the reasons for my constitutional complaint from January 2013, in which I proposed to the Constitutional Court to cancel the decision made by the president of the Slovak Republic not to appoint me”, as quoted by TASR.

The election of Čižnár was welcomed by acting general prosecutor Ladislav Tichý, who said that he is “incredibly relieved to learn that my odyssey of leading the Office of the General Prosecutor is finally over”.

“I’m glad that someone stepped up with the courage to get involved in the general prosecutor vote despite the adverse political situation and intense strife surrounding the election,” Tichý told TASR.

European People’s Party worried

Meanwhile, Joseph Daul, the chairman of the largest political grouping in the European Parliament, the centre-right European People’s Party, called on Gašparovič to postpone the appointment of either candidate until the Constitutional Court delivers a verdict.

“I have learned with great astonishment that Slovakia’s socialist MPs yesterday elected their own candidate, the former classmate of Prime Minister Robert Fico, to the post of general prosecutor despite the fact that Slovakia already has a legitimate, elected general prosecutor,” Daul said in a statement sent to the Slovak press on June 19. “As a result of this election, Slovakia today has two general prosecutors.”

Daul said he is worried about the situation in the Slovak judiciary and the negative effect this could have on the functioning of the constitution and the rule of law.

“My group will ask the European Commission to look into the matter to establish whether the rule of law and the European spirit of democracy have been applied thoroughly in this case,” Daul said.

Who is Čižnár?

Čižnár, who was born in Handlová in 1964, has been working as a prosecution lawyer for 24 years. He graduated from the Law School of Comenius University in 1986 and started working for the district prosecutor’s office in Bratislava. He was appointed as a prosecutor in 1989 by then general prosecutor Pavol Kis. Čižnár has stated that he is not and never has been a member of any political party and that in 1988 he refused to join the Communist Party. In February 1991, he was moved to the Bratislava city prosecutor’s department, but after a month returned to the district prosecutor’s office. Since 2004, Čižnár has been in charge of the Bratislava regional prosecutor’s office, according to Sme.

Opposition decries vote

“We will have a prosecutor of one party,” Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) leader Ján Figeľ said, as quoted by SITA, adding that after Smer had failed in its interventionist attempt to change the law governing the rules of the Constitutional Court, the party had moved the whole process to parliament, where the ruling party has a majority.

Lucia Žitňanská, a former justice minister who is now an SDKÚ MP, said that it is unthinkable in a country with the rule of law not to wait for the ruling of the Constitutional Court, SITA newswire reported.

Čižnár, however, responded: “I am sorry that the opposition has not even seen even part of my work and they are already shouting about how corrupt I will be and how I will cover up for someone”, Sme reported. “I mind that.”

Čižnár will not step aside

“I do not know why I am being blamed because the president and the Constitutional Court does not act,” Čižnár responded on June 17 to a question from independent deputy Radoslav Procházka, who at a meeting of the parliamentary committee on constitutional affairs sought to obtain a promise from Čižnár that he would resign if the Constitutional Court were to rule in Čentéš’ favour.

The parliamentary committee, on which Smer has a majority, recommended that parliament elect Čižnár to the post.

During the committee hearing, Čižnár did not offer a direct answer to the question of whether he considers Čentéš to be the rightfully elected general prosecutor. He did comment that Čentéš was “rightfully rejected”.

“I value the professional qualities of Mr Čentéš,” said Čižnár, as quoted by SITA, adding that if he is elected, he would like to cooperate with him without specifying in what position he envisions Čentéš serving. Čižnár met with Čentéš last week, but remained tight-lipped about details of the meeting.

Čižnár denied allegations that as general prosecutor he would serve any particular interests, adding that if politicians receive any information about him taking the side of any political party, he would resign, according to TASR.

Čižnár said he would have no problem prosecuting even members of Smer, Sme reported.

Long way

The process of finding a new general prosecutor began in late 2010, a few months before incumbent Dobroslav Trnka’s term in office was due to expire. The four-party centre-right coalition led by Iveta Radičová that was then in power failed to agree on a single candidate, while Trnka, whose re-election Radičová had publicly opposed, gained the support of opposition MPs. After a secret ballot in early December 2010 in which Trnka came within a single of vote of being elected, the governing parties moved to change the parliamentary rules to allow a public vote. Meanwhile, they settled on Čentéš as their preferred candidate.

After a series of parliamentary manoeuvres in late 2010 and early 2011 in which open balloting was approved – but then challenged by Fico and other Smer MPs at the Constitutional Court – Čentéš was ultimately elected in June 2011, ironically via a secret ballot. However, President Gašparovič then declined to formally appoint him, citing various Constitutional Court cases that had emerged relating to Čentéš’ election.

In October 2011 the Constitutional Court ruled that both secret and open ballots were legitimate means for parliament to elect the general prosecutor. Finally, in late 2012, the Constitutional Court ruled that the president has the right to refuse to appoint parliament’s choice of general prosecutor, but that he must cite valid reasons for doing so. At the very end of 2012, Gašparovič sent a letter to the speaker of parliament in which he formally rejected Čentéš. Čentéš promptly appealed his decision to the Constitutional Court, claiming that his rights had been infringed, but the case became bogged down after he and Gašparovič between them challenged 12 of the court’s 13 judges on grounds of alleged bias.

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