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Smer and KDH ally

IN A MOVE that deeply divides traditionalists and liberals in the country and beyond, Slovakia’s constitution is set to “protect” traditional marriage. But as the amendment landed in parliament, it caused several other divisions in Slovakia: opinions are split over its changes to the judiciary, but also over the nature of the unorthodox deal between Smer and the Christian Democrats that makes all of these changes possible.

Trafficked people can be forced into false marriages, illustrative stock photo. (Source: TSS archive)

IN A MOVE that deeply divides traditionalists and liberals in the country and beyond, Slovakia’s constitution is set to “protect” traditional marriage. But as the amendment landed in parliament, it caused several other divisions in Slovakia: opinions are split over its changes to the judiciary, but also over the nature of the unorthodox deal between Smer and the Christian Democrats that makes all of these changes possible.

After their initial refusal, the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) struck a deal with the ruling Smer party on a joint action to amend the constitution.

On February 28, Speaker of Parliament Pavol Paška (Smer) and his deputy Pavol Hrušovský, who is running in the presidential election as the official candidate of the KDH and its partners in the People’s Platform, announced that the KDH will endorse the judiciary changes proposed by Smer (albeit with some reservations), and the ruling party will in return support the KDH’s proposal to define marriage in the constitution as a unique bond between a man and a woman.

Smer needed opposition support to pursue its plans for the judiciary, since any constitutional amendments require 90 votes in parliament and Smer holds 83 seats in the house. The KDH has eight MPs.

“The agreement is the fruit of broad political dialogue, mainly featuring [Smer chairman and Prime Minister] Robert Fico and [KDH chairman] Ján Figeľ,” Paška said on February 28, as quoted by the TASR newswire. “We’re submitting the bill together. It will be passed to the second reading, and I’d welcome it if all standard political parties were involved in an expert debate on the bill.”

The proposed date for the amendment to come into effect has been set for October. At that point, the constitution should include the following definition: “Marriage is a unique bond between one man and one woman. The Slovak Republic protects marriage universally and contributes towards its well-being.”

In response, all MPs received an open letter on March 6 from activists, academics and human-rights advocates, calling on them to reject the changes “that introduce a constitutional ban on same-sex marriages”.

All of the 28 organisations and 77 individuals who signed the letter deem the amendment as having only one purpose: to deny same-sex couples access to the institution of marriage “and probably to any other legal regulation of their relationships too”, and to further stigmatise members of sexual minorities.

“By passing the amendment, the highest law of our state would directly create two categories of people,” said Jarmila Lajčáková, board member of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, adding that by doing so, it would deem LGBTI people, their personal integrity, feelings and relationships, as a direct threat to society.

Instead, the letter’s signatories called on the MPs to take all necessary legislative and administrative measures to ensure that no family in Slovakia is discriminated against, and noted that Slovakia is among the few remaining EU countries which still does not legally recognise families based on same-sex couples.

Despite the outcry that the provision on marriage provoked from LGBTI rights advocates, Smer and the KDH agreed on it rather easily, unlike the judiciary changes, for which the KDH expressed reservations towards some of Smer’s proposals.

What about the judiciary?

One of the biggest changes in the judiciary will split the dual post of Supreme Court president and Judicial Council chair, currently held by Štefan Harabin. Smer dropped its proposal for security clearances for judges, which the KDH opposed. Instead, judges will lose their immunity from prosecution.

However, Smer made it clear that they will insist on some way to review judges’ backgrounds for possible links with individuals with a criminal history. The party expects such a provision to be inserted into the bill in the second reading in parliament.

“Unless we reach an agreement on including the clearances of judges in the constitution, the proposal won’t be supported by a constitutional majority of votes,” said Fico, as quoted by TASR.

The number and composition of members in the Judicial Council will change too, and the amendment will also allow a government member, namely the justice minister, to become a member of the Council.

Judges are against

While the international community, mainly LGBTI rights advocates, slammed Smer for allying with the Christian Democrats to endorse legislation directed against non-heterosexuals, some opposition politicians and observers criticised the KDH for supporting changes in the judiciary which they say are not going to bring the needed remedy for the justice system, which currently enjoys historically low trust among citizens.

The For an Open Judiciary (ZOJ) association of judges, which has been critical towards the Slovak judiciary, mainly top justice Harabin, sent an open letter to the Judicial Council, the government and MPs on March 2, criticising the government for not involving judges in designing the changes that it claims are necessary.

The ZOJ says that laws are not the main problem with the judiciary, and maintains that the real reasons why the judiciary lost trust among citizens are the abuse of power by those in top judiciary posts, nepotism, non-transparent selection of judges and bullying in disciplinary proceedings.
“The current state of affairs is only a result of not solving them, and the changes to laws alone cannot change it,” the letter, signed by ZOJ president Katarína Javorčíková, reads.

The ZOJ warned that the constitutional changes proposed by Smer and the KDH directly contradict principles of judicial independence. For instance, European standards do not allow politicians, MPs or government and state administration members to join the Judicial Council, but the draft amendment automatically enables the justice minister to join the Council.

Most of the chairs in the Council should be occupied by judges elected to the posts by other judges, according to the ZOJ, and the remaining chairs for non-judges should go to prominent lawyers, university professors or personalities from other walks of social life.

The ZOJ also warned against security clearances, which were dropped from the joint draft law, but which Smer claims they want to introduce in some other form. The judges insist clearances go against international standards, which only allow a judge to be stripped of his robe for health or serious disciplinary reasons, and they fear clearances could become a handy tool for politicians to remove judges who they are not on good terms with.

End of the Platform?

The KDH’s fellow opposition parties, who originally declared their willingness to discuss the judiciary changes with Smer, changed their tune after the KDH-Smer agreement was announced.
For the People’s Platform, which the KDH formed with opposition parties Most-Híd and the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ), this could be the final straw that causes the group to break up.

In reaction to the deal, SDKÚ head Pavol Frešo stated that he had viewed the People’s Platform as an alternative to the governing Smer.

“Nonetheless, the coalitions of the KDH and Smer in the regional elections [in November] in Nitra Region and Banská Bystrica Region, and the coalition of Most-Híd with Smer in Košice Region, also damaged this notion of a joint alternative,” said Frešo.

Most-Híd politicians in turn complained about some SDKÚ MPs signing petitions of various presidential candidates even after the People’s Platform agreed to jointly endorse Hrušovský in the race.

As for the judiciary changes, Most-Híd leader Béla Bugár said that his party will not vote for the proposal, explaining that while they do seek systematic changes in this area, they do not believe this amendment will solve the problem, TASR reported.

The KDH has defended its deal with Smer by stressing that they have been promoting the “protection” of traditional family and marriage for some time. On their Facebook profile, they published a chronology of their attempts to insert the protection of marriage in the constitution, starting in August 2013.

Hrušovský also faced accusations over allying with Smer during the debates for the upcoming presidential election.

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