ŠTEFAN Harabin, who over the past five years occupied the country’s two most powerful judicial posts and thus significantly contributed to the current state of Slovakia’s judiciary, which itself suffers from an acute deficiency of public trust, is now out of the top judicial game, at least for the next five years.
After the Judicial Council, the top body overseeing the operation of Slovakia’s judiciary previously run by Harabin, picked Jana Bajánková to be its boss, and also elected Daniela Švecová to succeed Harabin in the Supreme Court’s top chair, some have called the September 16 vote the end of the Harabin era.
Harabin, who also ran the Supreme Court between 1998 and 2003, has left his fingerprints on much more than just the wheel of the top court. Harabin also served from 2006 to 2009 as justice minister, nominated by the party of controversial Vladimír Mečiar, whom Robert Fico invited into his coalition for a four-year power ride, and went from being a minister straight to the Supreme Court, leaving a big crack in the symbolic wall that is supposed to separate the judiciary from politics.
Harabin has become emblematic of a management style widely applied in the era of Mečiar, when public figures consumed power with the conviction that whatever is good for them must also be good for the public; that they can shower punishment or reward on their subordinates as they please, owing no watertight explanation to the public, and believing that their position belongs to them until the end of time.
Locking Harabin out of positions of power is far from enough to exorcise all the Mečiar-era ghosts from within the judiciary, even if taking the key to the Supreme Court from Harabin was not at all an easy undertaking. Even though his five-year term elapsed on June 22 and he failed in his third shot at the Supreme Court top job on May 19, the stakes remained high for his many critics. If the Judicial Council had failed to elect its president in the second round on September 16, a potential third round would have been open to the candidates who failed to win in the first round, including Harabin, who had a rather tough time admitting that he had lost the race.
“Have I lost? What are you talking about?” Harabin responded to journalists inquiring about his defeat. “I won because I had the highest number of votes.”
In a rather predictable move, Harabin questioned the legitimacy of the September 16 election, saying that a council with nine political nominees and only eight judges “is a serious violation of the balance of power and it is unconstitutional”.
Regardless of Harabin’s argument, the fact that only one week ahead of the September elections the ruling Smer party replaced one member of the Judicial Council without offering any real explanation for the move does not contribute to the public’s faith in politicians keeping their hands off the judiciary.
Observers and journalists are now asking whether Švecová and Bajánková have the potential to bring a fundamentally different culture from what Harabin represented, and whether they will be able to fuel the moral revival of the judiciary so badly needed in Slovakia. Fixing some of the technicalities and giving the courts a quick facelift will not be enough, and the upcoming period will actually show just how deep the judicial rabbit hole goes.
Among other things, Harabin is also known for his passion for suing the media, and it seems that this is one passion of his that Švecová shares, as she sued the Plus 7 dní weekly after it suggested that the media has described her as being close to Harabin.
As for Bajánková, Harabin called her a friend in an interview with the Sme daily shortly before the May 19 vote, suggesting that it made no difference whether he or his friend Bajánková got the top Supreme Court post.
Once appointed by President Andrej Kiska, there will be a full range of opportunities for Švecová to demonstrate that she stands for a completely different management style. The same goes for Bajánková, who now has the power to send out important messages to many judges who claim the negative image of Slovakia’s judiciary is unjustified.
Will foreign diplomats attend disciplinary proceedings initiated against the critics of top judges or will the public wishing to attend the sitting of the Judicial Council have to travel to a remote part of the country because the council head summoned the meeting there hoping to minimise public exposure? This and many more things are now in the hands of two women, who, if they fail in their mission, might cause just as much harm to the reputation of Slovakia’s judiciary as their predecessor did. Thus, it is perhaps still too early to tell whether we are now witnessing the twilight of the Harabin era.
22. Sep 2014 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová