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EDITORIAL

There is still a long road ahead

ŠTEFAN Harabin failed in his last shot at keeping power in the Slovak judiciary after judges on November 25 said they do not want to see the man who lorded over the sector for much of past decade to have a seat on the Judicial Council, which oversees the functioning of courts nationwide. The year 2014 is praised by many as a year of change in the judiciary, and is proving a thorny one for Harabin who also failed in his bid to get re-elected as Supreme Court chairman and departed as head of the Judicial Council as well.

ŠTEFAN Harabin failed in his last shot at keeping power in the Slovak judiciary after judges on November 25 said they do not want to see the man who lorded over the sector for much of past decade to have a seat on the Judicial Council, which oversees the functioning of courts nationwide. The year 2014 is praised by many as a year of change in the judiciary, and is proving a thorny one for Harabin who also failed in his bid to get re-elected as Supreme Court chairman and departed as head of the Judicial Council as well.

Harabin, true to his nature, did not admit defeat, but said instead that “small defeats have always launched me to big victories”, a statement which indeed suggests that he takes his role in the judiciary very personally. “Have I lost? What are you talking about?” Harabin responded in an interview earlier this year after he saw his hopes to return to the Supreme Court evaporating.

Harabin indeed understands the current situation as a proverbial lost battle, while at the same time his rhetoric indicates an unwillingness to surrender in the larger war.

He is right in one thing. Just because he was removed from the judicial steering wheel does not mean that how the courts work will automatically, dramatically improve. It does however mean that there is now a considerably bigger chance for letting fresh air into the country’s court system and for the atmosphere of fear and intimidation to be replaced by transparency and accountability.

Still, Harabin is far from being the sole problem of Slovakia’s courts. As Transparency International Slovensko (TIS) noted in a public post on Facebook, when judges elected their representatives to the 18-member Judicial Council, Harabin defeated his challenger Dušan Čimo, a pro-reform judge, in regions where the so-called judge family clans still flourish. According to TIS, every fifth active judge in Slovakia voted in favour of Harabin, and thus in some way his world view too.

Čimo noted in an interview with the Sme daily that Harabin “still received relatively high support”. What can induce a mental shift in heads of the 255 judges who still voted for Harabin?

Society does seem to be losing patience with well-connected public officials siphoning funds from the notoriously cash-strapped healthcare sector. A recent 5,000-strong protest rally suggests that the scandal surrounding overpriced medical equipment hit a raw nerve with many who feel it takes both excessive greed and strong political connections to make a mint at the expense of the sick.

It also seems that the protests are making the government nervous because last week the cabinet pitched a revision to the public procurement law to parliament that purports to eliminate the possibility that murky shell companies can take part in public tenders. However, a quick review of the law already seems to show it needs significant revisions to actually make it effective.

The departure of Pavol Paška from the post of speaker of parliament is a strong indicator of just how deep the rabbit hole goes, and if the opposition truly cares about transparent public procurement, now is the time to press the ruling Smer party and try to come up with real proposals in parliament that would actually induce progress.

If the new speaker of the house Peter Pellegrini really means what he says, and actually will listen to arguments by the opposition, then there is a chance something useful could come from this situation. If this turns out to be another way the opposition tries to make voters remember their names and distinguish their parties from one another, then it will go down as a missed opportunity.

Changes to the judiciary and public procurement laws could of course work hand-in-hand. If there was a waterproof prosecution and well-functioning court system, the public could hope that anyone who outrageously abused their political connections to make a fortune would actually pay for it by losing more than their political post. While there may be some reasons for tentative optimism about recent changes, the list of high ranking public officials convicted of graft and sitting in jail remains shamefully low.

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