MPs give up immunity in 'symbolic' new bill
Corruption fighters push on with proposals to rein in lawmakers
Posted: February 20, 2013
Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek proposed legislation that strictly limits MPs' ability to avoid prosecution in criminal cases.
After a series of failed attempts to amend the legislation, members of Parliament's lower house have again supported a constitutional change aimed at stripping lawmakers of their lifetime immunity. The bill must now be approved by the Senate, which rejected it last year.
A total of 148 MPs in the 200-seat Chamber of Deputies voted in favor of the proposal following a one-sided debate Feb. 13, easily more than the three-fifths majority required for its passage. Indeed, of the 162 lawmakers present, only five didn't back the bill.
The news will no doubt be welcomed by a general public that has grown increasingly distrustful of politicians due to several recent corruption scandals and is seen as a victory for anti-graft campaigners who have long wanted a change to the system. Some, meanwhile, are pushing for the bill to go even further.
"This has been a never-ending story," said David Ondráčka, the head of the Czech branch of Transparency International. "The law was designed in a way that went far beyond the standard protection for lawmakers and was misused by a number of politicians. I'm pleased their immunity could be limited."
Under the new legislation, MPs, senators and constitutional judges would only be exempt from criminal prosecution during their terms in office. The immunity they currently enjoy outweighs that found in nearly every other European country, especially in Finland, Norway and Sweden, where lawmakers have no protection whatsoever.
However, the bill preserves the right for lawmakers to decide whether a colleague should be released for prosecution, therefore making the proposal somewhat superfluous, according to Ondráčka.
"In practice, immunity doesn't create a problem anymore," he said. "Public pressure often leads to a situation where if the police want to investigate an alleged crime, immunity doesn't prevent this from happening. It's now more symbolic."
Since 1994, Parliament has dealt with 18 different attempts to curb lawmakers' immunity, most recently in February 2012, when the Senate - with several members missing - rejected a bill similar to the one currently on the table by two votes, after it had been passed by the Chamber of Deputies.
On that occasion, a civic initiative run by students, Inventura demokracie, tried to persuade lawmakers to back the change by calling on Czechs to join them in abstaining from sex until the lifetime immunity was lifted. Although they have no such plans this time around, the initiative's supporters are still watching the bill's progress with interest.
"According to the Constitution, Parliament can do nothing to postpone prosecution," said Filip Dominec, a longtime member of the group. "It has the right to either allow it immediately or stop it forever. This is quite unusual around the world. We think this is a historical error, and we would be happy if the word 'forever' simply changed to 'during the mandate.' "
'Populist and harmful'
This possibility of change hasn't pleased everyone, though. One of the MPs who railed against the proposal, TOP 09's Daniel Korte, branded the bill "populist," saying it was "at best useless and at worst harmful." He even asked his fellow lawmakers whether they would reintroduce the death penalty if the general public demanded it.
"The Constitution is a complex structure from which we are systematically tearing off little pieces until the whole thing collapses," Korte told The Prague Post. "An MP's fundamental duty is to safeguard the freedoms of the people, but the steps being taken threaten this task. I don't consider immunity an individual privilege; it exists to protect the legislative body as a whole, to let it work freely."
But addressing the lower house, one of the bill's authors, Kateřina Klasnová (Public Affairs), said it wasn't appropriate for lawmakers to be immune from prosecution after their mandates expired. Many MPs also expressed hope the bill would finally make its way into law, a view shared by Dominec.
"What might have really changed over the past few years is that lawmakers feel more pressure from the public," he said. "In addition, the number of clever tricks used to block a troublesome bill has been reduced. So, as in previous years, I believe this time it will succeed."
Meanwhile, Finance Minister Miroslav Kalousek unsuccessfully put forward an even stricter version of the bill that would have limited immunity only to speeches made in Parliament. Kalousek admitted he didn't think his proposal would progress but that he would "keep trying."
Others viewed the minister's move as a way to disrupt the entire legislative process, an argument Korte described as "nonsense." Defending his party's deputy chairman, he pointed to Kalousek's previous criticism of the immunity law, when MPs voted to let police investigate then-TOP 09 Defense Minister Vlasta Parkanová over abuse-of-office allegations.
For a lot of people, that highlighted how the law could be manipulated for political gain. "The guilty politicians are never found guilty, and the innocent ones are never found innocent," Dominec added.
Despite these reservations, MPs from the Civic Democrats (ODS) have also submitted two proposals to strip convicted lawmakers of their mandates and salaries (both of which they currently retain), tapping into the public's anger at a system that has allowed the likes of David Rath to be paid 56,000 Kč per month while sitting in prison.
Rath, a former Social Democratic Party regional governor who refuses to relinquish his role as an MP, has been in pretrial detention since last May, when police accused him of accepting a bribe related to the reconstruction of Buštĕhrad Castle in his own Central Bohemia region. He continues to work from the confines of his cell, having sent six bills to the lower house.
The draft pieces of legislation, nicknamed "Lex Pekárek" after another jailed MP, Roman Pekárek (formerly of the ODS), must first be mulled over by various parliamentary committees before going to the Chamber of Deputies for a vote. But while the current law may seem absurd, Ondráčka says, several legal considerations will have to be addressed.
As commentator Martin Zvěřina wrote in an editorial for daily Lidové noviny Feb. 15, "Does a judge, who can make mistakes, have more legitimacy than the 20,000-plus voters who gave an MP his or her mandate?"
Shedding light on corruption
What is clear is that Czechs are no longer prepared to tolerate the misdemeanors of the privileged few in their society. President-elect Miloš Zeman sought to capitalize on this feeling during his election campaign, using a television debate to promote his opinion that any owner of a high-value property should make formal declarations of its worth.
In the public sphere, there are already provisions in a conflict-of-interest law to monitor the assets of elected officials and civil servants. For example, they must submit annual income and property statements or risk a fine of 50,000 Kč. Ministers also are banned from taking remunerated work in the private sector, while lawmakers can only sit on the supervisory boards of state-run companies if the position is unpaid.
However, Ondráčka, who helped draft the law, says more needs to be done to administer it and make politicians accountable to the people. He likens the current deterrent to a parking fine, effectively a slap on the wrist, complaining there is no incentive for those in the public eye to behave.
"We need an agency to oversee the entire process," he said. "We have to find some enforcement mechanism that has to be public and transparent, otherwise it won't work."
The fight is being driven by junior coalition partner LIDEM, whose leader, Karolína Peake, has already succeeded in implementing a series of government measures to tackle internal corruption. She now wants politicians to produce property statements as soon as they are appointed to office.
"I believe yearly property statements are insufficient," Peake told The Prague Post. "They only state gains during the elected period, but there is nothing to compare the current financial and property situation to. We will never be able to capture all possible ways of avoiding the obligation to declare, but we must at least try to make the room for nontransparency smaller."
Negotiations between the three ruling parties on this topic have yet to bear fruit, although Peake is confident a consensus will be reached when talks over the coalition agreement resume later this month. After that, she hopes the measure will enjoy even broader backing.
"TOP 09 has already declared its support, but with the ODS - as always - it's going to be a harder fight," Peake said. "The [opposition] Social Democrats want general property statements for everyone, so I hope they accept this version too, unless their actual will to assert property statements is nothing more than a populist declaration."
Jonathan Crane can be reached at