Continuing negotiations on July 22 about proposed changes to Bulgaria’s constitution to reform the judiciary left it no clearer whether the changes – or, for that matter, which version – would be adopted.
The centre-right Reformist Bloc, minority partner in the coalition cabinet and the political force that has made proposals for thorough changes to the workings of the judiciary a core element of its role in Bulgarian political life, has made clear that it will not be part of a rewrite of the proposals that would make them merely the “imitation” of reform.
Along with Bulgarians who have been taking part in a series of public demonstrations demanding genuine judicial reform, the Reformist Bloc regard with skepticism moves by the Movement for Rights and Freedoms to come up with its own version of proposals, which the bloc sees as nothing more than a manoeuvre to keep the status quo.
Should the point be reached in Parliament that proposals are tabled for debate and voting, at least 160 out of 240 MPs would have to vote in favour for them to be approved.
Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, leader of government majority partner and Parliament’s largest party GERB, has been holding meetings individually with leaders of various coalitions and parties in Parliament, and on July 22, called a surprise meeting of heads of parliamentary groups in a bid to achieve consensus on proposals.
After the talks, held in the National Assembly after Borissov attended the scheduled weekly Cabinet meeting, he said that there were two options for ending the stalemate by voting on amendments to the constitution and as a whole for judicial reform.
He did not elaborate on what this meant, on the grounds that a transcript of the meeting would be made public.
According to Borissov, the only thing that at the moment was preventing the Reformist Bloc agreeing to support the proposals was disagreement on the formula for the leadership of the judiciary to be chosen.
Without an agreement, the proposed tabling of the bill on July 24 would end in defeat, “but I do want to impose stress on the Reformist Bloc,” Borissov said.
The Reformist Bloc indicated that it expected that by Friday, there would have been many more meetings, and no one could be sure what would be tabled in Parliament. The bloc was to hold a meeting later on July 22 to decide its position regarding which version of the proposals to support, but would not disclose its decision before a further meeting of parliamentary group leaders to be held on the morning of July 23.
Reports on July 22 said that at the meeting of parliamentary group leaders, it had been decided to ask the Constitutional Court for an opinion on the changes to the constitution regarding the judiciary.
Reportedly, the idea is that after Parliament approves the first reading of the changes, the approved text will be handed to the Constitutional Court, for possible revision before the second reading. Another version says that the bill will be tabled on July 24, then referred to the parliamentary constitutional committee for a month-long review period, after which a first-reading vote will be held. Should the required number of votes in favour be cast, final approval of the bill would be expedited through a fast-track procedure, and it would then be referred to the Constitutional Court, which in turn would be expected to act urgently
Currently, there is support for a draft version of the proposals to be tabled from GERB, the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, nationalist coalition the Patriotic Front, socialist breakaway party ABC and minority party Bulgarian Democratic Centre.
At a meeting with Borissov early in the morning on July 22, opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party leader Mihail Mikov reiterated his party’s rejection of the constitutional reform proposals.
Mikov repeated that his party had called for “serious analysis of the problems of the judiciary” before tabling constitutional change proposals, and saw the current efforts at draft legislation as driven by political motives creating tension.
In a television interview, Reformist Bloc parliamentary group co-leader Radan Kanev said that if the MRF really wanted change, “our hand is extended, because the goal is a better judicial system in Bulgaria”.
However, he said, if the MRF once again wanted to only imitate change, the Reformist Bloc could not be part of a majority committing this imitation, Kanev said.
The Reformist Bloc had already made concessions and had come to an “absolute minimum”. Cutting back further on the depth of reforms would make “absolutely no sense, except to go to lie in Brussels that we carried out reform,” he said.
Kanev said that if there was a be a “GERB-MRF team”, the Reformist Bloc could not be a part of it and its place would be in opposition. This followed on comments he made the previous day, that unless the constitutional amendments towards judicial reform were approved, “nothing in Bulgaria can be considered stable, including the Reformist Bloc’s participation in the coalition”.
In the Bulgarian-language media, daily Sega took a skeptical view of what was going on between GERB and the MRF, saying that Borissov had agreed to the proposals by MRF leader Lyutvi Mestan on “token” changes to the constitution for the sake of reporting reforms to the EU in the hope of avoiding a negative Cooperation and Verification Mechanism report from the European Commission and in the hope of bolstering Bulgaria’s campaign to be admitted to the EU’s Schengen visa zone.
Meanwhile, on July 22, the Bulgarian Judges’ Association said in an open letter that it was concerned about what it saw as outright political bargaining which could lead those involved to feign judicial reform and nullify the true meaning of the changes.
The judges’ association said that no political party denied the need for genuine judicial reform, but the behaviour of “some political entities” was contrary to the positions they declared.
The proposed package of legislative amendments had been subject to unprecedented broad discussion on the courts, and there was clear consensus on three very important points, namely, the separation of the Supreme Judicial Council into individual colleges for judges, prosecutors and investigators, each with power over career development and discipline, reduction of the term of office of the SJC and removing the constitutional requirement for a secret ballot in SJC decisions.
Separating the SJC into two colleges made sense if they had the necessary powers over personnel matters, but not if these powers remained with the SJC plenum, as some parties had proposed as a condition for supporting the changes, the Bulgarian Judges’ Association said.
“Obviously, if such an alternative is adopted, differentiation of individual colleges will be completely pointless, because in practice decisions on personnel issues will be taken exactly as
they have been so far.”
Retreating on this issue would make the changes tantamount to no change at all, the association said, adding that this applied to other proposals intending to improve the work of the SJC.
The association urged that there be no “unscrupulous compromises”, because this would mean that reforms were merely being simulated.