Bulgaria’s Parliament passed at third and final reading on December 16 constitutional amendments on judicial reforms with 189 votes, with one abstention and 39 votes against from the opposition socialists.
Other opposition parties, including predominantly ethnic Turk Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) and ultra-nationalist Ataka, voted in favour of the changes. MPs for the Democrats for a Strong Bulgaria (DSB), one of the constituent parties of the Reformist Bloc coalition, did not vote, but the rest of the coalition’s MPs voted in favour of the amendments.
The Reformist Bloc decided on December 15 to continue backing the government of Prime Minister Boiko Borissov, with DSB in opposition but still a member of the coalition. The party’s decision to withdraw its support for the Cabinet was prompted by the changes in the constitutional amendments, adopted by Parliament at second reading last week.
The re-distribution of quotas in the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), seen by critics as weakening the independence of the courts while at the same time strengthening the position of the prosecutor-general on the council, have also prompted the resignation of justice minister Hristo Ivanov.
The constitutional amendments only change the legal framework, which means that Parliament is still required to amend existing laws or pass new ones before the changes go into effect. The House gave itself a three-months deadline to do so after the constitutional changes are published, although some local commentators have questioned Parliament’s ability to pass all the necessary changes in such a short period of time.
Among the key provisions in the amendments are: dropping the requirement that all votes in the SJC are secret, which is seen as potentially improving transparency on key judiciary appointments, although a proposal to take this one step further and make all such votes open has been rejected; splitting the SJC into separate judges and prosecutors colleges, which would make decisions concerning their respective branches of the judicial system; giving Parliament the ability to hear reports from the prosecutor-general other than the routine annual report (again, a proposal that would give the House the power to request the prosecutor-general’s reports was rejected).
Overall, the constitutional amendments have been hailed as a step forward in reforming Bulgaria’s judiciary by parliamentary parties and President Rossen Plevneliev, but critics say that the final version of the changes was diluted to gather the necessary support from the opposition (chiefly the MRF) and have described the process as a missed opportunity, pointing out that the changes fell well short of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional matters, which suggested bigger changes aimed at securing the independence of the courts and imposing more accountability checks on the prosecutor’s office.