Proposed amendments to Bulgaria’s constitution failed on October 6 to get sufficient votes to be approved at first reading, but enough to be put to a first reading vote again, two to five months hence.
With 180 votes in Bulgaria’s 240-seat National Assembly needed for approval, the amendments got 161 votes in favour, with 57 against, from the 218 MPs present in the House. The fact that there were more than 160 votes in favour puts it over the threshold for a first-reading vote to be held once more, no earlier than two months from October 6.
The amendments are co-sponsored by a number of MPs from the three parliamentary groups supporting the government.
Even before the beginning of the first-reading debate, which lasted more than seven and a half hours, it was expected that there would be numerous changes to the amendments before the third and final reading stage is reached. Apart from opposition to the amendments as a whole from minority parties, there are disagreements among the co-sponsors of the bill about the final form of the amendments.
The aim of the sponsors of the bill had been to reach the third-reading vote in December 2023.
There is a dispute whether some or all of the amendments may be made by an ordinary National Assembly or require the election of a 400-member Grand National Assembly.
In their current form, the amendments would restructure the Supreme Judicial Council, reduce the term of office of the heads of the two supreme courts from seven to five years with a possibility of a single further term, and provide for the Prosecutor-General to be appointed on the recommendation of the Justice Minister or three members of the Prosecutors Council, while cutting the Prosecutor-General’s term of office from seven to five years.
The amendments provide for a special mechanism for investigating the Prosecutor-General.
The amendments diminish the discretion allowed to the head of state in appointing a caretaker prime minister, providing for the choice solely to be between the Speaker of the National Assembly, the heead of the Constitutional Court or the governor of the central bank.
The point at which the National Assembly would be prorogued ahead of a parliamentary election would be reduced from two months to one.
A proposed amendment provides for abolishing the requirement for senior public office-bearers such as the president, prime minister and members of Parliament to hold only Bulgarian citizenship.
The bill provides for individuals to approach the Constitutional Court against acts of Parliament and provides for lower courts to approach the Constitutional Court directly over the constitutionality of a law relevant to a case before a lower court.
An initial proposal to change Bulgaria’s national day from March 3 to May 24 appears doomed because co-sponsors from the GERB-UDF and Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF) parliamentary groups now oppose it.
In the opening phase of the first-reading debate, We Continue the Change-Democratic Bulgaria’s Hristo Ivanov described the draft amendments as an “invitation for debate” and called on all institutions to join the process of amending the texts and to propose revisions between the readings.
Statehood is founded on justice, he said, going on to say that without real justice, political stability is impossible.
Indirectly attacking his “non-coalition” partner from the MRF, Ivanov added that, among other things, Bulgaria also has the largest number of persons sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act.
He said that institutional security must be ensured through legislative measures in order to have a free and independent court system. Bulgaria still had not reached the full measure of European standards for an independent court, Ivanov said.
Ivanov said that in recent years another problem has become apparent – the possibility of the country becoming a semi-presidential one.
He denied that there was a “war” on the Prosecutor’s Office, but the problem with it must be solved – to have a depoliticised, accountable and democratic Prosecutor’s Office.
Toma Bikov of GERB-UDF criticised the idea of limiting the president’s choice of caretaker cabinet members.
Bikov said that it would be much better to ensure the continuous operation of Parliament so that a caretaker government could be kept under parliamentary control.
GERB-UDF’s Branimir Balachev criticised the complete separation of the judicial council from the prosecutor’s council, and said that this would not be supported.
Vuzrazhdane deputy parliamentary group leader Petar Petrov said that the proposed constitutional amendments were aimed at a “take-over” of the leadership posts in the judicial system, and said that the group would not support this “latest in a series of simulation of constitutional reform”.
The leader of the second-smallest parliamentary group, the Bulgarian Socialist Party’s Kornelia Ninova, said that the amendments would be ruled unconstitutional because they required a vote in a Grand National Assembly, while the smallest parliamentary group, ITN, also opposes the amendments.
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