On Tuesday, 20 March, the Legal Affairs Committee of the Saeima decided to submit the proposed amendments to the Satversme (Constitution) for parliament’s consideration. The amendments are intended to limit the scope of MPs’ immunity and to revoke the secret ballot procedure for electing the President of Latvia and judges of the Constitutional Court.
The draft amendments to the Satversme elaborated by the Committee’s working group are intended to revoke MPs’ administrative immunity except in cases where an administrative penalty involves restriction of personal liberty. This means, for instance, that the consent of the Saeima will no longer be required to fine an MP for a traffic violation.
It is also proposed to delete from the Satversme the provision that prohibits MPs’ premises to be searched without the consent of the Saeima. The proposed wording of the amendments to the Satversme retains some provisions regarding MPs’ immunity; for example, it sets forth that MPs shall not be detained, arrested, held under house arrest or undergo criminal prosecution without the consent of the Saeima. The provision according to which MPs may be arrested and their liberty restricted if apprehended in the act of committing a crime will remain intact.
The authors of the proposed amendments explained that the current provisions granting MPs immunity provide excessive protection to the parliament and contradict the principle of equality. The aim of the amendments is to ensure that MPs’ immunity is justified and unbiased. MP’s immunity should be justified only by the need to protect them from prosecution on political grounds, as well as the need to ensure unhindered performance of MPs’ duties and parliamentary work.
During the Committee’s meeting, MP Andrejs Elksniņš (Concord Centre) voiced his objections to the proposed amendments arguing that the current wording of the amendments renders the immunity pointless. He pointed out that along with the limitation of MPs’ immunity, the immunity of judges, prosecutors, security service officials and other officials should also be reviewed.
Inese Lībiņa–Egnere, Deputy Chairperson of the Committee, emphasised the importance of such amendments and called on the MPs to spearhead the process and to support the proposed wording of the amendments to the Satversme. She argued that this was only the beginning of a process aimed at limiting the immunity of public officials in all branches of power.
The amendments to the Satversme also provide for revoking the secret ballot procedure for electing the President of Latvia and for appointing judges of the Constitutional Court; this would establish uniform rules for appointing officials and eliminating the secret ballot altogether.
The authors of the amendments to the Satversme justify the revocation of the secret ballot with the paramount principle of representing the people in a parliamentary democracy; namely, voters must be informed about the opinions and actions of the representatives they have elected. Furthermore, the actions of MPs must be verifiable, and this can be ensured only by an open voting procedure. Open voting will oblige MPs to take responsibility for what they say and to justify the decisions they take.
Recent votes by secret ballot in the Saeima have also shown that this procedure erodes public trust in the parliament and political parties. Furthermore, the secret ballot procedure has created practical difficulties in finding appropriate candidates for important public officials’ positions. Recognised professionals in their field have declined to run for office because of the Saeima’s non-transparent appointment procedure.
In January the Saeima already amended its Rules of Procedure by revoking the previously employed procedure of electing officials by secret ballot. The amendments to the Law provided that open voting is used in electing members of the Presidium of the Saeima, the Ombudsman, the Auditor General, judges, the Director of the Constitution Protection Bureau, the Prosecutor General, the Director of the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, the Chairman of the Central Election Commission and other officials stipulated by law.
The Saeima has already adopted in the second reading amendments to the Law on the Bank of Latvia which provide for the open voting procedure to be used in electing the Governor, Deputy Governors and Board Members of the Bank of Latvia.
The working group which prepared the amendments to the Satversme consisted of MPs from all parliamentary groups, as well as representatives from the Supreme Court, the Corruption Prevention and Combating Bureau, the Latvian Lawyers’ Association, the Latvian Bar Association and the academic community.
The Saeima may amend the Satversme in sittings which are attended by at least two-thirds of MPs. The amendments must be passed in three readings by a majority of not less than two-thirds of MPs present.
Saeima Press Service