Kęstutis Girnius. Did the Seimas cast a challenge to the rule of law?

Kęstutis Girnius
DELFI / Karolina Pansevič

With the impeachment of M. Bastys failing in Seimas, a wave of outrage rippled forward, part earnest, part based on political considerations.

Exchanges of polemic fire began. The majority and the opposition accused one another of secretly backing Bastys.

The opposition groups in Seimas proposed to organise snap Seimas elections on Jun 3 this year, knowing well that the likelihood such an initiative will receive support from 85 MPs is particularly low even when “Farmer” chairman of the National Security and Defence Committee Vytautas Bakas stated he would support the opposition proposal.

Constitutional Court chairman Dainius Žalimas described the vote as a “challenge to the rule of law.” The Presidential Palace’s press service described the vote a political spectacle in Seimas.

Proposals were made to repeat the impeachment vote, albeit such proposals fell flat when Bastys resigned himself. The Seimas Ethics and Procedures Commission suggested to change the Seimas statute, banning the publication of ballots, so that the secrecy of voting would be maintained.

In this respect the German parliament is far more effective. On Wednesday, one deputy of the radical AfD party made a photo of his ballot in which he voted against the appointment of Angela Merkel as chancellor and posted the photo on social media, together with the caption “not my chancellor.”

He was immediately fined 1000 euro for breaching the rules of the secret ballot. MP Justas Džiugelis registered a proposal for amending the Seimas Statute so that member of Seimas impeachment votes would be made open. The proposal should be seriously deliberated, considering the practice of other parliaments. But I believe that a large monetary fine would suffice.

Passions flared in more than just the Seimas. The Laisvės TV internet television, which was founded by journalist Andrius Tapinas, organised a protest at the Seimas palace.

Both Conservative Party chairman G. Landsbergis and “Farmer” chairman R. Karbauskis participated, likely in an effort to prove they were impeccable, like Cesar’s wife. It is good that a protest was organised, the people of Lithuania are inclined to just passively observe political and public life. Surveys consistently show that only around 5% of Lithuanians have participated in a demonstration, protest or picket over the past year.

It is clear proof that civic society has yet to develop, thus all efforts to rouse her from her deep slumber are laudable.

It is not the first time for an MP’s impeachment to fail, despite the Constitutional Court (KT) ruling that there was a severe breach of the Constitution. Possibly the most notable prior case occurred in 1999 when Audrius Butkevičius was not impeached despite already serving time for taking a 15 thousand USD bribe.

Suspicions may appear that the protest is linked with the especially critical view of the current “Farmer” government. That it is apparently incompetent, ineffective, and perhaps “unpatriotic”, thus it needs to be removed as soon as possible and government handed over to more trustworthy hands, like the Conservatives.

On the other hand, Bastys is accused of concealing his links with former KGB employee Piotr Voyeiko, there being even talks of treason, though to my knowledge there is no concrete evidence. These are more severe accusations than those presented before Aleksandras Sacharukas, who used Linas Karalius‘ certificate and voted instead of the latter regarding legislation.

As KT chairman D. Žalimas mentioned, based on the number of impeachment cases, Lithuania is a world record holder. It is no reason to be proud.

Lithuanian voters, not deputies, elect members of Seimas and they should have the final word during the next elections. There can be special cases where impeachment should be performed, but they should be especially rare. The situation is further complicated in that the Constitution grants roles in the impeachment process for both the KT and the Seimas.

Article 105 specifies that the KT presents a ruling, whether an MP, who is being impeached, has acted against the Constitution, while article 75 – that the Seimas can strip the MP’s mandate with a yes vote from 3/5 of parliament.

The cases of Bastys and others show that there can be disagreement between Seimas and the Constitutional Court. They could be removed by one of two Constitutional amendments. The process can be left solely to the Seimas or it can have its right for the final ruling to be removed.

Jurist V. Nekrošius proposes to make the Seimas into the KT’s maid servant, who must obey every KT ruling. “The Seimas should simply be a sort of notary, who would just confirm what was stated.” According to Nekrošius, if the Constitution would be reviewed, the Seimas should be left no say in the process of impeachment.

It is a disastrous proposal which would distort the principle of separation of power, would take another step toward rule of the courts, reducing not just the rights of the Seimas, but all of Lithuanian voters.

This already happened in 2010 when the KT ruled that civil servants’ wages should not be reduced so that high qualification civil servants’ wages would near to lower qualification civil servants’.

An ideological, not constitutional principle was established, which removed from the government the duty to form wage and tax policy and from voters – the right to support politicians, who would seek more social justice. Meanwhile KT judges shamelessly ensured that they will always earn more than almost all Lithuanian citizens.

From a constitutional perspective, the Seimas is essentially the most important institution of the Republic (being the first discussed in the Constitution). The Seimas has the right to arrange its affairs as it will. Neither the KT, nor any other institution can direct, how it should regulate its interior affairs. Even further, no-one can direct, how MPs should vote.

The KT can express its opinion, but deputies must be free to agree or disagree with it. MPs are elected by the people, not the KT, thus the deputies have to be accountable to the people and not automatically fulfil the KT’s demands. It must be stressed that Saulius Skvernelis also believes that a KT ruling is enough to remove an MP from Seimas via impeachment and that further voting in Seimas is not necessary. Perhaps for him as well the Seimas is an obstacle for serious work, thus its powers should be consistently diminished.

Another possibility is to remove the KT from the impeachment process. The Seimas would be granted the sole right to independently begin the impeachment proceedings and pass the final and undisputable ruling on an MP’s mandate. In some firm democracies such is the case. US law grants the House of Representatives the right to initiate impeachment and the Senate – the right to the final verdict.

This arrangement has major advantages, but I do not believe that the Lithuanian Seimas has matured for it yet, which is displayed not only by frequent impeachments, but also unceasing motions of no confidence for ministers. As such we should remain with the current, dual arrangement as the lesser evil.

Just perhaps the Seimas should emphasise that it has no duty to agree with the KT’s ruling, that dismissing it is no “challenge to the rule of law.” Disagreement with the KT’s pretences is no breach of the Constitution.

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