The sine qua non of Bulgaria's reformist political parties over the past decade has been all-encompassing judicial reform to transform the running of the justice system and, ultimately, cleanse the magistrature of "rotten apples" (as the former French ambassador to Sofia once called them).
Hristo Ivanov rose to prominence pledging to accomplish this as a justice minister in 2014-2015, failed to do so because he was sabotaged by GERB and MRF, created his own party - Yes, Bulgaria! - in an attempt to complete this mission and, ironically, now relies on those who betrayed him almost a decade ago to accomplish the reform.
On Friday last week, his WCC-DB coalition, submitted to the Parliament a bill for amendments to the Constitution alongside their former nemeses from GERB and MRF, with which the reformists are now in partnership, in what is shyly called a "non-coalition." Formally, this was done by the chairwoman of the parliamentary group of GERB Desislava Atanasova, the deputy chairwoman of the parliamentary group of WCC-DB Nadezhda Yordanova and the MP from MRF Erten Anisova. The draft has been signed by 166 MPs, which ensures the presence of a majority for the implementation of the ideas in the draft. The three formations declared their readiness to adopt the constitutional amendments before the end of the year and expressed satisfaction with progress.
The passing of the constitutional reform has gone under the shadow of one of the stranger proposals of WCC-DB - moving the national holiday from liberation day (3 March) to the day of Slavonic culture and Bulgarian alphabet (24 May). While public debate focused on the celebration, the more "boring" essence of the reform took a backseat. Below, we will explore what exactly the three parties submitted and critically examine the proposals.
Another attempt at judicial reform
Most of the reforms first proposed by WCC-DB on Sunday, 23 July, were accepted (with slight nuances) by MRF and GERB and were linked to the division of the judicial council into two in order to strengthen judges, reformatting the institution of the caretaker government, curbing the power of the Prosecutor General, introducing the individual constitutional complaint, limiting the mandates of mayors to two and bringing in the new national holiday.
The WCC-DB leaders spoke of the need for "national agreement" on the changes, but their proposals were immediately lambasted by pro-Russian, nationalist and Socialist circles and their media talking heads.
The Minister of Justice Atanas Slavov presented the ideas for restructuring the Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), which foresees its separation into a council of judges and a council of prosecutors, with different quotas, as per the advice of the Venice Commission on the Rule of Law. The changes can be adopted with a constitutional majority and there will be no need to call a Grand National Assembly, which is a special form of National Assembly that convenes over matters of special jurisdiction.
According to the reformists' plan, the term of the SJC would be limited to four years instead of five; the mandates of the prosecutor general and the presidents of the Supreme Court of Cassation and Administration should become five years, not seven as they are currently; the procedure for electing the presidents of the supreme courts or the prosecutor general would no longer end with a presidential decree; the Council of Judges would be composed of eight members elected by the judges, six by the National Assembly, and they must be representatives of the academic and legal community; sitting magistrates would no longer be eligible for election, while the Council of Prosecutors will consist of six members elected by the National Assembly, two to be elected by prosecutors and one by investigators; the Prosecutor General position would be transformed into a purely administrative role and will no longer be the head of a pyramid system that can supervise legality and, lastly, the introduction of an individual constitutional complaint is envisaged.
The changes to the SJC propose that the majority there should be formed by judges elected by judges. The principle of the composition of the prosecutorial council aims for the opposite - the idea is to have a parliamentary quota larger than that of the prosecutors so that a majority does not form around the prosecutor general. WCC-DB proposes that the Minister of Justice chair the Prosecutorial Council, but without voting rights, in order to balance the Prosecutor General within the Council.
No more presidential cabinets?
According to Hristo Ivanov, the discussions about the new status of the caretaker cabinet are at a very early stage. However, it is notable that the changes seek to limit the role of the presidency in terms of its appointments. Justice minister Slavov said that in recent years it has become clear that the construction of the caretaker cabinet is in conflict with what is written in the constitution - that Bulgaria is a parliamentary republic. So, it is likely that the changes envisage turning the outgoing government into a caretaker one until the next cabinet is elected, like in some Western democracies (i.e. Belgium and the Netherlands). On Friday, WCC-DB clarified that they will propose that the PM during the caretaker cabinet might still be approved by the president, but ought to be one of several high-ranking bureaucrats (i.e. the head of the National Bank or the SJC).
The draft bill by WCC-DB also provides for limiting the number of terms a mayor can govern to two. Ivanov claims this will stop the process of "feudalization" in Bulgarian municipalities. This proposal, however, was immediately dismissed by GERB and MRF (as it will directly affect the model of local control they have perfected in the last few decades) and the leaders of the parties did not comment on it when submitting the draft bill. It is likely that the proposal will remain, but will be dismissed during the discussion phase.
Constitutional experts have mixed feelings
Experts from academia and former caretaker ministers had mixed reactions to the proposed reform package. Many dismissed introducing a national holiday in the constitution, with constitutionalist Natalia Kiselova calling it a "deceitful move" that aims to distract the public discourse.
Most commentators opposed the mayoral mandates' limitation. Some, like constitutionalist Ekaterina Mihaylova, warn that the Prosecutor General pendulum might suddenly swing to the opposite extreme - from very powerful to completely weak, which is not advisable. And yet others - like law professor and former minister of education Daniel Valchev - question the need for constitutional reforms altogether, saying this would not fix the judiciary.
The most significant problem of the reform, however, is completely different - it will take decades for the potential effects to be felt, as they don't include the introduction of a new anti-corruption mechanism or other impactful new instrument to fight graft or fix the poor track record of the judiciary. Combined with the fact that a successful reform would require the votes of Boyko Borissov's GERB (currently under investigation for money laundering over the Barcelonagate case) and Delyan Peevski's MRF (currently in the Magnitsky list), this delegitimizes the process in the eyes of the average voter even further. And might condemn the reform from the off.