- January 15, 2017
Radczenko: Constitution is not a sacred cow
I am often accused of being always critical of Waldemar Tomaszewski and his party colleagues, not noticing their positive initiatives. The truth is that I do notice them. Today (12 January) the first reading of amendments to the Lithuanian basic law was held. It was proposed jointly by peasants and Electoral Action of Poles in Lithuania – Christian Families Alliance. 67 members of the Seimas voted “for” (“green peasants”, EAPL-CFA and liberals), 22 – “against” (conservatives), 34 – abstained from voting (social democrats and members of the Party Order and Justice). Draft amendment to the Constitution provides that the number of Seimas members shall be reduced from 141 to 101 and moves parliamentary election from October to March. In my opinion this is a very good idea.
Several times I had the opportunity to watch the chaos in budget matters from the perspective of a privileged person. It erupts after each parliamentary election. The process of forming a state budget is lengthy. It starts in March and ends in December with formal approval of a budget law. Since parliamentary election is held in October and the Seimas takes office in the middle of November – a new parliamentary majority has only a few weeks to amend the draft budget prepared by its predecessors. It often results in the chaos, hasty decisions on amendments to draft budget (see: night tax reform of Andrius Kubilius with respect to predecessors’ overoptimistic draft budget), or an attempt to implement the previous government projects within one year. The amendment of the article 57, which moves the date of parliamentary election from the second Sunday of October to the second Sunday of March, should solve that problem, at least theoretically. An alternative option is the amendment of article the 129 to move the beginning of a budget year by a few months (from 1 January to the beginning of April, for example).
Even more reasonable option is the idea to amend the article 55 of the Constitution and reduce the number of Seimas members from 141 to 101. Within 26 years a number of residents of Lithuania decreased by 20 percent. There are also correspondingly fewer citizens. It is evident that the number of Seimas members who represent them should be reduced as well. All those who complain that it is easier to bribe, intimidate or force to submission the 101st member than the 141st member seem to tell fanciful stories. Following that logic, the number of members might be increased endlessly. Latvia, which is similar in size to Lithuania, but has a hundred of members, performs very well. Even if we ignore the decreasing number of residents, it should be stated that a slogan of cutting red tape by reducing public service jobs has been used by all politicians for years. That is why it seems quite logical to set an example in this respect.
The opponents warn that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Today we see cosmetic changes made in the Constitution. Tomorrow those in power will castrate the basic law out of all democratic institutions and establish a dictatorship. They take an example of the United States of America: how often the US Constitution was amended? Well, I am glad to answer: the US Constitution was amended 27 times. On the one hand – few times, since it has been effective for over 200 years. On the other hand, the US Constitution is a vague and laconic document (if we exclude the Bill of Rights, it has only 7 articles). Meanwhile, the Lithuanian Constitution has 154 articles, but up to now it has been changed only 6 times within a period of 26 years. It should be also noted that according to Anglo-Saxon law, courts have high competence to interpret the Constitution and that interpretations are accepted by the majority of society. As a result, the US Constitution is changed without a formal amendment process, on the basis of court interpretation. Meanwhile, in Lithuania every decision of the Constitutional Court that goes outside the literal reading of the text of the basic law (and it is worth adding that in the legal praxis the literal reading of the text is the least efficient interpretation), is seen by the society or its part as illegal or usurping.
In such a situation relatively frequent changes in the Constitution are inevitable and there is no need to be afraid of them. The Constitution is not a sacred cow. It is a document that specifies our rights, obligations and organisational structure of our country. Not all regulations that seemed reasonable 25 years ago are still reasonable today (note the heated discussions around the regulations governing the state language and dual citizenship), so the change is something natural. Especially in the light of the fact that even those who voted against amendments admit off the record that the proposals of Ramūnas Karbauskis are quite logical.
The constitutional amendments proposed by peasants and EAPL-CFA passed their first reading in the Seimas. A long way ahead of them and it remains to be seen how it will end. To change the Constitution, we need 94 votes (that is many more votes than today’s votes for amendments). What is already clear is that the draft is not perfect and will have to be changed to a great extent (for example, there are no transitional and implementing rules). It is also necessary to keep an eye on authorities (any authorities!) to ensure that one of the Seimas members will not come up with the idea to limit our rights and remove democratic institutions. If that is the case – the civil society should be ready to defend their Constitution. However, we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Not all propositions of, say, EAPL-CFA are a priori wrong.
Translated by Grzegorz Gaura within the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.