The Slovak parliament has turned down the request from the prosecutor's office to remove the immunity of three-time premier Robert Fico and allow him to be taken into custody. The vote is a huge blow to the ruling centre-right government and will greatly increase tensions within the fractious four-party coalition, which lags behind the opposition in opinion polls.
The request failed by just two votes in the 150-seat parliament, with 74 MPs (the coalition parties OLaNO, For the People and SaS) voting in favour of the proposal, 49 voting against (the coalition party We Are Family, and opposition parties Smer-SD, led by Fico, and its offshoot, the Voice-SD party), 19 abstaining and eight not voting, the Slovak News Agency (TASR) reported.
Prosecutors accuse Fico of being one of the main suspects in the Purgatory case, an investigation into an alleged corrupt network around Nitra-based oligarch Norbert Bodorthe that allegedly attemped to manipulate the police in 2012 against the opposition. The police have already charged several high-ranking former officials, including former interior minister Robert Kalinak, former national police chief Tibor Gaspar, special prosecutor Dusan Kovacik and the former head of the police unit NAKA Robert Krajmer. The fact that the charges against Fico and Kalinak have only now come out suggests that the accused in the case may have provided evidence that pointed to them.
"I thank every lawmaker who supported me and respect everyone who held a different opinion," Fico was quoted by the news agency as saying, adding that they "voted for democracy and the rule of law".
According to the Voice-SD leader Peter Pellegrini, the attempt at a political vendetta has been defeated. "It's the duty of every single lawmaker to vote to the best of his knowledge and conscience. If they couldn't vote to enable the prosecution in custody of their fellow colleague with a clear conscience, then it's only good that they didn't do so," he said, as quoted by the news agency.
He stressed that justice must be served in standard ways, which is an investigation, followed by a just verdict by an independent court. Custody is just a way to divert attention away from the real problems of Slovakia, he noted.
"MPs had a unique opportunity to prove that the days of undeserved privileges for MPs are over. This did not happen because MPs of coalition movement We Are Family and, unfortunately, two OLaNO MPs, had a different opinion on the matter," said Prime Minister Eduard Heger.
Two MPs from the OLaNO party – Romana Tabak and Katarina Hatrakova – chose not to vote and to abstain. After the vote, they were expelled from the OLaNO caucus, caucus chair Michal Sipos confirmed to TASR. "Today, MPs Katarina Hatrakova and Romana Tabak, two out of 50 OLaNO lawmakers, betrayed the values of the party and the manifesto that they signed. By preventing justice from being served, they betrayed the majority of OLaNO voters too," he said.
"All of those who voted for this coalition are the people taking objection to what Robert Fico did to our country. Some lawmakers laughed in their faces today, however, and decided that sitting above every citizen in Slovakia is Robert Fico as a gratuitously protected individual with a special status," said For the People leader Veronika Remisova, according to the news agency, adding that "the damage they wrought today will never be undone".
SaS MPs questioned having the 'We Are Family' party in the coalition. According to their reaction, the future of the governing coalition is now in the hands of PM Eduard Heger.
"Despite the fact that [OLaNO head] Igor Matovic portrays SaS as a party that is undermining the [governing coalition], it was the votes of two OLaNO MPs and the entire We Are Family caucus that rejected its purpose and values," reads the party's statement, according to TASR.
Economy Minister Richard Sulik, head of SaS, who has constantly sparred with Matovic, described the debacle as “the biggest political failure in [Matovic’s] career … He was defeated by his own MPs. He will never again be able to talk about fighting corruption.”