Senate approves government’s austerity bills

The protesters blocking the Senate’s entrance, photo: CTK

The Czech Senate met for the final session in its present formation on Friday with one all-important item on the agenda: approving the government’s austerity measures before the Civic Democrats lose their majority in the wake of recent elections for one third of the seats in the upper house. The opposition Social Democrats say the fast-tracked vote was unconstitutional, while a group of protesters briefly held up proceedings by blocking the Senate’s entrance.

The protesters blocking the Senate’s entrance,  photo: CTK
It was a stormy start of the day for Czech senators. As they arrived for the all-important last session at Valdstein Palace they found their way blocked by several dozen protesters who were determined to physically prevent their entry into the building, on the grounds that a third of the legislators no longer had a valid mandate. Lawyer Pavel Čižinský, head of the ProAlt initiative which staged the demonstration, shared his point of view:

“According to article 19 of the Czech constitution a senator’s mandate starts with his election. This present interpretation of the constitution which allows senators who have failed to defend their mandate to continue in office for several more weeks is dubious, especially when they are making key decisions on far-reaching reforms. In that case I think that the will of voters in 2010 should be given precedence over a vote that is six years old.”

The entrance to the historical building was eventually cleared by police and the house started its deliberations 20 minutes late. Efforts by senators from the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats to prevent a vote on four bills which form the backbone of the government’s austerity measures for 2011 were swept aside by the still right-dominated house. The austerity package was approved as presented. Senate chairman Přemysl Sobotka of the Civic Democrats, who will now have to vacate his chair to a Social Democrat senator, said he sees nothing amiss with the procedure.

“The government asked us to fast-track the austerity bills though the upper house. This was agreed, the date for it was set and I do not see any violation of the constitution in this matter.”

Friday’s vote came after the government last week quickly pushed the amendments through the lower house in what is called a state of legislative emergency, precisely so as to allow the outgoing Senate to vote on them. The opposition Social Democrats, who will have a majority in the Senate after next week’s changing of the guard, have protested loudly against the government’s tactics. Bohuslav Sobotka is the party’s acting chairman.

Bohuslav Sobotka,  photo: CTK
“I consider it highly regrettable that the government has chosen to follow this course of action and to push through – at any cost – its reform bills through the old Senate.”

While the government has succeeded in removing one big hurdle standing in the way of its reform drive, newly elected opposition senators say they will not stand by and see their rights undermined in this manner; several have said that though they couldn’t stop the bills’ approval, they will certainly question their validity in court.