Protest over 'Failure' of Bulgaria's Judicial Reform Held in Sofia
Around a hundred people took to the streets of central Sofia to demonstrate over Parliament's decision to approve an amended version of judicial reform proposals submitted by former Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov.
Ivanov stepped down a few hours earlier, describing the vote as "a symbolic step towards the suspicion that in Bulgaria one can speak more and more about the rule of the Chief Prosecutor".
Holding placards and gathering in front of Parliament's building, protesters marched to the nearby Orlov Most ("Eagles' Bridge") square, disrupting traffic.
Some of the participants were holding candles, explaining they were taking part of a "vigil" in the name of judicial reform. Others demanded the government's resignation.
"The government lost the moral right" to be in office, Dnevnik.bg quotes a participant as saying.
This came just after MPs passed a package of constitution reforms that Ivanov and part of the governing coalition believe will make the judicial system much more efficient, liberating it from what they call overarching influence of the prosecuting authority.
The division of the judiciary's main governing body, the Supreme Judicial Council (VSS), into a "judges" and "prosecutors" college was swiftly approved.
Under the new legislation, the activity of Bulgaria's Chief Prosecutors can be subject to scrutiny by Parliament.
A constitutional amendment ensures that the procedure of secret voting at the VSS, used to decide on key appointments to the judiciary and prosecution, is abolished.
However, there had been disagreement over another proposal of Ivanov which determined the number of magistrates and prosecutors within the respective colleges and the quotas elected by Parliament and judicial bodies respectively.
As a result, junior coalition partner Reformist Bloc (RB) is blaming all parties for obstructing the judicial reform by protecting what it believes are vested interests of the prosecution.
Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Rumyana Bachvarova then said the main ruling GERB party now expected from the RB to nominate a new Justice Minister.
Ivanov was appointed as interim Justice Minister in last year's caretaker government of August-November, but PM Boyko Borisov made him part of his government after being elected. He entered the cabinet as part of the RB's quota.
Bachvarova, who as Deputy PM is in charge of coalition policy, made clear no other resignations of ministers were expected as of the moment.
Immediately after Ivanov's annoucement he would step down, left-wing ABV party, which has a minister in the government, welcomed his move, with its leader President (2002-2012) Georgi Parvanov calling Ivanov "a hindrance" to the judicial reform.
Krasimir Karakachanov, head of one of the two key parties in the Patriotic Coalition which backs the cabinet, added Ivanov's decision would not have a negative impact on governance.
Tensions had been mounting between Ivanov and Chief Prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov. Ivanov and parts of the RB had long alleged the Chief Prosecutor's powers must be cut through legal reform.
Supporters have interpreted GERB's reluctance to this as a sign of secret relations between the main ruling party and liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), dominated by ethnic Turks, which RB supporters consider to be one of the key factors for corruption in Bulgaria, also often calling Tsatsarov an agent for the DPS's interests and a symbol of the status quo.
That was also protesters' main concern, with many of them arguing that by amending the draft of the judicial reform Parliament had helped strengthen Tsatsarov's grip on the country. Opposition parties like socialist BSP, however, dispute this, saying Ivanov and the RB are just working to increase their influence on the judiciary and are using the reform as an instrument to get a bigger share of power there. The DPS, for their part, helped pass some of the texts on Wednesday, with their leader Lyutvi Mestan arguing the party had shown it was ready for "compromise' in the name of public interest.
Echoing Ivanov's move, several lawmakers including the RB's co-chair Radan Kanev announced they were personally withdrawing their support from the government and should be considered part of the opposition, but without leaving their group in Parliament.
Several hours later, the RB's press office released a statement reading that Kanev's specific position did not reflect any views of the coalition itself. The statement followed comments by Grozdan Karadzhov, the head of Parliament's Transport Committee who renounced his position there, that more than a dozen of the RB's 23 MPs are to join him and Kanev in protest.
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