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Yugoslavia: In Contrast To Serbia, Western Parliamentarians Difficult To Dismiss

The decision of the Serbian parliament this week to dismiss dozens of deputies for poor attendance shows how easily the people's representatives can be dispensed with, at least in Serbia. But removing deputies from Western parliaments is much more difficult. RFE/RL surveys the practices in some of those legislatures.

Prague, 14 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The full Serbian parliament this week approved a recommendation by its Administrative Committee to dismiss a total of 39 deputies from the legislature, on grounds that they did not attend sessions often enough. Many were staying away on purpose to protest government policies.

The ease of the procedure shows how simple it can be to get rid of the elected representatives of the people, at least in Serbia today.

The fact that the Serbian parliament's Administrative Committee is dominated by supporters of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, and that many of those dismissed were loyal to Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, also illustrates the tempting political possibilities of such a system.

By contrast, in the West, stripping the mandate from an elected representative has been made purposely difficult, and in some cases impossible.

Take the case of the European Parliament, the democratic arm of the European Union, which brings together deputies from all member states. The European Parliament has no statutory provisions for the dismissal of deputies. They may be temporarily expelled from the chamber on any given occasion because of disorderly behavior. Or the parliament may vote to remove their immunity, which would open the deputies in question to outside legal proceedings. But even if they go to jail as a result, there is no way to dismiss them as deputies.

The German federal parliament, or Bundestag, like the European Parliament, is a young institution, having been founded with the new West German state in 1949. Perhaps for this reason, it shares the same tough approach to preserving individual deputies' mandates. As one Bundestag official jokingly said, "It may sound macabre," but the only way between elections to lose a mandate is to die, or to surrender it voluntarily. If a deputy goes to jail for a long period, he or she would be expected to resign. The official noted that, of course, at any time a deputy can be exposed to political pressures to step down, and that this has, in fact, happened on a number of occasions.

The British Parliament at Westminster, an institution of venerable age, has more diverse grounds for taking back a mandate. The Representation of the People Act of 1981 provides for the disqualification from Parliament of anyone jailed for more than a year for any offense. Among other grounds, deputies may be expelled because of treason, fraud, or corrupt practices at elections. They may also be expelled on grounds of mental illness, but only after a lengthy series of tests has been administered. In addition, a deputy may be suspended, rather than expelled, if he or she becomes bankrupt during his or her term. In effect, this means the deputy can neither sit in the House of Commons nor vote in that house.

British parliamentary information official Matthew Ringer said expulsion procedures are used sparingly, with only four expulsions from the House of Commons taking place during the 20th century.

The high standards now set in Britain for canceling a mandate contrast with the scene 200 years ago, when reformer John Wilkes was expelled from the House of Commons simply for having "views unacceptable to the majority." His only "offense" was to criticize the king's speech.

Wilkes, a persistent critic of the government, contributed to the development of a concept of a strong mandate by defying his expulsion from Parliament. "The Middlesex [County] electors elected him three times, despite Parliament's repeated refusal to see him.... So every time they expelled him, [the people] re-elected him," Ringer said.

The trouble started for Wilkes in 1769. But in time, despite periods in jail and exile, Wilkes went on to be lord mayor of London.

Across the Atlantic, the U.S. Congress has its own distinct way of dealing with the issue of mandates. As Sarah Binder, a researcher with the Brookings Institution, a policy research center in Washington, explained the procedure in the House of Representatives (lower house). "Essentially, it's up to the members collectively. They delegate power on this issue to an Ethics Committee, and it's up to the Ethics Committee to weigh evidence on whatever the charges are. And then there's a pretty broad range of punishments which the Ethics Committee can recommend to the House [of Representatives], but it has to be a full vote of the House," Binder said.

Expulsion is the strongest of the possible forms of punishment in the U.S. House, and it is rarely used. The Ethics Committee, since the late 1960s, has been bipartisan, meaning that it has an equal numbers of members from each of the Republican and Democratic parties to give it balance. Prior to that, the majority party at the time had a corresponding majority of seats.

In all, the ability of a parliamentarian to carry out a mandate without fear of dismissal is an essential part of a stable democratic process.