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Bulgaria and Reform: The Case Against Immunity

by Forrest Barnum // Published July 15, 2009
Bulgaria's recent elections for the National Assembly featured some unusual drama beyond the decisive ousting of the incumbent government. Bulgarian law grants legal immunity to political candidates for the duration of a campaign, as well as permanently shielding lawmakers from prosecution; problematically, this loophole has been exploited by a number of suspected crimelords and miscellaneous lowlifes. Most notorious of these are Plamen Galev and Angel Hristov, they are quite popular in their home region and have a reasonable shot at being elected.

The questionable practice of political immunity has cropped up recently in two other European nations. Late last month, at the behest of Prime Minister Silvo Berlusconi, the Italian Cabinet granted immunity to the top four officeholders in Italy; unsurprisingly, one of these exclusive offices is that of the Prime Minister.  In Russia, suspected assassin Andrei Lugovoy was shielded from prosecution through his election to the State Duma under the banner of the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party. Granting immunity to candidates and elected officials is a pernicious idea; it encourages unsavory actors to enter politics, promotes corruption, and distances elected officials from citizens. For these reasons – and more – most governments have been rolling back such exemptions.

In Bulgaria's case, immunity is proving a national embarrassment, a roadblock to necessary democratic reforms, and an impediment to further integration into the European Union. Hopefully, the newly elected government will use its unexpectedly large mandate to spur reform. Removing immunity provisions would be an easy and obvious place to start.