Ukraine strips MPs of legal immunity in victory for populist president
Ukraine’s parliament has voted to strip its members of immunity from prosecution in the first major victory for president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s populist reform programme.
Supported by 373 of 450 MPs, the legislation removes from the constitution a guarantee that the chamber’s members cannot be held criminally liable without a vote by parliament. It will come into effect at the start of 2020.
The move gives weight to Mr Zelenskiy’s promises to revitalise the reform process and root out entrenched corruption in Ukraine, where voters’ trust in the government had dropped to single digits. Nearly nine out of 10 believe that political parties have been engaged in corruption.
Critics have said the change could expose MPs to politically motivated cases. But speaking in parliament on Tuesday, Mr Zelenskiy argued that it would instead keep members from abusing their position, promising that they would not be prosecuted for their votes or political decisions.
“If a deputy hits a person with a car, or covers for (illegal) amber mining or commits any other criminal offence, he should bear responsibility,” he said. “This is parliament, not a lair where you can hide out under the cupola for five years.”
The pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life was the only fraction that didn’t vote for the measure.
The legislation to remove parliamentary immunity was actually introduced by Mr Zelenskiy’s predecessor Petro Poroshenko last year.
Although it was ruled legal by the constitutional court, it did not move forward until the new president’s Servant of the People party won Ukraine’s first-ever single-party majority in snap elections in July. As a result, his initiatives stymied by the previous parliament now have a green light.
The removal of immunity fulfils a central campaign pledge of the former comedian, who played a teacher-turned-president on television before sweeping into the office for real in April.
He has promised to strip the president and judges of legal immunity and establish procedures for impeachment and nationwide referenda, in addition to business-friendly tax and legal reforms.
He also said he would involve the United States and UK in new peace talks about the frozen conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
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Negotiations of a prisoner swap with Russia, which began after Mr Zelenskiy called Vladimir Putin last month, have so far failed to bear fruit, despite Ukrainian officials’ promises of an imminent trade in recent weeks.
Also on Tuesday, parliament voted to send a bill to the constitutional court for review that would allow ordinary people to introduce legislation directly.
One newspaper columnist said after Tuesday’s vote that parliamentary immunity must also be removed from a law on MPs’ status and from the criminal code to completely strip lawmakers of this protection. But given their parliamentary majority, Mr Zelenskiy’s supporters are well positioned to do this as well.
While the president has been vocal in his anti-corruption campaign, many have questioned his ties with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the channel that broadcast Mr Zelenskiy’s shows and has been trying to reverse the nationalisation of his bank.