Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

Guilty until Proved Innocent Should be the Presumption for Politicians

Bosko Picula, April 14, 2014

The Croatian public domain is shaking with another portion of corruption scandals at the highest political levels. The senior in the ruling coalition Social-Democratic Party has recently lost two key members of its who resigned from the leadership of the party. Those are the governor of Croatia's poorest municipality Sisacko-maslovacka zupanija Marina Lovric-Merzel and the mayor of Vukovar, Zeljko Sabo, who resigned because they are being investigated for abuse of office and public funds. Ms Marina Lovric-Merzel has been arrested pending investigation and Zeljko Sabo is waiting to be offered an agreement by the special anti-corruption prosecution USKOK. On this occasion, Bosko Picula, a political analyst, wrote a comment [in Croatian language] in one of the most circulating Croatian dailies, Jutarnji list, in which he calls for politicians to be valid the principle guilty until proved otherwise in terms of their political responsibility. euinside presents herewith a translation of Mr Picula's entire article.

The way things are going, in the upcoming election cycles in Croatia the no name politicians will be much more popular than those who are "branded" because the number of active and former holders of political posts, whom the judiciary is dealing with in various ways, has been growing. Moreover, they are being dealt with for the broadest range of violations of law. Former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, former deputy Prime Minister Radimir Cacic, former Minister Petar Cobankovic, former governor Branimir Glavas, still sitting governor Marina Lovric-Merzel, the sitting mayor of Virovitice Ivica Kirin, the mayor of Vukovar Zeljko Sabo, the mayor of Dubrovnik Andro Vlahusic... Some of them are in jail, others are arrested, a third group are suspected, a fourth group are on parole, a fifth are on probation after their sentences have been served.

It is a pity they did not work unconditionally for the common good [on probation] while they still were on political duty. And while this list is constantly growing, more and more often voters decide to support unknown until yesterday politicians, generally from the younger generation, who turn into holders of executive powers in, for now, limited number of local governments, like in Omis, Metkovic, Kutjevo... Voters do not know much about them, but they suppose a key thing - these people are honest or, at least, they cannot be worse than their predecessors. Does this mean, however, that consuming political power in Croatia is turning into an aggravating circumstance and, therefore, everyone in power is a priori a suspect?

As far as law is concerned, things are clear. As far as politics is concerned - too, but often there is abuse. The principle of innocence is one of the legal foundations which guarantees that every suspect or indicted person is innocent until a final sentence proves otherwise. Without such a perception and regulation of procedures the legal system would immediately fall into complete chaos and injustice. Moreover, penal responsibility is subject to prooof not innocence. Otherwise, everyone would be guilty until proved innocent. Generally, the legal beginning for the lack of a crime without a respective law, respectively the lack of punishment without that same law, is contained in the famous Latin phrase Nullum crimen, nulla poena sine praevia lege poenali which represents the broadest public value.

When applied, such a beginning legitimises the rule of law and the democratic system. How should we react then when the holders of power at various levels and posts in the state systemically break the laws of that same state and some of them keep their posts? Is the principle of innocence valid for politicians in opposition to the principle of guilt because, as famously concluded lord John Dalberg-Acton (1834-1902), an English historian and politician, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts the most. There is no doubt that political power, even against the backdrop of other powers, most of all the economic power, remains the most powerful in the state and society. Power, through its branches - legislative, executive and judiciary - adopts laws, applies them and decides who and how violates them. Those who possess political power are not on an equal footing with all the rest. More precisely - they should always be in a more responsible position.

But responsibility does not automatically mean guilt. For all holders of power in the state the principle of political responsibility should be valid. In case of its infringement, sanctions should also be political because in the case of legal responsibility sanctions are legal. Have governor Marina Lovric-Merzel and mayor Zeljko Sabo broken the law or not will be decided by the judiciary only. Everyone is innocent until their penal responsibility is proved. But are they politically responsible for the situation they have found themselves in there is no doubt at all. They are. Their resignations from the executive and party posts should not at all be a subject of any calculations. Resignations should be offered even for the smallest evidence that points to legal responsibility.

Moreover, with legal cases there always is a possibility one to be dismissed from penal responsibility, but for the political responsibility other context and time are valid. It represents attitude toward the confidence between citizens, as defined legally and in time, and those who take collective decisions on their behalf. Should politicians betray that confidence they lose legitimacy which is the fundament of their public post. That is why, political responsibility is the beginning which should in the future be bound to the possession of power. No one is guilty in advance, even politicians, no matter what many of them think. But all politicians are in advance responsible for deserving the confidence voters had given them.

Regretfully, in Croatia, there are few examples of taking political responsibility. Although forced and justified, Mirela Holy's resignation from the ministerial post because of the job of a friend of hers, not only did not interrupt her political career but even restarted it. Of course, against the backdrop of all the other mitigating circumstances. It is obvious, that Croatian voters support a practise for which in Croatia there is no rule, but which in many consolidated democracies is usual.

This is to take responsibility for the political post you hold and in case of an abuse with that responsibility to resign. And probably to try and deserve again that confidence in elections when voters will decide. The most interesting are situations when sentenced politicians continue  their political careers after they served their punishment. Can voters forgive them and again trust them? The answers can be found pretty quickly when some of them are free again. But then we should not ignore the "brand" former prisoners.

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