Ministers Spared Corruption Probe – For Now

Parliamentarians continue to seek answers to malpractice charges.

Ministers Spared Corruption Probe – For Now

Parliamentarians continue to seek answers to malpractice charges.

Wednesday, 22 July, 2009
A group of Syrian parliamentarians have told IWPR that they will not give up on their efforts to question two ministers over alleged corruption and malpractice, after their unprecedented request to do so was turned down earlier this month.

The demand has sparked tensions between the legislative and executive powers in Syria.

Firas Saloum and Wael Melhem, who as independents in the People’s Council represent workers and farmers, wanted to ask about charges of corruption in public employment bureaus; officials’ alleged failure to create job opportunities and the reported incompetence of state-run media.

The deputies, supported by other lawmakers, sought to question the ministers responsible for employment and the media, Diala al-Haj, minister of social affairs and labour, and Muhsen Bilal, minister of information.

But early this month, the speaker of the People’s Council, Mahmoud al-Abrash, refused to open the floor of the parliament to a public discussion of the issue or even record deputies’ request in the official registers of the parliament, according to a number of lawmakers interviewed by IWPR.

Abrash argued that the reasons given in the demand were not specific enough, and he was concerned about creating tension between the parliament and the prime minister, Mohamad Naji al-Otari, they said.

The members of parliament, MPs, responded that it was their constitutional right to question the government as part of their role as a monitoring body.

“The people have lost faith that their representatives [in parliament] truly act for them,” Salloum said, adding that he felt compelled to ask the ministers about their poor performance in defence of people’s rights.

Many Syrians have been complaining about a deterioration of their economic situation and especially about higher unemployment, observers say.

“We are ashamed to face people. We cannot promise them anything because we know that we cannot meet our promises,” Salloum said.

He said that the parliament has become a paralysed body.

According to the lawmakers, one of the speaker’s arguments was that ministers could not be questioned on a 1974 parliament bylaw that prohibits the legislative body from interfering in the work of ministers.

“How can I monitor the government without interfering in its work? Let’s say the government commits a mistake, I should be able to hold it accountable,” Salloum said.

The incident triggered a wave of condemnation in private Syrian media against what many observers called restrictions on the legislative body.

Meanwhile, official newspapers and television stations refrained from discussing the issue. Neither the speaker nor the ministers in question made any public comment on the issue.

The speaker has no right to accept or reject the demand of the MPs, wrote Abdallah Suleiman, a writer and a lawyer, in an opinion piece published by several Syrian news websites.

He added that it was unconstitutional to prevent MPs from inquiring into the work of ministers since the constitution granted the legislature the right to dismiss the cabinet.

The parliament is entitled by a majority vote and following the suggestion of at least five MPs to strip a minister of his position or strip the whole cabinet of its function. The cabinet is then required to present its resignation to the president.

This has never happened, however, in more than four decades of Baath Party rule.

One MP, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the topic, said that lawmakers were unable to exercise properly their right to address questions to ministers either orally or in writing.

For instance, when they write to ask ten questions, he may choose to answer only one and ignore the rest, he said. Sometimes, ministers reply after two years, he added.

But MP Najat Attallah, a Baath Party representative in parliament, accused the MPs who made the demand of seeking media attention.

She said that they did not base their request on any clear facts.

“Ministers take into serious account lawmakers opinions,” she said. “It is not true that there are red lines.”

Some observers said that the legislative body was crippled because it was controlled by the ruling elite and the security apparatus.

“The role of the parliament has been hampered because the majority follows the ruling party,” said Ammar al-Qurabi, a legal expert and the head of the National Organisation for Human Rights, NOHR, in Syria.

He said that the constitution normally guaranteed the independence of the legislative and executive powers but added that the emergency law – in effect since the Baath party took power in 1963- prevented the implementation of this principle.

Other observers said that all the state institutions were tightly controlled by top security officials who regularly interfere in the affairs of the cabinet and parliament and intervene in the appointment of ministers and the election of MPs.

Another MP who spoke on condition of anonymity said that many of the functions of the parliament such as proposing laws and questioning the government have been paralysed.

“Ministers have a wide range of powers and there is nobody to hold them accountable,” he said. “They don’t fear the parliament in the way they do elsewhere in the world.”

He said that the cabinet does not cooperate with the MPs and failed to present clear strategies and accurate figures.

He added that parliamentarians have become “desperate” because they feel their role is a token one.

Despite the authorities’ rejection of their request, Salloum and other MPs vowed that they would pursue their demand through constitutional channels and by mobilising the media.

“Even if we don’t reach any result, it is a matter of principle,” Salloum said.
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