Bulgarian minister quits after judicial reform plan rejected

SOFIA (Reuters) - Bulgarian Justice Minister Hristo Ivanov resigned on Wednesday after parliament watered down changes to the constitution in a vote which he said would prevent genuine reforms to the country’s graft-prone and inefficient judiciary.

Hours after Prime Minister Boiko Borisov accepted Ivanov’s resignation, a couple of hundred people protested and blocked roads in Sofia. Most had taken part in anti-graft demonstrations that felled a previous Borisov government in 2013.

Ivanov is a close ally of the Reformist Bloc, junior partner in Borisov’s center-right government, and his resignation is likely to raise tensions within the coalition, analysts said.

“The situation is turbulent but logically neither he nor the Reformist Bloc are looking for new elections,” said Parvan Simeonov, political analyst with Gallup International.

The resignation came after parliament rejected by a large majority a proposal by Ivanov that would have limited the influence of the country’s chief prosecutor within the Supreme Judicial Council, the justice system’s ruling body.

“Despite the fact that today is a day of important steps towards the supremacy of law, this vote now becomes a symbolic step towards suspicion that we may speak of the supremacy of the chief prosecutor in Bulgaria,” Ivanov told parliament.

Under changes that parliament did approve, the Supreme Judicial Council will split into two separate entities, one overseeing judges and the other prosecutors, in a change aimed at increasing transparency and judicial independence.

Ivanov wanted both parliament and the prosecution service to appoint an equal number of members to the oversight body for prosecutors in an effort to ensure its accountability, but only the Reformist Bloc backed his proposal.

In contrast to neighbor Romania, where a crackdown on graft is under way, Bulgaria has made little progress in prosecuting tainted officials or crime bosses despite being one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union.

It is a problem that has deterred foreign investment since communism collapsed in Bulgaria in 1989.

Borisov promised to introduce judicial reforms when he returned to power after a snap election in October last year.

The European Commission, the EU’s executive, has repeatedly criticized Bulgaria for failing to go after corrupt officials and for a lack of progress in overhauling the judiciary since joining the bloc in 2007.

In September, plans to set up a Romanian-style special agency to investigate high-level corruption were voted down by lawmakers, who said it could lead to a witch-hunt by prosecutors.

Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova and Angel Krasimirov; editing by Estelle Shirbon and Ralph Boulton