Accountability in the absence of parliament: North Macedonia’s unique COVID-19 governance challenge

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Accountability in the absence of parliament: North Macedonia’s unique COVID-19 governance challenge

May 14th, 2020 | Tags: #NorthMacedonia, #PanDemTracker

By Chris Levick, WFD Regional Director, Europe & Central Asia

Governments around the world have introduced emergency measures to fight the coronavirus, often alongside significant financial support packages designed to cushion the economic impacts of the virus and ensure livelihoods.

Within Europe we have seen some extreme examples: The Hungarian parliament – with its hefty government majority – agreed legislation imposing a state of emergency without time limit, allowing Prime Minister Orbán to govern by decree indefinitely without challenge. Meanwhile, Belarussian President Lukashenko’s recommended treatment of “this psychosis”, in his words, with vodka (both for hand cleaning and consumption), regular saunas and getting back to work. On the other hand, Norwegian legislators have reigned in emergency powers, granting initial authority to the government for just 30 days, before further approval being required in parliament.

At this time, accountability and citizens’ rights must not be suspended. Quite the opposite: checks on executives exercising extraordinary powers are increasingly critical. However, they are challenging in equal measure. 

WFD has been supporting development of democratic practices in the Western Balkans – a region which has deep-rooted and wide-ranging political and governance challenges – since the very early days of our existence. Across the region, various parliamentary and election boycotts and mass public protests on the streets are among the clear evidence of civic dissatisfaction and democratic backsliding that we’ve seen over the past year. Couple this with multiple planned elections that will be challenged by the COVID situation – Serbia (now confirmed for 21 June), Montenegro, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example – making the accountability challenge even more acute.

Our Western Balkans Democracy Initiative (WBDI), which launched in 2018, seeks to support open, accountable and inclusive political practice throughout the region. Against a COVID-19 background, that vision seems more relevant and pressing than it did even when the programme was designed. WBDI works with a wide range of stakeholders, including political parties, legislatures and civil society, but also some of the most vulnerable and under-represented groups in communities: people with disabilities, women from underrepresented communities and young people.

These groups are at the coalface of political marginalisation and likely to feel the pinch of the currently crisis – politically, socially and economically – even more keenly. This leads to a series of key questions:  

Are governments and the political system broadly conscious of their responsibilities to the most vulnerable in their society?

How are they acting to ensure policy is inclusive in considering and responding to their long-term needs?

Who is scrutinising and challenging policy approaches, ensuring quality and accountability?

North Macedonia provides an interesting case to consider these challenges because it faces a crucial accountability challenge: it does not currently have a parliament.

After the European Council failed to agree on the start of EU membership discussions for the country in October 2019, then Prime Minister Zoran Zaev rolled the dice and brought the parliamentary elections forward from November to 12 April, seeking a fresh mandate. The date was carefully selected to fall after North Macedonia became a NATO member.

With a unanimous vote on 16 February, the Assembly was dissolved, paving the way to election and a technical unity government was formed, a recent custom to provide all parties with confidence in the election process. A month later, emergency powers were introduced as COVID-19 swept across Europe, and the election postponed by cross-party agreement. The state of emergency gives the government the ability to adopt and enforce decrees, all in the absence a parliament to provide accountability.

The caretaker government was intended simply to hold the reigns during the election process, but it has needed to steer the country’s course much more actively. For instance, a loan of around €176.53m was secured from the IMF to support the response, at the same time as the economy is forecast to contract by 4% in Real terms. This will have budgetary impacts for years to come; in normal circumstances legislators would have opportunity to examine such economic effect. Likewise, other rapid economic reprogramming to meet the needs of the crisis will have budgetary knock-ons in the medium term.

As governments across the world, not just in North Macedonia, have needed to act quickly with limited opportunities for scrutiny, the mid- and longer-term implications of policy choices will need some time to be fully realised. Plans for how the handle the fall-out of these impacts must be made more transparent.

In North Macedonia’s case, the election, once the campaign resumes, provides this opportunity.

During the election campaign, parties will need to consider their policy platforms, seriously asking if policy objectives can be realised in the economic climate they are presented with. In the absence of the Assembly, voters will need to rise to the accountability challenge, fulfilling an enhanced scrutiny role. They will need to caution their expectations for any significant spending promises and ensure offers are scrutinised effectively for financial validity and deliverability of policy priorities. For this to be achieved, citizens must demand transparency and openness from their candidates, ask them tough questions and scrutinise responses. Civil society will need to employ all their skills to scrutinise proposals with the lens of their own objectives, and the media will need to provide in-depth coverage to disseminate knowledge as widely as possible.

In short, recent limits on scrutiny and checks of governments operating in emergency situations at a time of public health crisis mean forthcoming elections cannot be “business as usual”, far more is needed for governance that can work for all. Only with such accountability can it be ensured that the most marginalised in society are considered and protected at the centre of government policy.  

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