Parliaments are needed to keep democracies alive – so how can we support them?

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Commentary
Parliaments are needed to keep democracies alive – so how can we support them?
Much attention is rightly being paid to a country’s critical services, such as medical, health and social care provision or financial support packages. However, in the context of a crisis that is seen to be primarily clinical, there is a real risk that parliaments will be side-lined as a nonessential actors in its management and resolution.

WFD data confirms that parliaments everywhere are grappling with how to adapt to the emerging reality of the COVID-19 crisis. Some parliaments are still in operation, while others went into early recess, to respect social distancing measures. Many are operating on minimal capacity, with staff and representatives testing virtual meeting platforms to work from home. With or without formal approval, legislators in many countries are also arranging virtual ‘committee’ meetings so they can play their oversight role on behalf of citizens.

The way each parliament is seeking to provide a democratic offer to citizens gives us a snapshot of how it views its role and significance to society. And here is the fundamental question:  is parliament seen – and does it see itself – as the essential service it is? The answer to this question is likely to drive what parliament does to provide that service to citizens during the pandemic and beyond.

Much attention is rightly being paid to a country’s critical services, such as medical, health and social care provision or financial support packages. However, in the context of a crisis that is seen to be primarily clinical, there is a real risk that parliaments will be side-lined as a nonessential actors in its management and resolution.

This can sometimes lead to a greater threat to lives and livelihoods. For example, a purely clinical response in India meant that 450 million working-class citizens and migrant workers were driven out by their employers in megacities, forcing them to either walk for days to return to their villages, or to seal themselves into cramped quarters in slums and shanties. 

Moreover, if parliaments are side-lined, these vital organs of state may struggle to effectively resuscitate democratic life once effective provisions of healthcare are secured.

This risk may be greater in contexts in which a parliament was already struggling to establish its democratic authority, such as the National Assembly of Venezuela. That said, a crisis of this kind could easily provide a democratic refresh, if parliaments or key democratic actors take a lead in advocating an effective way through the crisis. With the right support, less established parliaments – or those operating in emerging or even turbulent contexts – may have the resolve to adapt and prove their democratic worth like never before. Unlike more established parliaments, they may be unhindered by long-established bureaucracies flexing against more creative and virtual responses.

Parliaments of all kinds have an opportunity to find ways to enable legitimate, vital parliamentary work to take place responsively and efficiently. Parliaments need to ensure that any virtual procedures are representative, inclusive, and have their discussions and decisions sanctioned by the assembly. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic context is a level playing field for parliamentary innovation, both in wealthy and less wealthy countries. Much like the quest to defeat the virus itself, this pandemic requires a response from parliaments of all countries to stand firm for their citizens.

Parliaments are vital to the process of legitimately determining, and qualifying, what society needs, and to ensuring that the Government meets those needs. At a time when tens of thousands of lives have been lost, and many more lives and livelihoods are at stake, this is more crucial than ever. As it will be in the pandemic’s aftermath. 

As the UK public body committed to strengthening democracy around the world, all of us at Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) are acutely aware that parliaments play a vital role in the provision of a democracy, and the provision of end-to-end democracy can help save lives. Without democracy we cannot legitimately ensure that the pandemic does not harm or disproportionately take its toll on the most vulnerable in society. 

Parliamentary oversight acts as a brake to corruption. As the Chief Whip of South Africa’s Official Opposition Natasha Mazzone MP observed in a recent exchange with us: “we have to be very careful of corruption during a time of panic. Large sums of money are being donated and if not properly accounted for, it could be death for many. It’s all about oversight, oversight, oversight.”

Parliaments must quickly find ways to ensure Government decisions about the nature and the provision of medical, social and financial services are inclusive and evidence-based. More importantly, they need to ensure that this is a legacy that outlasts the current crisis.

Parliaments should also be legislating (virtually) for a post-pandemic world. Societies need parliaments to begin working on establishing post-COVID-19 policy needs, which should include public consultations with sector experts and civil society. They need to establish their authority and expertise on what citizens need at various stages of the pandemic, which will support a government to meet that need whenever it is able to lifts it’s head out of crisis management.

In the provision of a pandemic democracy, therefore, we can anticipate parliaments needing support in several ways, such as research and analysis of how parliaments can legitimately function virtually and how they can use their oversight powers in crises; help developing a common framework for virtual parliaments; assistance to establish new rules of procedure for legitimate online-only parliamentary session; and support for the development of pre-emptive crisis legislation as well as post-COVID legislative proposals.

Global calamities like a pandemic force us to break with the past and imagine new ways to live and prosper. If parliaments do not find their own breakthrough ideas, they risk depriving citizens of a vital democratic organ, one that is needed to sustain social life long after the crisis has passed. Anticipating how to keep them open for business anew is WFD’s top priority at this time.

Parliaments are the windows that let democracy shine through. Our job is to keep them allowing light in – Victoria Hasson