Headline Diplomat eJournal – Issue 1
The perilous lenses of COVID-10: The impact on the economy
Write Fotios Fitsilis, Scientific Service, Hellenic Parliament, Greece, Linkedin
Politimi Mountanea, Researcher, Hellenic OCR Team, Greece, LinkedIn
Athanasia Pliakogianni, Bamberg Graduate School of Social Sciences, University of Bamberg, Germany, LinkedIn
The pandemic situation took whole societies by surprise. In such a truly unprecedented situation, parliaments naturally did not remain untouched. Maybe for the first time in history, parliaments were guided by disease rather than political protocols. One is for sure; the response of parliaments to the pandemic has not been the same around the globe. As each parliament has a dedicated tradition and a line of conduct, legislatures have chosen different ways of doing business, such as passing legislation or conducting parliamentary control. Also, as one may imagine, such difficulties posed parliamentary institutions under several dilemmas, both practical and political.
On the practical level, social distancing and other measures of protection needed to be adopted. On several occasions, committee meetings were completely disrupted and inquiry sessions were postponed for an uncertain period of time. After an initial shock period, most parliaments resumed operation of plenary sessions, using however different approaches. Some provided strict limits to the MP numbers allowed to entering the plenary hall, while others took a hybrid approach also allowing for teleconferencing and televoting. Fully virtual sessions were also conducted.
And exactly this digital approach to parliamentary procedures might very well be one the most important gains, if one may call this so, of the overall tragic pandemic situation. Parliaments, that do not exactly have a reputation of being technology affine, were ‘forced’ on a global level to participate in a giant digital transformation exercise. And while in several sectors of human conduct the effect of the virus has been devastating, in parliaments it has left an overall positive (digital) footprint, based on the primary evaluation of the situation that is conducted by various stakeholders.
On the political level, the passing of legislation has been surely hindered, so that several governments have opted to act upon executive decrees. This has brought severe criticism by both opposition and civil society organisations. However, what has probably been one of the most significant facets of the parliamentary lockdown was the fact that parliamentary control could hardly be conducted as usual and on some occasions ceased completely to exist, which is rather problematic when aiming to ensure democratic governance that relies on checks and balances.
This article attempts a timely general assessment of the parliamentary response to the pandemic and concludes with a set of recommendations for an enhanced and automated parliamentary response, should a crisis of similar magnitude strikes again.
A structured approach
As the situation is still developing, safe sources to more general information, as well as individual notes on certain parliaments, are to be sought among the most significant parliamentary organisations and stakeholders, to which one may count Inter Pares, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Westminster Foundation for Democracy, International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions, and ParlAmericas. Apart from such independent sources of information, there are also relevant reports that have been produced by parliamentary research services, such as the European Parliament Research Service. After all, knowledge is the ultimate asset that may prevent the appearance of a similar situation, and even if this situation occurs again, it could help us contain it in a more efficient manner, without having to curb our democratic principles and values.
One should fairly ask why it is important to study the response of parliaments to the COVID-19 crisis. The answer probably derives from the very role of parliaments in the democratic system. Parliaments are democracy’s supreme institutions, with this primary role remaining undisputed in the institutional system. One of the parliament´s most important roles in policy making. However, its power over the control of policies does not simply steam from the power to vote for or against a proposed agenda. The position of parliaments in the democratic chain of delegation and accountability obliges parliaments to serve the interests of the electorate and at the same time awards parliaments a series of powers, such as the power to control the executive by selecting its members.
At the same time, parliaments have the power to elect a series of other officers, including court members. By electing, parliaments delegate further the mandate they have received from the electorate. Vice versa, parliaments´ control function secures the reverse effect of the democratic chain: cabinets are accountable to parliaments for their actions. Parliaments have the power to terminate cabinets and end political careers. To secure the effective performance of their role, both as policy makers and as controllers, parliaments have institutionalised a series of formal and informal rules and procedures, committees, written and oral questions, debates, and hearings.
The second question one should probably ask is if and how parliaments have managed to fulfill their role throughout the pandemic. Evidently, parliaments have not proven to be resilient and the pandemic has been a force majeure with various effects on the parliamentary functions. Overall, one would assume that every organisation in such periods of crisis would seek to adapt to the emerging environment, in order to secure its efficiency and protect itself from organisational decline. Considering the importance of the parliamentary role, especially in a period like this, one can easily understand why several parliaments have reacted swiftly and implemented a series of innovations that would probably be unthinkable under normal circumstances.
A third question would relate to the role of digital technologies in parliamentary transformation during the pandemic. Technological innovations have always been means to institutional changes, especially in times of crisis, when external pressures force institutions to adapt to the emerging environment. It is the existence of new technologies that makes institutional adaptation feasible. Moreover, technology itself can also trigger institutional change, as it generates the new environment to which institutions must adapt. A few years ago, it would probably be unthinkable for a parliament to conduct remote sessions and virtual votes. Software and hardware solutions, along with the expansion of all kinds of networks, have secured the ability of parliaments to respond to several questions posed by the pandemic. The following section presents a global parliamentary response in a concise fashion.
The global response
While the majority of parliaments have reacted to the pandemic, one should not oversee the fact that in general parliamentary operation did decline according to recent data by the Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU). The IPU, which is the global organisation of national parliaments with 179 member parliaments, constitutes the largest organisation of representative institutions in the world. It closely follows developments in the COVID-19 front and maintains a country compilation of parliamentary responses to the pandemic. In late July 2020, during a digital conference, it provided aggregated data based on surveys, which described in more detail some of the principal decisions that relate to parliamentary operation during the pandemic. According to the IPU, when in plenary, only 14% of the parliaments continued conducting their business as usual, whereas 20% suspended operation completely. Probably expected is the finding that the majority of parliaments (53%) limited the number of sessions in the plenary or held remote and hybrid meetings – a combination of onsite and online sessions.
The finding that one-fifth of the parliamentary plenaries were not in operation during the period of study seems to support the broad claim that parliamentary operations have been greatly disrupted during the pandemic. The plenary is the major parliamentary body through which legislative work is been conducted. Extended recesses of the plenary inevitably hold back necessary legislation that needs to be passed to combat health, economic, and other societal effects of the pandemic. This again may lead to a democratic crisis as the executive solely takes on this responsibility, without or with limited checks and balances. Interestingly, the relevant figure for committee meetings is much lower (6%).
Compared to the plenary, committees have a lower number of MPs and need less administrative personnel to operate, while according to standing orders or other internal regulations the framework of their operation is generally less strict. This implies that committees may alter or adjust their operation to changing circumstances rather swiftly. Exactly this seems to have happened here as committees in roughly half of the parliaments of the survey (47%) reported having conducted full remote or hybrid meetings. Compared to what is normally the case, what can be expected within this new reality is limited interaction between MPs or limited political discourse during debates. Virtual discourse might also potentially lower the quality of debate as thousands of years of evolution in political discourse cannot be simply bridged using digital platforms. In this context, it is to be underlined that prior to the pandemic the majority of MPs had not been exposed nor trained in the efficient use of these new online media. Hence, similar to legislatures, also MPs will need time to adjust to the new political and parliamentary environment, an analogue situation to political communication in social media, which is still far from being called ‘mature’.
While the IPU study is shading light on several high-level issues, multiple questions remain unanswered regarding the precise types of measures that have been enacted to combat the pandemic and its effects. As mentioned, such measures may have a subtle of significant effect on legislative drafting and parliamentary control processes that, notably, constitute the basic parliamentary functions. In addition, when discussing the constitutional or parliamentary effects of such decisions, one is left wondering about their legal basis. While distinct parliaments may have taken different approaches that need to be investigated on a case-by-case basis, the EU is accustomed to making use of soft law to combat crises. By soft law, one describes regulations or guidelines, so-called ‘rules of conduct’, which produce legal and practical effects without having legally binding force.
The above dataset clearly shows that there has been no unified response by parliaments on the pandemic. There is a broad diversity in the responses that can only be partially explained by pertinent knowledge on the parliamentary operation. In addition, these findings rely on aggregated data from a period of time between March and July 2020. However, as the pandemic persists, there might be significant changes in these figures. All in all, findings indicate a sharp rise in the use of digital processes initiated by the appearance of COVID-19. A surge that needs to be further investigated to define its basic components. Moreover, it would be interesting to see whether this trend in digital transformation persists after the crisis has ended.
Brief analysis of specific case studies
While it is interesting to see the aggregated response of parliaments, one also needs to focus on a number of specific cases to understand the diversity in the approaches taken. As seen above, a number of parliaments, such as the Chilean, the Croatian, the Danish, the Estonian and the Norwegian, have reduced their meetings to the absolute necessary, while others have completely abstained from operating. The Bulgarian parliament, for example, has suspended its work for as long as the emergency holds, same as the Chinese one. In another style of approach, some parliaments prioritised a role at the expense of another. Ireland, for instance, has abstained from conducting parliamentary control procedures and has limited the role of the parliament to the vote of crisis-related legislation. Some parliaments attempted to find new ways to carry on with their control powers. In the Czech Republic, the government regularly informed the parliament and party leaders on the current agenda.
In the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the institutional equilibrium seems to have been distorted in favor of executive power. This broad assumption relies on the initial screening of data collected by parliaments and independent organisations. Hence, there are parliaments that have delegated, partially or completely, the adopting of legislation to the cabinet. For example, the parliament of Argentina has given up on its power to vote for the budget, to delegate it directly to the government. In Egypt, the parliament has delegated special powers to the executive and the President of the Republic. Same as in Hungary, where the state of danger declared by the government in March 2020 empowered the government to pass legislation even incompatible with the national legal order. In Greece, on some occasions, the Government made use of its right to legislate via executive orders, which nevertheless need to be ratified by the parliament at a later time.
Examples such as the above obviously raise major concerns regarding the quality of democracy and the function of the democratic systems in various parts of the world. It is maybe early to say, what the implications of the operational decline of parliaments to the democratic system will be in the long term. One can argue that declined parliamentary operation might be directly connected with concerns for democratic malfunctions. Less parliamentary work probably means less control over the executive, which in some cases could possibly lead to misuse of delegated power. In addition, recent proposals by the US President, as well as the temporary government of Bolivia, to postpone forthcoming elections could also be interpreted as political instrumentalisation of the COVID-19 crisis. In general, for as long as the pandemic persists, parliamentary and governmental procedures may be less accessible to the electorate and, vice versa, MPs may have fewer channels at their disposal to reach out to their electorate.
In any case, technology has solved several operational issues during the pandemic. As a result, parliaments have rushed to institutionalise online meetings and debates using podcasts, video broadcasts, virtual elections, or whatever could assist the operation of a parliament in times of complete lockdown. Such institutionalisation happened either using soft law or even through harder constitutional changes. Chile is a great example here, as it decided to pass a constitutional amendment to allow for remote parliamentary procedures. Furthermore, a number of parliaments have used alternative means to reach the population. The Austrian Parliament has produced a virtual democracy workshop. In Albania and Ecuador, committees and plenaries conduct live sessions on social media. In Costa Rica, citizens can pose their questions to parliamentarians via WhatsApp and, in Lithuania, on Facebook.
But while technology has fostered the quick adaptation of the parliamentary institutions to a changing environment and solved a series of practical problems, at the same time it has opened up a new round of discussions. The unequal access of the population to technological innovations might lead to a part of the electorate been left behind or even excluded from democratic processes. If some of these procedural changes are here to stay, it should be ensured that no parts of the electorate will be alienated from political institutions and democratic processes. Nevertheless, overall, the speedy and on-going digitalization of parliamentary procedures has probably been one of the biggest gains for parliaments; a development that would probably not have happened, if it was not for the pandemic.
Recommendations and conclusions
The COVID-19 pandemic placed parliaments before unprecedented occasions. They had to change and they had to do it quickly. Parliaments as traditional organisations, or better said as organisations that rely on tradition, were not used to change. Nevertheless, parliaments in general responded to the situation with a broad range of urgent measures to protect the health of personnel and MPs, but also to adjust parliamentary procedures to the new environment. Such adjustments may have a limited or enduring impact on a parliament’s main functions, legislative and control, as indicated by a series of independent studies. This article presented some landmark decisions of parliamentary transformation, while highlighting actions that may have put the basic parliamentary democratic elements at risk.
The pandemic also seems to have disrupted democratic processes, to which parliamentary operation may be counted. Evidently, the ongoing crisis shifted the equilibrium of parliamentary functions. Parliaments have limited the legislative and/or the control function, while others have proceeded to a full-lock-down. Yet, what is being described is nothing more than a snapshot given that the situation may very well shift with time. Hence, any preliminary results need to be handled with care and a rigid research framework is rather needed to fundamentally understand what has happened within the democratic institutions during the crisis.
On the other side, the pandemic has also presented parliaments before difficult problems and hard decisions needed (and still need) to be made. What parliaments need to ensure is the establishment of local, regional, and global knowledge bases and that the lessons learned are incorporated into new crisis response plans to ensure that such a disruption will not happen again. A broad base for cooperation among all necessary stakeholders will be needed to facilitate the necessary parliamentary transformation. This approach is rigidly connected with the incorporation of new and rapidly maturing digital technologies, such as legal informatics and advanced algorithms, which may enhance systemic robustness and enable broad interoperability.
 For this section, we have used data from the INTER PARES – Parliaments in Partnership Project and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.