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Alarm as 2 billion people have parliaments shut or limited by COVID-19

Democracy groups warn of 'significant risks' to rights around the world as a growing number of parliaments shut down or restrict their meetings and agenda.

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Claire Provost Nandini Archer Lydia Namubiru
8 April 2020
A protester during a demonstration in Berlin, Germany, on 4 April 2020
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Jorg Carstensen/DPA/PA Images

More than two billion people live in countries where parliaments have been suspended or restricted under coronavirus emergency measures, openDemocracy can reveal, as concern mounts over COVID-19’s impacts on democracies around the world.

openDemocracy has counted at least 13 countries – in every world region, and with a combined population of more than 500 million people – that have fully or partially adjourned their parliaments since early March. Only a few of these have returned.

Another 1.7 billion people live in at least 18 countries where parliamentary meetings have been postponed or reduced – or where debates have been restricted to the immediate coronavirus response, with discussions on all other topics delayed.

In many cases, these measures have been introduced by parliaments themselves and include deadlines to reverse or review them. But some parliaments appear to have been shut or limited indefinitely – and the scale of these moves globally is unprecedented.

“It’s incredible, it’s shocking and it’s frightening” said the prominent Egyptian feminist and author, Mona Eltahawy, in response to our findings. “Governments”, she warned, appear to be “taking advantage of this global crisis to consolidate power”.

“Unaccountable governments are less effective at promoting public health”, added Kenneth Roth executive director of Human Rights Watch.

“There are clearly legitimate reasons” for movement restrictions, Roth said, but parliaments should remain open and active. “It’s especially in these times of crisis that it is essential to ensure that governments are serving the people rather than themselves.”

“Unaccountable governments are less effective at promoting public health”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s newly-introduced rule by decree powers have sparked alarm internationally and have been described as a ‘Coronavirus Coup’.

But a series of parliamentary shut downs and limitations kicked off weeks earlier, when Iran suspended its parliament at the start of March after an initial 23 of its MPs themselves tested positive for coronavirus. It returned this week.

Spain’s lower house of parliament was also temporarily shuttered after a lawmaker tested positive. But there isn’t always a clear relationship between these measures and infections – Gambia’s parliament closed after just one case was confirmed in the country.

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The empty House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia, on 20 March 2020 | Lukas Coch/AAP/PA Images

In late February, President Xi Jinping and top Communist Party leaders postponed its annual parliamentary session (which was set to start 24 March) for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. It has been postponed until late April or early May at least.

Some shutdowns are already expected to last for much longer. In South Africa and Mexico, for example, parliaments have been suspended until further notice – while those in New Zealand and Australia won't sit until at least late April and early August respectively.

Other countries that shut or postponed parliamentary sessions amidst the pandemic include Canada, Lebanon, Egypt, Kenya, Israel, the UK and Bulgaria.

Restricted agenda

In other countries, parliaments have not been shut down but many of their activities have.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) is monitoring these moves. It says for example that the French senate scaled back its plenary meetings to one a week, limited to 10 questions, and attended only by those asking these questions and presidents of political groups.

IPU’s updates also show how parliamentary agenda have been restricted to urgent and COVID-19-related matters in France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland, Estonia and Andorra, as well as in Djibouti where all other activities are postponed until further notice.

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Red: countries that have temporarily or indefinitely suspended parliaments; Orange: countries that have otherwise restricted or limited parliamentary meetings or agenda.

Coronavirus has meanwhile prompted parliaments in Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Lithuania, and national assemblies in Afghanistan and Cape Verde, to cut back meetings.

Sweden’s parliament is still in session – however its parties agreed that, from 16 to 30 March, the number of MPs required to vote would be only 55 (out of 349).

Meanwhile some parliaments are taking their activities online. IPU says Brazil, for example, passed a new resolution enabling MPs to join sessions and vote remotely. In the Maldives, a first online sitting on 30 March was attended by 71 out of their total 87 MPs.

Rights at ‘significant risk’

Thomas Fitzsimons, IPU’s communications director applauded how some parliaments “are stepping up and keeping the pressure on the government” amidst the current crisis.

Sarah Clarke at the campaign group Unlock Democracy also noted that “parliaments can adapt”, citing the Welsh Assembly as an example of one that’s moved to online sittings.

“Some emergency measures are clearly needed,” she said, “but when these political choices have such a big impact it’s even more important that they’re scrutinised”.

Anthony Smith, CEO of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, also warned of “significant risks” that after the current emergency peoples’ “rights will be permanently eroded, and that power will end up more concentrated in fewer hands”.

Roth from Human Rights Watch drew a parallel between today and the period after 11 September 2001, when “some governments seized [peoples’ fear and demands for security] as an opportunity to overreach and to enhance their power”.

“The legacy of 9/11 is still with us today”, he underlined, as Guantanamo, drones and intrusive surveillance were not temporary and are still part of our world today.

Parliamentary closures and limitations amidst coronavirus have alarmed citizens on social media. One Twitter user in Australia, for example, posted: “Parliament closed; Country governed by a non-elected Committee; Our freedom of movement curtailed; Police given new sweeping powers... Australia’s Democracy: A victim of #COVID-19”.

In Israel, a Twitter user condemned “The Day Democracy Actually died!”. In Kenya others also criticised the closure of their parliament and lamented: “Parliament which is supposed to monitor [the] situation and enact laws or advise [the] state is nowhere”.

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