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 workload

Claire Provost author pic 20190502_155624.jpg Lydia Namubiru square.png
Claire Provost Nandini Archer Lydia Namubiru
8 April 2020, 6.09pm
A protester during a demonstration in Berlin, Germany, 4 April 2020
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.

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“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 (HRW).

“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 shutdowns and limitations kicked off weeks earlier, when Iran suspended its parliament at the start of March after an initial 23 of its MPs 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.

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

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

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 have shut or postponed parliamentary sessions amid the pandemic include Bulgaria, Canada, Egypt, Israel, Kenya, Lebanon and the UK.

Restricted agendas

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 that, for example, the French senate scaled back its plenary meetings to just one a week, limited to ten questions, and attended only by leaders of political groups and those asking questions.

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

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

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

Sweden’s parliament is still in session, but 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 that 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 a total of 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” amid 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, people’s “rights will be permanently eroded, and that power will end up more concentrated in fewer hands”.

Roth from HRW 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; Guantanamo, drones and intrusive surveillance were not temporary and are still part of our world today.

Parliamentary closures and limitations during the pandemic 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, some 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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