Don’t Call It a Comeback: Parliaments Regain their Relevance in the Coronavirus Era

The coronavirus crisis is—perhaps—being marked by a turnaround in the consistent and ongoing decline of parliaments in the world’s mature democracies. At first glance, this might seem strange. The outbreak of the pandemic required rapid and drastic action by governments, which were quick to suspend or close their parliaments. The Canadian parliament shut its doors for six weeks, while parliaments across Europe dramatically cut back their activities. The crisis also caught Israel, Romania, and Ireland without governing coalitions in place, raising fears that caretaker governments might assume undue powers.

And then a new coalition was formed in Romania, while in Israel and Ireland a series of painful concessions and broken election promises paved the way to the formation of rotation governments. Even the Canadian parliament has reopened, in response to government attempts to assume powers that would have made it possible for it to determine and put in place a new budget without parliamentary approval.

In the United States, the dramatic efforts to save the economy began in Congress with legislation introduced by the Democratic majority, subsequently passed by the Senate despite its Republican majority, and without the White House being able to exert any real influence on the process.

Special committees were established to oversee the government in many parliaments, including in the Israeli Knesset, where a special coronavirus committee was set up before a coalition agreement was even reached (though after the government was formed, the committee chairperson was replaced by a member of Knesset from the coalition).

It is important to note that what we are seeing is not only a shift in the balance of power between governments and parliaments. We are also witnessing, a comeback of parliaments as arenas for discussion of public policy at a time when the alternatives that have eclipsed them in recent decades—such as television studios and academic conferences—have been defined as out of bounds by social distancing limitations. In addition, in light of the silence (until now) of international civil society organizations, parliaments have assumed even greater importance. We are witnessing the large-scale re-emergence not only of “hard borders” and the welfare state, but also of national parliaments as a place for debate and decision-making on ethical and national issues which the crisis has thrown their way.

This renewed vitality is essential in light of the inevitable attempts by governments to trample public rights in their eagerness to deal with the pandemic effectively. However, it is not certain that parliamentarism, and democracy in general, will prevail; the trend may well be reversed. In Israel, for example, parliamentary activism stemmed from the special circumstances of a state with no ruling coalition and no clear winner after three rounds of Knesset elections. With the establishment of a new government, the window of opportunity for parliamentary activism may not remain open for long. In other countries, parliaments have stepped into the vacuum left by prime ministers who were clearly ineffective, at least in the early stages of the crisis (as in the United Kingdom). All this has transpired against the backdrop of paralysis and confusion among non-governmental organizations and international organizations. If the focus of the pandemic shifts from developed countries to impoverished countries, international civil society may find its voice again.

There have also been developments in the opposite direction. While in Israel and Canada, government efforts to exploit the crisis in order to silence parliament drew counter-reactions, the outcome in Hungary has been very different. The Hungarian parliament voted to grant almost unlimited powers to Prime Minister Orbán, and the European Union has lacked the capacity to respond as it should have.

We are used to thinking of emergencies as events that strengthen executives and weaken legislatures. So why has this not happened in this case? It is too early to provide a definitive answer, but this emergency is different from others in the past. I would like to note here three important differences, though of course there are others as well:

  1. Timeline. Some crises can last for extended periods of time, but they almost all begin (or at least make the transition from challenge to crisis) suddenly and catch us by surprise. The coronavirus crisis crept up on democratic countries slowly and gradually, with one or two months’ warning, and affected different countries along very different timelines. As of May 2020, the pressures that usually lead to a strengthening of governments at the expense of parliaments, the courts, and civil society, have not characterized the coronavirus pandemic to the extent seen in previous crises. Time pressures tend to encourage consolidation of power in the hands of the states’ leaders, and this has not happened in this case.
  2. Lack of international cooperation. Similarly, the need to operate vis-à-vis other governments, to coordinate with friendly states and maneuver against rival states, can make parliaments irrelevant; but again, that is simply not the case with the coronavirus. Unlike terror attacks or financial crises, the pandemic has not been met with large-scale international cooperation or with action by international organizations. In recent months, it has mainly struck developed and (with the exception of China) democratic countries. This situation may change when the pandemic reaches poorer countries.
  3. No obvious ideological commitments. There is one more reason to believe that the full potential of parliamentary politics has not been realized during the coronavirus crisis: There are many lively arguments about responses to the pandemic, but not all these arguments have an ideological basis. The crisis demands decisions relating to public health, privacy, education, transport, the environment, taxation, welfare, and more, all in  ways that are not predictable and not along lines that can be categorized according to pre-existing ideological commitments. As democratic states begin to adjust to new realities, new arguments will begin over a range of issues, in which the positions taken by the respective sides will undoubtedly surprise us, because the situation is so new.

For all these reasons, and more, the pandemic provides an opportunity for parliaments to regain their role as significance arenas for debate and decision-making, a role which has been steadily eroded in recent decades.

About the Author
Dr. Shany Mor is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and a research fellow at Haifa University’s Chaikin Center.
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