The coronavirus pandemic has gone hand-in-hand with considerable democratic backsliding. According to a new study, democratic freedoms were undermined in 83 countries from March to September 2020. This should concern all of us. Oversight and accountability during the COVID-19 pandemic are essential for both the public and democratic health of a nation.
We set out to explore the role that legislatures played in responding to COVID-19. In particular, we looked at how they scrutinised governments’ actions.
Legislatures are central to modern democratic politics. But they are often bypassed during moments of crisis as presidents and prime ministers prioritise a rapid response. This is true for both established democracies and new democracies in which political institutions are still strengthening.
COVID-19 has raised particular challenges for legislatures. For example, social distancing requirements have made it harder for them to sit as usual. On the other hand, the longevity of the crisis has created more time for legislative scrutiny.
To investigate, a group of researchers developed the “Legislative Responses to COVID-19 Tracker”. We also conducted case studies on the legislatures’ response in Brazil, Nepal and Ukraine.
The tracker monitored legislative responses to COVID-19 for 65 countries along three key indicators:
- whether the legislature sat;
- whether there was legislative oversight of the initial response from 1 March to 1 May 2020; and
- whether legislatures had opportunities for ongoing oversight from 1 April to 1 September 2020.
The report shows that, between 1 March and 1 June 2020, the innovative use of technology played a key role in enabling 52% of legislatures to sit regularly, and 35% to sit irregularly.
However, almost a third of legislatures had no direct oversight over the government’s initial response from 1 March to 1 May 2020. This is important, because effective legislative scrutiny helped to constrain unnecessarily heavy-handed approaches in some cases. In others it prompted the government to take action where it had been slow to respond.
There are two different – though not mutually exclusive – explanations for the differences in the extent of legislative oversight. One is the pre-existing strength of democratic institutions. The other is the disruptive impact of the pandemic in low technology legislatures.
In most cases, lower scores on our tracker reflected lower legislative effectiveness scores prior to the pandemic. One example of this was in Algeria.
Similarly, countries with higher tracker scores generally featured higher levels of scrutiny pre-pandemic, such as Belgium and Botswana.
But this was not always the case. Despite low parliamentary effectiveness scores pre-pandemic, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s legislature voted on multiple extensions of the state of emergency and set up a COVID-19 commission. This created opportunities to monitor the government’s response.
On the other hand, there were also cases where the pandemic significantly disrupted pre-existing practices because legislatures lacked the capacity to meet virtually, or were prohibited from doing so.
Nepal is one example. The country is usually rated as having mid-level legislative effectiveness. But a provision requiring legislators to meet in person meant that when the government did not recall parliament, virtual parliamentary sittings were impossible.
In these cases, social distancing requirements undermined the potential for oversight.
The type of legislation with which governments responded to the crisis was also important. Three main responses were possible:
- introducing new COVID-specific legislation;
- using existing legislation that addressed infectious diseases and pandemics; and
- using states of emergency.
The scope for legislative oversight tended to be reduced where outdated legislation was used or states of emergency were introduced.
The importance of legislative leadership
Legislative committees emerged as an important mechanism of oversight.
In Brazil, the decree of public calamity required oversight committees to be formed. In Nepal and Ukraine it was easier to adapt committee meetings.
In Ukraine, amended legislation enabled virtual committee meetings. Given the difficulties of virtual meetings in Nepal, the smaller number of legislators within committees made it easier to avoid breaking quarantine restrictions and to maintain social distancing.
In Brazil, the committees established to monitor the COVID-19 response worked effectively to oversee executive actions on medicines and ventilators. They also played an important role in ensuring transparency of government information. For example, they set up a parallel system of counting cases of the disease and consequent deaths.
In cases where committee meetings – or plenary sessions – were reduced there were fewer routes to oversight. Time pressures and the need to make decisions quickly and via new digital processes also reduced space for oversight.
This had two important consequences, even where legislatures remained active. First, it concentrated opportunities for legislative leadership in the hands of party leaders. Second, it meant that legislatures heard evidence from, and engaged with, a narrower group of experts, advisers and concerned parties.
Fixing systemic problems
Challenges of oversight and inclusivity are not simply the product of the pandemic. Many reflect a deeper and pre-existing lack of accountability and inclusivity. Underlying institutional weaknesses need to be addressed.
There are four key areas we consider to be priorities. These are:
- the technological capacity of legislatures to meet remotely and inclusively;
- legislative regulations that allow parliaments to sit during crises;
- legislative committees’ access to administrative support and technical expertise; and
- dedicated crisis committees with senior leadership and established rules and protocols that can become quickly operational.
All these require resources. It is therefore critical to keep funding legislative strengthening programmes. In the time of COVID-19, it will be tempting to switch money out of democracy and governance activities and into health budgets. But stronger legislatures will enable us to build back better after the pandemic.