Coronavirus

Coronavirus disrupts democratic norms around the globe

Travel bans and social distancing prompt changes to politics as usual — and fears of executive overreach.

The Trump coronavirus briefing

BRUSSELS — Coronavirus is forcing governments to conjure up survival skills — not just for their citizens, but for democracy itself.

Faced with unprecedented disruption to the decision-making machinery of government — including travel bans, and social-distancing restrictions on large meetings — officials in capitals worldwide have scrambled to adopt new working methods, including meetings by videoconference, and remote voting by ministers and parliaments.

Many legislatures, including the European Parliament here, have already canceled all but the most essential meetings and debates until further notice — an acceptance, however reluctant, of the enormous logistical obstacles they now confront.

But there are also worries of potentially dangerous breakdowns in checks and balances, as well as concerns that authoritarian-minded leaders could exploit public fear over the pandemic to weaken democratic institutions at a time of vulnerability.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is now pushing for legislation that would give him sweeping emergency powers to rule the country by decree for an extended period — prompting criticism from human rights officials.

But even in capitals where such power-grabs are unlikely, the imposition of states of alarm or emergency — as exist now in many EU countries — has led some officials to conclude that new mechanisms may be needed to safeguard the role of lawmakers, and to preserve democratic scrutiny of the executive authorities.

On Sunday, President of the Italian Senate Elisabetta Casellati issued an extraordinary statement, insisting that the parliament was still in business and calling on Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his government to strengthen consultation with the Senate, as well as the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies.

"The centrality of Parliament can never fail, especially when government measures limit citizens' personal freedoms and activities essential to the country's economy," Casellati said. "It is therefore essential that the prime minister and the government establish a systematic link, which has never been implemented, with the presidents of the chambers regarding any regulatory initiative relating to the coronavirus emergency."

In Italy and elsewhere, however, it's far from clear governments whether will indeed continue functioning as normal as all branches of government come under unprecedented pressure.

Political leaders, like everyone else, face personal danger of infection. Prince Albert of Monaco, as well as the first ladies of Canada and Spain, have already tested positive for the virus. On Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went into self-isolation, raising fears that Europe could face part of the crisis without its most seasoned leader on the front line. Some governments, like the U.K., have raced to clarify succession plans.

In Washington, at least five Republican senators are sidelined because they were infected or exposed to the coronavirus, potentially imperiling passage of emergency legislation to support the U.S. economy, and highlighting the risk of government paralysis as elected officials tasked with responding to the crisis fall ill.

The U.S. has yet to come up with a Plan B to keep the Congress running, even as the Trump administration has sought new powers for the Justice Department to request indefinite detentions without trial during emergencies — highlighting the worries about executive overreach while legislatures struggle to function.

The absence of the five Republican senators has cut the majority control of President Donald Trump's party to just one vote — 48 to 47 — and left them a solid dozen short of the 60 votes needed to overcome various procedural hurdles that must be cleared before legislation like the giant €1.8 trillion stimulus bill can be adopted by a simple majority.

Dick Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, and Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, have urged a change to the standing rules to allow senators to vote from outside the chamber during a crisis. But changing the rules itself requires a two-thirds supermajority.

Around the world, other governments are already taking extraordinary steps — some of which could permanently alter how those in power take decisions, hastening the acceptance of new technologies previously regarded as insecure or inappropriate for official business.

Last week, the EU's College of Commissioners held its weekly meeting by teleconference for the first time.

On Wednesday, during an extraordinary session of the Spanish Congress, deputies will be able to vote remotely on two decrees related to labor and agricultural policy as well as on urgent measures to respond to the pandemic and the economic fallout.

And on Thursday, the 27 heads of state and government on the European Council will convene by videoconference, after scrapping their regularly-scheduled summit in Brussels, with the agenda narrowed to focus only on the crisis.

The frantic efforts to keep government functioning reflect two equally vital imperatives — a need for government action, including emergency economic measures, in response to the crisis; and an acute desire to reassure citizens, businesses and financial markets that the authorities are in control — even if they were woefully unprepared for the outbreak.

In some cases, however, officials are discovering that it is far more difficult than expected to set aside long-established rules that mandate in-person meetings or votes, often with a minimum number of participants required for a quorum.

On Friday, EU ambassadors reached a deal on a plan that would suspend formal meetings of the Council of the EU for 30 days, allowing ministers to meet instead by videoconference. EU countries will then take formal decisions using a streamlined "written procedure" — a longstanding mechanism by which national capitals vote remotely on policy proposals.

"It's critical for our business continuity," a senior EU official said. "We cannot just run away and say, 'OK, we'll come back after the crisis.'"

But what was expected to be a swift tweak to the rules, given the crisis, turned into more than two days of debate, which covered the practical limitations of videoconferences — including an inability to provide interpretation into all EU languages — as well as the legal, philosophical and even psychological ramifications of foregoing the in-person negotiations that are a hallmark of the EU decision-making process.

"These rules of procedure are there not just because we are rule fetishists," the EU official said. "They are there because they are addressing some very real concerns and those concerns are about protecting the rights of member states."

The ambassadors shied away from a more far-reaching change that would have afforded videoconference meetings formal status. The top concerns were practical, and also related to the legal implications of the move. "Because it's about lawmaking, we have to do it right," a senior ambassador said.

A second senior ambassador portrayed the 30-day change as a moderate contingency measure. "We are not going from meetings to kind of intergalactic video chats," the ambassador said. "We still have all the structures, and the written procedure."

EU ambassadors representing the bloc's member countries continue to meet face to face but, to comply with social distancing, the size of delegations has been sharply curtailed. Ambassadors are limited to at most two advisers and sometimes none. Also, meetings are being held in the largest rooms at the Council of the EU to create distance between participants.

At least the EU reached a decision, with capitals officially affirming the new plan on Monday. In Chile last week, an effort to adopt new rules to allow remote voting failed because not enough deputies supported the change.

Across the Western world, parliaments are wrestling with similar questions.

Graziano Delrio, the leader of the Democratic Party in Italy's Chamber of Deputies, has urged that plans be made to allow tele-voting. This week, the parliament is due to hold a hearing by videoconference with Finance Minister Roberto Gualtieri, but it's not clear Italian conservatives will ever allow remote voting.

In Spain, nearly all parliamentary work unrelated to the coronavirus has been stopped, despite a declaration earlier this month by the president of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, Meritxell Batet, who said, "The Congress doesn't close."

But Spain is allowing remote voting, which it had previously limited only to deputies who received advance permission to be absent for strict reasons, including pregnancy or serious illness.

In Canada, parliament effectively shut itself down for five weeks — a decision that was a bit less dramatic than it seemed given that it was already scheduled to be on recess for three of those weeks.

In the U.K., parliament is carrying on — just with fewer parliamentarians.

There are currently no plans for the House of Commons to stop meeting until March 31, when a pre-planned Easter recess begins, although the opposition Labour Party has called for that date to be brought forward by a week.

Some MPs are nonetheless staying away, with last Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions session one of the most thinly-attended anyone in Westminster can remember. Scrutiny of government continues via the select committee system and in circumstances where MPs cannot attend, committee chairs are taking questions over text or email to put to witnesses.

Still, as any journalist will tell you, asking questions by email is not the same as posing them in person. And reporters too face new obstacles to scrutinizing people in power.

Daily press briefings with the British prime minister’s spokesperson in Downing Street became conference calls starting Monday. In that sense, the U.K. is just a bit behind the European Commission, which shifted to remote-only daily news conferences last Thursday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said his recent daily news conferences on coronavirus might need to be done by remote, though he tried to reassure reporters they could still participate “I see your anxiety," Johnson, himself a former journalist, told them. "I will absolutely ensure everybody gets to ask questions.”

In Germany, lawmakers on Monday were close to changing a requirement that more than half of all MPs be present in person for many important votes, to limit chances of spreading the virus within the government.

The current rules raised the prospect that at least 355 members of the Bundestag would need to be present in the chamber to push through emergency measures this week, at a time when German citizens have been ordered to practice social distancing by limiting meetings to just two people and with large gatherings banned.

Without a change, many lawmakers were expected to watch the debate from their offices and enter the chamber only to vote. But on Monday, political group leaders reportedly reached a deal requiring only a quarter of MPs to be present.

In France, the two-chamber parliament on Sunday voted to formally declare a health emergency. The National Assembly, the lower house, was nearly empty when the final decision was taken largely by proxy votes, to avoid a crowd. The bill grants the government the power to “decide, by decree, and upon the recommendation of the minister of health, general measures limiting freedoms to curtail movement and crowds" and also empowers the minister to "proceed with requisitions of of any goods and services necessary to fight against the sanitary disaster.”

Elections have also been called into doubt by the virus.

A second round of French local polls has been postponed, as have presidential primary elections in several U.S. states. But Poland is pressing ahead with plans for a presidential election in May — even as opposition politicians complain it won't be fair as they can't campaign effectively due to coronavirus restrictions, giving advantage to the incumbent, Andrzej Duda.

Charlie Cooper, Matthew Karnitschnig, Rym Momtaz and Hans von der Burchard contributed reporting.