Parliaments still vital to quest for democracy, UN report finds
Despite the current low level of trust in parliaments, these bodies have never been more essential to the political life of a country, according to a joint report launched today by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).
The first Global Parliamentary Report (GPR) calls on parliaments to address the fragile trust in them, engage with citizens, stay closely attuned to their needs and make every effort to meet them.
“Parliamentarians are better placed to assess the concrete outcome of the legislation they discuss, amend and pass when they engage with citizens,” says UNDP’s Associate Administrator, Rebeca Grynspan. “These exchanges are critical to ensure that citizens, through their elected representatives, influence their governments and hold them to account more effectively, especially in key areas for development.”
More than 125 parliaments and 660 members of parliament (MPs) participated in the report, which aims to help both legislative assemblies and politicians better understand and respond to the public pressures they are facing.
The report, launched in Kampala, Uganda, at the IPU’s 126th Assembly, notes various opinion polls showing waning support for parliaments in both established and newer democracies.
Trust levels in places such as Lithuania and the United States are just below 10 per cent with similar trends evident in the Arab world, East Asia and the Pacific. Meanwhile, there was a comparatively high level of trust in sub-Saharan Africa, at some 56 per cent.
The report also points to the emergence of more than 190 parliamentary monitoring organizations in more than 80 countries, the growing number of parliaments with codes of conduct and the limits placed on the length of parliamentary mandates as measures to make MPs more accountable to an increasingly demanding electorate.
“It is clear that casting a ballot every few years is no longer enough for an electorate. It wants more democratic engagement between it and the political institution it elects,” said the President of the IPU, Abdelwahad Radi.
“Most parliaments have recognized the need to change the way the public sees it, its role and its work. And they are doing something about it,” he added.
The report highlights the various initiatives being undertaken worldwide to engage and inform the public on parliamentary work and outcomes. These include developing inter-active websites, introducing ‘open’ visiting days or using radio to reach constituents in remote areas, such as in Afghanistan and Benin. In Namibia, customised buses tour the country enabling citizens to submit their views to parliament on legislation.
However, the report finds genuine public influence over parliamentary outcomes remains limited. It cautions that if faith in parliament is not to be undermined further, initiatives must deliver on giving the public that influence.
In his message to the IPU Assembly, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that the theme of the meeting – “Parliaments and People: Bridging the Gap” – is timely, given the public protests witnessed last year.
“The contexts and grievances that drove the various social protests of 2011 were varied, but they had in common the expectation that state institutions be more transparent, accountable and responsive to the needs and aspirations of the people,” he stated in the message, which was delivered on Saturday on his behalf by the head of the UN Office to the African Union, Zachary Muburi-Muita.
“They reflect a deep-seated yearning for the rule of law, democratic governance and social justice,” said Mr. Ban.
He added that the UN relies on “strong, effective” parliaments to meet the challenges of the 21st century, including the anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), climate change, sustainable development and conflict prevention.
As noted by the report, nearly all countries now have some form of parliamentary assembly, and overall, they are more accessible, more professionally run and better-resourced than 50 years ago.