Marking the first International Day of Parliamentarians on June 28, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, representing legislators in 173 countries, reported that serious challenges are emerging as antidemocratic forces playing on public apathy increase.
In a survey of legislatures worldwide in 2018, “Are Parliamentary Democracies in Danger?” the global parliamentary union finds huge challenges to these institutions. The United States Congress is not a member of the IPU, which it left in 1998, and is very unlikely to rejoin under Republican Party leadership.
Among these challenges, the IPU found, “the rights of a growing number of MPs are being violated; women’s participation in politics is stagnating; young people in many countries continue to be excluded from political decisions that affect their future, and people are losing trust in their political institutions.”
Under examination by an IPU committee, there are more than 500 cases of violations against legislators in 40 countries, which the organization calls “one of the highest figures ever recorded.”
On women, the good news is that since 2007, the average share of women in parliaments has increased from 17 percent to 23 percent, the survey found. Looking back to 1998, female legislators have also become a much more diverse group. The dominance of Europeans a decade ago has given way to a top-10 list that includes sub-Saharan and Latin American countries.
Rwanda is leading with women holding 61.3 percent of the seats of elected members. The other nine are now Cuba, Bolivia, Grenada, Namibia, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Sweden, Mexico and South Africa. In 1998, Sweden topped the list, followed by Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands. The IPU survey does not distinguish judgmentally among democratic and undemocratic countries where opposition politicians struggle to be heard or even face abuse.
Also not good news: an IPU study in 2016 found that 82 percent of women in legislatures “had experienced some kind of psychological violence.”
Young people are almost nonexistent in many parliaments, the new survey found. “Although 51 percent of the world’s population is under 30, young people under 30 account for less than 2 percent of the world’s MPs,” it said.
It drew on The Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index 2016 to include the finding that faith in democracies appeared to have stagnated or regressed in almost half of the 176 countries surveyed
The new IPU survey pointed to positive global steps, including more use of technology by legislators and their parliamentary institutions.
Modernizing Technology in US Congress
The lag in adapting to new technologies has been a focus of considerable work on the functioning of the US Congress by Lorelei Kelly, a senior fellow at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation at Georgetown University. In April 2018, she wrote in The Hill that the US government under President Barack Obama had learned from the crash of the Affordable Care Act portal in 2013.
“In response, the White House quickly assembled an in-house talent pool of technologists to fix the problem,” she wrote. “The success of this surge team created momentum for a more long-term solution across the federal agencies.
“Today there’s another part of our government in massive need of modernization. It is central to the functioning of our democracy, but it often stops working. You could even say it crashes routinely. It is too big to fail, but somehow it never gets in the crosshairs of a tech and data driven modernization strategy: the US Congress.”
Some of the Obama-era technical experts are working on this issue on Capitol Hill, Kelly wrote. Too many Congress members — and often more important, their staff members — have not made good use of data that could better inform legislators, she has argued for years. Now, with cybersecurity no longer a luxury, the need for more use of technological tools is more necessary than ever.
Information is power, and not all governments are willing to share it, but there is a growing sense in diverse countries that parliaments need more access to data to make wise choices and serve as true counterweights to populist leaders.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.