Parliaments still vital to public quest for democracy despite fragile trust, new report says

02 Apr 2012

image Women parliamentarians of the Afghan Lower House (Wolesi Jirga or “House of the People”) attend their inauguration ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan’s second parliamentary inauguration since 2001. (UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein)

Geneva/Kampala Parliaments today are facing greater public scrutiny and pressure than ever before with fundamental questions on their ability to hold governments to account, but they have never been more essential to the political life of a country, says a joint report launched today by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

The first Global Parliamentary Report (GPR), which examines “The Changing Nature of Parliamentary Representation”, argues that to address the current low-level of trust in them, parliaments must engage with citizens, stay closely attuned to their needs and make every effort to meet them.

The report, in which more than 125 parliaments and 660 members of parliament (MPs) participated, aims to help both legislative assemblies and politicians better understand and respond to the public pressures they are facing.

The report notes various opinion polls showing waning support for parliaments in both established and newer democracies. Trust levels in places such as Lithuania and USA are just below 10 percent with similar trends evident in the Arab world, East Asia and the Pacific. The only region to buck the downward trend, according to the report, is Sub-Saharan Africa, where a comparatively high level of trust is recorded at 56 per cent across the continent.

The report points to the emergence of more than 190 parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) 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 members of parliament (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,” says Abdelwahad Radi, President of the IPU. “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.”

The GPR highlights the various initiatives being undertaken across the world to engage and inform the public more 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.

Many MPs also point to the growing correspondence and interaction they now have with constituents demanding better responses to local concerns as well as more information and influence on, and over, an MP’s work.

“Parliamentarians are better placed to assess the concrete outcome of the legislation they discuss, amend and pass when they engage with citizens,” says Rebeca Grynspan, UNDP Associate Administrator.  “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.”

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.

It recommends that to be more effective, MPs should move beyond finding individual, local solutions to their growing constituency work. They should instead channel widespread constituency concerns into parliament’s national legislative work in order to find strategic, tangible responses to common problems.

Despite the many challenges and criticisms parliaments are facing, the report argues that  parliaments continue to provide a critical and irreplaceable link between citizens and their governments.

Parliaments, though not synonymous with democracy, appear to be essential to the idea of a State’s legitimacy and ability to represent the people. It cites the recent events in the Arab world and elsewhere as underscoring the importance of parliament in people’s quest for greater political voice and democracy.

The report also points to the growth in the number of parliaments. 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.

Ultimately, the Global Parliamentary Report concludes, parliaments have shown resilience by remaining core to the concept of representative democracy. They have achieved this by adapting to changing public needs and demands throughout history. It is that permanently evolving relationship which holds the key to the future of parliaments.

For further information, please contact:

IPU Kampala: Jemini Pandya, Tel. : + 41 79 217 3374 ; Tel. in Kampala : +256 704 78 7017; jep@mail.ipu.org

UNDP Geneva: Adam Rogers, Tel.: +41229178541; adam.rogers@undp.org

UNDP Johannesburg : Maureen Mundea, Tel.: +27 11 6035513 ; Tel.in Kampala : +256 77 277 5808; maureen.mundea@undp.org

UNDP NY: Sandra Macharia,  Tel.: +1 212 906 5377; sandra.macharia@undp.org

GLOBAL PARLIAMENTARY REPORT FACTS AND FIGURES

  1. Almost all the countries in the world have some form of functioning parliamentary institution.
  2. MPs: There are 46,552 MPs in the world. The global average number of parliamentarians per country is 245. China has the largest parliament with 3,000 members in the Chinese National People’s Congress. The world’s smallest parliament is in Micronesia, with just 14 MPs.
  3. The global average number of inhabitants per parliamentarian is 146,000 though in India, that number is 1.5 million inhabitants per MP. San Marino has the smallest number at 517.
  4. Women: There are 8,716 women parliamentarians globally, which is 19.25 per cent of the total number of MPs. NB: New IPU figures on women MPs supersede these. Please go to: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm
  5. Age: The global average age of an MP is 53. The average age for a woman MP is 50. Sub-Saharan African MPs have the lowest regional average age at 49 with Arab countries with the highest at 55.
  6. Budgets: The U.S. Congress has the largest parliamentary budget at US$5.12 billion. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines spends least on parliament budget at 1.8 million.
  7. The average cost of parliament per inhabitant in the world is US$5.77
  8. Gaps: MPs rated creating legislation as their most important job. The public rated solving constituents problems and promoting the interests and economy of a constituency an MP’s most important job.
  9. Obstacles:  MPs rate a lack of resources for constituency work as their greatest obstacle to doing their job. Resources and staffing for parliamentary work and in parliament itself were ranked second and third.
  10.  Constituency work: About 20 per cent of MPs surveyed said they spend 40 or more hours a week working on constituents’ issues.
  11.  Communications: Just over 40 per cent of MPs surveyed judged parliament as being fairly effective in communicating its activities to the public during plenary debates. That percentage dropped to about 30 per cent for committee debates and hearings and for international activities.
  12.  Monitoring: There are more than 191 parliamentary monitoring organizations (PMOs) in the world today, monitoring the activities of more than 80 parliaments.
  13. Trust: Support for parliaments has been waning in established democracies. Within EU, trust in parliament now stands at less than a third, while in the U.S., trust in Congress hit its lowest figure in more than 30 years, with just 9 per cent people surveyed saying they trusted it.
  14. There are equally low levels of trust in newer democracies of Eastern Europe with Latvia and Lithuania representing the lowest figures at 11 per cent and 8 per cent respectively and similar patterns in the Arab world and East Asia. In Kuwait and Lebanon, more than half the population has little or no trust in parliament while in South Korea, only political parties are less trusted than parliament.
  15. Polls: A 2008 global poll by World Public Opinion found that 85 per cent of people believed that the will of the people should be the basis of the authority of the government.