Parliament defends its ‘special session’ in May

Bernexpo: the temporary workplace of Swiss parliamentarians in May. Keystone / Anthony Anex

After details were announced about the session to be held in Bern from May 4, the speakers of both chambers have defended the idea in the weekend press.

This content was published on March 29, 2020 - 13:21
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In Le Matin Dimanche, Isabelle Moret of the House of Representatives rejected the criticism that the session represented a double standard at a time when most citizens are stuck at home.

She also said the decision had nothing to do with parliamentary sour grapes over the decisive role currently being taken by the government in managing the Covid-19 crisis.

“Parliament has a key constitutional role,” she said, adding that the gathering in Bern – to be held in the capacious Bernexpo exhibition centre – doesn’t contravene emergency measures that have banned public and private gatherings of more than five people.

“The government has clearly indicated that parliament is not considered as such a gathering,” she said. Social distancing rules – maintaining more than two metres between people – will be respected, while parliamentarians that are either feeling unwell, or are part of an ‘at-risk’ health group, will be asked to stay away, she said.

As for what will be debated, a key goal will be oversight of the executive decisions taken by government thus far. However, Moret said, parliament “also has the possibility to take emergency measures itself, like the government does.”

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Not stepping on toes

On Saturday, Senate speaker Hans Stöckli made similar comments in an interview with newspapers from the Tamedia publishing group.

Parliament is, even in a time of crisis, the highest authority in the country, he said. Although the executive branch is naturally more unified and capable of taking time-sensitive decisions, the constitution obliges parliament to oversee these decisions.

Like Moret, Stöckli also mentioned the constitutional article giving parliament the power to enact emergency measures of its own; however, he said, in order to preserve government’s ability to act quickly and decisively, the chambers “would be well-advised to only deal with urgent gaps or very important issues” using such a mechanism.

Only once before has parliament proposed such emergency measures, to clamp down on the activity of Al-Qaeda in 2011, Stöckli said.

Government, on the other hand, has introduced emergency measures more often, for example after the 2001 Swissair collapse, or to bail out UBS during the financial crisis.

Two weeks ago, the parliament – made up of the 200-seat House of Representatives and the 46-seat Senate – cut short its normal spring session as a result of the worsening coronavirus situation.

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