Forum for the Future of Democracy:
MADRID, 15 OCTOBER 2008
Mr State Secretary, Mr Secretary General of the Council of Europe, Mr President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Madam Deputy Mayor of the City of Madrid, Ladies and Gentlemen,
May I first say how pleased I am that we are gathered together today in Madrid in order to hold the 2008 edition of the Forum for the Future of Democracy, which will be devoted to a new, almost experimental theme, electronic democracy or e-democracy. My satisfaction goes hand in hand with a feeling of responsibility, since this forum in Madrid follows on from the extremely well-organised 2007 version held in Stockholm, whose work and results were extraordinary and will be very difficult to better. We therefore sincerely congratulate our Swedish colleagues and are aware that it will be extremely hard to equal their performance.
Over the next two days we will be discussing a highly interesting subject, that of application of the new technologies to the democratic system's functioning, that is to say turning the advances in electronic communication techniques to advantage in the administrative, electoral and public information fields for the use of public authorities and elected representatives. These are relatively new tools, or at least not as well known as others that have long proved their usefulness to the functioning of our democracies,
We have already been asking ourselves for some time whether democracy can stand the test of technological change, and we are seriously considering whether democratic mechanisms and institutions will not have to be adapted to the developments and the possibilities of the new electronic world. At the same time, people also talk about the problem of the "democratic deficit", for which no lasting solution has been found, a lack of communication and transparency to the point where a large number of citizens say they feel unrepresented by politicians and politics. A pervasive complaint is that elected representatives are out of touch with their electorate, or do not maintain sufficient contact with it, and people are gradually becoming alienated from politics, as can be seen from the progressive decline in electoral participation.
In addition, citizens, or at least many of them, are tempted by forms of "direct democracy", and various initiatives along these lines have been tested so as to permit members of the public to communicate directly with political authorities and representatives. Certain countries have also held electronic votes. It is true that the information and communication technologies nowadays allow new forms of participation in politics that were inconceivable not so long ago.
Many of us believe that, to counter the nihilistic tendency and the disinterest in politics, today more than ever before the high-speed information and communication networks offer instruments that can constitute particularly valid means of promoting citizen participation in the political process. Some of them have already been adopted within public institutions and in political circles:
- petition mechanisms
Moreover, there is every reason to think that we will inevitably continue to progress in this field.
E-democracy, about which we will have much to say over the next few days, is not an end in itself. The sole possible objective is and must be enhanced democracy, the improvement of our system of rights and freedoms. It is a tool at the service of democracy. Under no circumstances must technical progress entail a reduction in democracy; on the contrary, it must always be synonymous with an enhancement, an advance in what Churchill described as the worst form of government apart from all the others.
It follows that, whatever use is made of them, these electronic tools must come with appropriate legal safeguards. We are not talking about indiscriminate use of the Internet, nor are we talking about YouTube. We must be very careful and cautious in the use we make of electronic democracy. The growing use made of this solution must not call into question or weaken representative democracy or its legitimacy. In fact what is being sought is an increase in the communication possibilities of public representatives and authorities at all levels, and an expansion of the possibilities for citizen participation. This is the underlying goal.
The widespread use of opinion polls, interactive forms, web pages, blogs, twitter messaging, Facebook, portals and pure and simple e-mail itself allows direct communication on a huge scale, frequently of a personalised nature, which can doubtless bring political authorities and representatives closer to the citizen, and vice versa.
It goes without saying that, in some cases, use of these tools can involve risks and disadvantages that we should know how to overcome. In connection with Internet voting, for example, we must first and foremost avoid the emergence of a "digital divide" between voters, since people are unequal in their access to IT for reasons of age, culture, habits and spending power. This would constitute an unacceptable discrimination if it led to a form of exclusion where people were unable to exercise their right to vote on account of the system utilised. This is a very serious issue, as are a cast-iron legal guarantee of preservation of the secrecy of the vote and appropriate safeguards to ensure that there can be no tampering by electronic means (fraud, vote buying, etc.). All of this must be given careful consideration before applying the new technologies to the political process. Furthermore, their application in a given country is naturally dependent on its legal traditions, legislation and constitutional provisions.
We must in fact consider the urn and the computer as mere instruments or tools - means of voting, with the attendant legal guarantees - which should not change even the slightest result. Their use should not lead to any form of political favouritism or impairment of fundamental rights. Of course, the number of votes cast should be the same, and should be distributed in the same way, whatever system we use. And in both cases it must be guaranteed that there is no possibility of tampering, falsification or fraud. This principle must strictly govern the use of the new electronic technologies.
Similarly, the meaning of representative democracy must be preserved. Everything which enables citizens to express their views is positive, but there must be no underestimating the importance of representation or the role played by politicians, citizens' elected representatives, at local, national or international level, who represent not their own personal interests but those of the community. Into the bargain they have a specific responsibility, that of being answerable to public opinion for their actions.
If follows that "e-democracy" can in no way be an alternative to representative democracy. That much is clear. However, when it comes to boosting citizens' power to participate, it seems to be an obvious solution.
In the end, as we can see, the theme of this forum is the future of democracy as a whole, not just in the context of the possibility of using new technology in electoral and consultation processes. Direct democracy is one aspect of this, perhaps the most striking and the most tricky, but it is not the only one. Let us therefore focus our debate on all the possibilities offered by the new technologies, with a view to utilising these tools to enhance our democracies.
I wish you every success in your proceedings. Thank you for your attention.