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SPEECH BY Mr L.M. DE PUIG, PRESIDENT OF THE PARLIAMENTARY ASSEMBLY OF THE COUNCIL OF EUROPE
Ladies and gentlemen,
As last year in Madrid, I simply could not have missed the opportunity to attend this annual meeting of the Forum for the Future of Democracy.
Before moving on to the actual content of this year’s Forum, I would just like to comment on how successful this initiative has been. The number of participants and the quality of their work alone bear this out. Several hundred people have been involved and many of them have taken part in the debates. They have included politicians and representatives of international organisations, and also a large number of government representatives, experts and representatives of civil society.
Originally, as you may well know, the Forum was an initiative launched by the Parliamentary Assembly, and in particular, by Mr Wielowieski, from the Polish delegation, who has put a great deal of effort into it. As President of the Parliamentary Assembly, I am especially pleased that this idea has really taken off.
The Forum is an opportunity to discuss democratic principles and how they can be implemented. The Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly have other instruments in this sphere. These include a debate on the state of democracy in Europe held in the Assembly every two years. However, as it has evolved over the years since its launch in Warsaw, the Forum for the Future of Democracy has been able to avoid the risk of duplicating or overlapping with the activities of the Council’s other bodies.
In my opinion, this success can be put down to several factors:
The Forum has not set up any new bureaucratic bodies.
Democracy is a never-ending process. It is constantly facing new challenges, which it must meet. The Council of Europe is well placed to discuss democracy. We have been committed to this for the last sixty years, and in that time it has been possible to create a united continent, sharing the universal values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
However, I would like to dwell here on the explicit reference to the future in the Forum’s title. We are invited to discuss the future of democracy, and hence to identify the means of preserving and improving the democratic process in European countries, and possibly even outside Europe.
I would like to turn now to the specific topic to which the Forum is devoted this year, namely electoral systems.
In spite of everything, I like this quotation. Firstly, because in politics, people need the ambition to take responsibility for governing and to do this they have to be voted in. Secondly, because elections are a key feature of the democratic process as a whole and are linked with essential issues such as the representativeness of parliaments and their legitimacy. That is why I am particularly satisfied to read in the first sentence of the Forum’s conclusions that “in a genuine democracy, the citizen is sovereign and the voter decides”.
It has to be acknowledged that this is a wide-ranging and complex subject. The starting point, however, is simple. Free and fair elections are a prerequisite for any democracy. I was particularly struck by another sentence in the conclusions on that subject, which said that the Council of Europe’s aim was to make its space the largest “free and fair” election zone by uniting its member countries around a set of shared democratic principles. This is indeed one of our key goals and tasks for future years. Yet, among the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, there are probably no two countries in which the electoral system is the same in every detail. Even where countries fall into the same general category of a first-past-the-post or proportional representation system, there are always a few additional aspects which distinguish them. We talked a great deal about this during the workshops yesterday.
All the participants seem to have come to the conclusion that there is no single electoral system which is better or worse than the others. Much depends on the historical, political and social circumstances of the countries concerned. Some types of electoral system which work well in some countries may not be very well suited to other conditions, other party political set-ups and other traditions.
However, within each type of system and during each type of electoral procedure, there are always features that can be refined and enhanced to ensure that the persons elected are more representative. This relates to the appointment of candidates within parties, the removal of inherent or procedural limits which obstruct representatives from minorities or vulnerable categories, the funding and conduct of electoral campaigns, the establishment of constituency boundaries, and other features. These matters were the main focus of our debates during the Forum and are dealt with in the rapporteurs’ conclusions.
We now have the much more important task of following up on these conclusions. It should be recalled that the debates held at the Forum are only the first step in a process which involves all the Council of Europe’s institutions. Subsequently, each pillar of our organisation, the Committee of Ministers, the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities and the Conference of INGOs, must accept a share of the responsibility and translate these recommendations into action.
The Parliamentary Assembly is ready to play a major role in this process, especially as it already has significant responsibilities and powers in the sphere of electoral procedures. Election observation in the member countries, particularly those involved in the monitoring or post-monitoring procedure, is currently one of the Assembly’s most important tasks in the field. Of course, the aim of these observations is to ensure that democratic principles are upheld and the will of the people is heeded. The Assembly never takes sides for or against a party or candidate. Once we have ascertained that the electoral process complies with democratic standards, the results of the election are accepted.
The Parliamentary Assembly has also made a significant contribution in this area by preparing, in co-operation with the Forum for the Future of Democracy, a Code of Good Practice in the field of political parties, which was subsequently adopted by the Venice Commission.
As will be clear from this, the Assembly which I have the honour of presiding takes its task of safeguarding and promoting democracy very seriously, and does so in close co-operation with the Council of Europe’s other institutions.
In this connection, I would like to present a proposal which comes from the Assembly. At its last session, the Assembly held a debate on the future of the Council of Europe in the light of its 60 years of experience. During the discussion it was pointed out that the Council has a series of mechanisms and bodies which are designed to consolidate its pioneering role in this field.
These include not only the annual Forum for the Future of Democracy of course, but also the debates that I have already mentioned on the state of democracy in Europe, the Venice Commission and the Summer University for Democracy, which brings young people involved in the Council of Europe’s Schools of Political Studies network together in Strasbourg.
Why then should we not, as the Assembly suggests, reinforce, co-ordinate and give greater prominence to all these activities, using them as the basis to establish in Strasbourg what might be termed a “Davos of democracy” – a testing ground for ideas and regular high-profile debates on democracy?
As President of the Parliamentary Assembly, I am ready to support an initiative of this type.
In conclusion, I would like to thank and congratulate everyone who has taken part in the Forum and the organisers, particularly our hosts, the Ukrainian authorities. I would also like to wish every success to those who have the task of organising the next Forum, to be held in Yerevan, Armenia, in 2010.