General elections in a modern democracy
Report by Kåre Vollan, rapporteur
The workshop was chaired by Mr Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu (TU, EDG), Vice-President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and moderated by Mr. Peter Wardle, Chief Executive, UK Electoral Commission. The rapporteur gave a short summary of his Issue paper before the following presentations:
Mr. Srdjan Darmanovic, member of the Venice Commission, Montenegro on ‘Legislative measures to improve the legitimacy of elections’; Ms. Lydie Err, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (LU, SOC) and member of the Venice Commission on ‘The importance of gender balance as a part of strengthening representativity and inclusion’; Prof. Mark N. Franklin, Professor of Comparative Politics, European University Institute, Florence on ‘The impact of different types of electoral systems on election outcomes and government formation’; Judge Manuel Gonzalez Oropeza, Judge of the Supreme Court for Elections in Mexico on ‘The role of the judiciary in reinforcing citizens’ confidence in elections’; Ms. Anna Sólyom, Project manager, International relations, The Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO), Budapest on ‘The role of electoral commissions in building public trust’ and Mr. Jonathan Stonestreet, Senior Election Adviser, OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on ‘Election observation as a pre-requisite for government legitimacy’.
The following presents a summary of the most important issues covered in the presentations and the debate.
2. The impact of systems of representation on the political outcome
A large variety of systems of representation are being used by member states. The two main classes are the plurality/majority systems and the proportional systems. The systems have inbuilt qualities, and tradition and political considerations have been decisive for the choice of systems in various countries. Even though some systems do have features which would classify them not to be suitable in multi party national elections, the main systems like first-past-the-post (FPTP) in single member constituencies and list proportional systems (List PR) or STV are legitimate and common varieties of systems of representation.
The representation of parties under FPTP and List PR is very different. FPTP will normally over-represent the biggest party and the political system will often be reduced to a few-party system. This was illustrated in the presentation of Prof. Mark N. Franklin with striking examples from the UK. FPTP in single-member constituencies is normally chosen when personal accountability is given more weight than the system’s ability to reflect the overall election result in terms of distribution of seats among parties.
Proportional systems are being used where the political mirroring of the electorate in the parliament is regarded as the predominant quality. Dependent on factors such as thresholds, proportion systems will tend to have more parties represented in parliament and coalition governments are more common. Mr. Srdjan Darmanovic reviewed the advantages and disadvantages of plurality/majority systems and proportional systems in terms of their effect on the party system and on the stability of governments.
3. The impact of systems of representation in other dimensions
Other qualities are also important when assessing a system of representation, such as the ability to provide gender balance, promotion of dialogue and reconciliation after (and before) conflict, representation of ethnic, confessional or linguistic minorities, simplicity, geographical representation, etc.
Ms. Lydie Err made a strong case of showing that List PR systems would provide for the best gender balance, in particular when applied to large constituencies with large thresholds for representation. She referred to the Revised introductory memorandum1 of the Parliamentary Assembly on the ‘Impact of electoral systems on women’s representation in politics’ which states in its first conclusions:
“….e. changing the electoral system to one more favourable to women’s representation in politics, including by introducing gender quotas, can lead to more gender balanced, and thus more legitimate, political and public decision-making;
Empirically, there is a better representation of women and minorities under List PR systems than under FPTP since every vote counts and parties will tend to include a representative image of the electorate on the candidate lists in order to appeal to all groups of the constituency.
4. Representation of women and minorities
Affirmative action, by its very nature, does limit the choice of voters and parties. As a measure to secure the representation of women and certain minorities, such measures are still seen to be legitimate. The measures may be implemented within most systems but there may be unwanted side effects connected to some of the possible methods.
In some countries (mostly outside of Europe) special races for women or minorities have been implemented. The disadvantage is that a separate race may represent a segregation which is not helpful to bridge social gaps in the long run. It is preferable that affirmative action is worked into the electoral system. Some of the methods for this are presented in the Issue Paper of this workshop which states that regardless of system used, the following should be kept in mind:
· “Individuals should be able to freely choose if he or she wants to be considered part of a minority group or not.
There are fewer negative side effects when combining group representation with List PR than with majority/plurality systems since the rules can be applied on the composition of each party’s candidate list and therefore do not affect the relative strength of parties.
5. The requirements to stand for elections
A balance needs to be struck between the right to stand for election and the need to limit the number of candidates to those with a certain public support. On one hand, there should be equal and fair possibilities to stand for elections, on the other there is a legitimate need to limit the candidacies to those who have a possibility to win some support. The limitation needs to be fair and the possibilities to stand should not be restricted to only those who can actually win seats. The limitation should only touch those candidates who are not serious and who have little support.
The mechanisms for proving support are normally either to collect a certain number of signatures or to deposit a certain amount of money which may not be recovered unless the candidate wins a predefined share of the votes. The requirements for standing for election should not bar genuine candidates. All the measures need to be proportional, with a reasonable number of signatures, a reasonable deposit and a fair threshold for recovering the deposit.
Declining participation is a widespread problem in European democracies even though some countries have been able to maintain a reasonable turnout in recent elections. Declining turnout is a symptom of lack of interest and trust in the political system in general. The main remedy would for the actors in politics to make sure that their message is relevant and important to people, that the outcome of an election matters, that the political process can be trusted and that the voters can trust that their vote can make a change.
The electoral system plays only a limited role within the more fundamental issue of decreased citizen participation in public life, but some measures may have a positive effect. For example, the act of voting may be made more accessible to voters through advance voting, internet voting for special groups (The workshop speakers were more sceptical about general access to internet voting) and appropriate voting days.
Furthermore, voters need to be able to trust the integrity of the voting and counting processes. This can be done by strengthening the transparency of the process, tasking the election administration to a truly independent election management body (EMB), having a good legal system with an efficient and transparent appeals system, providing easy access for observers to monitor the whole electoral process, etc.
Judge Manuel Gonzalez Oropeza…[something to be added by K Vollan]
Regarding electoral management bodies, Ms Sólyom felt that their organization, their independence (material and immaterial), the combination of their members as well as the publicity of their activities need to stand for interests of the community and not for those of the different political parties. Transparency of their activities is highly recommended in order to create confidence in elections.
7. The role of political parties and media
The importance of political parties in providing clear, relevant and interesting messages and for media to cover the political scene, including the election campaigns, in a fair, equitable, interesting and critical manner was underlined. These subjects were, however, addressed in detail during other workshops.
The use of new technologies to communicate with voters was also discussed and many felt that when the broad public find interest in the political messages, all media including the new ones will be used. E-election is not only about the voting process but about using the whole range of possibilities to underpin the democratic process of competition for powers.
8. Election observation
Mr. Stonestreet insisted that election observation is a crucial element of transparency in elections. The transparency that observation provides is a basis for building public confidence in the election administration and in the electoral process as a whole. Public confidence is perhaps the single most important feature of a credible, genuinely democratic election. Absence of public confidence in the elections can cast doubt not only on the legitimacy of those elected but ultimately even on the very concept that elections are meaningful. In that sense, election observation is a necessary condition, although not a sufficient condition, for a genuine election and for the legitimacy of government.
Of equal, or even greater, importance in ensuring transparency is the role of domestic observation, undertaken by political parties and/or by non-partisan organizations. It is an activity of civil society, broadly construed. Election observation in this context means that citizens – the people themselves – can check that the law is being adhered to and that the process is delivering the collective result of each individual’s free choice. It is unfortunate that the efforts of civil society, particularly NGOs, are increasingly under threat in some parts of the OSCE and Council of Europe regions.
The main challenge related to domestic observation in the OSCE and Council of Europe community comes in States where legislation or practice presents barriers to effective observation. This takes a number of forms but includes burdensome accreditation requirements for observers, obstacles to the registration of NGOs, and pressure on, or intimidation of, observers.
In order to make observation efficient and credible it is important that elections are assessed against agreed standards and that the observation itself follows a sound methodology. In an effort to build consensus and professionalism in this field, the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation has been launched under the auspices of the United Nations.
In established, old democracies there has often not been a role for observers from domestic NGOs and international organisations. Some countries have changed their laws recently to allow for such observation and it was underlined that this development should continue. Even old democracies can gain from being assessed against international standards and observation provides by itself an invaluable capacity-building measure across borders.
9. Changes to Electoral Systems
Mr. Srdjan Darmanovic noted that electoral systems are under continuous reform and these reforms are highly political. He insisted that changes should not be implemented too close to the election day, partly to avoid any possibility of manipulation and also to make sure that all parties have a reasonable amount of time to prepare for elections without sudden changes to the rules of the game. There is a need for a certain continuity in order to avoid that the rules are changed frequently by new parliamentary majorities.
1 AS/Ega (2009) 32 rev. Impact of electoral systems on women’s representation in politics. Prepared by the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men of the Parliamentary Assembly.