Workshop 3B: Civil Society as a driver for transparent and inclusive elections
The Workshop had some 75 participants and was structured around a series of panel presentations, followed by a lively exchange in which over 20 persons posed questions and offered views.
The panel session was chaired by Igor Popov (Secretariat of the Ukrainian Presidency) and moderated by Michael Hancock (PACE). The panellists were: Igor Botan, Moldova; Nel van Dijk, Netherlands; Natalia Dniprenko, Ukraine; Ihor Kohut, Ukraine; Konstantyn Kvurt, Ukraine; and Ariane Rodert, Sweden.
The speakers and questioners from the floor included Ambassadors and other government representatives, parliamentarians and a representative of OSCE. The civil society representatives who spoke came from a great diversity of programme and advocacy areas, and from countries with widely-different experiences (Azerbaijan, Hungary, Turkey, Latvia, Ireland, Spain, Armenia, France, and of course Ukraine as host country to the Forum)
What is civil society and what does it do?
The Workshop examined broad aspects of the role and functions of civil society, particularly but not only, related to the Forum theme of electoral systems. It recognised that civil society is a process of cooperation that differs from country to country, but that essentially it provides a mechanism for citizens to organize themselves in order to influence society and improve daily life.
Elections – no matter how transparent and inclusive – are single events in a multi-year cycle. It is throughout this cycle, equivalent to a parliament’s term of mandate, that civil society organisations bring forward proposals for improving the electoral processes, for enhancing transparency and inclusiveness in government and parliament, for embedding democratic practices and for encouraging the electorate to become active, involved citizens.
It is important to underline that participatory democracy - the purview of civil society - is complementary to representative democracy - the purview of parliaments. Participatory democracy fuels the debate that is at the heart of representative democracy. And of course civil society activists and workers are also voters.
Civil society organisations function as watchdogs, citizens’ advocates and incubators of innovative solutions, and should continuously develop these roles before, during and after elections. One such innovative technique is the Netherlands Stemwijzer, translated as Vote Navigator or Vote Match. Put simply, this electronic mechanism, used by several million voters, enables individual voters to identify the extent to which their interests find a match with the policies of the different political parties. Stemwijzer helps voters to distinguish among the positions of the parties, and has been identified as an encouragement to casting a ballot.
Civil society organisations foster communication between all societal stakeholders. Civil society is simultaneously watchdog and partner vis-à-vis public authorities. It enhances social cohesion and social justice through multiple channels-policy advocacy, service provision, giving voice to citizens, combating discrimination, and promoting women’s right to electoral participation at every level. Furthermore, civil society is a source of expertise for all levels of public authorities and for parliaments when drafting legislation.
The Workshop looked at ways to enhance the participation of International NGOs and domestic NGOs in election observation and monitoring. It was suggested that the Council of Europe, with OSCE/ODIHR, could promote an exchange of experience among NGOs already involved throughout Europe; there is a considerable body of knowledge to work with. At election times, civil society organisations should have no reluctance to form coalitions with like-minded academic and other institutions, to conduct policy research, to monitor exit polls, and to take advantage of mass media.
Civil society organisations are active in representing and defending the rights - including electoral rights - of minorities, vulnerable persons and disadvantaged groups. Linked to this, they are in a position to contribute to improving “low political culture” levels through education for voter awareness.
The workshop asked if there is a “right” proportion for governmental funding of civil society organisations. Are there risks inherent in governmental funding: self-censorship and/or limitations on independence? Should funding only be short-term or may it be long-term? How long?
Some participants had direct experience of governmental subsidies opening the door to unconnected interference by politicians or bureaucrats in the functioning of NGOs. Such funding may run counter to the guidelines of CM/Recommendation(2007)14 on the legal status of NGOs in Europe.
The Code of good practice for civil participation in the decision-making process
The Code of good practice for civil participation in the decision-making process, requested by the 2007 FFD and presented at the opening of the 2009 FFD, has been welcomed by the Council of Europe Quadrilogue partners. The Code is a valuable tool for all stakeholders, providing support for meaningful cooperation between public authorities and civil society organisations.
The Council of Europe is invited to fully promote the implementation of the Code and the Workshop welcomed the Conference of INGOs Implementation Strategy for the Code, based on an extensive interactive database. It was hoped that implementation would be a priority for parliamentarians and local and national governmental authorities. A significant link exists between the Code and the previously mentioned CM Recommendation (2007)14 in which paragraphs 76 and 77 specifically encourage NGO participation in decision-making.
The Workshop particularly appreciated that the Code of good practice does not only aim to promote civil participation by advocacy NGOs, but it also fosters the role of service-provider NGOs which represent the interests of a wide variety of user groups including minorities, disadvantaged communities and disabled persons. These organisations should also be consulted in decision-making on social and economic policy.
Inspired by the example of this Code, it was suggested in the Workshop that consideration be given to preparing a Code for civil society participation in the electoral process.
Civil society making the most of Council of Europe acquis
It is the Council of Europe’s purpose – to which the Forum for the Future of Democracy is a contribution – to elaborate and enhance European standards and good practices. The engagement of civil society in Council of Europe deliberations and decision-making is an indispensable element for ensuring that such standards and good practices are experience-based, value-driven and understood by citizens across the entire European spectrum. Civil society organisations are a vital interpretative link between policy and reality, not solely at election time but – crucially - between elections.
The Workshop looked at Council of Europe standards relevant to free and fair elections. These include the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, the Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, the Revised European Charter on the Participation of Young People in Local and Regional Life, Committee of Ministers Recommendation Rec (2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision making. It discussed some ways in which civil society could better promote and persuade other stakeholders to promote and implement them and felt that the Conference of INGOs’ “Expert Council on NGO Law” had a role to play in creating an enabling environment for the functioning of NGOs, including the strengthening of their legal status.
The Council of Europe Committee of Ministers Recommendation (2007)14 on the legal status of NGOs in Europe contains many invaluable pointers and guidance relevant to civil society’s roles as a driver of transparent and inclusive elections. Indeed, this text is virtually equivalent to a charter for democracy. It should be noted that the Recommendation specifically states that political parties are not NGOs.
The suggestion was made that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe could develop specific guidelines to promote common work with civil society on electoral processes and mechanisms. Such a step could help overcome apprehensions among some parliamentarians that civil society constitutes a challenge to the political processes. The broader view is that civil society is part of the essential panoply of checks and balances that undergird the political process.
Active, responsible and competent civil society organisations are a powerful force towards achieving free and fair elections, and for holding those elected to their campaign promises. Let us build upon the ECHR guarantees of freedom of expression, and freedom of assembly and association. These are pillars of civil society existence. They are equally pillars of free and fair, transparent and inclusive electoral systems.