Forum for the Future of Democracy

Kyiv , 

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Genuine democracy requires capacity, opportunity and motivation.

It requires capacity because people must be capable of making informed choices. They must be able to receive information and form their opinions without undue interference and influence.

It requires regular opportunities to exercise such informed choices under free and fair conditions.

And finally, it requires motivation to do so.

Somehow paradoxically, in yesterday's Europe, there were many people who wanted to vote, but who were not allowed to vote. In today's Europe, there is a growing number of people who have the opportunity to vote, but refuse to do so.

This, as I understand it, was one of the main reasons which led the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe to launch the Forum for the Future of Democracy, which is meeting here in Kyiv at its 5th session. I should like to use this opportunity to thank the Ukrainian authorities and especially President Yuschenko, who will formally open this session in just a few minutes, for the effort invested in the preparation.

But if I may return to my introductory thought. Many people in European countries which have joined the Council of Europe since 1989 have become disappointed with political institutions because their hopes and expectations from democratic reforms may have been too impatient and too ambitious. Political freedom, when it came, did not immediately translate into greater security, a better income and a better life.

But it is not the only reason for the growing disillusion among voters in Europe. Electoral turnouts are decreasing in many countries, both in those with longer and in those with shorter democratic experience alike.

So the problems we face, the problems because of which this Forum was set up, cannot be solved by lowering the expectations of the voters. They will have to be resolved through greater accountability and higher trust in political institutions, processes and personalities.

These are the challenges at which this Session, and the previous Sessions of the Forum have been looking.

Here in Kyiv, we will be looking at electoral systems and try to identify measures to ensure that elections, as the most important mechanism of public accountability, remain effective, trustworthy and widely used.

We all know that free and fair elections are a vital feature of democracy. They ensure the selection of political leadership based on the will of the people and they are a key element in holding the political leadership accountable for its performance. For this to happen, the elections must be universal, equal, free, secret and direct. They must be accompanied by respect for fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights, the organisation of the election by an impartial body and the availability of an effective appeal system.

And we all know that there is still some way to go before these general principles for democratic elections are fully accepted and respected everywhere in Europe.

What a genuinely functioning democracy also requires is a democratic culture, and democratic culture takes years to grow. It is normal that some countries with more recent democratic experience will encounter more difficulties and they are entitled to and will receive our help.

But this being said, we should not and we will not tolerate that a shorter democratic gravitation is used as an excuse to ignore democratic standards, just as well as we should not and will not tolerate that long-standing democracies consider themselves immune from any criticism or advice.

The fact is that some of the most critical issues this Forum will tackle, such as the freedom to receive and impart information, the independence of the media and the role of new information technologies in relation to elections, affect each and every member states of the Council of Europe.

We should also critically assess what is the scope of action for international organisations such as the Council of Europe in improving electoral standards across Europe and beyond. We should not satisfy ourselves with good ideas, we need good results. The Council of Europe should not be only a think tank, it should be a work horse for democracy in Europe. A good example is offered by the "Code of Good Practice of Civil Participation", which the Conference of International Non-Governmental Organisations has adopted a few weeks ago in response to the conclusions of the Forum in 2007. What remains now is to make sure that the Code is implemented and also to evaluate what impact it will have in practice.

This is a general principle which I will follow as the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. In this particular case, we have ways to measure our influence, for example through the trends in voters' participation. It does not mean that we should claim the credit - or accept the blame - if turnouts in the next elections across Europe go up or down. There are many factors which come to play in deciding these trends, but we must strive to be one of them.

What we do must be relevant, must be effective, and must make a difference.

Thank you very much.