Retour Parliamentary Conference "Elections in times of crisis”: challenges and opportunities

Strasbourg 10 May 2023
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"As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe"


Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen,


It is a pleasure to be here today.

This Conference is both timely and important.

Democracies require a lot more than elections to be worthy of the name.

But it is equally true, that without elections, there is no chance for democracy at all.

Through free and fair voting, we choose our representatives –

And express our views about how our communities, countries – should be run.

They are gateways to good democratic governance –

And we must be alert and guard and protect against actions and circumstances that might undermine our democracies.

This is especially important when we know that the overall trend of participating in voting is going downwards.

True, in the last year there has been a small increase in the participation in elections in certain countries –

Perhaps because Russia’s appalling and completely unacceptable war against Ukraine has inspired some people who need to again make their voices heard – loud and clear.

But even so, this increase is small and voter turnout remains lower than in years.

So, you are right to use this conference to consider how we should navigate these troubled waters –

To do what we can to ensure open, accessible and regular elections, even in crisis situations –

Be it pandemics like COVID-19 –

Natural disasters –

Or for that matter during armed conflicts.

We also need to focus on many challenges posed by digital technology –

Which I know you will discuss this morning –

And that have the potential both to help –

And to hinder –

Electoral processes.

It is certainly true –

As you have heard from a range of distinguished panellists –

That the Council of Europe’s work supports national authorities in these and in a number of other areas related to elections.

From the standard-setting that begins with the right to free elections –

Guaranteed by Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights –

And which has been further elaborated by the European Court of Human Rights and the Committee of Ministers over the years –

Going all the way to the legal expertise, election observation and technical co-operation provided by the Venice Commission on Democracy through Law –

The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities –

And, last but not least, the Parliamentary Assembly, which also has such a prominent role in election observation.

Overall, what we have achieved in Europe in term of building democracies and respecting the rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights is quite impressive.

No other continent has this level of protection for safeguarding the fundamental rights of its citizens – and high standards of democracy and rule of law.

But we must never take it for granted.

Next week, as you also mentioned Damien, European leaders will gather in Iceland for the Council of Europe’s 4th Summit of Heads of State and Government.

There, they will be invited to recommit to the values and standards of our Organisation –

Including the Reykjavik Principles for Democracy.

Foremost among these should be the commitment to actively enable and encourage the democratic participation of every citizen through regular, free and fair elections –

And to hold elections and referenda in accordance with international standards and to take all possible measures to ensure that there is no undue interference in electoral systems and processes.

So, the issues on your agenda today –

How to live up to those words in the most difficult of situations – in times of crisis –

Could not be more pertinent.

But this alone will not be enough.

After all, if pioneering elections standards and first-class monitoring are all that is required, why has voter turn-out fallen?

Why do more young people across Europe express disillusionment and tell opinion pollsters that they do not consider living in a democracy to be important?

Why is there a democratic crisis – a democratic backsliding – in Europe today – and what can we do about it, in concrete terms?

These are all important questions –

And it is not easy to find appropriate replies to them –

But it is essential that our leaders address them.

That we discuss them.

I believe, we need to re-engage our citizens young people in particular – and make them feel that their votes and participation are important and lead to real change.

But that is a hard case to make in some European countries at a time when freedom of expression is being undermined, with rising numbers of attacks on journalists, including murders, for which no-one is ever convicted.

It is a difficult sell when civic space is shrinking and freedom of assembly and association are being restricted, and legitimate protest stopped by politicians with bad intentions –

And it is a tricky argument to make to young people when they are struggling with higher costs of living, and have a hard time finding a job –

While watching as the quality of their health, education and other public services continues to decline –

That major challenges such as climate change are not properly addressed –

And inequality within their societies becomes ever greater, while corruption remains deep rooted.

This is the sad reality for many Europeans right now.

So, when our leaders meet in Reykjavik next week, their commitment needs to go beyond elections –

Vital though they certainly are –

And all the way to reassembling the very core building blocks of democracy, rule of law and respect for human rights, on which peace and security –

Our dignity and equality –


It is a matter of leadership, of setting the right political priorities.

And in some way, we must reconnect the act of voting to the path of democratic progress.

In the interests of every European.

Let me end by thanking the Parliamentary Assembly and the Swiss authorities for their commitment to that pathway –

As demonstrated by this Conference –

And the determination of everyone here to ensure that the first act of democratic participation remains free, safe and secure elections, however challenging the circumstances we face.

Thank you for your attention.