Political Affairs Committee
The code of good practice for political parties
There can be no democracy without pluralism. Pluralism requires i.a. freedom of expression and freedom of association. Pluralism at political level requires a system of election and representation by which powers and functions are delegated to elected representatives. The most common systems of election of representatives are based on geographical or ideological (party political) criteria. The choice of the electoral system and the functioning of the electoral system have great influence on the legitimacy and credibility of the entire political system.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "everyone has the right to take part in the government in his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives". The European Court of Human Rights has stated that the Convention is not only an instrument of international law, but also "a constitutional instrument of European public order"1. The Court has also stated that "democracy is without doubt a fundamental feature of the 'European public order'. The European Convention on Human Rights (in particular articles 10, 11, 14 and 16) include provisions which also concern political parties.
The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) has devoted much attention to political parties and has adopted i.a. Guidelines on legislation on political parties (2006), Guidelines for financing political parties (2000), Guidelines on prohibition and dissolution of political parties and analogous measures (1999) and a Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters (2002). In 2003 the Assembly adopted Resolution 1320 (2003) and Recommendation 1264 (2003) on a code of good practices in electoral matters. These texts will be taken into account in our work to formulate a Code of Good Practice for Political Parties.
Today's democratic systems rely on political parties as the main way of channelling different views in political decision-making. In Europe today democracy without political parties is hardly possible. A democratic political system requires not only several political parties, but several political parties which truly reflect different views and interests. A democratic system also means that all political parties cannot be in power, and consequently that some parties are in opposition. The role of political parties in opposition also needs to be addressed.
The Parliamentary Assembly has incorporated this view in its Rules of procedure. Rule 6.2 states that "Insofar as the number of their members allows, national delegations should be composed so as to ensure a fair representation of political parties or groups in their parliaments".
The role of political parties is thus paramount, and therefore a code of good practice both important and timely.
2. The general conditions for good practices of political parties
A political party is an association of citizens whose aim is to accede to power by the presentation of candidates to free and democratic elections.
The role of political parties is to provide alternative visions and solutions to problems and situations within the public sphere. In order to do this, political parties will aim at reaching positions of political decision-making at various political levels and thus enabling them to put into practice their own views. The role of the political parties is affected by the electoral system in use. The majority system favours only a few strong political parties and this reflects upon the relation between government and opposition, while the proportional system often leads to a coalition government which presupposes a greater extent of co-operation and compromise between several political parties.
In order for political parties to play a constructive role, some external conditions need to be fulfilled. Good practices require a clear legal and administrative framework within which political parties can work. These refer to the establishment of political parties and to the general preconditions for their internal functioning.
a) The establishment of political parties and the external conditions of operation
The European Convention on Human Rights (Article 11), protects the right to associate in political parties as part of the general freedom of assembly and association. The task of the State is to provide an institutional framework for political parties which promotes political stability including peaceful changes in power and encourages citizens' involvement and participation in the political process.
The Venice Commission has stated that any activity requirements for political parties, as a prerequisite for maintaining the status as a political party and their control and supervision has to be assessed by the same yardstick of what is "necessary in a democratic society".
Official registration is the first step for official recognition of a political party. The Venice Commission Guidelines sets for that registration necessary steps for recognition of an association as a political party, for a political party's participation in general elections or for public financing of a party.
The Guidelines on legislation of political parties adopted by the Venice Commission notes for instance that "the democratic or non-democratic character of a party organisation should not in principle be grounds for denying registration of a political party." With respect to registration, the Venice Commission has stated that registration of a political party should only be denied when the use of violence is advocated or used as a political means to overthrow the democratic constitution.
I would like to recall here The guidelines on the prohibition of political parties and analogous measures, adopted by the Venice Commission in 1999 (CDL-INF(2000)1), which should guide all Council of Europe member states although the legal basis of political parties in member states may vary. The Guidelines state i.a. that " Prohibition or enforced dissolution of political parties may only be justified in the case of parties which advocate the use of violence or use violence as a political means to overthrow the democratic constitutional order, thereby abolishing the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the constitution. The fact alone that a party advocates a peaceful change of the Constitution should not be sufficient for its prohibition or dissolution." and that "The prohibition or dissolution of political parties as a particularly far-reaching measure should be used with utmost restraint." and "should be reserved for the Constitutional court or other appropriate jurisdictions in a procedure offering all guarantees of due process, openness and fair trial.
In recent years, the question of funding political parties has become increasingly relevant with respect to the fulfilment of democratic values. On this issue, the Venice Commission has also adopted clear guidelines, which cover both public and private financing, and electoral campaigns. The guiding principles are here equity and transparency. With respect to private financing, the Guidelines clearly note that private financing is acceptable, but that contributions from abroad should be forbidden. The financing of political parties through public funds should be on the condition of a control of compatibility of political parties by specific public organs.
(b) The internal rules of political parties (intra-party relations)
A political party is an association of citizens whose aim is to accede to power by the presentation of candidates to free and democratic elections. The activities and operation of political parties is thus dependent on the party itself. The Venice Commission Guidelines states i.a. that State authorities shall remain neutral with respect to activities of parties, and any interference of any public authorities should be motivated, and legislation should provide for an opportunity for the party to challenge such decision or action in a court of law.
(c) Various forms of participation of political parties in public life
The aim of political parties is, as has been stated earlier, to reach a position of decision-making power within the public sector. It is in the nature of democracy that positions of political decision-making power can only be reached through legal channels as a result of elections. The aim will only be reached by a few of the political parties, which means that other parties will be placed in a position of opposition until next elections.
Political parties in opposition play an extremely important role in a democratic society. Opposition is an important part of democracy, and good practices for political parties in opposition also need to be examined.
Political parties will also operate at various levels in a country: at national, regional and local (municipal) levels. The co-operation and co-ordination of the activities of a political party at various levels is decided by each party separately, but good practices in this field should also be examined.
3. Good Practices for Political Parties
The aim of a code of good practice for political parties is to collect and share ideas, experiences and strategies which enhance and strengthen the role of political parties in a democratic society.
Good practices should promote the general democratic principles such as equality, dialogue, co-operation, transparency and openness, and combat corruption.
For the purpose of clarity my draft proposal for an outline of a code of good practice for political parties will be divided into several groups. Each group will include several concrete examples of good practices.
3.1. Good practices for the election process
The legal, administrative and organisational framework for the participation of political parties in the election process is stipulated by law and/or decree.
The nomination of candidates and the election campaigns are however in the hands of the political parties. Good practices in nominating candidates should promote the democratic principles and practices, and should in particular, enhance equality and the participation of women and the young in elections at all levels.
The media plays an important role and in particular the involvement of the state owned nation-wide media. The situation of political parties which are in government and of those in opposition is different in a campaign situation.
Election campaigns are costly activities and therefore the question of funding becomes crucial. The growth of public resources has driven greater demands for transparency and accountability in how campaign funds are used. Transparency ought to operate at two levels. The first concerns campaign funds, the details of which must be set out in a special set of carefully maintained accounts. The second level involves monitoring the financial status of elected representatives before and after their term in office.
Good practices should promote equality and transparency, and encourage the participation of citizens/voters in elections.
3.2 Good practices for political parties in opposition
There is no democracy without opposition. Political parties in opposition play an important role in general public debate and inside Parliament. In many countries the position and role of political parties in opposition is not recognised. The role of the opposition is to check and criticise with the ultimate aim of reaching power. A democratic system must provide space and time for dialogue with the opposition.
The position of political parties in opposition inside Parliament varies in different countries. It can be argued that the involvement of members from opposition parties in for instance parliamentary decision-making bodies can have a beneficial effect on the democratic process.
We need to look into good practices for political parties in opposition.
3.3. Good practices for intra-party democracy
Good practices within political parties are particularly important as they enhance the credibility of the entire democratic process, thus fostering stability and peaceful change.
The internal rules of political parties should be guided by clarity, transparency, accountability and independence. Their interaction with society should be based on dialogue, interdependence and co-operation.
Equality is an essential part of democracy. Equality means equal access for all in participation and involvement in public affairs. Equality in politics starts with equal political rights for all citizens – men and women, young and old.
Political parties should within their own administrative system promote equality and in particular encourage the participation of women at all levels – as active party members and as candidates in elections. Democracy cannot be attained if half of the population is excluded from political life.
Political parties need to adopt or strengthen practices, such as evaluation and monitoring, which combat corruption and improve internal accountability.
The local base of a political party must be strong if the party is to grow and succeed. The internal hierarchy of a party should be clear and transparent. Parties should introduce greater transparency in the way the party operates and activate the local life of political parties.
Political parties in most country finance their activities with both public and private funding. In most countries the importance of increased openness of public funding has been recognised. Increased openness enhances the credibility and legitimacy of parties. Good practices for enhancing transparency of funding in general and openness in private funding still needs to be addressed.
3.4. Good practices for relations and interaction with society at large
Parties and NGOs form the voluntary sector are autonomous. Relationships between political parties and civil society should be based on independence, interdependence and dialogue. They have unique strengths and separate accountabilities. The actions of one can directly or indirectly affect the other, since both often share the same objective of common good, operate in the same areas of public life, and serve the same public. Recognising that sharing ideas, perspectives, and experiences contributes to better understanding, improved identification of priorities, and sound public policy, dialogue should be open and respectful.
Policies whereby political parties (re)connect with civil society should be examined.
In many country interest in politics among young people have shown a declining trend. Any policy or action designed to promote youth participation must ensure that the cultural environment is one of respect for young people and must also take into account the diverse needs, circumstances and aspirations of young people.
Activities for education for democratic citizenship will have a beneficial effect on the role of political parties. These activities should be premised on the idea that educating people in democratic values and institutions can help citizens engage in political life whether from a partisan or non-partisan approach.
Media is increasingly important in everyday politics. Much has been discussed on how media is used for political purposes, and about the relations and connections between media and political parties. This is a field where good practices are needed.
The public influence and purpose of political parties demand that they be open to public accountability. Political parties are responsible for maintaining the trust and confidence of the citizenry by ensuring transparency, high standards of conduct and sound management in their public performance. Practices which promote transparency also help to combat corruption.
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1 Guidelines CDL-AD (2004)007rev.