TE0902021 - Smith, R. - 7/12/2009
Forum for the Future of Democracy – Kyiv, 21-23 October 2009
23 October 2009
Conclusions by Jean-Claude Frécon, Vice-President of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe
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Ladies and gentlemen,
When he opened the forum on Wednesday, Keith Whitmore, the Chair of the Institutional Committee of the Congress, very rightly drew attention to the fundamental principle laid down in the preamble to the European Charter of Local Self-Government, namely the “right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs”.
It is during elections that this principle comes into its own. The quality of participation in public affairs through an election can be seen particularly clearly at the time of local elections. In the latter, citizens’ votes are all the more concrete in that they are voting for people they may actually meet and possibly even already know and whom they can contact more directly and in any case more easily than at national level. The significance of the ballot paper in the ballot box is therefore more tangible than in national or European elections. It is often in local elections that people say that they vote for individuals, not parties.
I note that the issue of participation or turnout in elections was raised in almost all the workshops, either directly or in passing.
The problem of abstention and falling turnout is a recurrent issue in most Council of Europe member countries and concerns elections as a whole, at all levels, even though turnout at local level is usually higher and the image of local elected representatives is better. There are many causes and most have been identified or are, at least, identifiable.
The workshops held during this forum have highlighted a range of factors that can help make elections more democratic, in particular by ensuring equal access to elections so as to boost turnout and by holding free and fair elections that come up to international standards.
Electoral legislation, the voting system, the means employed to make it easier for people to exercise their right to vote and transparent and fair media coverage are that many conditions for restoring voter confidence in the management of elections and involving them insofar as they will be more likely to go out and vote.
We have seen just how decisive the role of political parties, the adoption of a suitable voting system and also the role of both traditional and new media in covering election campaigns can be in this regard.
As a local elected representative myself and a member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, I underlined the importance of good governance in the electoral process several times during the workshops. This means taking account of the fundamental role which can be performed by certain players from the various spheres of power in local and regional politics. Citizens will only feel directly concerned by an election if they are given a sense of responsibility by the perception that their vote really matters. It is essential that they identify with the main themes of the campaign.
But they have to be able actually to exercise their right to vote or to stand for election... In many countries, for instance, including my own, access to local and regional elections still does not go without saying for women. Attitudes do need to change here, but this can be speeded up by the introduction of certain types of electoral systems. The Venice Commission made the point very clearly in one of its reports.
The Congress adopted a recommendation on equal access to local and regional elections at its plenary session last week. The recommendation covers most of the aspects discussed in the workshops yesterday, namely the issue of the equal representation of the sexes in political life, the right to vote and stand in local elections for all people residing legally for at least three years on the territory of a Council of Europe member state, the issue of belonging to a minority group, the involvement of young people in local political life, the establishment of secure alternative forms of access to voting, guarantees of fair and balanced media coverage for all candidates in an election and also the special assistance to be provided by local and regional authorities to voters with physical impairments so that they are able to exercise their right to vote.
This recommendation to the Committee of Ministers could be a pointer for a strong and effective new instrument which the Council of Europe and the Congress in particular could use in local and regional election observation exercises.
Apart from these standards, I believe that regular meetings like the Forum for the Future of Democracy are important discussion tools for strengthening the Council of Europe’s activities in the area of democracy.
Lastly, I should like to make a comment about electronic voting, which has received much attention as an alternative for halting the decline in turnout. There is electronic voting in polling stations and there is e-voting (remote voting via the Internet). It is the latter system which I find problematic. Taking part in an election as a voter involves personal action in the form of actually going out to vote and physically demonstrating your involvement in political life. It is a message sent out by citizens, a demonstration of their political commitment, in the same way as they go out or move about whenever they want to show their commitment to something or somebody.
We cannot stop the progress of new technology, but voting is a visible, personal act. I fear that voting via the Internet removes this crucial part of the exercise, which is the very essence of participation, namely the display of personal commitment. I therefore do not believe that remote voting via the Internet is a suitable means of improving turnout.
In my view, the workshops have enabled us to identify electoral processes and guarantees which are bound to help strengthen democracy throughout our continent, provided, of course, that our conclusions and the proposals we have made over the last two days are actually acted upon and taken up as quickly as possible in a text that brings together all our achievements in this area. Our discussions have been most stimulating. It would be nice to think for a moment that the organs of the Council of Europe, the Congress, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Committee of Ministers will put our findings into effect in a manner that is equally stimulating for our democracies.