Setting minimum standards for electoral systems in order to offer the basis for free and fair elections
- Parliamentary Assembly
adopted by the Standing Committee, acting on behalf of
the Assembly, on 15 September 2020 (see Doc. 15027, report of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy,
rapporteur: Mr Rik Daems).
The Parliamentary Assembly attaches
great importance to, and underlines its sustained interest in, electoral
matters. It refers to its previous work in this domain, in particular Resolution 2251 (2019)
updating guidelines to ensure fair referendums in Council of Europe
member States, Resolution
on ensuring greater democracy in elections, Resolution 1826 (2011)
the expansion of democracy by lowering the voting age to 16, Resolution 1705 (2010)
thresholds and other features of electoral systems which have an
impact on representativity of parliaments in Council of Europe members
States, Resolution 1590
“Secret ballot – European code of conduct on secret
balloting, including guidelines for politicians, observers and voters”,
and Resolution 1320 (2003)
the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters.
2. The Assembly greatly values the role of the European Commission
for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) as the leading Council
of Europe expert body in electoral matters and its own long-standing
co-operation with the Venice Commission in setting electoral standards
3. In particular, the Assembly highlights the importance of the
Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters (2002) drafted by the
Venice Commission on the initiative of, and in close co-operation
with, the Assembly. The code contains the underlying principles
of Europe’s electoral heritage and is widely recognised as a key
Council of Europe document, which is aimed at promoting the harmonisation
of electoral standards and at serving as a reference for evaluating
4. Free and fair elections constitute the very foundation of
democratic government and a cornerstone of representative democracy.
By electing representatives from among themselves to form governing
bodies, citizens exercise their right to be represented in the political
5. The legitimacy of a democratic system depends on public confidence
that all constituents, regardless of their political preferences,
have equal access to, and are fairly represented in, decision-making
institutions, and that the composition of these institutions duly
reflects the political spectrum of society.
6. The electoral system, as the set of rules designed to organise
elections and to transform votes cast into political mandates and
seats, in parliament and other elected bodies, is one of the key
elements of representative democracy. It has a strong impact on
the representativity of, legitimacy of and public confidence in
7. There is a great variety of electoral systems in Europe, both
in terms of legislation and practical implementation. This variety
results from different political histories, cultures and traditions.
In every country, the electoral system is based on a consensus among
political actors and society at large. Electoral systems in different
countries are founded on different political principles and produce
different results in terms of representativeness and governability.
8. In this context, the Assembly notes that different electoral
systems do not provide an equal degree of fairness when it comes
to translating the votes cast into political mandates and seats
in parliament. It is concerned that, under some electoral systems,
even if the legal rules are observed, substantial numbers of constituents
are not represented in elected institutions, or do not see in parliament
the candidates for whom they voted. Inversely, some systems provide
the winning parties with parliamentary majorities which largely exceed
the real support they enjoy among citizens.
9. This inconsistency between legality and legitimacy undermines
public trust in the democratic process and creates a fertile ground
for populism and extremism.
10. The Assembly believes that the failure of an electoral system
to prevent a large discrepancy between the political choices of
the constituents as expressed in elections and the composition of
elected institutions is a sign of democratic deficit and puts the
system’s fairness in doubt.
11. The 2002 Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters defines
the principles for elections and states that, within the respect
of these principles, any electoral system may be chosen. At the
same time, the code does not contain any specific criteria that
an electoral system must respect in order to be deemed fair and democratic.
12. Moreover, the Assembly believes that, almost eighteen years
after its adoption, the 2002 Code of Good Practice in Electoral
Matters needs to be updated in order to keep pace with the evolving
political realities observed in our societies and to face new challenges,
and also to take into account ongoing work and reflection within
the Venice Commission over the years, including more recently in
the context of updating the Code of Good Practice on Referendums
upon the Assembly’s proposal.
Therefore, the Assembly invites the Venice Commission to:
13.1 reflect on the issues raised
in paragraphs 8, 9 and 10 above and to consider ways to set up minimum
standards with which electoral systems must comply in order to be
deemed as guaranteeing not only free elections but also the fair
13.2 consider the possibility of updating the Code of Good
Practice in Electoral Matters, taking into account, to the extent
possible, relevant Assembly resolutions and its own work on specific
issues related to the conduct of elections, as well as its country-specific
reports and opinions, in particular as regards voting rights for
citizens abroad, independent candidacies, turnout requirements,
thresholds, ranking order of party lists, the balanced participation
of women and men and the equal representation of women.
Moreover, the Assembly welcomes the work recently done by
the Venice Commission and the Council of Europe Information Society
and Action against Crime Directorate on digital technologies and
elections and invites the Venice Commission to remain alert to emerging
phenomena which may affect the functioning of electoral systems
and, in fine
, the quality
of the democratic process, such as the:
14.1 transition to an information society and the unprecedented
role and influence of social media;
14.2 misuse of both traditional and social media for spreading
biased information and “fake news”;
14.3 fluidity of national political landscapes with the swift
emergence of new faces and new actors (for example political parties
and movements) at the expense of “traditional” ones;
14.4 growing influence of party bureaucracies that tend to
take precedence over the choice of voters;
14.5 potential margins for abuse of political advertising.
15. Finally, the Assembly resolves to continue to follow closely,
in co-operation with the Venice Commission, electoral matters, both
as regards the setting of, and compliance with, relevant international
standards in this field.