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New guidelines for fair referendums

PACE’s Political Affairs Committee today unanimously adopted a draft resolution aimed at updating the Venice Commission’s Code of Good Practice on Referendums, following, in particular, the increasing use of referendums, the rise of digital media and the increasing convergence of the print media.

The rapporteur, Dame Cheryl Gillan (United Kingdom, EC), recalled that a referendum should be part of the process of representative democracy and should not be used by the executive to override the wishes of parliament, or be intended to bypass normal checks and balances.

For example, the executive should not be able to call a referendum on a constitutional proposal unless the decision to hold a referendum has already been endorsed by the legislature or where the proposal that is put to a referendum has been passed by the legislature.

“Proposals submitted to a referendum must be as clear as possible and subject to detailed prior scrutiny, including by parliament, to ensure that they reflect voters’ concerns,” she underlined.

Among the recommendations voted by the Political Affairs Committee are a ban on the use of public funds for campaigning purposes by the authorities throughout the campaign; the limitation, as far as possible, to the post-legislative holding of referendums; and that it should not be possible to put to referendum a proposal which would run counter to Council of Europe membership conditions, such as a proposal to reintroduce the death penalty.

The committee also called for the creation of an impartial body to check any proposed referendum question and to enhance member States’ compliance with the referendum rules. This body would supervise the conduct of the campaign, take measures to ensure it is properly held, and possess the means to enforce its decisions and sanction possible breaches.

Finally, recalling its Resolution 1746 (2010), the Assembly encourages citizen deliberation both prior to referendums and during the campaign, for instance through citizens’ assemblies.