Keynote speakers, in a series of addresses to the parliamentary conference on “elections in times of crisis” in Bern, have highlighted the fragility of democratic institutions, and the central importance of maintaining core democratic standards even in unprecedented crisis situations.
Introducing the event, the head of the Swiss delegation to PACE Damien Cottier recalled the origins of the Council of Europe, and the history of Switzerland’s 60-year involvement in the organisation on the basis of shared values. He reminded participants that in only a few days the Organisation’s heads of state and government would meet in Reykjavik, an opportunity for the Council to renew its mission, to which the conference could contribute.
Beginning a series of opening addresses, the President of the Swiss National Council Martin Candinas said his generation’s conviction that democratic institutions were unshakeable had changed: “It is with a degree of shock that we have had to realise just how fragile democracy is - its institutions must be nurtured, sustained and protected.”
PACE President Tiny Kox said the conference could not be more timely, as the world emerged from the pandemic and now faced the fresh test of a war in the heart of Europe. “Free and fair elections are essential to the concept of democracy – a concept to which all of our member states have committed themselves.” He asked, in particular, how the Council of Europe and others could best put their expertise and resources at the disposal of the people of Ukraine in helping to organise elections.
The President of the Venice Commission Claire Bazy Malaurie, said her body of legal experts had looked closely at the new challenges posed by states of emergency and had spelled out the democratic principles which should always apply in such situations. While states of emergency were exceptional, they had a price – and could tilt the work of democratic institutions in favour of the executive: “Our role is to ensure that democratic norms and values are always respected, whatever the circumstances.”
The President of the Council of Europe Congress Leendert Verbeek recalled the Congress’s work to observe regional and local elections, and pointed out that local and regional authorities were often on the front line of dealing with crisis situations. The Congress, in a recent report, had noted that not all electoral standards can be applied in the event of a major crisis, but he reiterated that “core electoral principles must be upheld if elections are to be meaningful and enjoy voter trust.”
In a keynote address to open the second day of the conference, Council of Europe Deputy Secretary General Bjørn Berge said the Council of Europe Summit in Reykjavik next week would be a unique opportunity to address the democratic backsliding in Europe: ”We must do everything to actively enable and encourage the democratic participation of every citizen through regular, free and fair elections, even in crisis situations - because without elections, there is no chance for democracy at all."