In a context of uncertainty marked by the war of aggression against Ukraine, multiple crises – climate, health, migration – persistent inequalities, and the return of inflation, “it is important to engage in fundamental reflection on the functioning and future of our democracies”, said Yaël Braun-Pivet, President of the French National Assembly, during a thematic session on “The challenges to representative democracy in volatile times”, in the framework of the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament.
According to her, it is possible to strengthen the democratic pact “by restoring a new confidence pact with citizens” and by focusing on reducing abstention. “We must convince every citizen that their voice counts and will be heard, and respond to the challenge of confidence in the ballot itself, with an electoral law understandable by all, and a count above all suspicion,” she underlined.
Ms Braun-Pivet considers that an assembly will appear all the more legitimate if it truly reflects the population: “Our modern Europe can only project itself in assemblies in its image, that is to say feminised assemblies, open to young people, made up of elected officials from all social backgrounds,” she said, deploring that on average, women still represent only a third of parliamentary assemblies in Europe and only 30% lower houses be presided over by women.”
She also recommended integrating into parliamentary debates “the generations who abstain, and those who do not yet have the right to vote”, to promote “real citizenship education”, to establish close relationships with citizens, and to ensure that assemblies set an example by combating corruption.
Augusto Ernesto Santos Silva, President of the Assembleia da República (Portugal) spoke about the challenges that representative democracies faced: the independence of the judiciary, freedom of the press, guarantee of competitive elections, protection of minorities’ rights, the incentive to participate in the vote, the efficiency and accountability of government, but also the use of artificial intelligence in electoral campaigns, the fight against disinformation and hate speech, the regulatory status for social media and the protection of democratic rules and institutions in the face of populist attitudes and extremism.
“Many citizens feel threatened by globalisation or by changes in the labor market, whether it be the hiring of migrants, or the development of robotics or new technologies. They fear that others will see themselves favored by the welfare state, putting at risk resources traditionally granted to those who need them,” he stressed.
He added that the feeling of distance from the political system was increasing, with citizens questioning its opacity, and speeches that did not address their concerns. “These erroneous feelings are the fuel that hinders the functioning of participatory democracy and undermines public trust, which leads many people to democratic disaffiliation and multiplies the number of those who feel excluded from the political system and who are more particularly vulnerable to populism,” he said.
The resilience of democratic institutions depends on their connection with citizenship and their response to the needs and expectations of citizens, he concluded.
Lauri Hussar, President of the Riigikogu (Estonia) spoke about the threats and dangers associated with artificial intelligence, emphasising the need to establish rules and a framework, “so that technologies are used in favor of democratic societies and not against them.”
“Free and fair elections are the foundation of parliamentary and democratic representation,” he said, explaining that during the last parliamentary elections in Estonia in March 2023, for the first time, the majority of votes had been counted on the Internet and not by traditional ballot. “We also introduced the possibility of voting via mobile phone. We believe that innovative methods will allow us to engage with young people and encourage them to participate in the electoral process. We must listen to their voices since they are the ones who feel the challenges of life today the hardest.” Mr. Hussar also underlined the importance of better equipping young people to discern false information from true information.
“If we are able to continually adapt for the benefit of free societies, by educating our populations – especially young people – to fight against the challenges that present themselves, we will be more resilient in this era of hybrid combat, and we can better respond to different risks,” he concluded.