RESOLUTION 1121 (1997)
on instruments of
citizen participation in representative democracy
A truly living democracy depends on the active contribution of all
citizens. Their participation in political life and their co-operation within political
institutions are thus a decisive factor for the smooth functioning of democratic
The poor rate of participation in legislative elections, as well as
in referendums held in member states and, in general, citizen dissatisfaction with the
functioning of pluralist democracies call for a debate on the phenomenon, which is hardly
surprising since democracy is a permanent quest demanded by new circumstances and changing
The causes of this phenomenon are many: the contrast between the
complexity of political terminology and the simplification and dramatisation of media
presentations of the issues at stake; the fact that information can be communicated
instantly while politicians are assumed to be slow in reaching decisions; the fact that
people do not understand the complexity of the problem and expect quick, apt solutions;
the discrepancy between election promises and their implementation.
The anxiety generated by this state of affairs creates a need among
citizens to participate more in political decision making with a view either to preventing
a deterioration in their situation or to improving it.
The Assembly therefore considers that the opportunities for direct
citizen participation in political life offered by the representative system must be
enhanced to correspond more closely to citizens aspirations.
A prior observation is necessary to prevent a misunderstanding, with
potentially weighty implications, and which tends to set direct democracy against
representative democracy. The harmonisation of mostly contradictory and conflicting needs
of citizens or groups of citizens, dictated by the general interest, can be achieved only
through parliamentary deliberations. The use of direct democracy must be regarded as a
complement. Even in Switzerland, an exemplary country in the area of direct democracy, 95%
of decisions are taken by parliament.
However, before developing forms of direct democracy - for example,
interactive communication facilities on information networks and referendums - we must
consider their viability and possible adverse effects.
Information facilities, however sophisticated, would not be able - at
least not in the foreseeable future - to extend the bilateral dialogue between one elected
representative and one citizen to a dialogue between one elected representative and a
number of citizens; the electronic forum is not yet fully tried and tested.
The national referendum is written into the constitutions of
representative democracies but varies from one country to another in terms of its
objectives, its subjects and its means of implementation. Referendums run the risk of
becoming plebiscites when they are used by the executive to reinforce its own power.
This risk exists in democracies consolidated over time, particularly
in those countries with large populations which are therefore more difficult to govern
than small countries. The risk is even greater in new democracies which are therefore more
Implemented in relatively small communities for practical issues,
regional and local referendums cause less concern and are recommended.
Nevertheless, the Assembly realises not only the drawbacks but also
the positive aspects of consulting the electorate directly, such as the fact that it
enables a minority of citizens to express their opinion and be heard by government and can
stimulate a democratic debate either legitimising a decision taken by the government or
approving a decision rejected by the government.
Abuse of referendums must not obscure their real aim which is to
render representative democracy more participative and in so doing to consolidate it and
to serve as an antidote to the current malaise undermining it.
The Assembly therefore believes that it is important to lay down
parameters for referendums to ensure that, where they are held, they conform as far as
possible to best practice and strengthen democracy and civil society.
Consequently, the Assembly invites the member states:
to improve their system of representative democracy by striking a
balance between the exercise of responsibility of political power and the role of citizens
in the decision-making process. Without such a balance, we will be unable to prevent
either the erosion of confidence in the representative system or the rash use of frequent
referendums which would make any long-term policy based on fundamental options random,
ineffective or even impossible;
to regard all subjects as suitable for being submitted to a
referendum, with the exception of those which call in question universal and intangible
values such as the human rights defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and
the European Convention of Human
Rights, and the basic values of democracy in general and
parliamentary democracy in particular;
to take account in their thinking of the distinctions to be made
between the subjects suitable for a referendum, the result of which is binding, and the
subjects suitable for a consultative referendum, the result of which enables political
leaders to improve their programmes and decisions;
to make provision for referendums designed to repeal existing laws
as well as for referendums offering the choice between various options;
to envisage rules to ensure that citizens are properly informed about
all the issues involved in the referendum and that questions and proposals are worded
to limit the number of subjects per referendum to be held the same
day in order to clarify the debates on the documents subjected to a vote and to help
citizens to reach a decision;
where appropriate, to create organs responsible for applying these
rules and guarantee the independence of such organs;
to lay down rules and guiding principles which, in order to
prevent any misuse of the referendum:
enable a referendum to be set in motion by citizens, whereby the
number of signatories should be fixed by each state in accordance with a threshold
considered to be significant compared with the total electorate;
ensure that the referendum is preceded by a debate in parliament;
fix a quota for participation in the ballot which discourages
abstentionism while guaranteeing a minimum rate of participation enabling the result
obtained to be regarded as representative and valid;
enable the parliament to present its own alternative to any proposal
by the citizens.
Assembly debate on 22 April 1997 (11th Sitting) (see
Doc. 7781, report of the Committee on Parliamentary and Public Relations, rapporteur: Mr
Text adopted by the Assembly on 22 April 1997 (11th Sitting).