23 April 2005
Women's participation in elections
Recommendation 1676 (2004)
Reply from the Committee of Ministers
adopted at the 924th meeting of the Ministers’ Deputies (20 April 2005)
1. The Committee of Ministers welcomes Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1676 (2004) on women’s participation in elections which recalls the importance of balanced participation of women and men in political life and emphasises in particular two important problems, that of family voting and that of inadequate representation of female candidates on the ballot at every level. Although these are different in nature, they both have a common basis, and to come to terms with them, it is necessary to break down a certain tradition or general mind-set that continues to exist despite guarantees of universal and equal suffrage.
2. The Committee of Ministers has brought the Recommendation to the attention of the governments of the member states and has also communicated it to the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission), to the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men (CDEG) and to the Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR) for opinions (see Appendices 1 to 3).
3. The Parliamentary Assembly underlines that the Council of Europe has a duty to ensure that European standards within the democratic election process are met and that women are given a fair chance both to freely elect the candidate of their choice and to be elected. The Committee of Ministers agrees with this statement and is aware that an analysis of a constitution alone does not provide grounds for an honest appraisal of women’s participation in the election process as certain behaviour occurs outside the realm of general constitutional principles.
4. The Committee of Ministers recalls its Recommendation Rec(2003)3 to member states on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making in which it advised member states to “ensure that women and men can exercise their individual voting rights and, to this end, take all the necessary measures to eliminate the practice of family voting”. In Recommendation Rec(2003)3, governments are also invited to “consider adopting legislative reforms to introduce parity thresholds for candidates in elections at local, regional, national and supra-national levels. Where proportional lists exist, consider the introduction of zipper systems”.
5. The Parliamentary Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers draw up a charter on electoral equality and makes a number of specific proposals for such a charter. The Committee of Ministers refers to the detailed comments made on these proposals in the opinion of the Venice Commission. It considers that such a charter could play an important educational role both for voters and for election officials. Nevertheless, it recalls that the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters elaborated by the Venice Commission and endorsed by the Committee of Ministers1, the Parliamentary Assembly and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, already contains some provisions of relevance.
6. The Committee of Ministers has therefore invited the Venice Commission to consider as a first step whether the relevant provisions of the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters dealing with electoral equality could be strengthened or complemented to take account of some of the proposals made by the Assembly. It takes note in particular of the comments made by the Venice Commission concerning sanctions in cases of family voting, concerning proxy voting and on making the text gender neutral. It invites the Venice Commission, in the framework of the Council for Democratic Elections, to associate the Parliamentary Assembly, the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe, the CDEG and the CDLR with this work.
7. Finally, the Committee of Ministers underlines the importance of awareness-raising measures and gender education among young people in order to bring about a lasting change of attitudes and to ensure the full participation of women in elections at all levels and in all respects. It agrees with the Venice Commission that parity must be explained to children already at school and that the above-mentioned text could play an essential role in the education process.
Appendix 1 to the reply
Opinion of the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission)
1. At its 4th Part of the 2004 Session (Strasbourg, 4-8 October 2004), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted Recommendation 1676 (2004) on women’s participation in elections.
2. At its 900th meeting (20 October 2004), the Committee of Ministers took the following decision:
“The Deputies … concerning Recommendation 1676 (2004) … decided to communicate it to the European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) for opinion by 31 January 2005”.
3. This report has been drawn up in response to this request. It is based on the observations of Mr François Luchaire (member, Andorra) and Ms Hanna Suchocka (member, Poland) (CDL (2004) 112 and 127). At its 61st plenary session (Venice, 3-4 December 2004), the Commission ratified these observations and instructed the Secretariat to prepare the present consolidated opinion in cooperation with the Rapporteurs.
I. General observations
4. Upon becoming a member of the Council of Europe, every state pledges to live up to existing standards in the realm of election rights. That can be achieved by introducing the proper provisions into the Constitution, particularly those guaranteeing universal suffrage on the basis of equality and secret ballots, and subsequently developing those provisions in ordinary legislation. But the analysis of a Constitution alone does not provide grounds for an honest appraisal of women’s participation in the election process. Certain behaviour occurs outside the realm of general constitutional principles. That was probably the reason behind the preparation of this Recommendation.
5. Established custom, rooted in the traditions and practices of a given state as well as in the general view of a woman’s role in political life, is of cardinal importance and exerts a major influence on the implementation of general voting-rights principles. In spite of numerous achievements in the field of increased electoral rights for women (see Recommendation, paragraph 1), much still remains to be done.
6. For that reason, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe proposes that the Council of Ministers should draw up a Charter of Electoral Equality, in which Council of Europe member states would subscribe to concerted action to guarantee women’s electoral rights and to improve the electoral participation of women.
7. The Charter would essentially concentrate on two issues that constitute a real threat to effective female participation in elections. These are:
• what is known as ‘family voting’, when some women are being prevented from casting their own vote (see Recommendation, paragraph 3, specifying such situations);
• inadequate representation of female candidates on the ballot at every level.
8. Although the two above-cited issues differ, they both have a common basis. In both cases, it is a question of breaking down a certain tradition, a certain general mind-set that continues to exist despite guarantees of universal and equal suffrage.
9. The general aim is obviously to improve women’s participation in elected assemblies; however, it would be better to replace “women’s participation in elections” with “encouraging equal access by women and men” and parity “in elective office”.
II. Eliminating family voting (paragraph 6.i)
10. ‘Family voting’ must be eliminated. This involves going against cultural traditions and/or social relationships existing in certain states, where men play a particular role in both political and public life. That is reflected by electoral law in the practice of a male family member collecting ballot papers belonging to one or more women relatives and marking those papers as he sees fit. Owing to the strength of tradition, that practice is not even regarded as a violation of democratic electoral rights. Even though women are not formally deprived of the right to vote, such a system does not allow women to vote freely and make a choice in accordance with their own convictions. The Charter of Electoral Equality may help to break down such behaviour. Such a charter could play an important educational role both vis-à-vis voters as well as vis-à-vis election officials. From that point of view, the efforts specified in point 6.i.a-c of the Recommendation are of crucial importance, by underlining that certain behaviour violates democratic election rights. It is equally important to train election commission members to react during the vote itself.11
11. It would seem, however, that caution should be exercised when introducing the sanctions mentioned in paragraph 6.i.d into the Charter, and they should be limited by certain provisions. There would seem to be no point in imposing a sanction such as invalidating votes in cases when ‘family voting’ was an isolated phenomenon. Such a sanction could be imposed when ‘family voting’ in various forms was a mass phenomenon. In such cases, the invalidation of votes seems to be the only way to proceed.
12. The Charter can therefore pay an important role in eliminating what from the standpoint of democratic elections is the phenomenon of ‘family voting’.
13. Nevertheless, the proposal set out in (e) to outlaw proxy voting must be rejected, because electors who are absent from their place of residence on the day of the elections should obviously not be deprived of their voting rights. It would be sufficient to specify that proxy voting is permissible only if the voters in question have provided a judicial body with prior proof of and acceptable reasons for their absence from their place of residence on the day of the election. Moreover, the number of proxies held by each voter must be limited.2
III. The 40% objective – gender parity (paragraph 6.ii)
14. The issue of balanced gender representation or indeed of gender parity, on representative bodies is more complicated. It is an “evergreen” subject in all discussions on gender equality. The parity objective may infringe the equality principle where an individual with less ability than someone else is selected on the basis of his/her gender. This does not, however, alter the fact that parity must be the main ultimate goal.3
15. Parity must be an objective rather than a strict obligation. Furthermore, the aim should be not a 40% level of female representation but rather a minimum level of 40% elected representatives of each gender. All the proposals in the Recommendation should be amended accordingly.
16. It does not seem that the phenomenon of increasing female representation in representative organs can be resolved by simply requiring the appropriate number of women on the ballot (paragraph 6.ii.b). A change in that area requires broader awareness modification, and that cannot be accomplished through regulations alone. Regulations can play a stimulating role, and the Venice Commission appreciates their significance and sees the possible inclusion in the Charter of the points proposed in the Recommendation. Hence, the reservation contained in paragraph 6.ii.f stating that quotas should be time-limited and proportionate is correct. The conviction of political parties that the proper proportion of women should be included on the ballot alongside male candidates is insufficient. That also requires breaking down voting habits and building the conviction that female candidates should also be voted for.
17. Even in those states, where political parties agreed to include the proper proportion of women on the ballot, experience has shown that that did not ultimately translate into the same proportion in the elected representative bodies. That would indicate that it is not the mere presence of female candidates on the ballot that makes women vote for them, nor is their absence from the ballot the reason women do not get elected. Frequently women do not get elected because of a conviction that there is no need for them to play such a role. In many states, probably even more often in the ‘old democracies’, there exists a kind of habit of voting for men, and that includes electing them to responsible posts in international organisations.
18. With the aforementioned reservations, proposals (a), (b), (c), (e), (f), (g) and (i) can be accepted.
19. Proposal (d) should be submitted to the parliaments themselves rather than to their Presidents.
20. Proposal (h) cannot be accepted for posts held by a single person, such as the office of mayor, because it would prevent electors from voting for the official of their choice.
21. Proposal (j) should not be exclusively applied to women because it would suggest that they were less intelligent than men; it would be better to develop training packages for young people of either gender.
IV. Awareness-raising/monitoring of elections (paragraphs 7 and 8)
22. Education is the key to changing the situation. Parity must be explained to children already at school. If one were to regard the Charter as one of the elements playing an essential role in the education process, then it should be disseminated in particular in the schools. Paragraph 7 proposed in the Recommendation is important in that regard; it calls on all Council of Europe member states to undertake awareness-raising measures, including gender education, in order to bring about a lasting change of attitudes and traditions to ensure the full participation of women in elections at all levels and in all respects.
23. It should be noted that in many cases it is social relations rather than “attitudes and traditions” that limit women’s involvement in the political field. In fact, the English version uses the word “attitudes”, as opposed to the French “mentalités”.
24. No comment on paragraph 8.
25. The Parliamentary Assembly’s Recommendation on women’s participation in elections is to be welcomed. The adoption of a Charter on Electoral Equality geared to eliminating family voting and aspiring to gender parity on elected bodies would help make gender equality in this field a practical reality.
26. Some of the points of detail mentioned in the present opinion, including the issue of proxy voting, could be clarified or revised during the preparation of the Charter.
Appendix 2 to the reply
Opinion of the Steering Committee for Equality between Women and Men (CDEG)
1. The CDEG thanked the Parliamentary Assembly for its Recommendation 1676 (2004) on women’s participation in elections and welcomed this initiative of the Parliamentary Assembly recommending to adopt the necessary measures to guarantee women’s electoral rights and to improve the electoral participation of women, in particular in order to outlaw and eliminate “family voting” and setting the objective to increase the representation of women in parliament and other elected assemblies to the level of at least 40% by the year 2020.
2. The CDEG shared the opinion of the Assembly that the presence of women in parliaments and other elected assemblies is a key component of democracy. In this respect, the CDEG recalled that during the 4th European Ministerial Conference on Equality between Women and Men (Istanbul, 1997), the European Ministers responsible for equality issues adopted a Declaration on gender equality as a fundamental criterion of democracy. Furthermore, the CDEG recalled that the theme of the 1st European Ministerial Conference on Equality between Women and Men (Strasbourg, 1986) was “Participation of women in the political process: Policy and strategies to achieve equality in decision-making”.
3. The CDEG recalled that during the 5th European Ministerial Conference on Equality between Women and Men (Skopje, 2003), the European Ministers responsible for equality issues adopted a Resolution where they invited governments to:
• take the necessary measures to recognise and promote the equal and individual rights of women and men to participate in political life, in particular by combating the practice of family voting;
• take measures aiming at increasing the number of women in decision-making bodies in political and public life at all levels, inter alia by enacting legislation and taking special measures for political
• parties, social partners, other professional organisations, public institutions, etc.;
• take measures to achieve a gender balance in public appointments to committees or missions;
• take the necessary measures to ensure that women have an equal opportunity to reach all levels in
• the diplomatic services;
• increase the number of women candidates to high-level decision-making posts in international organisations.
4. The CDEG welcomed the support given by the Assembly to the measures included in Recommendation Rec(2003)3 of the Committee of Ministers to member states on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making, in order to promote such balanced participation.
5. The CDEG underlined that in accordance with Recommendation Rec(2003)3, the Committee of Ministers recommended that governments of member states “ensure that women and men can exercise their individual voting rights and, to this end, take all the necessary measures to eliminate the practice of family voting”. The Explanatory Memorandum of this Recommendation states that: “family voting” means a male family member accompanying one or more women relatives into a polling booth, family groups voting together, or a male family member voting on behalf of one or more women relatives. Persisting cultural beliefs and attitudes prevent women, e.g. from some minority groups, exercising their civil and political rights such as the right to vote. It can be assumed that these same cultural beliefs and attitudes also prevent women from engaging in all political activities in their country. It is therefore vital that governments address this problem and protect and promote the rights of women to engage in political life, which includes voting, running for office and freedom of association. […].The Beijing Platform for Action addresses this breach of women’s human rights in a similar fashion.
6. Finally, the CDEG recalled that in its Recommendation Rec(2003)3, the Committee of Ministers also invited the governments of member states to “consider adopting legislative reforms to introduce parity thresholds for candidates in elections at local, regional, national and supra-national levels. Where proportional lists exist, consider the introduction of zipper systems”. The Explanatory Memorandum of this Recommendation states that: “The term “parity thresholds” is defined in the final report of the Council of Europe’s Group of Specialists on equality and democracy as: “legal/statutory provisions enshrining the rule of parity by fixing a parity threshold, e.g. 40% at least of each sex, in the composition of the consultative organs of the state (councils, commissions, working groups, etc), in elected assemblies and, if needed, in juries (and other judicial bodies) as well as in the structures of the political parties, trade unions and the decision-making bodies of the media. The legislative reform should be introduced into electoral legislation and cover elections at local, regional, national and supra-national level. Such reform would lead to modifying the legislation with the aim of achieving balanced participation of women and men and therefore ensuring genuine democracy. As regards candidate lists, the aim should not only be to guarantee that 40% of the seats are reserved for each sex but that at least 40% of each sex is elected. By “zipper system” is meant that women and men hold every other seat of a candidate list. In countries where the electoral system allows for the crossing out of candidates, other solutions should be found. […]”.
Appendix 3 to the reply
Opinion of the Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR)
1. The CDLR notes with approval the Parliamentary Assembly’s continued attention and commitment to strengthening women’s participation in elections. Full democratic participation by women remains an essential objective which also underpins the efforts of the CDLR to strengthen democratic participation of citizens in public life at local and regional level. In this respect, it would like to recall in particular its report on electoral systems and voting procedures at local level, and Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation Rec(2001)19 on the participation of citizens in local public life and the efforts to promote and measure the impact of this instrument.
2. The current Recommendation of the Parliamentary Assembly recommends that the Committee of Ministers draw up a “Charter for Electoral Equality”, which should secure mainly two objectives, namely outlawing and elimination of “family voting” and increasing the representation of women in parliament and other elected assemblies to the level of at least 40% by the year 2020. For each of these objectives a number of measures are recommended.
3. The consideration and possible elaboration of such a charter touches on the areas of competence and expertise of several Council of Europe bodies and Steering Committees, including the CDLR with its remit for local and regional democracy. The CDLR requests to be associated with any further work that the Committee of Ministers might envisage undertaking in response to this Recommendation.
4. Thinking of ways to take this matter forward, the CDLR considers that because of the intricate interconnections with the competence and expertise of other Council of Europe bodies and Steering Committees, it would probably not be helpful for the CDLR to prepare in isolation an in-depth assessment of the proposals for a Charter on Electoral Equality. Rather, it believes that these proposals merit serious and joint consideration by all concerned and suggests that in order to deal with this efficiently the Committee of Ministers may wish to organise a structured consultation, for example in the form of an ad-hoc committee in which all relevant Council of Europe bodies are represented. Such work could possibly be undertaken as part of the follow-up to the Integrated Project on Making Democratic Institutions Work.
5. However, should the Committee of Ministers nonetheless wish to proceed on the basis of written comments from the individual bodies and Steering Committees concerned, the CDLR stands ready to do so. In that case it requests that it be given specific terms of reference “to prepare an opinion on the feasibility and desirability of drawing up a “charter for electoral equality”, with particular reference to the question of its possible application to local and regional authorities”.
1 Declaration by the Committee of Ministers on the Code of Good Practice in Electoral Matters adopted on 13 May 2004 at its114th Session.
2 Code of Good Conduct in Electoral Matters, Venice Commission (CDL-AD (2002) 023 rev.), para. I.3.2.v.
3 Code of Good Conduct in Electoral Matters, Venice Commission (CDL-AD (2002) 023 rev.), para. I.2.5.