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Speech at the International Conference on “The interaction between the political majority and the opposition in democracy”

Speech at the International Conference on "The interaction between the political majority and the opposition in democracy"
Bucharest, 6 April 2017

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Dear President, Madam Deputy Secretary General, Excellences, distinguished participants,

It is an honour for me to address this Conference, which I believe is an invaluable opportunity to reflect together on an issue which is at the very heart of democracy.

I would like to thank the President of Romania and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe for giving their patronage to this event. My sincere thanks also go to the Venice Commission, a body which since its creation has given an outstanding contribution to strengthening democratic systems in Europe and beyond.

This Conference is more timely and necessary than ever: in our troubled times we need strong democracies, well equipped to tackle the momentous challenges that confront us: the rise of populism – from the right and the left of the political spectrum; the threat of terrorism; the need to find a viable response to migratory flows, in line with Europe's humanitarian tradition and human rights standards; and the loss of momentum of the European project to the advantage of insularity and nationalism.

The interaction between majority and opposition in parliament is the litmus test of the good functioning of a democracy.

It is with this conviction in mind that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has devoted great attention to this issue, especially in the context of its country monitoring work, its election observation as well as through the adoption of specific resolutions on the role of the opposition. The matter has also been repeatedly addressed by the European Conference of Presidents of Parliament – the last time as recently as in 2014.

Whereas the majority has the right – and the responsibility – to govern, one should never forget the crucial role of the parliamentary opposition. Through its oversight, it reinforces the system of checks and balances and contributes to the transparency of the political process. It also allows for a richer political debate and offers the prospect of an alternative government in the future.

This is the reason why the Assembly has deployed relentless efforts to help political forces in several member States overcome the protracted boycott which stalled the work of parliament and which delayed the introduction of essential reforms. The opposition has the right to oppose the government's views but the systematic recourse to parliamentary boycott deprives the country of a functioning legislative power and is bound to deteriorate the political climate.

As the Secretary General of the Council of Europe has shown every year in his successive reports on the state of democracy, the rule of law and human rights in Europe, it is clear that greater attention should be paid to the other side of the coin: the role and responsibilities of the majority, as well as its limitations.

One can say that it is a measure of democracy how the majority deals with the opposition.

In any democracy, the majority is still bound to the rule of law. In fact, in a well-functioning democracy, governments that enjoy a large majority ensure the inclusiveness of the political process, engage in political dialogue with the opposition and try to find commonly-agreed solutions whenever possible. This is all the more true for far-reaching reforms, for instance those liable to change the constitutional set-up of the State, for which it is important to have wide electoral consensus. Democracy is not the absolute rule of the majority. It is neither a matter of mathematics nor of scoring points against another team.

In 2008, in its Resolution 1601, the Assembly advocated a certain degree of institutionalisation of the rights of the parliamentary opposition, by suggesting the elaboration of guidelines. It also invited the Venice Commission to "undertake a study on the role of the opposition in a democratic society". The Venice Commission positively replied to this invitation. This is the origin of the 2010 Report on the role of the opposition in a democratic parliament. Since then, Assembly rapporteurs, committees and high-level gatherings such as the European Conference of Presidents of Parliaments have used the Venice Commission report as a reference document and a source of inspiration.

I strongly support the updating of this report and the elaboration of Guidelines which should take a broader approach, focussing on the roles and responsibilities of the opposition as well as of the majority, and the interaction between the two.

While the elaboration of Guidelines is an important step, the real game-changer is developing a political culture of dialogue, inclusion and mutual respect. Needless to say, this is far from being achieved in several Council of Europe member States.

The majority and the opposition alike should be prepared to shoulder their common responsibilities: to let their actions be guided by the public interest and to refrain from delegitimising each other in the eyes of the electorate.

Only the majority and the opposition working together can counter the feeling of disenchantment, frustration and anger which is increasingly widespread amongst our citizens. Only in this way can they build trust in the political system and its democratically-elected representatives, and rebuke the crisis of representative democracy.

Populism has been taking advantage of the electorate's disaffection with traditional politics. It is time we listen to our citizens, whether they express themselves by casting a vote or refusing to do so, and respond with the highest sense of responsibility in order to protect a kind of democracy which flouts empty rhetoric and delivers serious results.

Dear President, Madam Deputy Secretary General, Excellences,

During this Conference, participants will be discussing the experience of several Council of Europe member States.

The Assembly has co-operated with many of them over the years, with a view to consolidating democratic standards and the respect of the rule of law. I am pleased to see that many members of the Assembly have agreed to be present and share their own experience, developed at national as well as at European level.

The contribution of the Assembly will not stop with this important event.

The Assembly will ensure that the issues that are debated in these two days find an echo in its work.

Alongside member States, the members of the Assembly themselves will be the beneficiaries of the Venice Commission's recommendations, both in their capacity as PACE members but also as members of national parliaments. They are in a unique position to profit from this work and to act as multipliers.

With so many daunting challenges facing Europe and member States, we cannot afford a breakdown in the interplay between the majority and the opposition. Whether to tackle populism, terrorism or the growing distance between the electorate and representative Institutions, we need a common front. We need solid democracies in which the majority and the opposition know when it is time to debate, know when it is time to confront each other and also know when it is time to unite.

Thank you very much.