While no electoral system is prescribed by international law, the system chosen must be consistent with international obligations and should be clearly stated in law.
- The Court in fact accepts that there are numerous ways of organising and running electoral systems and a wealth of differences, inter alia, in historical development, cultural diversity and political thought within Europe which it is for each Contracting State to mould into its own democratic vision (see Scoppola v. Italy (no. 3) [GC], no. 126/05, § 83, 22 May 2012). By reason of their direct and continuous contact with the vital forces of their countries, their societies and their needs, the national authorities, both legislative and judicial, are better placed to assess the difficulties faced in establishing and safeguarding the democratic order in their state.
- For the purposes of applying Article 3 of Protocol No. 1, any electoral legislation must be assessed in the light of the political evolution of the country concerned, so that features that would be unacceptable in the context of one system may be justified in the context of another, at least so long as the chosen system provides for conditions which will ensure the “free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature” (see Yumak and Sadak v. Turkey [GC], no. 10226/03, § 111, ECHR 2008). Furthermore, since the Convention is first and foremost a system for the protection of human rights, the Court must have regard to the changing conditions within the respondent State and within Contracting States generally and respond, for example, to any emerging consensus as to the standards to be achieved (see, mutatis mutandis, Glor v. Switzerland, no. 13444/04, § 75, ECHR 2009).
- Although the Covenant does not impose any particular electoral system, any system operating in a State party must be compatible with the rights protected by article 25 and must guarantee and give effect to the free expression of the will of the electors. The principle of one person, one vote, must apply, and within the framework of each State’s electoral system, the vote of one elector should be equal to the vote of another.
- The Court makes it clear at the outset that the choice of electoral system by which the free expression of the opinion of the people in the choice of the legislature is ensured – whether it be based on proportional representation , the “first-past-the-post” system or some other arrangement – is a matter in which the State enjoys a wide margin of appreciation.
- The rights guaranteed under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 are crucial to establishing and maintaining the foundations of an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law. Nonetheless, those rights are not absolute. There is room for “implied limitations”, and Contracting States must be given a margin of appreciation in this sphere. In this field, Contracting States enjoy a wide margin of appreciation, provided that they ensure equality of treatment for all citizens. It does not follow, however, that all votes must necessarily have equal weight as regards the outcome of the election or that all candidates must have equal chances of victory. Thus no electoral system can eliminate “wasted votes” (see Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt, cited above, § 54).
- The Court has consistently highlighted the importance of the democratic principles underlying the interpretation and application of the Convention and emphasised that the rights guaranteed under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1 are crucial to establishing and maintaining the foundations of an effective and meaningful democracy governed by the rule of law (see Hirst v. the United Kingdom (no. 2) [GC], no. 74025/01, § 58, ECHR 2005-IX). Nonetheless, those rights are not absolute. There is room for “implied limitations”, and Contracting States are given a margin of appreciation in this sphere (see Matthews v. the United Kingdom [GC], no. 24833/94, § 63, ECHR 1999-I; Labita v. Italy [GC], no. 26772/95, § 201, ECHR 2000-IV; and Podkolzina v. Latvia, no. 46726/99, § 33, ECHR 2002-II). The margin of appreciation is also wide as regards the choice of electoral system (see Mathieu-Mohin and Clerfayt, cited above, § 54). There are numerous ways of organising and running electoral systems and a wealth of differences, inter alia, in historical development, cultural diversity and political thought within Europe which it is for each Contracting State to mould into its own democratic vision (see Hirst (no. 2), cited above, § 61).
- The legal framework should reflect universal and regional standards for a democratic and meaningful election process…. The choice of an election system is of course one of the most fundamental decisions for any democracy.
- Each SADC State should adopt an electoral system in accordance with its own political dispensation, history and party system. The electoral system should be entrenched in the Constitution. The Electoral Act should clearly set out the form, content and operation of the electoral system adopted. All stakeholders, particularly the electorate, should understand the type of electoral system in use; how the state determines the allocation of legislative seats; the nature of representation and the political consequences of the chosen system. Electoral systems should promote and protect fundamental human rights as well as the secrecy of the ballot. The following principles must lie at the heart of the electoral system: broad representation of diverse political interests and population groups; inclusiveness and the political participation of key actors; political accountability of Members of Parliament to the voters; a transparent and legitimate election process and outcome.
- There is no "best" electoral system suitable to all and no universally recognized standard. The choice of electoral system needs to be made with desired goals in mind. The effects which different kinds of electoral system can promote are ultimately contextual and depend on the specific cleavages and divisions within any given society. While some electoral system are certainly more likely to produce, say, more proportional electoral results than others, the overall consequences of electoral systems are highly context-specific.
- The IPU has noted the need, among others, to strike a balance between two essential considerations: that a legislative election above all must make it possible to designate a cohesive government responsible for conducting a national policy; and that the election primarily must guarantee representation at the national level of the country’s political forces, and reproduce in Parliament as faithful an image as possible of their relative strength. The IPU has also stressed the importance of a reasonable link between the electors and the elected, reflecting those elements of proportionality which also characterize the governing principles of international law.
- The general and distant objective set by international law—genuine periodic elections guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors, which shall be the basis of the authority of the government—allows considerable room for variation. Whether an electoral system departs from the permissible range is most likely to be answered by reference to other peremptory international law principles, such as non-discrimination. Does the ‘variation’ have the intent or effect of disenfranchising or devaluing the voting power of particular sections of the population for reasons that ought to be irrelevant to the exercise of political rights, such as race, religion, national or social origin, sex, language, political or other opinion, association with a national minority, birth or other status? If so, then to that extent the electoral system is potentially in breach of international law.
- The principle of equal suffrage nevertheless applies also to ‘threshold’ requirements, which can be and are used to deny representation to parties that fail to secure a prescribed percentage of the overall vote. Such criteria are commonly used to reduce the numbers of small or sectional interests in the legislature and to enhance the prospects for the formation of a viable government. Unless compensatory steps are taken, however, this technique can effectively disenfranchise substantial minorities. International standards nevertheless constrain and structure the choices available to States. The underlying obligation of result, combined with principles of equality, reasonableness and proportionality, can be used to mediate between the objective and the means chosen, and to show whether the system and its implementation in practice conform to what is required by international law. In short, the State is not free to use the ‘valid’ electoral technique of the threshold requirement in order to bar particular groups from representation in Parliament.
- A country’s choice for its electoral system, if it meets the minimum standard for democratic elections, should be respected.
- Regional jurisprudence and recent United Nations General Assembly resolutions recognize ‘that there is no single political system or electoral method that is equally suited to all nations and their people and that the efforts of the international community to enhance the effectiveness of the principle of periodic and genuine elections should not call into question each State’s sovereign right, in accordance with the will of its people, freely to choose and develop its political, social, economic and cultural systems, whether or not they conform to the preferences of other States. Moreover, ‘political systems and electoral processes are subject to historical, political, cultural and religious factors’. Whether a State adopts a majoritarian voting system or one other system of proportional representation is thus a class issue falling with the reserved domain of domestic jurisdiction.
- United Nations human rights standards relating to elections are broad in nature and thus may be achieved through a wide variety of political systems. United Nations electoral assistance does not seek to impose any given political model. Rather, it is based upon a realization that there is not single political system or electoral methodology which is appropriate for all peoples and States. While comparative examples provide useful guidance for the construction of democratic institutions that both respond to domestic concerns and conform to international human rights norms, the best formulation for each jurisdiction will ultimately be that shaped by the particular needs, aspirations and historical realities of the people involved, taken within the framework of international standards. … United Nations activity in these areas is conducted in conformity with the basic principles of the sovereignty equality of States and respect for their territorial integrity and political independence, as enunciated in the Charter of the United Nations.
- State practice confirms the variety of available choices, and no system can be considered, from an international law perspective, to be more valid than any other, provided it bears a reasonable relationship, in law and in practice, to the internationally prescribed objective.
- A country does have discretion in its choice of an appropriate electoral system. However, this does not mean that any electoral system or practice chosen by a country is acceptable. A country’s discretion in choosing an electoral system is not unlimited and should be exercised consistently with minimum standards.
- The constitutional and legal framework should: provide a clear statement on the type of electoral system;
- Periodic and genuine elections conducted on the basis of equal suffrage also means ‘equality of voting power’; in principle, no vote should carry disproportionately more weight than any other, but that does not necessarily require a system of proportional representation. On a complaint by a minority party member in the United Kingdom, the European Commission of Human Rights interpreted Protocol 1, article 3, to mean that different political parties must be given a reasonable opportunity to present their candidates for election, but did not require an electoral system which guaranteed that the total number of votes cast for each candidate or party be reflected in the composition of the legislature.