What is the right to free elections?
The right to free elections is one of the most important political rights of a person. Put simply, it is the right to elect the government of one’s country by secret vote.
Free elections need to satisfy three criteria:
- they should be held at periodic intervals
- the voting procedure should be secret
- people’s right to vote freely (without coercion) must be observed
This right has two aspects: the right to vote (active aspect) and the right to stand for election (passive aspect).
Are there any restrictions to this right?
The right to free election is not absolute. Some limitations may be imposed, but these must pursue a legitimate aim (there is no predetermined list) and be proportionate (not more than necessary to achieve the aim pursued). For example, fixing a minimum age to ensure that individuals taking part in the electoral process are sufficiently mature is a restriction, but it is justified.
note The regulation of the right to free elections differs from state to state.
Who protects this right?
The State is the main guarantor of human rights. Its obligations are twofold: negative (obligations “not to do” something) and positive (obligations “to do” something).
The negative obligation is to refrain from arbitrary interference with this right, ensuring the right to vote and be elected. The positive obligation is to secure this right; this includes ensuring the proper regulation of the voting process and criteria for standing for elections.
International recognition of this right
The right to free elections is fundamental to a democratic society. After the end of the Second World War, the international community was determined to build a peaceful, democratic world. Thus, this right was naturally included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, the first comprehensive list of human rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Article 21(3) reads:
The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.
This right was subsequently also included in international and regional human rights conventions.