Democracy Assistance Dialogue (DAD): Political Pluralism and Electoral Processes in the broader Middle East and North Africa

Report from panel I,II & III - Venice, 21-23 July 2005

Report from Panel 1: Standards, status and role of political parties

Rapporteur: Mohamd Al-Tayeb, Chair, Committee for Human Rights, Liberties and Civic Organisations, Shura Council , Yemen

Panel I was chaired by Saad Dine el Otmani, Secretary-General, Party of Justice and Development of Morocco and had Professor Guy Haarscher, from the Université Libre of Brussels as discussant.
In the course of a fruitful and intense discussion, the Panel addressed the experiences, problems, role, history or absence of political parties in the region, including the situation in Egypt , Iraq , Jordan , Libya , Morocco , Sudan , Syria , Tunisia and Yemen . Participants presented case studies on specific countries and their own experiences, but also put forward concrete proposals for action hoping to keep this Democracy Assistance Dialogue active and exchanges like the one in Venice alive. Some of the presentations are also available as separate written documents.
At the beginning it was noted that, after the 2004 Conference organised in Sana'a by the Yemeni Government and No Peace Without Justice, which dealt with Democracy and Human Rights, we have now reached a new phase that is starting to address the core issues related to the democratic process and its characteristics.
Most speakers reflected the fact that we are facing two options: on the one hand we have those that want to highjack the future of the various countries in the region - either through the perpetuation of secular dictatorships based on a totalitarian style, or the establishment of extremist regimes based on violent fundamentalism; on the other there are those who believe in the democratisation process and in opening their societies and cultures. Those who participate in meetings such as this one have clearly decided to choose the second option.
The debate was mainly focussed on the need to allow the effective participation of the majority of the people in the political process of their societies - be they open, close or un-democratic contexts. In order for this to happen, political parties must be allowed to exist as a vehicle to take part in the general political life, in local and national elections. All agreed that democracy needs to be a home-grown exercise, possibly coming from grassroots movements. It was also pointed out that there is a need to work towards the promotion of a wider framework of political pluralism in order to allow genuinely free and fair elections. To this end, several speakers proposed the setting up of shadow institutions, such as parliaments, governments, but also judicial and media watchdogs, as well as regional councils of ethics.
Participants pointed out that the lack of financial resources for civil society action in the region creates major problem, and a number of suggestions were made for the creation of a specific funding mechanism to finance the promotion of civil society action for democratic reform. Many proposed to take full advantage of the support offered by the G-8, the European Union and member states, US as well as international foundations offering grants and assistance. Funds raised should be used for institutional capacity building, to empower civil society and political parties to be active and effective in transitional phases towards democracy. Despite the different national contexts, participants advocated a coordinate indigenous effort, and called on the international community to set up deadlines and benchmarks to measure the progress of reforms. Many also emphasised the need to establish local mechanisms for monitoring the electoral process possibly with assistance and presence of foreign international NGOs and institutional UN, EU and US monitors.
In the course of the debate, various initiatives that several concerned Members of the European Parliament have been highlighted, such as for instance the EuroMed parliamentary assembly, the various fora for bilateral meetings, or the European Initiative for Democracy, set up in 1992, which today seems unable to fulfil effectively and efficiently its mandate in disbursing the million of Euros in its budget. The possibility of the European Parliament to establish some time in the future a permanent “European Endowment for Democracy” was also raised.
Political parties should provide citizens with a clear and transparent platform to express their political opinions. But in order for them to be considered a reliable instrument to implement democracy and promote democratisation, political parties must have some sort of internal credibility in representing their members' ideas and ideals. For political entities to be representative of their base or of the aspirations of grassroots movements as well as the citizenry at large, they need to be in touch with the citizens constantly.
In order for this to happen, political parties should set standards of internal democracy as - it was often noted - democracy cannot be possible without democrats. To this end, mechanisms should be adopted to allow internal elections, active participation of women at all level of party life, exchange and/or rotation of leadership, the growing and inclusion of young generations of politicians in the decision-making process and activities of the parties. Parties should also work to foster the participation of all members and citizens in the political system. Party members, once elected, should implement the party's political platform and not their personal agendas. It was noted that, in order to promote and regulate political parties, some countries have adopted laws to enforce their internal transparency, allowing political as well as financial accountability before the law.
Laws regulating political parties have also been identified as a useful tool to ensure the very existence of the political process. Although everybody was aware of the fact that these legislative measures may not in themselves be the solution to the problem, it was noted that those may represent a good legal basis from which to start a truly legitimised democratic process. Laws that allow the constitution of political parties should be independent from the government system; in fact, if the government has something to say on a party it should appeal to a court, this proposal was received with some concern by some that expressed their worries on the lack of independence of the judiciary in many countries. A consensus emerged that political parties laws should prevent external interference with the activities of a political party, which should all have the same rights before the constitution. In case of disputes, the body that should deal with them is the legislative or judicial arm, not the executive one. Some expressed also the opinion that parties could also be established without the need to register or have a licence, others also mentioned the possible problems of mixing religion and politics.
In this respect, some presentations also highlighted the problems and characteristics that some political parties have presented in the region. Concerns were expressed for instance, in situations where it is clear that people voted for certain parties simply because they belong to the same ethnic, religious or cultural groups. This, as many participants observed, is often the result of the fact that in some contexts people are "squeezed" between authoritarian regimes and religious fundamentalist groups and do not have a sincere and genuine democratic alternative.
All speakers pointed out that democratisation must be a peaceful and non-violent struggle. Some also addressed terrorist attacks, starting from the recent incidents occurred in London on 21 July, putting them in connection with the lack of a real political life in many cases in the Arab world, a region that – with some exceptions - is characterised by the lack of freedom of speech and expression, as emphasised also by the UNDP Human Development Report, prepared by Arab scholars. Some noted that certain recent events made democratisation a common cause between the countries of the Region and the international community, particularly the West, and that it is therefore necessary to highlight this as a common objective and expect Western countries to assist in the promotion of this common cause.
Several speakers noted that some countries, such as Egypt , have a strong influence, both positively and negatively, in the Arab world. In fact, certain Egyptian developments, such as for instance all laws regulating or limiting political parties, civil associations, trade unions, the media as well as other issues, have been used as a negative model for the rest of the Arab world. A more in-depth knowledge of the history - and political history in particular - of that country could in fact be useful in understanding the origins of certain trends. The most worrying tendency is the one that, over the years, has been able to dissuade the political process in several countries. In fact, over the last 50 years, political parties have been abolished, sometimes including specific clauses in the Constitution, limiting in different ways - by penal law or administrative measures – various forms of civil and political life.
In many case, the creation of smaller parties has eventually been allowed, but merely to legitimise the various one-party regimes as "democratic". In fact, in some countries have reached a situation in which there are over 20 parties to give the impression, both internally and internationally, that democracy is at work. The real situation is in fact different and the one-party remains the main actor, while smaller parties play the role of extras on the stage. This reality needs to be understood both in the region and also abroad, calling on democratic countries not to establish privileged relationship, both politically and economically, with non-democratic regimes.
Several panellists also addressed the link between political parties, political life and the media, especially in contexts with a very high level of illiteracy that in some countries interests almost half of the population and where newspapers, radios and TV channels are owned and operated by the State. Some expressed the belief that it is essential for political parties, as well as members of civil society, to own their own newspapers, radios and TVs. Access is important, but not necessarily the main problem, as in some cases, media outlets are concentrated in the hands of the regime or members of the families affiliated with it. Addressing ignorance in general is therefore very important, but also providing citizens with political literature in regional languages was also considered crucial; to this end, several noted the need to produce and/or translate documents into Arabic and other languages in the region, and furnish libraries with books and all sorts of political literature.
After years of total closure there is the serious risk of not being ready to fill the political vacuum created by the annulment of politics at the hands of the various regimes, and therefore, there is the need to take into consideration the quality of the political ideological debate, addressing the novelties of our world and era. In so doing, we could also realise that we should not be content with pluralism and move forward sooner than we think.

Report from Panel 2: Electoral systems and rules, passive and active electorate, electoral monitoring

Rapporteur: Baktiar Amin, former Minister of Human Rights of Iraq

Panel II was chaired by Dr Abdul Karim Al-Eryani, Secretary-General of the People's General Congress of Yemen . The discussant, Koen De Feyter, Professor at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation, introduced the discussion with a briefing on the principles and rules used by OSCE to determine whether elections are free and fair. There are seven main principles, namely: universality (everyone should be able to register as a voter); equality (all votes should have equal weight); fairness (every voter should have access to basic information about candidates and their positions); secrecy (a person's vote remains private); freedom (freedom from intimidation, including financial pressure); transparency (the rules are well known in advance and have been discussed); and accountability (people who win the elections are duly installed and they recognise they are accountable to the people who elected them). These are technical rules of the electoral process only, they are not a guarantee that once people are elected, they will behave democratically nor that once a government is elected, it will produce economic growth or good policy.
Participants placed the discussion of the specific issues in context by noting that the electoral process is a political process, the goal of which is to enable citizens to take an active part in public life and to bring men and women who can govern the country to Parliament or government. To further this goal, civil society across the region needs to work together and to create a vibrant civic culture, which to date has been lacking due to specific situations in many countries that prevent the full expression of democratic principles. Monitoring developments and bringing problems to the public's attention is a good way of promoting reform within governments, who do not like to be publicly criticised. Just because a system appears to be democratic and to respect human rights does not necessarily mean that is the case: there is often a need to look beyond appearances to ascertain the true situation.
In this respect, it was suggested that the creation of a network or forum for Arab democrats, where democratic values and practices are actively followed and within which reformers in the region could actively support one another's work, would give energy and renewed commitment and help in the process of reform. Alongside this, many participants felt that the current situation should be reviewed to identify gaps that exist in relation to what is needed, such as an independent, needs-driven funding mechanism for addressing the democracy deficit in the region.
Regional cooperation and networking is an important aspect of this process that could be strengthened to produce the best results. In this context, the creation and adoption of a democracy charter for the region was raised, particularly as a means for civil society to encourage governments to adhere to democratic principles and to monitor progress. Promoting engagement in political life and taking a proactive role in relation to reform are important priorities and should be given prominence in all discussions and recommendations on these issues. The role of civil society is critical for ensuring free and fair elections and in promoting democratic principles: civil society has an important contribution to make, also as a dissenter where necessary, and to work towards the development of basic human rights.
The participation of women in electoral processes was identified as a critical aspect of the electoral process and an area in which there is still a long way to go, although some participants spoke of progress in their own countries. The participation of women in elections remains a challenge that should be met through a variety of creative means by a range of actors, including in particular by women's associations. There was much debate on the issue of quotas and when they might be an appropriate mechanism. It was generally agreed that quotas for Parliaments should only be used in emergency situations to narrow gaps in participation, although it was argued that it should be included in electoral laws and, where required, in constitutional amendments. On the other hand, quotas for political parties, particularly in terms of their governing bodies, were a useful tool to promote women's participation in public life. Participants also discussed other groups that may be excluded from the electoral process, such as youth, minorities, the poor and the illiterate, and the importance of engaging those groups in political and democratic processes, particularly engaging people from an early age.
Another major issue was election monitoring, in particular when it should be done and by whom. Participants discussed their experiences with elections in their countries and elsewhere, in many instances describing irregularities in the electoral process that took place before the election period and hence often before election monitoring commenced. It is important to verify political rights, including freedom of movement and association, and the principles of non-discrimination and non-intimidation, before any elections take place. This is important for the verification of the existence of an environment conducive for free and fair elections.
It was generally agreed that the presence of international election monitors and international backing, both moral and financial, is important to support developing electoral processes. However, it has to be remembered that international actors can only monitor the system that has already been put in place, while local monitors and the media can undertake a wider range of activities and advocacy, including continuous civic education and commenting on the system itself. Women should have a role to play in election monitoring, particularly because citizens should see women participating in public life. To facilitate the exchange of experiences and knowledge, it was suggested that an Arab Election Monitoring Network could monitor and highlight what is happening before and during elections and make it public.
Another topic discussed was the issue of a passive and active electorate and the need to overcome the general apathy of the electorate and to get them to vote, which requires that they believe that their voice matters. Some participants identified distrust both of the government institutions and of civil society as a factor in people either being reluctant to vote or in believing that their voice would not count. A related question was whether there should be calls for boycotts of electoral processes if it appeared they would be neither free nor fair. A need for caution was expressed, because many participants felt boycotts were not necessarily an effective means to promote change. Should it be considered that a boycott was necessary, that should be coupled with a call for some other kind of engagement, like encouraging people to become volunteer election monitors.
In addition to the general recommendations participants pointed out that the Government of Bahrain should reopen the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and ensure that this organisation and other human rights organisations are not hindered in fulfilling their mandate; the Government of Syria should release all political prisoners, as a matter of urgency; the Government of Tunisia should ensure that civil society organisations and individual human rights activists are able to undertake their work unimpeded.

Report from Panel 3: Access to the media for political parties and civil society organisations

Rapporteur: Moshen Marzouk, Director of the Algeria Project of Freedom House , Tunisia

Panel III was chaired by Dr Hisham Kassen, Chief Executive of Al Masri Al Youm of Egypt and the discussant was Mr Gabor Halmai, Professor at the European Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation.
Participants in the third panel spoke about the access of political parties and civil society organisations to the media. They underlined the importance of the participation of the media in the process of educating people to democracy, enhancing the culture of pluralism and its implementation, as well as organising free and democratic elections and ensuring their success.
Participants pointed out that most governments in the region continue to oppose radical reforms in the fields of freedom of the press and free access to the media despite their declared commitments in international venues and despite the region's great need for such reform.
Participants also underlined the following shortcomings:
- the lack of political party expression through the media;
- limited access to the electronic means of communication;
- the need to enhance the capacity of journalists and other media professionals, both at the technical and conceptual levels.
Participants also underlined the importance of a more consistent approach by the international community to insist on the readiness of a country to commit itself to the implementation of an agenda of reforms in the area with clear deadlines as a prerequisite for economic partnership.
Participants also spoke of the relationship between freedom in the field of economy and in the field of the media, the development and enhancement of the role of the media at the service of political parties especially in educating people to human rights and democracy
Participants also welcomed the engagement demonstrated by some external media that are monitoring the political situation inside the region, also through the analysis of the Arabic media.