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

Background Paper Reports - Venice, 21-23 July 2005

Opening session: welcome remarks
Mr Diego Vecchiato, Executive Director of the Department for International Relations of the Veneto Region, opened the seminar expressing the appreciation of the Veneto Region for the organisation of the Workshop. He also stressed the importance of the commitment of regions to support democracy, as well as the role they play at the international level in the promotion of human rights and institution building, according to an intercultural perspective. As Mr Vecchiato was keen to highlight, political pluralism and the implementation of correct and well-organised electoral processes are fundamental elements of every single system that wants to be founded on the principles of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which represents a paradigm of values and rules for every people, a reference point that transcends cultural, historical and religious identity while at the same time respecting and appreciating those identities.
Mr Horst Fischer , EIUC President, illustrated the work accomplished and role played by the Inter-University Centre for Human Rights and Democratisation in the promotion of human rights and democratisation through its academic activities. He stressed the strong interest of the Centre in all the arguments that would be discussed during the seminar, including intercultural aspects of human rights, democratisation and electoral process. During his speech, Mr Fischer proposed to offer the Monastery of San Niccolò as a location for future seminars or research on the same problems and issues.
As illustrated by Hon. Gianfranco Fini , Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister, whose written message was read by Mr Sergio Scarantino, Minister Plenipotentiary, this workshop was an important opportunity to prepare for the event that is upcoming both in the framework of the Democracy Assistance Dialogue and of the Forum for the Future. He noted the importance to focus this seminar on the issues of political pluralism and electoral processes, together with the role of women in public life. He further recalled the fundamental points of the declaration issued from the tripartite meeting between Italy, Turkey and Yemen that was held in Rome in November 2004: the role of civil society in the construction and development of democracy; the ways to assure a regular and transparent development of electoral processes; and the importance of the principle of inclusion for a correct functioning of a democratic process, in particular the value of women's participation. He presented Turkey 's experience as an example of Islamic modern state, explaining that the issues debated at the Venice Workshop lie at the very heart of the issues related to the democratic growth of society, demand for modernity, for reform, for development in the Islamic region. Finally, he noted the importance of dialogue between different cultures and respect for pluralism.
Ms Emma Bonino , MEP, former European Commissioner in charge of humanitarian affairs and founder of No Peace Without Justice, concluded the opening session by stressing that the themes to be tackled by the workshop, i.e. political pluralism and electoral systems, also seem to respond to voices in the region that are becoming louder in their demands for recognition of these basic rights. With elections this year in Afghanistan , the Palestinian territories and Iraq , and soon in Egypt , democratic processes are on the rise across the Middle East . Ms Bonino also highlighted the interest of the DAD program, designed to foster a process of consultation between government and non-government representatives on very complex and often controversial issues. She noted that No Peace Without Justice and the Transnational Radical Party have never believed in the clash of civilisations, never believed that there is a Western Democracy, an African Democracy, an Arab Democracy. There is just democracy, founded on the principle that the government of a country is based on the will and consent of the governed, that promotes choice, voice and access to rights. How democracy is expressed may vary, but the basic principle and core common issues remain the same. One thing is clear: democracy is an evolving process and it is a process that needs monitoring and care to help it take root and flourish.
Plenary Session: Introduction and presentation of the panels
After the opening session, each of the three specific topics for the Workshop were briefly introduced and presented by a personality from the BMENA region.
“ Standards, status and role of political parties” was introduced by Mr Saad Eddin-Ibrahim , Director of the Khaldun Centre of Developmental Studies, Egypt . First and foremost, he specified that the work on this panel must be done in light of the political events that in the last months have seen many Middle Eastern countries as protagonists. In this general view, some events can be remembered as a source of hope, such as the success, in terms of participation and attendance, of the Palestinian and Iraqi presidential elections; the rising of a “people's power” in Lebanon following the assassination of the Prime Minister Hariri, which has particularly seen young people emerge as protagonists; the Kifaya movement in Egypt; the municipal election in Saudi Arabia; women's right to vote in Kuwait; and the new Constitution announced in Qatar. However, there have also been political disillusionments, including the fact that democracy did not exactly proceed on a “fast track”, as democracy advocates of the region would have liked. For example, there was a reversal back to sectarianism both in Lebanon and Iraq ; even in Egypt , opposition political parties were completely unprepared following President Mubarak's “reluctant acceptance” of a contested presidential election.
Therefore, the participants were urged to consider recognising and understanding the problems with Arab political parties of the BMENA region and what could be done to improve their capacity , including, in particular:
* How to build on historical legacy? Political parties are not new in the Arab world. We have had them for the last 120 years, since the first elections in Egypt in 1866. Not every Arab country has experience with political parties but quite a few have, including Egypt , Syria , Lebanon , Jordan , Iraq , Morocco and Tunisia . Because of the disruption either by foreign occupation or by dictatorial regimes, that first liberal legacy seems to have died down in the memory of the new generation. So the question is how to revive that collective memory and how to build on it.
* What has the dictatorial era left as well? The legacy of the dictatorial era in various countries of the region can be seen in terms of the distortions and crippling effects that it left, such as the strong distrust of the people towards politics that leads to the dilemma of proliferation of political groupings and parties. But one must also recognise possible positive effects, in particular in the field of education, such as the formation not by design but by default of a growing middle class that could be the backbone of any democratic transition.
* How to develop and increase the organisational skills of the political parties?
* What contribution political parties could bring to nation building, state building and the building of democratic institutions?
“Electoral systems and rules, passive and active electorate, electoral monitoring” was presented by Mr Riad Malki , Director General of Panorama, The Palestinian Centre for the Dissemination of Democracy and Community Development, who explained that the panel will develop the topic of the electoral process and, particularly, the electoral systems of the different BMENA countries. Mr Malki stressed that Palestine , given the two fair and accountable electoral processes held this year, appears to be a special case within the region. Looking also at the issue of electoral process, the Palestinian example can be somewhat comforting, because the current electoral law is the fruit of a complex process of dialogue that, despite some difficulties, led to a compromise among all players, including political parties, government, civil society organisations and activists.
Having said this, it has to be underlined that regarding most of the Arab regimes, there appears to be an extraordinary creativity at work, with new electoral systems and rules that are not really applied or implemented in other places where democracy is really practiced. Indeed, most of the regimes of the region systematically resort to anti-democratic principles that prevent the formation of a political opposition or aim to ensure the effective monopoly of the ruling parties. In certain Arab countries, it is even difficult to know if there is an electoral system, if so what kind of electoral system, based on what law, in which year it was approved, if there are going to be elections, when the last elections took place, who is really allowed to participate in the elections and so on. This is very basic information about political and electoral matters that citizens of certain countries of the region simply ignore. Considering that the purpose of elections is to provide citizens with the opportunity to choose between various candidates representing different platforms, positions and political opinions, we must make this ideal a current practice. The lack of alternative choices is the source of the “passive electorate phenomenon”. In many Arab countries, we can see that the lack of real alternatives carries the majority of the electorate to an attitude of indifference and, consequently, to passiveness. In order to transform it to an “active” electorate, it is necessary to engender the belief that a person's vote, even a single vote, can make a difference and can lead to a change in governance and in policies.
Finally, election monitoring will be discussed. The need for election monitoring begins when a transparent, fair, multiparty and democratic electoral process cannot be guaranteed. In these cases, monitoring is the only way to ensure a transparent and accountable electoral process. One of the goals of civil society organisations and political parties should be to work in partnership to create a local independent monitoring system, such as in Palestine , where the law itself permits it. Only in a situation where it is impossible to form a local monitoring system should we resort to an international one.
“Access to the media for political parties and civil society organisations” was introduced by Mr Said Essoulami , Executive Director of the Centre for Media Freedom, Middle East and North Africa , Morocco . Initially, it was clarified that the access of political parties to the media is only one aspect of the problem. The various themes related to the argument through which the debate will evolve have been highlighted: the citizens' right to a free and informed political choice; the candidates' right to promote their political platforms through the media; and the journalists' right to cover the elections freely and to express their opinions openly.
The media's role in the electoral process is fundamental in a number of different aspects: in informing the electors about their right to vote; in referring the political campaign and possible cases of violence and corruption; in assuring and, equally, in managing public confrontation between candidates; and in monitoring and counting the votes. The capacity of the media to carry out these functions depends on the level of freedom of expression existing in the country and, in particular, on the independence of the public service, which, instead, is often controlled by the government. These illustrate some of the reasons the presence of independent media is essential.
Another important condition is the existence of a civil society with an active role throughout the entire electoral process. Civil society groups can carry out a form of monitoring on the media themselves: informing the public; consulting the candidates about their programs or the government in case of violence or corruption; informing the media about the news from rural areas, which are difficult to reach, and so becoming a media partner in the construction of a political campaign in those regions. Through access to media, civil society can keep in contact and create a dialogue with both the constituency and the political world, allowing an improvement in its visibility and becoming more efficient in reaching its objectives.
Plenary Session: Presentation of the reports and general debate
On the final day of the Workshop, the Reports from the three working groups and their respective recommendations were presented in plenary session, where a general debate took place, following which a statement against terrorism and the Venice Declaration were endorsed by all participants.
Following the tragic events in Sharm El Sheik, the participants decided to write a common document to condemn terrorism. Prior to the endorsement of this document, a debate was held to collect all of the opinions and suggestions of participants regarding the document. All of the participants had the opportunity to take part in the debate regarding the recommendations, which were included in the final reports on the panel discussions.
The interventions of participants expressed a firm and strong condemnation of the terrorist attack in Egypt and a unanimous sentiment of solidarity and empathy with the innocent victims and their families. Moreover, as democrats and human rights defenders, they expressed their clear and unequivocal rejection of terrorism in all its forms and wherever it takes place. The countries of the BMENA region must be the first to condemn and disavow not only the events themselves but particularly the motivation and the mentality that lie behind these savage and unjustifiable acts. It is often the case that terrorists proclaim their message in the name of populations who share neither their causes, nor their ways. The lunatic fringes must be disavowed and fought through the promotion of the principles of democracy, justice and liberty in the BMENA region, the absence or the lack of which breeds a culture of despair and intolerance, and with the help of instruments such as education and prevention. Many participants remarked that security enforcement and emergency laws are not the only way to combat terrorism: we need a capillary action at civil society level to de-legitimise and isolate terrorists. For instance, a network could be developed, involving civil society both in the Arab region and in other countries that are subject to terrorism and assuming a decisive role against terrorism.
This Workshop was formulated as a preparatory meeting for successive meetings with governments and, in particular, the next meeting in Rabat . The objective has been to produce documents that can represent issues and proposals at the civil society level that can be submitted to institutional partners at the Rabat meeting. These documents can be useful as long as they sufficiently represent all of the participants who intervened during the three days of discussions. It is important to present the dialogue to the institutions with clearly developed ideas: these documents will be a starting point for dialogue.
It is a difficult task to include all interventions and proposals made during the Workshop; nevertheless, all of the modifications suggested were taken into consideration to ensure that these documents represent a common approach of all those who participated in the debate.
A request was made for the formation of planning committees to follow, in concrete terms, the accomplishment of proposals and the creation of a mechanism of contacts in order to continue the communication among participants.
Closing Remarks
The Chair highlighted that one of the aims of the Workshop was the creation of a network to encourage the exchange of information among all of the participants. In the final documents, every intervention and contribution made during the conference was incorporated, including the final recommendations and amendments presented by speakers during the morning of 23 July, in the hope that these documents will adequately reflect the ideas and concerns presented by participants during the three days of discussion.
The Hon Gianni De Michelis , MEP, former Minister for Foreign Affairs of Italy, expressed his full support of the DAD activities, both personally and as a member of the European Parliament. He underlined the importance of civil society involvement, at a time when just a few months ago a joint parliamentary assembly including members of the European Parliament, members of national parliaments of Europe and members of parliaments of Arab League States was put in place. Mr De Michelis emphasised the issue of time and the necessity of implementing the proposals suggested at this meeting within a short timeframe, especially in light of the recent events in London , Sharm El-Sheikh , Iraq and Afghanistan . We need to accelerate the process, knowing that the political answer to the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism and to the other types of fundamentalism that exist throughout the world is the evolution towards democracy. He also underlined the need for a qualitative jump in the cooperation between the EU and the enlarged Mediterranean region, advancing the hypothesis of using a European framework that has demonstrated very fruitful, i.e. the so-called Helsinki Model. The Helsinki Treaty was one of the main factors in overcoming the political division of the European continent. Obviously the content of such a treaty or negotiation process in the case of the enlarged Mediterranean region will have to be at least partly different, bearing in mind that the issues and the context in Europe in the mid seventies were different from the situation now in the BMENA region. Nevertheless it represents a mechanism that could pave the way to what we are discussing in this seminar. Formally involving all the interested parties in multilateral negotiations could help in finding some compromise about electoral monitoring issues, about a timetable for the evolution towards liberal democratic systems, as well as discussing the difficult relationships for the Islamic countries between religion and political power.
Furthermore, such a model could bring an added value with respect to the Barcelona Process. This does not mean that the Barcelona Process is dead but we have to recognise that it has not been a success to date. The European Union should try to re-launch it, while taking into consideration that its main limit has been its incapacity to be a real multilateral framework. The choice of bilateral agreements has proved insufficient for economic cooperation and totally ineffective for the political and institutional upgrading of the situation. Moreover, it is necessary to include in the discussion other themes such as security, which has become increasingly important, even more so due to the involvement of the United States .
There remains the hope that future discussions and debates can follow the course created by the Helsinki Model and that the EU could encourage governments of the enlarged Mediterranean region to endorse formal commitments towards reforms. The issue of time has been repeatedly remarked upon: the only way to implement a reform program successfully is to put the endorsed commitments in the framework of a clear and precise timing agenda and benchmarks, to which there needs to be strict adherence. Moreover, in the case of Arab countries, there are three forces or incentives that could foster this kind of dialogue: civil society's internal pressure; the problem of economic development; and the challenge of Islamic fundamentalism.
Subsequently, the DAD non-governmental partners took the floor.
Mr Mensur Akgün , Director for Foreign Policy Programs, TESEV, stated that in order to start a real democratisation process in the Middle East , a balance between institutionalisation processes and participation must be found. These are two fundamental and binding components: institutionalisation contains the principle of the rule of law, which is needed to ensure the protection of liberties; and participation is required to ensure representation. Participation prior to institutionalisation may not lead to democracy, as the outcome could be illiberal democracy, elections could be halted and liberties could be put at risk. Participation and institutionalisation should coexist and develop simultaneously. This balance between the institutionalisation process and participation has been guaranteed in Western Europe by tradition. The long struggles for rights in many European countries created this tradition and institutionalisation then followed. The experience of democratisation, such as in eastern and central European countries in the 1990s and in Turkey especially in 2000, and before that in Portugal and Spain, were supported by international organisations like the EU, the Council of Europe, the OSCE and NATO. The creation and maintenance of this modus vivendi in the BMENA region is only possible with the support of same institutional mechanisms. G8 is just one of them but we need more. We need a “Council of Europe-like” institution and also “OSCE-like” structures in the region. It is only with their aid that it is possible to support the fragile balance between institutionalisation and participation.
However, to do that, we need benchmarks in order to have a common set of values that allow the assessment of progress in the countries of the region. Benchmarking is also important for the democrats of the region. If they have a concrete set of standards at their disposal, they can assess their own government's achievements and sponsor's sincerity. Our experience in Turkey in the process of adoption and harmonisation of the Copenhagen political criteria shows the success of this method. We need a similar mechanism, similar benchmarks for the region. For this reason, Mr Akgün expressed his satisfaction to see among the recommendations endorsed by all participants the idea of establishing an international election monitoring mechanism. In the Istanbul symposium organised by TESEV last month, a similar mechanism for the empowerment of women was also suggested. TESEV is planning to organise another conference on the same topic by the end of January 2006, which will be completed with an inter-governmental conference convened by the Turkish Foreign Ministry where civil society will meet with high-level government representatives.
Such conferences are important to enable civil society actors of the region to bring forward their ideas and recommendations to their respective governments in an open manner. An open dialogue where the governments are forced to listen is vital if we are to be successful in supporting democratic developments of the region. This is without doubt a long and difficult road and Turkey as co-chair of the DAD mechanism fully intends to do everything in order to ensure that this process is successful.
Finally, Mr Akgün emphasised that the creation of a hospitable and positive environment to facilitate dialogue in the region requires, first and foremost, settlement of the Palestinian problem in an equitable manner. The Arab-Israeli conflict may not be the only reason for the persistence of authoritarianism in the region, but it has certainly been used by governments as an excuse not to implement reform. Moreover, it has challenged the credibility of external regional actors with respect to the reform agenda. Second, peaceful transition to a fully sovereign, territorially intact and democratic Iraq is also absolutely necessary for the creation of such an environment. Third, it is also absolutely necessary to get rid of all weapons of mass destruction in the region and to create an OSCE-like security structure. Finally, the creation of a hospitable environment also requires the application of the same benchmarking to the involvement of external actors of the region.
Ezeddine Al Ashbahi , Chair of HRITC, remarked on the importance of an international democratic dialogue and how the Yemeni Centre will work to create a genuine international partnership where this dialogue can best develop. Together with their Italian and Turkish partners, HRITC has started a program for democratic dialogue with a view to strengthening the role of the civil society both in the Arab region and at international level, the objective being to achieve real partnership at an international level in the framework of the DAD program. He also spoke about the workshop scheduled to take place in Sana'a at the end of September in order to create a common vision of the possible changes and reforms to be introduced in the region. Similar to the meeting foreseen in October in Rabat , the Sana'a meeting will have democracy and human rights as a central objective. He hoped for the same level of participation of all those who took part in this Venice Workshop and their collaboration, which will be essential to reinforce the values of peace and justice within the international dialogue, which is fundamental today more than ever due to the growth of terrorism.