Bill Sweeney Discusses Democracy Challenges
On June 19, 2012, GMF’s Berlin office held a luncheon discussion with Bill Sweeney, President of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). The discussion was moderated by Jörg Forbrig, GMF’s Senior Program Officer for Central and Eastern Europe, and included representatives from the Federal Foreign Office, Human Rights Watch, the German Council on Foreign Relations, and foreign policy advisors to the Bundestag.
Today’s democracy movements, election monitoring, and democratization agencies that assist them face challenges very different from those of earlier movements, such as in Eastern Europe during the 1990s. Bill Sweeney opened the conversation by focusing on two defining features of these challenges: generational change and technological innovation. The generational challenge expresses itself, first, within democracy assisting agencies, as older, less tech-savvy members of the early election monitoring movement are replaced by their younger counterparts and second, in the democracy movements themselves. Prominent leaders are not as visible in current democratization struggles and those involved in the movement, for instance in MENA countries, have never experienced democracy first-hand.
Technology, in turn, is fundamentally transforming the way in which democratization occurs on the ground. Web 2.0 technologies, SMS systems and cell phones can turn ordinary citizens into election monitors, as was the case in Nigeria, and in some cases, can even contribute to ease violent tensions by allowing for immediate transfer of voting results, creating greater transparency and diminishing vote theft. The later discussion focused on these benefits, including the ability to mobilize people more quickly, but also on the concerns for how technology can also be abused by populists groups or used by governments to suppress democratic initiatives.
As for concrete issues facing current efforts for promoting democracy, Sweeney emphasized the risk for violent conflict and civil war present in many states where democratization movements are occurring such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He also discussed economic factors that will greatly determine the future course of the way democracy develops in places like Egypt, where the drawn out and multiple election process may hinder foreign investment and pose the risk not only of persistent high youth unemployment, but also of state bankruptcy.
The West today, for its part, is greatly constrained in its ability to effectively support budding democracies. On the one hand, it is no longer the role model it once was; on the other hand, budgetary cuts in development agencies that allocate most of their resources to issues of food security, health issues or natural disaster relief, leave less means for concrete democratization or election monitoring efforts. These constraints come at a time when demand for democracy building assistance in the world is skyrocketing.
The discussion concluded on an optimistic note, centering on the fact that the extensive and institutionalized experience of many election commissions can still contribute greatly to the process of democracy establishment by opening up “new frontiers” of assisting the disabled and elderly in being able to vote and in introducing gender appropriate rules and processes in voting stations, as countries gain their first experiences with democratic voting procedures.