New Challenges and Opportunities for Democracy in the Western Hemisphere

Election workers count votes during Chile’s 1988 plebiscite, which ended Pinochet’s dictatorship. Source: Flickr

When I started out as a junior State Department diplomat at the close of the Carter Administration in the dark days of the Cold War, the state of democracy in Latin America was abysmal. Military dictatorship was the norm throughout the region. During my early State Department years I worked to support, sustain, and contribute to the so-called third wave of democracy in the Americas that helped make the Latin America region, as the Economist recently said, “the most democratic region of the developing world,” behind only North America and Western Europe.

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Being Bold for Change in Guatemala

Guatemalan campaign 2015, TODOS political party candidates for Congress on the National List

In 2013, while I was working in partnership with NDI Guatemala, I became interested in encouraging more women to get involved in politics, so I applied for the Andi Parhamovich Fellowship. I proposed a project focused on increasing women's participation as decision-makers in Guatemala - a huge challenge for me considering my background was in the sciences and I was new to politics.

Through my APF project I worked on a training program to prepare female candidates, who defied gender stereotypes, for the legislative elections in 2015, but we never expected a year like that.

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Three Challenges Faced by Political Parties in the 21st Century

On January 9th and 10th, the National Democratic Institute hosted the 21st Century Parties Conference in Brussels, Belgium. Party experts and assistance providers convened to discuss three important issues many parties struggle with around the globe: inclusion and citizen relations, ideology, and political party finance. The conversation was framed around the idea that democracy is a process, not an end goal. As former Secretary-General of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party, Pedro Sánchez pointed out, “Democracy is always an unfinished building, it is always a work in progress….and we should see it as something that needs to evolve.” The following are outcomes from each of the three challenges discussed:

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Political Parties in Kosovo Should Be the Cornerstone of Democracy, Not a Gimmick.

Cross-party training events like this one, part of the Women Political Empowerment Training conducted by NDI, would have a bigger impact if political parties in Kosovo became more inclusive and created a space for women and youth.

In a small country like Kosovo, in order to “get things done,” you need to be affiliated with a political party, understand how to navigate the political system and lobby hard for your cause. None of these requirements would be an issue if ideologies and policies were at the heart of discussion and negotiations. Instead, party affiliation in Kosovo is based on business relationships - not policy - and this political culture undermines internal party democracy.

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Introducing NDI's Party Renewal Initiative

Political parties are essential for democracy, they offer citizens meaningful choices and opportunities to mobilize behind different visions for their society. However, around the globe political parties are consistently ranked among the least trusted democratic institutions. While there are many reasons for this distrust, it does have some people wrongly asking if political parties are still necessary in today’s changing technological environment or if they’re a dying species of the 20th century. However, parties remain the only institutions that offer citizens meaningful choices in governance, avenues for political participation and opportunities to shape their country’s future. They therefore remain fundamental to the healthy functioning of democratic systems. To address this disconnect between citizens and political parties, NDI's Political Parties team has launched this Party Renewal Initiative to discuss how parties can better adapt to the 21st century.

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Colin Delany Discusses Political Parties and Tech

NDI's Politicial Parties team released a new guide to help parties taking advantage of the opportunities provided by Information Communication Technologies (ICTs).

On November 13th, the National Democratic Institute hosted an online ‘Question and Answer’ session with Colin Delany, editor and founder of epolitics.com. Delany was a lead contributor to NDI’s new tech guide, which, among other things, aims to help parties deploy new information communication technology (ICT) tools to organize and reach out to contacts, increase two-way communication with citizens, and conduct more strategic outreach.

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The Next Big Step for Campaigns: Taking Mobile Canvassing Technology on the Road

A party organizer practices voter canvassing through a door-to-door exercise as part of an NDI political party training on July 29, 2015. Photo credit: Munira Aziz, NDI Afghanistan

Canvassing, an organized system of face-to-face citizen outreach, has long been used by politicians and advocacy groups to encourage constituents to vote, assess the habits and preferences of voters, and gather public opinion data. The time-honored tradition of knocking on doors remains an integral part of campaigns, though new mobile technology is starting to change the way canvassers operate on the ground.

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Crowdsourcing Ideas: International Youth Day TweetTalk on Youth and Political Parties

NDI’s Citizen Participation and Political Parties teams hosted an online discussion called a TweetTalk on International Youth Day last week. Participants shared ideas and examples of how political parties can support youth political participation through the hashtag “#YouthParty” on Twitter.

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Whence Popularity? The New Wave of European Populist Parties

Protesters gather in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square as part of the 15-M anti-austerity movement. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A populist wave has crashed down upon the streets of Europe. Populist parties, old and new, left and right, have been dominating headlines in Europe over the past few years. Such parties are often led by charismatic leaders, and they claim to represent the will of the people against the elite or status quo. “The people” they appeal to are often those who feel alienated by European integration -- those who feel threatened by economic reform or lenient immigration policies.

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The Road Forward: Tunisia Provides an Example for Democracy in the Middle East and North Africa

Tunisian citizens protest the rise of the destabilizing trend of regionalism

Nearly five years after protests against former authoritarian leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began in December 2010, Tunisia has adopted a modern constitution and, for the first time, democratically elected a new legislature and president. Tunisia has been lauded as an inspirational -- though not untroubled -- democracy within the Middle East and North Africa region. To ensure the current security concerns and economic difficulties do not encourage undemocratic intervention in the process, it is important that the U.S. government and international community continue to support the new Tunisian government as it makes difficult choices.

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