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Civil Society’s Role in New Democracies

By Kathryn McConnell | Staff Writer | 14 September 2011
Close-up of Eric Bjornlund (Democracy International)

Eric Bjornlund

Washington — Civil society must be involved when countries transition from autocratic regimes to democracy, said Eric Bjornlund, co-founder of Washington-based Democracy International.

He will share this message when he talks to members of Tunisia’s civil society via videoconference September 19 from the State Department. Tunisians ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali on January 14, 2011, ushering in a wave of political promise, as well as uncertainty.

“Strong civil society organizations in a transition can provide constructive channels for democratic participation,” Bjornlund said. Civil society organizations “can help rebuild citizens’ trust in government, promote their rights and interests, and encourage the inclusion of minorities and disenfranchised groups.”

The lawyer, who has long been involved in monitoring elections, said civic advocacy often concerns such issues as the timing of elections, eligibility for political office, whether the chief executive will be a president or prime minister, and how that person will be elected. Another issue is whether former officials should be prosecuted for past crimes, he added. “It’s important these decisions not be held behind closed doors by political elites,” he said.

“Civil society can organize around these issues and advocate for more open decisionmaking,” Bjornlund said. “People around the world want to have a say in their government and to have control over their lives and make sure the elections have real integrity.” Civil society may include nongovernmental groups, professional associations and religious organizations, he said.

Bjornlund cited the example of citizens who advocated for democracy in Indonesia. Their efforts led to the 1998 resignation of President Suharto after a 32-year rule. Indonesia eventually amended its constitution in 2004 to provide for the direct election by popular vote of the president and vice president.

Bjornlund added that another key area of a government’s transition is educating the public about the election process and the responsibilities of both the public and the election officials. This educational role should involve both civil society and government.

He pointed to a series of citizen discussions in the Palestinian Territories in the mid-1990s funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development that he directed through the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. Bjornlund cited the thousands of groups that met to encourage people to learn about democracy, share their views and, most importantly, have the experience of engaging with fellow citizens on issues of governance. The forum became a model for other civic education programs in Haiti and countries in Eastern Europe.

International groups have monitored elections to ensure their integrity since the mid-1980s. Over the years, the activity has evolved from an informal one to an international norm that is included in many international agreements.

Bjornlund, author of the book Beyond Free and Fair: Monitoring Elections and Building Democracy, has worked with former U.S. president Jimmy Carter monitoring elections in five countries. He said election monitoring involves both civil society groups and the international community to ensure that the results of an election express the will of the voting public. “Civil society groups organize around the ideas that they want to have democratic elections. They want a certain set of rules, then to make sure those rules are respected.”

Democracy International works to promote free and legitimate elections through monitoring, election administration strengthening, and support for democratic political parties.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/iipdigital-en/index.html)

Four men looking at laptop computer on desk (Democracy International)

Eric Bjornlund, second from right, reviews civic education materials with election officials at the Dili Institute of Technology in Timor-Leste.