The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

Delving into democracy: political party financing, civil society, and female participation

Albert Galea Sunday, 16 February 2020, 10:30 Last update: about 5 months ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday sits down with Robert Benjamin from the National Democratic Institute to discuss the institute’s work and its views on key parts of democracy such as political party funding, civil society, and female participation in politics.

First of all, what is the National Democratic Institute and what is the work which it carries out?

The National Democratic Institute (NDI) is a non-profit, non-partisan organisation set up to support democratic transitions in countries around the world.  We have been in existence since 1983 and we work in around 60 countries. These countries are those which are either in the beginning, or in the midst of trying to consolidate a democratic transition.  We work in a variety of manners, but our primary focus is on the political process and ensuring that this is open, transparent, and accountable.

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NDI delves into political institutions and processes including elections, legislative process in Parliament, the role of political parties and essentially the space between the government and citizens.  We also work with groups of people, such as youths, to propagate their engagement and involvement in the political process as activists and political leaders, along with also focusing on building gender equality within the legislative framework to eliminate barriers which women face.  We are also increasing our focus on information technology and the role that the media and public information plays in building a solid democratic state.

I’ll start with some general questions, some of which relate to Malta itself as a democracy. If we look at political party development – a main source of critique in Maltese politics, and certainly further afield, is the close ties – namely through funding – that political parties have with major businesses in various fields. How do you envision a political party system which is less reliant on businesses and is more transparent?

The fact is that this is a pretty significant question which we come across in a lot of our political party support work, especially in the countries that I focus on in Central and Eastern Europe. What we’re trying to do is enforcing what we call political party integrity. By that, I am talking in terms of the manner in which political parties are organised to adopt, embed, and practice ethics and other forms of engagement within their party structures.

When it comes to this issue, party finance is a really important aspect.  I think there needs to be a balance in the manner in which political parties are able to find diverse sources of support, which I think is a good thing to do, between that need for raising money and the need for transparency through some measure of external regulation that would oversee things with the aim of creating a more equal playing field amongst the parties. 

The transparency aspect is a major one, and the degree to which a political party shows how it is using its funds to the public, be that in an election process but also in broader forms of political representation, must be emphasised.

Do you think that the state itself should come in with a financial framework to support political parties?

I think that an important part of this debate is to figure out the degree to which the state has a funding role for political parties.  Sometimes the level of that aid is determined by the election law, where a specific amount of money is granted to the parties from the state budget in order for them to run their election campaigns. Other times it has to do with public money going the parties based on their participation in parliament.

I think therefore, inevitably, there is a role for the state in providing funding to political parties, but the extent to which that funding, the regulatory framework on which it is based, and the degree to which political parties are also able to raise money outside of state resources are all finer tuning that needs to happen. 

A lot of that is determined by the political process, and by culture, practice, and understanding. The really important thing to note here is that there isn’t an explicit set of rules or standards that can apply – it has to be home-grown, so a lot of our work is based on providing a comparative scenario for states to work off of.

A point which has been quite a constant presence in the political news cycle in Malta relates to female participation in politics.  We have a very low percentage of women in parliament as things stand.  In your view, what is the best means that a country can adopt to promote the participation of women in politics?

I think there are three sets of challenges which we face in the work we do with respect to women in politics. 

The first has to do with the individual – that is how skilled and able women are to participate in the political process. It’s a question of skills and experience, but also giving them the space and circumstances to work in. For instance, sometimes women can run into barriers as basic as when political parties hold meetings; the times would not necessarily be convenient when you have to consider jobs, childcare, and other commitments.  Political parties have to address how they function in terms of creating the opportunities and the space for this process.  So while part of it is individual, another part of it is offering the structure which affords women equal opportunities when it comes to finance, placement on the ballot sheet, leadership positions within the party, and even in parliament, executive institutions, election processes, and labour market laws where there should be consideration for gender equality.

The third point is then a socio-cultural one. One must recognise certain biases, social behaviour which may lead to society subconsciously relegating women to a secondary status, and then handling the public debate in such a manner to negate this.

At NDI we want to look at all these three aspects, while keeping in mind that there is no secret formula to this – it is all based on finding solutions and pathways from the common realm.  Democracy as such is not an exportable product. Our job, as we see it, is to support people in institutions so that they can find their way to their own answers.

Malta was one of the first European Union countries to extend the voting franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds in the electorate.  Do you think that this idea has a positive impact on democracy as a whole and should be spread to other countries?

That’s for those countries to determine. Here in Malta there is a really interesting and somewhat unique system, but it is for other countries to decide whether they want to learn more about it and implement it.  Given that there is no explicit standard, every country really needs to arrive at its own conclusion.

I think the one statement that I would offer is that you don’t have to look far to see young people and people as teenagers participating, standing up, stepping out, and saying what they believe. It’s very clear that there is a very strong articulation of what a democratic process looks like for youths; they believe it, want it, and want to be a part of it. How that’s expressed, how it’s structured and whether or not that should extend to voting rights is a very interesting question that has, as it did in Malta, to find its existence within a legal framework.

The term civil society is something which is on the rise as of late. It is however quite a broad term. How do you define the term civil society, and how should a government ensure its continued development?

The fundamental basis for civil society is anchored in human rights of expression and association.  Civil society is a space which is not tied to the public or private sector; they are groups, either defined organisations or even individuals, which come together to socially express ideas or interests that relate to the public good.  Those ideas may have to do with governance issues, sectors like healthcare, education, and sports, or even what we call grassroots issues related to, for instance, neighbourhoods and communities.  This is where I think in the United States we have a very long and proud tradition of people getting together to do things and that’s why I’m happy to here, hosted by the US Embassy on a state department funded programme as an NGO.

To say that there is a role for civil society to play – we use that phrase to inadvertently connote a single entity, it’s not; it’s the opposite – it is many different people coming together to do many different things.

One of the key aspects that government should be thinking about is how to create points of entry for civil society groups to participate in a constructive and structured way in the political process.

For instance, we should look at how parliament gives access to groups who want to testify before Parliament or a Parliamentary Committee on a set of legislative amendments. We spend a lot of time trying to create that point of entry both in parliament and in political parties, so to get them to engage with civil society on public policy issues.

Political parties have a particular challenge because they have to answer to everyone and have a position on virtually everything. That is sometimes daunting – but that is what they have to do in order to show people that they are capable of governing. Therefore they need to reach out to civil society groups which specialise in these areas so that they gain that level of expertise and transform it into a coherent political platform. There really has to be a very dynamic environment for civil society to engage and there have to be those points of entry.

Moving to further afield – the development of Eastern European countries is something which is no doubt being watched closely by their Western counterparts.  It’s sometimes good to point out that up until less than 30 years ago, most – if not all – of these countries were under the rule of a dictatorship.  How challenging has the transition into democracy been in these countries?

We just commemorated the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall when these countries won their freedom. They won that freedom with dignity, and stood up and said that they want to be free, be a democratic society, and join Europe.  Today, 30 years later, we can see a lot of success but of course there is still a lot of work to do.  I focus on countries in the Balkans, which came from a communist past and which unfortunately experienced a lot of violent conflict in the 1990s.

 So dealing with the post-communist past and post-conflict present makes for a lot of challenges in terms of building democratic institutions – it’s happening, but it is also taking time to look at separation of powers, building anti-corruption mechanisms, and creating the linkage between ethnic and religious groups that needs to be there to remove conflict.

These are European countries.  They are in Europe, they are European societies, their future is in the European Union, and the democratisation and EU integration process are largely concurrent. I think it is really important for countries like Malta, which are EU member states, to show solidarity with countries in the Balkans which are making this journey.  We see it every day and we support it wholeheartedly.

I think that when it comes to supporting democratic transitions you need to have a lot of humility.  Nobody has it perfect, and it is a constant state of evolution and reform. For countries in the Balkans there is a sort of end point with EU membership, but it doesn’t stop there, which is why this solidarity is important.

What challenges to the democracy of these countries do the ever-increasing spheres of influence of Russia and Turkey – countries not necessarily praised for their democratic values – create?

This is a question related to European integration.  The EU is trying to find a way of moving the process forward – hopefully there will be formal negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia, but these were postponed, and the United States is looking at bilateral relations with Serbia and Kosovo.

There are a number of issues there that have an effect on the degree in which other countries, in particular Russia, influence proceedings.  It’s important to consider their influence as impacted by the degree to which these countries are integrating into Europe and the trans-Atlantic family.  By that I mean that the degree to which that is happening can upset the questionable influence coming from other countries, but if that is not happening then the influence from those countries can have an effect on this democratic process.

 

 

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