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GLOBAL JOURNALIST: Elections always fascinating, sometimes free and fair

Friday, November 5, 2010 | 2:05 p.m. CDT

Charles Davis, associate professor, Missouri School of Journalism: It is election season, not just in the United States but in many countries around the world from Brazil to Egypt. Brazil just elected its first female president, and in Egypt, opposition parties are being repressed ahead of the Nov. 28 vote. What common themes continue to emerge in elections around the world? What challenges do countries face as they elect leaders to represent them? What is the state of fair elections in the world? Our guests today are Arch Puddington, director of research, Freedom House, New York; Todd Benson, bureau chief, Reuters, Sao Paulo, Brazil; Moheb Zaki, senior adviser, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo, Egypt; Brian Byrnes, independent journalist, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Todd Benson in Brazil, what are the messages from the election of Brazil’s first woman president and the election of a former leftist rebel turned government power-broker?

Todd Benson, Sao Paulo bureau chief, Reuters, Brazil: I think the overarching message of the election in Brazil was one of continuity. Brazilians were not interested in change at all. There has been remarkable economic growth in Brazil under Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the outgoing president. More than 20 million people have been lifted out of poverty in Brazil since 2003, and for the first time, there is a burgeoning middle class. The election of Dilma Rousseff is the success of President Lula, who picked her from obscurity. The fact that she is a woman is also very significant for Brazil. Surprisingly, it was not a very common theme of the election campaign itself, but it is nonetheless significant in a country like Brazil, which is behind some of its Latin American neighbors in electing a woman.

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Davis: Brian Byrnes, there was a rather cataclysmic event in Argentina recently. Bring us up to speed on what has happened and the political ramifications.

Brian Byrnes, independent journalist, Buenos Aires, Argentina: Last Wednesday, Oct. 27, we saw the death of Nestor Kirchner. He was the former president of Argentina from 2003 to 2007. He died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 60. In addition to being the former president of Argentina, he was the husband of the current president of Argentina, Cristina Fernandez Kirchner. That means that once Dilma Rousseff takes charge in Brazil, we will have two females running the two largest economies in South America. But the death of Nestor Kirchner last week left a huge gap in the political spectrum here in Argentina and throughout the region. Nestor Kirchner was regarded as helping the country bounce back from the devastating economic crisis in 2001 and 2003. He helped lower poverty rates and unemployment rates and stopped crime. He was very critical of foreign corporations, the International Monetary Fund, Wall Street and of Washington. He has continually lashed out at those organizations whom he blamed for Argentina’s economic woes, and that made him really popular at home. A lot of leaders over the past decade have spoken out on what they called “Washington Consensus,” so Nestor Kirchner’s death certainly leaves a gap here in Argentina. It is also uncertain now if his wife will run for re-election a year from now.

Davis: In Egypt, we have elections on the cusp. What is the situation with the elections in Egypt?

Moheb Zaki, senior adviser, Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Cairo, Egypt: I am afraid the elections in Egypt meet with very little popular mobilization. There are certain realities here that are important to take into consideration. The first one is that Egypt has been ruled for the past 30 years by an authoritarian regime. The second factor is that as a consequence of this reality, there is no competition because all secular parties have been completely domesticated. In the last election, the combined representation of secular parties in parliament was only 2.5 percent of the parliamentary seats. Except for the Muslim Brothers, they all suffer severe weaknesses and have no constituents to speak of. The Muslim Brothers have managed to survive and have a constituency, simply because they had mosques as a forum from which they could make contact with the masses and because of the potent symbols of Islam. And the third reality is that Egyptians have developed a severe apathy toward elections. In the last election, for example, only 18 percent of registered voters went to the polls. This must be the lowest turnout in any election ever. The secular parties, apart from the Muslim Brothers, are suffering from endemic problems. They have no vision, are politically inept, have severe organizational problems, and they are always lacking funds. The government could ram through the parliament whatever bills they wanted, uncontested and without any modifications to speak of.

Davis: Arch Puddington, how does Freedom House measure electoral freedom?

Arch Puddington, director of research, Freedom House, New York: We do a survey every year, a report that assesses the state of global freedom. And over the last five years, we have seen a steady decline globally. It has been a modest decline every year, but over a period of five years, it does amount to something. Now we’re able to look not just at how particular countries are scoring but also the particular institutions of democracy to see how these institutions are faring on a global or a regional level. The most important finding is that the decline in global freedom is focused on certain civil liberties areas: freedom of expression, that is to say repression of the press; and freedom of association, mainly being concentrated in repression of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in various parts of the world; and rule of law. We have seen the greatest decline in the rule of law. That is mainly expressed in governments using judiciaries and the instruments of law enforcement for political purposes. On the other hand, elections on a global level have been pretty much status quo. As an indicator, it has had the most positive trajectory over the past five years of any of the major institutions of democratic governance. At the regional level, you have a series of relatively free and fair elections in Latin America, in the former Communist Eastern Europe and to a lesser degree in Asia. Where you’re getting very poor results are in the former Soviet Union and in the Middle East.

Davis: Arch, the goal of the Freedom House’s research is to educate people about the status of electoral freedom around the world and in turn pressure leaders around the world to make changes. How do you measure progress in that arena?

Puddington: In terms of elections, we want a level playing field. That is not to say just that the elections are free and fair on election day but that all the various political parties have the ability to speak to the people, to not have their candidates ruled out of the election through some unfair technicality and so on. So we look at a whole continuum of issues that comprise free and fair (elections). For democracy generally, we look at a range of civil liberties issues as well. I think what you’re seeing globally, and certainly in Latin America, is a decline in traditional parties, and the political opposition is increasingly being concentrated in new parties and in NGOs. The more authoritarian-oriented leadership recognizes this, and they have ratcheted up repression of the press and these NGOs that are perceived as part of the political opposition.

Davis: Todd Benson, following up on what Mr. Puddington was just speaking about, what is the state of political opposition in Brazil? Do you feel it has had plenty of breathing room in the recent elections?

Benson: Yes, Brazil is a slight anomaly in Latin America in that there hasn’t been a very large decline of traditional parties in Brazil as in some other countries. In Brazil, there are 27 political parties in Congress, but three or four main parties are the big players in elections. In this election, the left-leaning Workers’ Party was up against the Social Democrats. The opposition had plenty of space in the media to make its case and run for presidency. Most of the main newspapers and television stations were unabashed in their support for the opposition candidate. It didn’t change the outlook or course of the election. But yes, I would say overall this is a very vibrant political climate in Brazil.

Davis: It is also a fascinating economic expansion that has been taking place in Brazil that you alluded to earlier. As you mentioned, this election was as much about continuity as anything else. How does the new president continue that economic expansion, and what are some of the obstacles she faces?

Benson: To a certain degree, it may not get as good as it is right now for her. Brazil’s economy is set to grow about 7.5 percent this year, which would be the highest growth rate for Brazil in three decades. However, that comes on the back of a flat economy last year because of the global economic crisis and global financial crisis, so the base of comparison is really low. It is unlikely that we’re going to see 7 percent growth rates going forward. To achieve that, President-elect Rousseff hasn’t offered too many specifics about what her plans are, but she has been in charge of the government’s flagship infrastructure program, which for Brazil is crucial. You’re going to see a lot of infrastructure investment going forward because Brazil is going to host a World Cup in 2014 and then the Olympic Games in 2016. The country does not have the infrastructure to withstand the current growth rates, so you’re going to see a lot of infrastructure spending in the next four years from this government. You’re probably going to see some tax reform aimed at making this a more business-friendly climate. Brazil is a nightmare in terms of bureaucracy and taxation. The World Bank ranks it around 160th in terms of countries globally in terms of ease of doing business. So the president-elect has said that is a priority and she would try to push through tax reform in her first year in office. What we don’t expect to see from her is significant fiscal adjustment in terms of slowing down government spending, which is outpacing tax revenues right now. With the economy growing at such a fast pace, there hasn’t been much pressure on the government to cool down spending. She has already pledged that she will not cut any of the social welfare programs that exist in Brazil and that has been helpful in reducing the poverty rate. So I think we are going to see a lot of the same from what we have seen from President Lula the last eight years.

Davis: Moheb Zaki, you have outlined the lack of viable democratic elections in Egypt. Nevertheless, there are certainly issues as you prepare for elections there. What are some of the issues on the minds of Egyptians as they prepare for these elections?

Zaki: Mainly what Egyptians worry about is the growing corruption and conflict. That has become so widespread and so endemic to the system. The second issue is the lack of adherence to the rule of law. Even the very poor people have trouble going to police stations and obtaining their rights if they are in conflict with someone who is well connected and so on. These two issues are so fundamental for all Egyptians. And there is considerable sympathy toward their Muslim Brothers who appear to be people with a mission, though they have no program and they say Islam is the solution, which means nothing in terms of a platform. So it doesn’t mean in free and fair elections they will sweep the slate completely. In the district where I live, there are 115,000 registered voters. The Muslim Brothers candidate captured one seat in the last election by garnering only 3,000 votes. So they actually win by default. The people don’t go out to vote. When you have only 18 percent of voters turn out, what does it say about the legitimacy of parliament and the whole regime? There is no competition from the secular parties. What appears now is that the whole competition is between the regime and the Muslim Brothers, between the so-called autocrats and the theocrats. In this election, the Muslim Brothers are competing for only 30 percent of the seats. So they would like to see less of the Muslim Brothers in the parliament and more of the secular people simply because they know that the real challenge to the regime comes from the Muslim Brothers. But for the last 30 years, the regime has managed to emasculate the secular parties completely. The best of them can only have candidates for one-third of the seats in parliament.

Davis: Arch Puddington, that is kind of what you’re talking about: monitoring elections to look at declines in the rule of law. There are ways to squelch opposition parties that are overtly legal that don’t involve any sort of dramatic physical oppression but work just as effectively.

Puddington: Authoritarian leaders around the world are getting increasingly sophisticated in the ways they use the law to help them consolidate their power and smother democracy. For example, you can make it difficult for smaller parties to gain seats in parliament by raising the percentage that those parties need to get into parliament. You can make it impossible for NGOs or political parties to get funding. You can do it through certain legal measures or by threatening that any wealthy person or business or businessman in a particular country who provides financial support for the opposition will be persecuted. That has gone on in Russia throughout Vladimir Putin’s period. You see this in the former Soviet Union, you see it more blatantly in places like Egypt where they do have elections, but elections are not even close to meeting international standards. And you see it with Chavez in Venezuela where they use legal measures to suppress the press, NGOs and political parties.

Davis: Brian Byrnes, what is the political ecosystem in Argentina these days? Kirchner was a relative outsider. Can you see another outsider emerging?

Byrnes: It’s really hard to tell only a week after his death. There are a lot of candidates who are quietly planning a presidential run a year from now. But you have dozens of new political parties, but only two that matter. So it is going to be interesting to see how this plays out. We saw Cristina Kirchner appear on television three nights ago for the first time in public since her husband’s death. She was very quiet and was thanking people for all the shows of support and love they gave her over the past few days. But she has also been very defiant, and I think she will continue this very confrontational style started by her husband. Argentina continues to be a very difficult place to do business in. There is a lot of bureaucracy and Nestor Kirchner implemented a lot of state control over the economy. Of course foreign investors didn’t like that, so a lot of them haven’t sunk their money into Argentina over the last decade or so. We actually saw bonds and stocks rally immediately after the news of Nestor Kirchner’s death broke, because people thought perhaps with him out of the scene, Argentina may be an easier place to do business in. We haven’t seen that play out yet, but I suspect a lot of foreign investors will continue to monitor the political landscape here in Argentina in the coming months until Cristina Kirchner decides what her next move is.

Davis: That was such a sudden passing that I imagine it will take some time for the ground to clear. Thank you.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Ryan Kresse, Youn-Joo Park, Tim Wall, Rebecca Wolfson and Kuba Wuls. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.


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