By Amr Ramadan
CAIRO: The role of both established and emergent political parties in the Egyptian political scene after the January 25 Revolution has been continuously called into question since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Will Derks, program manager for the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) shared his ideas with Daily News Egypt about the role the parties have to play, drawing on his and the institute’s extensive experience in building successful democratic transitions.
The NIMD is a democracy assistance organization of political parties in the Netherlands for political parties in young democracies, currently working with more than 150 political parties from 16 program countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe.
It organizes joint initiatives by parties to improve the democratic system in their countries, help the institutional development of political parties and support efforts to improve relations between political parties, civil society and the media.
“We focus on political parties because there are a lot of activities going on in the world supporting democracy that leave out political parties because they view them as problematic. However, we believe that they are a problem but also the solution, there is no democracy without political parties,” Derks said.
Derks explained that the most important principles at the institute are the notions that democracy cannot be exported and that a democratic transition is a long-term process that should be locally rooted.
“We have few country offices, we just visit our program countries regularly and we try to facilitate what partners may want and give advice based on our expertise as an organization of political parties. But all activities are organized and implemented by locals, and we are committed to our partners for the long-term or else we don’t start our programs.”
To better explain the current events in Egypt, Derks drew parallels between the current Egyptian situation and Indonesia using examples from NIMD’s experience in the country.
Derks said that in 1998, Indonesia ousted their president after more than 30 years of autocratic rule. Under the dictatorship, only 3 parties were allowed and after the ousting, it changed the political party’s law causing a boom in the number of parties reaching more than 60.
NIMD, establishing contacts with political parties and other stakeholders in Indonesia, worked with the Indonesians to identify the best possible method for the NIMD to offer assistance. They found that after 30 years of dictatorship a huge part of the Indonesian population was politically illiterate; and decided to partner with the Indonesians to work on this issue.
By 2009, NIMD had a number of programs in Indonesia.
In partnership with the Jakarta-based Indonesian Community for Democracy (KID), NIMD supported a national inter-party dialogue program in which seven political parties, represented in Parliament, participated, and a political education program, consisting of Democracy Schools in eight regions, where young politicians, social activists, bureaucrats and professionals are trained in democratic values and practices.
“We tried to set up some form of democracy education program in local areas most of which are far away from the capital, as the capital was viewed to be more politically aware and have been very successful at it,” he said.
According to Derks, most alumni have become members of political parties and more than 80 of them ran for office during the 2009 parliamentary elections, some of them indeed winning seats in local and provincial parliaments. Others have been elected as village heads or mayors during regional elections for the executive, which in Indonesia are ongoing, depending on the district.
Also, in every region they have formed alumni groups, so-called Community Committees, which actively try to tackle local problems by acting as intermediary and getting all stakeholders around the table to find solutions.
Derks hinted that similar programs may be required in Egypt.
Going back to the Egyptian political scene and its similarities with the Indonesian experience he made an observation that fear of Islamic takeover of government may be unfounded based on what happened in Indonesia – the largest Muslim country in the world.
Derks said that in Indonesia in 1999, there were fears by most intellectuals and liberals that there would be an Islamic takeover after the fall of the powerful president, since the Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), was the only well-organized party other than the president’s ruling party, and it had very strong connections to the grassroots.
However, in the 2004 elections, the PKS won only 7.3 percent of the popular vote and 45 out of 550 seats. In the 2009 elections they did only slightly better (7.88 percent or 57 seats), although they had stated before the elections that they wanted to achieve 20 percent of seats.
“Although the party does have a presence in the Indonesian government, apparently, the Indonesians, even though they are all very devout Muslims, didn’t want an Islamic state, even the poor.”
According to Derks, now, the usual practices of buying votes by offering services, foodstuffs, patronage and nepotism have decreased significantly because people there have become more politically aware.
In 2009, the elections were won by secular parties, for the main reason that they had very good anti-corruption platforms.
Derks said it would be very difficult for parties in Egypt to prepare for the parliamentary elections within three months.
“Three months is crazy; you can’t set up a decent party in three months, no way. Other reasons why three months is too short is because of the exams period and the holy month of Ramadan which people will be focused on so that actually gives these new parties more like 1-2 months.”
“But on the other hand should it be postponed? Won’t you lose momentum? If you postpone it, what then?” Derks asked.
Derks said he felt that the current political parties in Egypt have to be more specific and straightforward with their constituents and that this would happen over time.
“In terms of manifesto writing or program writing, in Egypt you have a lot of political parties popping up and most of them have the same goals like social justice, education and health. But all this is still a bit vague,” he said.
He claimed that as a party you should not only determine the vision you want to achieve but the road and methods you take to achieve that vision. He said that even though the parties do not differ in what they want to achieve, the key here is how they want to achieve it.
“A liberal would take a different road having different aims and goals than a religious party for example.”
In order to achieve a successful multi-party democracy in Egypt, Derks said that Egypt’s parties need resolve and patience.
“Things will not happen overnight. The parties have to trust each other and work together and they should come up with national agenda, but maybe this would be better after the upcoming elections when things settle down more and become less chaotic.”
Derks concluded that focusing on democracy education for the time being may be a good alternative until the political situation is clearer.