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The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.

News and Views

Commentary from experts on the directions and challenges of democracy assistance programs.

January 10, 2014

In 2014, It's Not Just About the Ballot Box

Foreign Policy

This year is “being billed as the ‘biggest year for democracy ever’ by the Economist, which notes that 40 percent of the world's population will be voting in national elections….But how much will the results tell us about the actual state of democracy in these countries?” While elections are the bedrock of a democracy, they are not enough to ensure it.

“Democracy is scarcely viable in the absence of genuinely democratic institutions such as an independent judiciary, relatively free media, and organized groups that reflect the varied needs and interests of community.” And “sufficiently strong institutions” will not likely exist “unless there's a critical mass of engaged citizenry who are willing to fight for them….It's in the places where citizens are prepared to mobilize, and to work actively to claim and realize their own rights, where the prospects for democracy are best.”

“The big surprises for democracy [this year] will come in the places where citizens manage to mobilize effectively despite the odds….That's the funny thing about democracy: It has a knack for breaking out where you least expect it.”

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January 8, 2014

Democracy in Peril in Asia

The New York Times

The recent protests in Cambodia, Bangladesh and Thailand “are a vivid reminder of the fragile state of democracy in many developing countries, particularly those that do not have independent judiciaries and professional police forces and militaries.”

In all three countries, “[a]utocratic and corrupt political leaders have used government agencies, in some cases over decades, to serve themselves and their cronies” rather than the people. As a result, “[t]he lack of sufficient democratic checks and balances...has undermined faith in elections and helped to create the conditions for civil unrest.”

“There are no easy or quick solutions to the crisis in these three nations. While elections are vital, they are not sufficient to create stable democracies. Until these countries build institutions capable of serving as a check on political leaders, they will remain vulnerable to civil unrest.”

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January 3, 2014

Tunisia Starts Voting on New Constitution


Last Friday, Tunisia, which sparked the Arab Spring three years ago, began voting on a new constitution. This vote is expected to put the country’s “turbulent progress to democracy back on track” after “divisions between Islamists and secular opposition parties led to a political deadlock” in 2013.

Around 192 lawmakers attended the opening debate at the National Assembly, where introductory clauses to the constitution were voted on one-by-one, including the first clause which read: “[Tunisia is] a free country, independent, with sovereignty; Islam is its religion, Arabic its language and the republic its regime.”

Approval of the constitution's 146 articles is expected to take at least a week.

Tunisia’s “final steps to full democracy have been widely watched as a possible model in a region where Egypt, Libya and Yemen, which also ousted their leaders in 2011, are struggling with violence and instability as well as resurgent Islamism.”

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December 18, 2013

Tunisia's Reawakening

The New York Times

Three years ago, the pro-democracy demonstrations known as the Arab Spring started in Tunisia and quickly spread throughout the Arab world. Recently, the Arab Spring countries have faced periods of violence and stalled transitions. But after a recent political agreement, “it is Tunisia, once again, that could show the way to get the transitions to democracy back on track.”

Three weeks ago, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda, led by Rachid Ghannouchi, and opposition parties “reached an put a caretaker administration in charge until new elections.” Ghannouchi and former prime minister Beji Caid Essbsi, who negotiated the agreement, recognized after months of political and economic turmoil that “only a broad political compromise could halt the country’s downward spiral.”

Since 2011, Tunisia’s transition has had some successes: the country “avoided excessive political score-settling against the former elite” and “kept its military under civilian control.” And now, “Tunisians can show that political compromise is possible” in the region.

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November 15, 2013

US Democracy Groups Mark 30 Years of Progress, Controversy

Voice of America

The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) are celebrating 30 years of working with non-governmental organizations, political parties, democracy activists and governments around the world to support and strengthen democratic institutions.

The NED, which receives funding from Congress, has helped foster change by providing grants to groups like NDI and IRI who have field-based offices in countries throughout the world. “In most all of those countries, we work with the ruling party, the opposition parties, we work with the government, we work with civil society," said Ken Wollack, NDI’s president.

Despite facing challenging environments in many countries, over the past 30 years these “U.S. democracy groups have been making progress, one country at a time.”

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October 30, 2013

Doing Away with Et Cetera

Foreign Policy

On November 21, 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords ended the Bosnian War and established a new constitution designed to prevent further conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Though the constitution has successfully maintained peace in the country, it’s prioritization of stability over democracy has become “a main source of the country's substantial democratic and functional problems.”

Dividing “Bosnia along ethnic lines into three constituent peoples (the Bosniak-Muslims, Serbs, and Croats),” the constitution inherently excludes Bosnians “who do not fit into any of the three constituent groups.” In particular, these Bosnians, constitutionally known as “others,” are prevented from holding “state and legislative positions,” including the State Presidency, since they “are shared among the ethnic groups.”

In consequence, “Bosnia's political system is in dire need of substantial change.” Its very structure of ethnic representation is hurting its citizens. If Bosnia wants to improve its democratic standing, its ethnic divisions of political power must end and a Bosnian identity emphasizing “more contemporary criteria such as economics or social issues”—with which citizens are more concerned, according to a 2009 NDI opinion poll—should be discussed.

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October 11, 2013

Tunisia Islamists ready to hand over power, see spring election


After winning Tunisia’s 2011 elections, the Islamist Ennahda Party is in the process of voluntarily resigning from government. This decision “came after the murder of an opposition leader by suspected Islamist militants in July, which ignited months of protests, shut an assembly drafting a new constitution and threatened a transition seen as the region's most promising.”

While Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s chairman, “has long promoted moderate Islamist policies” and condemned the acts of Islamist militants, the party and he “accepted the idea of stepping aside for a caretaker cabinet,” being “perhaps wary of the fate of Egypt’s Brotherhood.” A temporary non-partisan government will now run the country until new elections, which will likely be held next Spring.

Ennahda, however, has not necessarily lost the chance to govern Tunisia since it “remains the most organized political organization in Tunisia, making it a force to be reckoned with going into any ballot.”

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October 4, 2013

Quotas and Women in Egyptian Politics

Council on Foreign Relations

Two weeks ago, “Egypt’s Constituent Assembly, charged with amending the country’s constitution, announced that 25 percent of municipal seats will be reserved for women. There is no word yet on when municipal elections will be held, or if a similar quota will be established for parliament, but the move is a positive step toward improving the low political participation of women in the aftermath of Egypt’s revolution.”

Although a quota for women in parliament existed under former president Hosni Mubarak, “the transitional government led by Egypt’s military declined to include any quota for women and as a result, less than 2 percent of the post-revolution parliament was female.”

While a quota system is by no means a universal solution to gender inequality in Egyptian politics, “it can be an essential first step to increasing women’s political participation." Having “a voice at the table — even if it is quiet — can be better than having no voice at all.”

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October 4, 2013

Women Rights Organisations Strategize for Democracy in Zimbabwe

Thomson Reuters Foundation

In July, Zimbabwe held general elections which President Mugabe and his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, won handily. While the elections were peaceful, most have condemned its credibility, including the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, a women’s rights organization.

According to Mushonga–Mazvidza, the coalition’s national coordinator, there were particular challenges for women when registering to vote. In urban areas, which have fewer voting stations, “there were stories of women who stood in queues for about four to five hours waiting to register to vote,” she said. In addition, “many women in Zimbabwe don’t own property or it is not registered in their name, so they struggled to get registered” since proof of residence is required for registration.

Although democracy faces many obstacles in Zimbabwe, Mushonga–Mazvidza and the coalition are continuing to work for free and fair elections and gender equality. They are also optimistic about the future, noting “how traditional attitudes are changing with the newer generation that is coming into politics.”

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September 25, 2013

In Indonesia, a Governor at Home on the Streets

The New York Times

Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta, does something unusual for a public official: he regularly “ventures into the streets to speak with the people who elected him,” explaining his programs and listening to people’s concerns about the city. This rare routine is one of the main reasons he has “overnight shot to the top of the polls” for possible candidates for next year’s presidential election.

With corruption expected to be a major issue in next year’s election, Widodo, who is “considered a clean politician who has not used his office to enrich himself,” will likely be a favorite if he runs. The decision of his candidacy, however, will be decided by his party, which recently decided to allow its leader, former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, to name the presidential nominee.

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