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NDI

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.

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For those who have never experienced a freewheeling political campaign, the raucousness of an American election season can be inspiring and overwhelming. Talking is incessant in rooms of phone bank volunteers searching for votes, energetic political party members go door to door in last minute appeals for support and candidates talk nonstop in the countdown to election day.

A delegation of young political party members from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia experienced this mix in an NDI program that brought them to the Washington, D.C., area to aid their efforts to improve the participation of young people in their political systems, which are dealing in different ways with the effects of the Arab Spring.

The group, representing 11 political parties, witnessed the U.S. political process at both the grass roots and national levels in the last days before the Nov. 6 election. All of the visitors were among the leading participants in a series of political leadership training programs in the three countries over the past year organized by NDI and funded by Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) to support more effective participation of young people in political life. The study mission was the final regional activity of the program.

During their stay, the young North Africans met with Republican and Democratic campaign staff and volunteers, media analysts, public opinion pollsters, civic activists and candidates. They attended campaign rallies, witnessed voting on election day and spoke with election officials in Washington, Maryland and Virginia in an effort to gather information and skills that they can adapt to improve their parties’ effectiveness and increase youth involvement. Each of their nations will hold elections within the next year.

They heard from representatives of nonpartisan organizations such as the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates and the Arab American Institute, as well as partisan groups such as the Young Republican National Federation, Atlas Project/Democratic GAIN and Targeted Creative Communications, a Republican marketing company.

At one stop, the group saw President Obama and former President Clinton deliver speeches to supporters, and the visitors went to several campaign offices for both Obama and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Campaign Visit

The young participants expressed surprise at the high level of volunteerism in American campaigns and the power of organized grassroots campaigning to engage diverse groups of voters.

“The parties’ campaigns are really well organized,” said Naouel Achour of Tunisia's Al Massar party. “And I think that we don’t have this in our countries, but we are in our first year of democracy so it takes time.”

Local candidates, including Senate candidate Tim Kaine, and get-out-the-vote volunteers who spoke with the group underscored that while rallies generate enthusiasm and phone calls to potential voters are important, the real work of a campaign involves talking to friends and neighbors about candidates and issues and convincing them to vote.

As the young party members watched late into the night as election results were tallied, they were also struck by the decentralized nature of American elections. Many also remarked on the great degree of faith American voters have in their system, despite its complexity.

“We have seen the force of the American parties,” reflected Algerian participant Amine Limam, of the Rally for Culture and Democracy party. “There are so many individuals and organizations involved [in electoral campaigns] in the U.S. We see now that we must encourage everyone to participate.”

Participants said they will continue to exchange information with their regional counterparts to hone their understanding of politics and political organizing on both the national and local levels. And their experiences have helped them learn how to do a better job of engaging youth—both as voters and as organizers—for their parties, they said.

“We have heard from our neighbors and also seen how things are done in the U.S.,” said Khalid El Gallouch of Morocco’s Istiqlal Party. “This experience will make us better politicians.”

 

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Published Nov. 20, 2012