Last month, parliamentary leaders from across the globe visited Washington, D.C., to contribute to the first ever House Democracy Partnership (HDP) Leadership Forum, where they participated in peer-to-peer discussions on some of the most urgent threats to democracy around the world—rising authoritarianism, anti-democratic propaganda, political polarization—and discussed how legislative bodies can best respond. The Forum, held July 16-18, was the first of its kind in the fourteen-year history of the HDP, a bipartisan commission of the U.S. House of Representatives working to support the development of effective, independent and responsive legislative institutions worldwide.
HDP Chairman Rep. David Price (D-NC), and HDP Co-Chair Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) welcomed more than 40 delegates from sixteen countries representing a wide variety of political structures. Delegates included parliamentary leaders and democracy champions from Armenia, Colombia, Georgia, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Liberia, Nepal, North Macedonia, Peru, and Sri Lanka.
Rep. Price opened the Leadership Forum with a powerful reminder that the future of democracy rests on the ability of policymakers—like those who gathered that day at the Library of Congress—to affect positive change in the lives of the people they represent. “For the sake of representative democracy, we simply cannot fail,” said Price, who added that he hoped the Forum would serve as a foundation for legislators to deliver on the promise of democracy.
“These are not easy days for democracy,” said Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which implements activities on behalf of HDP in partnership with the International Republican Institute (IRI). Mitchell noted that the world has undergone remarkable changes since HDP was first established in 2005, and that its work to bring legislators together to build more resilient and representative institutions is more critical now than ever.
The two-day forum featured a variety of discussions aimed at developing solutions at the parliamentary level to combat rising threats to global democracy. The first day began with a panel discussion on reasserting the independence of the legislative branch in the face of growing authoritarianism. As part of the panel, parliamentary leaders from Armenia and Guatemala joined representatives from the U.S. Congress in affirming that independent legislatures around the world find themselves under increasing threat by authoritarian forces precisely because democratic institutions provide avenues for public input into decision-making that ultimately endanger such forces’ grip on power. For the panelists, the solution was clear: ensure those avenues are as wide as possible.
This was followed by a discussion on mitigating the corrosive effects of political polarization. Delegates from Lebanon, Georgia, Sri Lanka, and the U.S. talked about the need to institutionalize inter-party lines of communication and collaboration, such as through committees and other fora for cross-party dialogue. They also discussed the ways in which some parliamentary structures can contribute to polarization by disincentivizing cross-party collaboration, and how such systems have been coping with the added weight of polarization in recent years.
Delegates closed out the first day by sharing their experiences from the front lines of the fight against disinformation, propaganda and demagoguery in countries such as Georgia, Iraq, Armenia, and the United States. Speakers shared examples of tactics used by malicious actors in those regions to undermine the values of liberal democracy. They also discussed countermeasures such as civic education campaigns and legislation to increase transparency around political messaging, and spoke about how the growing sophistication of tools used by peddlers of disinformation will only make this work more important as time goes on.
On the second day of the Forum, parliamentary leaders engaged in discussions on institutional transparency, resourcing, capacity-building, and engagement with youth movements. The day also featured a panel of women political leaders from Liberia, Kenya, Kosovo, Nepal, and the U.S., who brought forth a diversity of experiences and ideas on ending violence against women in politics. These ideas ranged from the institution of party list quotas, to the development of outreach efforts aimed at fostering a broader appreciation of the benefits that equal access and representation have for both men and women.
At the close of the Forum, delegates joined together in reaffirming their commitment to democratic renewal, and expressed their desire to bring the ideas they discussed back to their home countries to reinvigorate the work they do to build more effective, independent and responsive legislative institutions.
The morning following the two-day forum, delegates engaged in one-on-one discussions with Derek Mitchell at an NDI-hosted breakfast. They then had the opportunity to meet with representatives and staff in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as federal government officials and leaders from the international democracy community based in Washington.
Author: Frieda L. Arenos is a Senior Program Manager with the Governance team at the National Democratic Institute.