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Serving Democracy, or America, Abroad?

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From the Fall 2012 Democracy issue

By Linda Kinstler

Dubbed “Реч на реч,” or “the word on the word,” the May 16 debate between Serbian President Boris Tadic and challenger Tomislav Nikolic is Serbia’s fourth national political debate in a month, following three rounds of televised parliamentary debates in April. This marks the final stop of the Serbian presidential campaign (votes to be cast four days later). This is only the third general election since the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 2003 and the creation of the Republic of Serbia. Cast as a “TV duel” in local media outlets, the feverishly plotted, yet surprisingly plodding, display pits the incumbent and head of the Serbian Democratic Party against the leader of the nationalist Serbian Progressive Party.

As the game show tune reaches a crescendo, the broadcast cuts to clips from the 2004 and 2008 Serbian presidential debates, showcasing younger, less harried versions of Tadic and Nikolic. Tadic is the handsome pro-Western incumbent, while Nikolic is the former deputy prime minister in the government of Slobodan Milosevic, the Yugoslav president who died in prison at The Hague during his genocide trial. In their previous on-camera contests, both candidates strode confidently onto the studio floor in the same broad-lapelled suits and red ties that they’ve chosen for this year’s rematch. In 2004, they sat at a large conference table on either side of the moderator, flanked by large Serbian flags—the whole studio swathed in red, white, and blue. The background walls read “избори (Choices) 2004” four times in giant stylized lettering. The 2008 debates had them standing behind podiums on an elevated stage, facing moderator Zoran Stanojevic, an editor at Radio Television Serbia (RTS)—the national news channel that broadcasts the debates. The set up immediately brought to mind an episode of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”—technicolor special effects and harsh spotlights included.

This spring the candidates once again face Stanojevic, who is just as meticulously tanned and coiffed as he was four years earlier. Gone, however, are the distracting banners and lights of their previous encounters. Instead, a digital Roman agora frames each candidate. The profusion of doric columns in the studio of a Serbian television station sends a clear message—Serbia has taken its place among the world’s most venerable and established democracies.

So perhaps it is appropriate that the United States had a hand in orchestrating the debate via the U.S. Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which worked with RTS and local organizations to train the debate moderator and production team. The CPD’s executive producer Martin Slutsky traveled to Serbia for 10 days to work on the project, one of the organization’s many international endeavors. In its three-year off-season from planning the U.S. presidential debates it was founded to organize, the CPD, in close partnership with the NDI, helps orchestrate formal political debates in emerging democracies.

The export of American-style debates is not without its dangers, but few statistics are available on voter responses to CPD-sponsored debates outside the United States. The mere execution of these debates, no matter how flawed, can be interpreted as a stamp of approval from the U.S. government. The CPD and NDI—with its links to the Democratic Party—are ostensibly non-governmental organizations but have close, if deniable, ties to official Washington. Political debates modeled after the American variety can allow candidates in new democracies to engage genuinely with their opponents and the electorate. But these debates can also end up as staged recitations of partisan rhetoric that undermine grassroots candidates. The work of the CPD and NDI to promote the American model of political debate abroad can make it easier for politicians from corrupt governments to masquerade as democrats merely by participating in debates that seem to have U.S. approval.

The CPD has worked with foreign debate-sponsoring organizations for over 20 years. Its website states that it is interested in “establishing debate traditions” outside of the United States. The CPD and NDI have a long-standing partnership coordinating debates at all levels of government and have built up a colorful list of client countries, many of which have a spotty democratic record. The first international CPD-sponsored debate occurred in Mexico in the 1990s, and since then, the organization’s list of clientele has expanded to include Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Colombia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Haiti, Jamaica, Lebanon, Niger, Nigeria, Peru, Romania, Trinidad and Tobago, Uganda, Ukraine, and now Serbia. Matt Dippell, deputy director of NDI’s Latin America and Caribbean team and CPD liaison, says the number of requests for collaboration is only increasing. “We’ve seen a very diverse range of countries in the last five, 10 years—East Timor, Iraq, Serbia, Egypt, Mexico, all just had debates that are historic.”

As for the CPD, it is a private, not-for-profit corporation founded in 1987 by Frank J. Fahrenkopf Jr. and Paul G. Kirk Jr., respective chairs of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. It receives all of its funding from private sponsors, which in 2008 included Anheuser-Busch, Sheldon Cohen, and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation. A February 1987 press release announcing the creation of the CPD states that the CPD would take primary responsibility for getting Republican and Democratic nominees to debate one another. Today, the CPD has stayed true to its founding organizers, catering to only Republican and Democratic parties to the exclusion of viable third party and independent candidates (Ross Perot participated in the 1992 debates at the behest of the Republican Party; he was shut out four years later). Though the release promises the CPD will “inform and educate the electorate,” in the next breath it candidly states the CPD’s core purpose to “strengthen the role of political parties in the electoral process.”

Debates do fulfill several key functions. They help ensure a peaceful transfer of power, facilitate a civil exchange between opponents, and force politicians to display the unedited eloquence and poise befitting a world leader. These functions are crucial to maintaining peace in some of the countries that the NDI and CPD have worked with, and they are certainly at work in Serbia.

But debates can also detract from electoral transparency, acting as another platform on which candidates can spin previous misdeeds into accolades. William Robinson, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara’s Global and International Studies Program, says the debates produced by the NDI are “part of the attempt to create a template that can be exported for Madison Avenue-style elections—images, sound bites, etc.—and, of course, through the process, the U.S. places itself in a position to help legitimate some candidates and marginalize others.”

There is little dispute that debates can influence an election. Media coverage of the presumptive “winner” of a debate makes voters more likely to side with the victorious party. There is no indication that this differs substantially in any nation where debates have been transplanted. One of the reasons the CPD and NDI got involved in producing debates outside of the United States is because, “in a lot of countries, there’s not a lot of tradition of focusing on issues in campaigns,” says Dippell. From the NDI’s point of view, says Dippell, “Debates are a great way to highlight progress in terms of building democracy.” The CPD and NDI goal of creating a culture of political debate has been contagious. After they helped local groups with the Ghana debates, Dippell says, “Barbados and the Bahamas contacted them and said, ‘Hey, this is great.’” 

Abroad, the CPD does not partner with the NDI’s Republican counterpart, the International Republican Institute. Janet Brown, the CPD’s executive director, says its pairing with the Democratic NGO is “just chance” and only happened because one of the first requests for help with debates from a foreign organization happened to come through the NDI.

Brown is now busy gearing up for the 2012 American presidential election season, and the CPD has already come under the usual criticism for its rigid methods of conducting debates at home. Nonetheless, the CPD and its partners at  the NDI believe that the United States can and should serve as a template for other nations. In a commencement address this spring at Danville, Kentucky’s Centre College, which will coincidentally hold the 2012 Vice Presidential Debate, Brown, who received an honorary doctorate at the same time, said, “People in other countries, particularly emerging democracies, see our debates as a model. They believe that the tradition of having political opponents discuss major issues in a fair and neutral forum is central to democracy. They think it is amazing that Americans believe they have the right to see and hear these exchanges, seemingly taking them for granted. For more than 20 years, we have been contacted by growing numbers of these groups asking for help in starting their own debates.”

LATEST SUITORS

Serbia is among the latest suitors of the NDI. With a central office in Washington and more than 60 satellite offices around the world, the NDI is a well-known and respected player in international politics. Madeleine Albright is the chair of its board. NDI field offices coordinate training sessions for international parliaments, promote events for women in politics, and frequently serve as election watchdogs. When it gets involved with election debates it turns to the CPD for expertise, says Dippell.

The staging of an American-style debate is no simple task. Bernard Shaw, a former CNN anchor and host of American presidential debates and a participant in the first and only “International Debates Best Practices Conference” that the CPD hosted in 2009, says that attendees “viewed presidential debates as a feat, a mountain top” that must be scaled in the process of democratization. Representatives from debate-sponsoring organizations in Lebanon, Ivory Coast, Ukraine, Colombia, Uganda, Jamaica, and others were present. As a result of the conference, the participating nations formed a loose organization that the CPD calls the “International Debates Network.” Explains Brown, “This is meant to be a network, not the U.S. telling people what to do.”

But even with this global network, the world still turns to America for support. While the CPD and NDI can’t help every country they hear from—sometimes it is impractical given violent and unstable conditions on the ground—they have had a hand in more than 200 debates in some 70 countries. “You go where you think you can have the best chance of helping,” says Brown.

In Serbia’s case, the process started with the NDI field office in Belgrade. Tom Kelly, the NDI Serbia director, said that after conferring with local groups, NDI approached USAID, one of the organization’s primary donors, about financing the 2012 debates. The plan for Serbia was ambitious. “They originally wanted to have seven parliamentary debates,” says Kelly. “What they ended up with was three parliamentary debates and one presidential debate,” says Kelly. That was all the candidates would approve. The U.S. taxpayer-funded USAID agreed to finance the project, enabling the CPD’s Slutsky to board a plane to Belgrade.

“Emerging democracies see [debates] as central to the democratic process,” Brown says. “So they come to us and say, ‘If we want to do this, can you help?’” When approached by a new organization, Brown and Dippell offer a “menu of options,” an inventory of debate formats.“Overseas they are interested in the U.S. model, but the number one principle is that there is no one single way to organize a debate. It all depends on the country, its culture, and its history,” says Dippell. “When we visited Argentina, we offered the U.S. experience, but also the Peruvian experience and the Colombian experience.” Still, the non-U.S. options are variations of American-style debates, not dramatically different models.

One of the CPD’s most important contributions to international political debates is its rigid protocol, especially its rules governing which candidates should be eligible to participate. Open Debates, an organization aimed at publicizing and reforming the CPD’s “antidemocratic conduct,” reports that in 2002, former CPD director Alan Simpson explained, “The purpose of the commission, it seems to me, is to try to preserve the two-party system that works very well, and if you like the multiparty system, then go to Sri Lanka and India and Indonesia. I think it’s obvious that independent candidates mess things up.” But increasingly elections outside of the United States risk being stifled by the CPD’s approach to policing debates.

ONWARD TO JAMAICA

The Jamaica Debates Commission (JDC) is touted as the great success story of the NDI and CPD collaboration. Founded in 2002, the JDC is headed by Trevor Fearon, now chair of the country’s Chamber of Commerce and the author of the JDC’s political debate handbook Facing the Electorate: A Manual for the Staging of General Election Debates Policies and Procedures. “At the time, we were interested in learning more about the process of organizing political debates. We thought it was a useful means by which pre-election tensions could be eased,” says Fearon. The NDI helped set up the debate logistics for the JDC. Fearon says, “One of the useful things that the NDI has done was a pictorial of what types of stages people have used. What are the most effective angles for shooting the event? How do you tie up with the distribution channels?”

Since then, the JDC has organized debates for three parliamentary elections, which occur every five years. On the issue of including third parties, the JDC has adopted the 1987 American criteria. Candidates must have a “realistic chance of governing” in order to participate. Fearon admits in his handbook that deciding which parties will debate “will probably always be a vexatious issue” and points to the fact that no third party has ever won a seat in Jamaica’s parliament as grounds for excluding them. “Our debates are generally between the representatives of the two major parties here,” says Fearon. “It’s not that there aren’t other parties, but the other parties have never had electoral success. One has to communicate what are the criteria used to determine which parties will be represented.” One must wonder though, if alternative candidates might stand a chance if they had a shot at coverage.

Jamaica is primarily governed by two ruling parties, the Jamaica Labor Party and the People’s National Party. New political parties frequently emerge, however. The National Democratic Movement, founded in 2005, and the New Nation Coalition, founded in 2010, are the latest notable additions to the political scene. In 2007, neither was included in the last round of debates, which seemed to adhere closely to the CPD’s criteria for excluding third parties. “There is not an agenda at play to mess up or cast part[ies] in a bad light. The objective is to help the electorate make good decisions,” says Fearon.

The assumptions of the CPD resulted in the strengthening of Jamaica’s two-party system and helped to de-legitimize the growing alternative parties. To have a handful of contenders debating at once, Fearon says, is simply “not good television.” But perhaps this should be less of a criterion in Jamaica than in the United States, where debates have more competition for viewers. Fearon has joined the CPD and NDI on “missions” to work on debates in Nigeria, Peru, Burundi, and Trinidad and Tobago, spreading the CPD’s unchallenged beliefs about political debates. “We’ve gone on a number of missions,” says Fearon. On a mission in Nigeria, debates took place over three days to accommodate all 19 presidential candidates, including incumbent Goodluck Jonathan. Taiwo Allimi, chairman of the Nigerian Elections Debate Group, says the 2011 debates were “wonderfully successful” in strengthening the democratic process. “The immediate result was that violence went completely down. The election was nonviolent. Other parts of the country are asking that we come and organize debates for them.”

Already in Nigeria, the perception that the U.S. is legitimizing these debates is a problem. Incumbent Goodluck Jonathan and Vice President Namandi Sambo only agreed to participate in debates sponsored by the Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria (BON). Ibrahim Modibbo, communications director for Nuhu Ribadu, one of Jonathan’s rivals, tells Nigerian PM News, “It is common knowledge that the BON is mostly populated by government employees, and as such the presidency will find a way of running the entire debate from the back door. In any case, what is there in a debate that is aimed at giving you the opportunity and platform to convince the electorates that they are better off with you?” He added that Jonathan had also required that he be shown debate questions ahead of time. The Nigerian Elections Debate Group is a coalition of broadcasters in Nigeria, and its administrative staff includes BON officers.

“There is a balance that has to be struck, particularly when you’re dealing with countries with no tradition of political debates,” Fearon says. Political debates are a new import to the Caribbean, and one of Fearon’s main objectives is to ensure that they become embedded in the region’s political tradition. In a 2009 op-ed, Fearon argues that the main benefit of political debates is to ensure a civil exchange between candidates. Debates are “an environment free of perceived (or real) intimidation [that] constitute[s] a convenient platform for candidates to address issues so that viewers and listeners are able to compare positions. Similarly, properly managed debates provide less room for candidates to distort their opponents’ positions as misrepresentations can be challenged on the spot.” Even in the worst of political climates, Fearon believes, “the institutionalization of debates still has value for at least one reason: Face-to-face debates broadcast nationwide are typically characterized by a public display of civility. … Would civil exchanges and a handshake between these political leaders have saved one life? Resulted in one less refugee? Inspired one more person to have faith in the democratic process? There is every reason to believe that the institutionalized display of civility that debates represent can make a difference.”

In the 2010 Haitian presidential debates, which the CPD and NDI helped produce in the aftermath of that year’s devastating earthquake, exchanges between candidates were indeed civil but did little to promote a lasting tradition of fair, transparent campaigning. Nineteen candidates vied for the presidency, which required six nights of programmed debates over the course of a month. Jude Celestin, a front-runner and favorite of outgoing president Rene Préval (he was dating Préval’s daughter at the time), participated in the NDI-sponsored debates. Weeks later, he was forced to withdraw after first-round election results were rigged in his favor. Celestin’s absence allowed Michele Martelly to secure a victory, though he too now faces corruption charges for receiving government contracts totaling $2.6 million during his presidential campaign. None of this was visible in the debate process, which only helped validate the candidates’ democratic credentials.

MANAGING EXPECTATIONS

While in the United States the CPD exists to ensure that there will be a presidential debate every four years, that is hardly a given elsewhere. “The [local] media plays a really important role in setting the expectation for debates,” says Dippell, who emphasizes the palliative effect of debates on an election season. “Elections can be a flash point for violence. One of my favorite anecdotes is from a Liberian presidential candidate who took part in a debate and said, ‘The greatest thing about the debate is to see Liberian presidential candidates sitting here and trying to convince voters, rather than sitting here and shooting at each other.’”

The Serbian debates arose out of widespread discontent—the country has a long history of election fraud and corruption. “In Serbia, you had public opinion polls showing that the public was frustrated. The candidates weren’t addressing the issues they cared about,” says Dippell. Staging an American-style, bipartisan debate between the presidential hopefuls offered a solution. “U.S. style debates are a key part of the Serbian elections and are widely watched and observed,” says Dan Bilefsky, who covered the elections for The New York Times. “In a country that was previously cut off from the West and ostracized during the bloody wars of the 1990s that marked the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, the Serbs have wholeheartedly embraced western-style television debates.”

Dušan Jordovic, executive director of Serbia’s Center for Research, Transparency, and Accountability (CRTA), says while his organization deals mostly with enabling political accountability in Serbia, he has also worked with the NDI trainers to teach candidates the dos and don’ts of public appearances and election campaigns—how to collect votes door-to-door, how campaigning in rural areas is different from urban centers, and, of course, how to debate. CRTA runs the watchdog site Istinomer.rs (Truthometer), which ranks political statements according to their truthfulness. This spring, CRTA organized 14 Truthometer debates for local politicians in Serbian towns. “We’ve organized local debates, and they [the NDI] have done national debates. Their job was not as hard as ours. Every third day we had a debate in a different town,” he says.

STILTED AND FORMAL

Some 3.35 million Serbs—nearly half the nation’s population—watch the presidential debates on RTS. Yet the two candidates rarely glance at one another as they respond to moderator Stanojevic. Each speaks deliberately at first, careful not to exceed the three-minute limit. As Stanojevic turns to one and then the other, the RTS production crew meticulously ensures that Tadic and Nikolic receive equal attention from the cameras. With the protocol of the debate regulated according to CPD standards, it comes off as stilted and formal. Rather than a productive debate on policy, the exchange devolves into a rhetorical battle. Both long-time political veterans struggle to rebrand themselves as the candidates of the future, acting instead like manufactured caricatures of their latest personas.

Nikolic, a square-jawed man with a full head of spiked gray hair, answers questions in a monotone, his lips breaking into a half smile when he pauses to take a breath. At first, Nikolic measures his words and directs his gaze down at the center of the stage floor, accelerating only as the timer on his podium flashes red to mark the last ten seconds of his turn. A sharp note then signals that his time is up. Tadic talks more rapidly, with the confident air of an incumbent. Gazing straight at the cameras, he gestures wildly with his minimalist glasses in hand, explaining away the shortcomings of his last eight years in office. “The telegenic and suave former President Boris Tadic—a George Clooney look-a-like—had seemed in the past to have an edge over his more dour and stiff rival Tomislav Nikolic, a former funeral parlor chief known as the ‘Undertaker,’” says The Times’ Bilefsky. “But Nikolic, having run in three past presidential elections, seemed far more poised and effective in TV debates during this recent campaign.”

The candidates agreed to only one presidential debate, ignoring the NDI’s advice, and their exchange is limited to eight pre-determined topics: the economy, the future of Serbia, foreign policy, security, Kosovo, corruption, social policy and education, and EU integration. Tadic and Nikolic speak for three minutes on each topic and are granted a one minute rebuttal before moving on to the next prompt. “A highly choreographed, engineered debate,” says Snjezana Milivojevic, professor of public opinion and media studies at the University of Belgrade. “The format, questions, timing, and everything was so strictly regulated that it seemed as if they both addressed the TV audiences but not each other.”

Still, the breadth of the agenda and the formality of the debate promised the public a rare opportunity to get the candidates “on the record,” which Dippell says is one of the main benefits of debates. And in a country where a candidate can change from an ultra-nationalist to a progressive in a matter of years, maintaining the public record is an important task. Nikolic has made “a really interesting U-turn,” says Jordovic. “He established the Serbian Progressive Party in 2008. Almost all its members were former members of the Serbian radical ultra-national party. Their language changed. In three months, they shifted from politicians who were against the EU to advocating for it—that Serbia should join, that Serbia should negotiate with Kosovo’s politicians.” Jordovic, while optimistic about the change in power, will monitor all of Nikolic’s statements and call out any executive doublespeak. “One of the results of the debates was to collect the concrete promises. Those promises are in our database,” says Jordovic. “Now we are waiting.”

The CPD and NDI were among the least visible American players in the Serbian election. Rudy Giuliani has been widely criticized for traveling through Belgrade with Nikolic in tow, advising”the former nationalist at the request of the Progressive Party, which hired his political consulting firm, Giuliani Partners. Like Giuliani, the CPD and NDI joined in helping Nikolic completely revamp his image. And while his economic policies are certainly more promising than Tadic’s, who presided over eight years of economic decline, whether the new president has truly disavowed his former anti-EU, extremist stance remains to be seen.

If Nikolic’s change of heart is anything less than sincere, it could have compromising implications for U.S. foreign policy. Americans played a substantial role in Nikolic’s narrow electoral triumph, and what he will do in his new position is highly speculative. It was only in late June that he formed a new coalition with the Socialist Party of Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic, who happens to be Milosevic’s former spokesman. Meddling in foreign elections, of course, is hardly a new endeavor for the United States, especially in the Balkans, but history has shown the outcome is often costly. “The debate derives from American political culture, which is very different from European and Serbian in terms of political system and election communication,” says Milivojevic. “Politics is ‘personalized’ differently here.” The debates helped Nikolic re-imagine himself as a politician and distance himself from the memories of Milosevic and the atrocities he sanctioned or were undertaken in his name.

To end this year’s presidential debates in Belgrade, the moderator signs off by telling viewers to “choose yourselves.” And choose they do, working with whatever particles of truth they might have gleaned from the campaigns or from the skeleton of the televised debate.

The work of the CPD and NDI to increase the prevalence of debates is well-intentioned, if flawed. They aim to build sustainable democratic traditions, but by courting corrupt and untrustworthy politicians, they often exclude independent candidates who may be more deserving. Too little attention has been paid to the substance behind the debates and too much to their execution.

If the CPD continues to produce debates outside the United States, it must revise its policies so that they are fairer toward third parties. Furthermore, it should allow more time for candidates to address one another directly. These are all arguably flaws with the U.S. presidential debates, but they are an even bigger problem in emerging democracies, where the political landscape is more unsettled. Debates should be a chance for alternative candidates to prove themselves to the electorate. The CPD needs to make good on its promise to adopt a global outlook for debates, offering logistic support but not American-style politics. It’s true that in many countries their work is largely technical, but in others the CPD and NDI play a much larger role—and many debate organizing bodies take their domestic imitation of the U.S. debates as a point of pride. So long as the United States is viewed as the defining model for political debate, the CPD will influence the staging of debates around the world. But the highly produced, moderated style of American political debates is not universally applicable.

Even in countries where the CPD has produced multi-party debates, the staging and handling of the candidates can boost politicians who only appear to serve the public interest. The CPD and NDI officials agree that the most important goal is to educate the public. But in countries where the CPD and NDI get involved, the public is taught what democracy looks like in the United States, with no thought of what it could look like if it were home-grown. In many places, these political debates are the first harbingers of democracy—but they often give a narrow idea of what exactly that means. For now, the CPD and NDI sponsored debates have fulfilled their most basic function. They’ve gotten politicians all over the world on the record and away from their guns. If they continue on their present course, however, that may be all they’ll ever do.

*****

*****

Linda Kinstler is the Editor of the Bowdoin Orient and reports for the New York Daily News.

[ Photo Stephan Van Es]

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