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Nurturing democracy is scholar’s passion

Is democracy the best form of government for every country? How long should it take for a country to become democratic? How do you know when a country is democratic?

Although they may seem like “no brainers” from the comfort of an American perspective, there are no easy answers to those questions, according to Edward McMahon, who has made a career of nurturing democratic institutions around the world.

Universal rights such as freedom of association, speech or religion would seem like appealing options for those who don’t have them, acknowledges McMahon, a dean’s professor of applied politics and director of the Center on Democratic Performance at Binghamton University. But fundamental reform doesn’t come quickly or easily.

“Promoting the acceptance of the democratic ethos and aiding in the establishment of democratic governments around the world is an ambitious endeavor to say the least,” McMahon said. “It is time-consuming, tricky work with no guarantees of success.”

McMahon shared his views on how democracy is faring in the world at last week’s Harpur Forum luncheon and in separate interviews.

An expert in African democracy in particular, McMahon brings more than 30 years in foreign and international service with the State Department and other agencies to his current academic pursuits. He has served as a senior program officer to the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and as a senior advisor with the U.S. Agency for International Development. He has helped to develop civil society organizations, instructed political parties on how parties function in democratic environments, directed election observation missions and helped solve governance issues after elections.

Yet despite his first-hand experience and his theoretical pursuits, McMahon said he still finds democracy a somewhat elusive concept with no clear roadmap on how best to achieve it.

“This idea of democracy has been around for 2,000 years and we still haven’t got it totally figured out,” McMahon said. “It’s not a simple thing at all. A lot of people argue that the United States didn’t become a democracy until the passage of the Civil Rights Voting Act in 1964. We didn’t have competitive political parties in the first few decades of our existence. Just because the United States took 180 years, doesn’t mean that’s how long it takes. The world is a very different place now.”

Even now, McMahon asserts, the United States does not and cannot impose democracy on other countries, nor can it dictate the types of governmental institutions that other people choose – if they are able to choose at all.

“There is no one kind of democratic system around the world; there are all sorts of systems,” he said, “so it’s not appropriate to try to impose certain democratic models on a country. But what is important is for countries to be able to develop their own democratic institutions according to their own realities, but always respecting basic universal values.”

McMahon argues such core values as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a growing body of international law should be viewed as universal rights regardless of the cultural boundaries.

“I’m certainly not prepared to suggest that people, just because they live in Saudi Arabia, for example, should not have freedom of association or speech,” he said. “It seems to me that those are core universal values.”

According to McMahon, one of the best indicators of the likelihood of the success of democratic development is a country’s previous experience with democratic institutions. That’s one reason previously Communist countries in eastern or central Europe have progressed relatively quickly toward democratic consolidation while democratic efforts in the Middle East have lagged.

Mechanisms that allow power sharing are also key to forming successful democratic political institutions.

“If you look at a country like South Africa in the late 1980s, not very many people would have thought that that country was going to be a real functioning democratic state and avoid massive bloodshed,” McMahon said. “I think one of the ways they’ve done it is by cleverly sharing power.”

South Africa maintains a decentralized system with power at many different levels that is accessible democratically.

McMahon said it is critical that all power does not reside simply in the presidential chair. “When power resides in one place, what you have is a win/lose situation,” McMahon said. “Either you win the power or you lose it. And we all know that losing power breeds discontent and dissatisfaction.”

But can government by committee be as effective as other forms of government? “Winston Churchill’s famous adage about democracy being the worst form of government except for all others is probably true,” McMahon said. “I asked a Belgian parliamentarian once, ‘you’ve got local councils, municipal councils, regional councils, provincial councils, a parliament… isn’t that a waste of resources?’ And he said to me ‘It’s cheaper than having a civil war.’ And you know I think there’s some truth to that.”

In the aftermath of September 11, democratization of countries in the Middle East has become an area of extreme interest. “Afghanistan or Iraq have really complex environments with no history of formal pluralistic political institutions,” McMahon said. “So the question then becomes ‘Is democracy irrelevant for those types of countries?’ My view is perhaps a somewhat conventional view that this is a sequential process that needs to develop in stages. What you hope to do is have some kind of enlightened leadership, while not necessarily elected or with all the trappings of formal democratic institutions, but one that permits a sense of dialog and development of different perspectives.”

In a country like Afghanistan, McMahon believes the international community can support the leadership there, but that change must come from within, primarily with the tolerance of diverse points of views.

There has been a glimmer of positive change in recent days, according to McMahon. “An Afghan newspaper printed a cartoon of President Karzai that depicted him in less than flattering terms while he was out of the country,” McMahon said. “So his number two in charge jailed the editor of the newspaper. When Karzai came back, he saw the cartoon and laughed at it. He told him to let him go – that this is just part of freedom of the press. Obviously the tradition of consensus that led to the selection of Karzai has some strong elements of democracy in it.”

Democracy building takes time, McMahon cautioned. While there have been significant gains towards democratization in most regions of the world, McMahon cautions there are many countries where change may or may not happen at all or at least not in our lifetime.

“This stuff is not simple,” McMahon said. “It’s not a science by any means, but that’s what makes it so fascinating.”

The Center on Democratic Performance

Since its inception in September 1999, the Center for Democratic Performance¬† has worked on a number of levels to help the academic and policy communities understand the functioning and performance of democratic political institutions around the world. Although based in the Political Science Department, the center encourages an interdisciplinary approach on campus to its work and has a collaborative relationship with SUNY’s Center for International Development. The center regularly works with legislatures in emerging democracies. One recent project was assisting the parliament of Rwanda. In addition, the center organizes conferences, such as the one it co-sponsored in October with the Institute of African Development at Cornell. The center is also developing an election results archive, which will soon be available online. The archive will provide an electronic compilation of election results from 900 elections in 130 countries over the past 30 years. The center also regularly consults for Freedom House and on assignments for the State Department, USAID and the World Bank.

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