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Out of Africa: Scholar takes democracy on the road

For Edward McMahon, assistant research professor of political science and director of the Center on Democratic Performance, this summer is one full of politics African style.

McMahon, who recently returned from Mali where he headed an international delegation overseeing presidential elections, is now in Rwanda where he is facilitating workshops on executive oversight in a parliamentary democracy.

McMahon’s trip to Mali was sponsored by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a congressionally chartered organization that works to strengthen democratic institutions around the world.

“The government of Mali was very interested in showcasing everything they’d done to try to make these elections legitimate,” explained McMahon. The country was a dictatorship until a decade ago, so while electoral processes are extremely important, they’re also difficult.

“In Mali, there were 24 candidates running for president,” he said. “As observers, we tried to assess the extent to which the preparations have been effectively carried out, whether there were any disputes in the pre-election period between candidates and the government, for example, and tried to get a sense of what was going to happen on Election Day and in the aftermath.”

McMahon said Mali’s political parties are more diverse and based on geography and personalities, rather than specific ideologies.

“The candidate in the ruling party was sort of a moderate centrist, another was a very popular former prime minister who had split from the ruling party to form his own, a third was a former president who didn’t have any party of all — he was campaigning without a party, just on an individual basis,” he said. “Many candidates came from parties representing a wide range of positions and constituencies.”

On election day, the observers visited numerous polling places to determine whether procedures were working, whether people were able to vote, and whether there was intimidation at the polls.

After polls closed at 6 p.m., McMahon and others helped supervise the vote count, which lasted well into the night and was done by candlelight. A second round of voting to determine the winner between the two candidates who won more than 50 percent of the vote was held May 12.

In Rwanda, McMahon will conduct workshops on executive branch oversight for parliament members. He will be a consultant to the World Bank, the U.S. Agency for International Development and a non-governmental organization, Freedom House.

McMahon said he gets a lot of personal gratification from this kind of work.

“I’m concerned about people being able to live their lives in freedom and exercise their rights,” he said. “In my international career, I’ve seen both a lot of examples of people who’ve not been able to do this and where tragedy has resulted, and environments where democracy is taking root. There is no better feeling in the world than seeing the latter situation develop.

“At the most fundamental level, I think it’s important to try to be able to help people develop systems of governments that are representative. For a lot of this it takes time, and will only be our grandchildren’s generation that sees the fruits of our work, but it is worth making the investment now.”

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