CEO Anthony Smith shares his top ten moments where WFD made a difference to the quality of democracy around the world in 2018
There was a lot of attention on negative trends emerging in established democracies but quiet progress has also been made in many countries.
For example, we have seen the end of the Zuma era in South Africa, deepening democracy in the Gambia, credible elections in Mexico and Colombia, and a peaceful revolution in Armenia.
These are just a few examples, and at WFD, we were lucky to be involved in many more.
1. In November, WFD proudly supported a conference of Women MPs from over 100 countries to unite in the Westminster parliament where they called for more inclusive politics. The clear message was that women face serious obstacles when they seek public office and when they are in parliament. Working to increase the number of women participating in politics and the quality of that participation is central to WFD’s 2017-22 strategy. If you missed it, you can watch highlights on WFD’s vimeo channel.
(Photo: On 8 November, Women MPs from over 100 countries met in Westminster for an historic one-day event to discuss how to make politics more inclusive. UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor)
2. Earlier in the year, the UK political parties convened an international summit to address the issue of violence against women in politics. The testimony from women politicians was shocking but their courage and determination was inspiring. A report from the summit was submitted to the UN’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women.
(Photo: L-R WFD Chief Executive Anthony Smith, Liz Saville Roberts MP & Westminster Leader, Plaid Cymru, Cheryllyn Dudley MP & Chief Whip of Smaller Political Parties, South Africa, Maria Caulfield MP & Vice Chair for Women, Conservative Party, Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge MP & WFD Governor, Wafa Bani Mustafa MP in Jordan & Chair of Coalition of Arab Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women, Paddy Torsney, Inter-Parliamentary Union, Victoria Donda MP & President of the Commission on Human Rights, Argentina.)
3. The peaceful elections in Sierra Leone in March were a milestone for WFD since they gave us the opportunity to support local disability groups and young people to engage in the elections. Commitments were made collectively by political parties on increased inclusion of persons with disabilities in all manifestos, which was a first in the country.
(Photo: WFD, in partnership with government, political parties and local civil society organisations, implemented a comprehensive programme, as a member of the Standing Together for Democracy consortium, to engage youth, women and vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities, in the Sierra Leone elections in March.)
4. A personal highlight of the year for me was the Disability Summit co-hosted by the UK and Kenya and held at the Olympic Park in London in July. I am a veteran summit attendee but this was the best I had been to, mainly because the visible strength and capability of the attendees changed mindsets, expectations and norms. The resonance with the 2012 Paralympic Games was strong – a true gamechanger.
5. Countries with small populations can have big symbolism. In Uzbekistan, President Mirzyeyov’s speech one year ago has triggered a significant reform process in the parliament. While this took some observers by surprise, the reforms are actually part of a decade-long process. Following WFD’s August MOU with the Parliament, the first group of Uzbek MPs visited the UK in November. It feels as though there is real potential to build some democratic momentum in Central Asia.
(Photo: WFD Governor and Executive Director at Article 19, Thomas Hughes represents WFD for the signing of an agreement of cooperation with the Parliament of Uzbekistan in August.)
6. In the Maldives, the best efforts of outgoing President Yameen to fiddle the September election results could not stop him losing and ending his damaging five-year period in office. There is strong interest in a WFD programme there which we hope to launch early next year. That’s important for South Asia, where democratic progress has had mixed fortunes in recent years. By contrast, neighbouring Sri Lanka is without a functioning government while awaiting the resolution of a constitutional crisis. The good news is that the parliament, judiciary, and the police have all demonstrated strong democratic leadership in sticking to the provisions of the recently amended constitution
7. The report of the UN’s independent fact-finding mission on Myanmar in September made shocking and sobering reading and brought out more clearly than ever the need for an end to a culture of impunity in the country. Myanmar’s long transition to democracy will continue but the pace is uncertain. The bright spot for me, however has been conversations with young Burmese civil society activists who see change as inevitable as Myanmar becomes more open, hate speech is curbed, and support for extremists falls.
8. Some of those young Burmese attended the Bali Democracy Forum (BDF) in December. WFD co-sponsored the civil society strand of the BDF, which had ‘Democracy and Prosperity’ as its main theme. The debates included some quite direct rebuttals of the so-called Chinese model of democracy: autocracy with economic growth. Researchers noted that most Asian democracies have above average economic transformation while most Asian autocracies have below average economic transformation. Indonesia made the case for democracy in as persuasive and clear a way as I have heard anywhere, and the appetite of their media and civil society for the positive arguments about democracy, press and civic freedom was a real morale booster.
(Photo: Anthony Smith CEO attends the 2018 Bali Democracy Forum with representatives from Indonesian civil society organisations and Carl Henrik Knutsen, a researcher from University of Oslo, sponsored by WFD Indonesia. This years theme was ‘Democracy for Prosperity’.)
9. The Commonwealth has been a prominent part of WFD’s work this year, including through the announcement during the April Commonwealth Summit of the new Commonwealth Partnership for Democracy. But the highlight for me was work in June with a group of Commonwealth parliamentarians and Clerks to update the Commonwealth Benchmarks for Democratic Legislatures. They now reflect the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and will be used by individual parliaments to assess their contribution to “inclusive, accountable and effective governance” as set out in Goal 16 of the SDGs.
(Photo: On 18-20 June, representatives of Commonwealth parliaments met at Wilton Park to review and update the 2006 Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Benchmarks on Democratic Legislatures.)
10. I am holding my breath about my final entry. Presidential elections are due to take place in the Democratic Republic of Congo where WFD is supporting party agents to monitor the 23 December elections. It feels more important than ever that the long-delayed elections take place and that a legitimate government can lead the country in tackling the almost unimaginable range of challenges. Having been out of the country for a few years, this has been an intensive return for WFD and we hope that 2019 will open a new chapter for all the Congolese.