What You Missed: Elections and Civil Society MINN event on July 12, 2012


While the US public focuses on upcoming presidential elections this fall, nearly 70 nations are or have already gone to the polls. Ground-breaking elections in Egypt, France, Mexico and Libya are having a profound effect on the global politics and development. To better understand these issues, on July 12, the Minnesota International NGO Network (MINN) hosted a panel discussion on elections and civil society in the developing world. Mr. Wynfred Russell, Executive Director of African Career, Education and Resource, Inc (ACER) and Professor Ragui Assaad, Professor of Planning and Public Affairs at the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, shared their perspectives, and discussed the challenges and realities of elections on development in Liberia and Egypt, respectively.

Mr. Russell, gave a short history on how the oldest African republic (1847) declined into a fragile state from 23 years (1980 to 2003) of political upheaval. He then elaborated on how this tiny war-torn nation--the size of Tennessee--is struggling to re-emerge as a modern democracy, led by the first female head of state in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. One of the challenges he highlighted was how the vast majority of the senate and house was replaced during the second post-war elections last year. This freshman class of lawmakers need to learn their roles while dealing with high unemployment and rebuilding their war-devastated infrastructure. Mr. Russell like most of Liberia is unable to determine the future of the nation, but he does have hope from what progress has been seen since the war ended in 2003. 

Professor Assaad immediately followed with a very detailed explanation of the many complex intricacies of the most recent elections in Africa's newest democracy, Egypt. For someone who had just returned from Egypt the night before, he was quite animated in explaining the electoral twists and turns Egypt has experienced over the past nine months. He explained how the temporary constitution has guided the process of the separate elections for the various branches of government and how it justified the court’s controversial decision to nullify the current elected parliament. He summarized that this has been a confusing, but exhilarating time for Egypt as they move forward in defining their democracy. And just like Mr. Russell, Professor Assaad has hope for his nation as they make their mark on history.

After Professor Assaad concluded, the event moderator Sherry Gray, Global Policy Area coordinator at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School, opened a 30-minute Question and Answer session with the twenty attendees in the audience. The audience was quite intrigued by this topic, which led to some interesting questions. One of the questions related to how both Liberia and Egypt have neighboring nations with prior civil conflicts going to the polls and how that might impact their results. Professor Assaad commented how Libya's recent election surprised everyone with the results, and seemed confident in their process. Mr. Russell also had confidence in the upcoming elections in Sierra Leone, especially after convictions of Liberia's former President Charles Taylor for his part in this northern neighbors civil war.

Both presenters did a great job of giving a glimpse of what 2012 could offer as one-third of the world goes to polls. - Heather Cannon-Winkelman