NDI President, Kenneth Wallock to Yemen Times: “Yemen can learn from some of the achievements that other countries have made” [Archives:1999/26/Interview]

June 28 1999

Democracy has become a much sought-after global virtue, that all the world is trying to adopt as it has proved to be the best way of governing. The Emerging Democracies Forum is a crystal clear example of this. It is a real demonstration that globalization is not taking place noy only in the arena of economy but also in politics.
Kenneth Wollock has been the president of the National Democratic Institute(NDI) for six years and the Executive Vice President for seven years. He has also been involved in foreign affairs and politics in the USA since 1972. He has also traveled with the Institute to 15 countries. He has recently arrived in Sanaa to participate in the forum. Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi, Yemen Times Managing Editor met Mr. Wollock and filed the following interview with him.
Q: Regarding the forum, how do you asses the democratic progress in Yemen? Do you think that it will continue to advance?
A: I believe that the democratic process will go forward in Yemen, and in all the countries participating in this forum. However, I do not believe that it is inevitable. I think that democracy takes a lot of work. It is a very messy, untidy system. As Winston Churchill said, ” It is the worst form of government, except for all other forms.” Therefore, democracy requires many people to assume their responsibilities in society. It is government that has to assume a responsibility to be open and transparent, and other institutions in society must be established and built, such as an independent judiciary, and a free press. Civic organizations must organize themselves to be engaged in the political process. A multitude of political parties must also operate effectively, and compete in the marketplace of ideas, and begin to aggregate the interests of civil society. All of these things require a lot of work, so I do not believe that democracy is inevitable, but I believe that there has been a great deal of commitment on the part of Yemeni leaders, and on the part of Yemeni citizens who do not want the clock to be turned backwards. Therefore I am optimistic that the process will continue to move forward. I think that one of the purposes of this forum is not only to recognize the achievements in this country, and I believe that those achievements are considerable, but also to support continued progress in the political reform era, and continued active participation by the citizens of Yemen in the political life of their country. I think that our presence here, and the presence of the 15 or 16 other countries that are coming to Yemen is a demonstration of this solidarity and mutual support system among democrats around the world. Autocrats do not have the same support system. They operate in darkness. Democracy operates in sunshine, and they have a natural support system that they can call upon. I think that the presence of the many other countries is a demonstration of that support system, not only for Yemen, but for all the countries participating, and many more.
Q: What do you think are the obstacles to the democratic process in Yemen?
A: I am not an expert on Yemen, and I am not here to analyze all aspects of the Yemeni political life. But don’t forget that this country has gone through a significant transition process. Only a few years ago, Yemen had its first competitive open election process. It is a country that is in the process of building an independent judiciary and an independent legislature. It is a country that has only begun over the last ten years to encourage individual citizens to be engaged in the political process, forming civic organizations, and allowing women to be more engaged in the political process. What is required I think is the movement from democratic forms to something deeper, meaning that the country has had democratic elections, even though there were certain weaknesses in those elections, but has had an election that generally represents the will of the people. It has democratic institutions in society. So there are democratic forms, and now the challenge for Yemen is to deepen the democracy, to become a genuine liberal democracy. The way to do that is to strengthen the institutions in societies, and that is an ongoing process. Hopefully as time goes on, more and more people will be engaged in this process, and people will believe that is better to participate, as it means expressing their views rather than boycotting the system. Those in authority will continue to provide the political space necessary for that competition of ideas. I think to strengthen those democratic institutions and practices is the challenge for Yemen in the future.
Q: How do you think that democracy can exist in a society where the tribal system is still in control?
A: There are tribes all over the world, there are many tribes in Africa. The ” experts” once said that democracy could not take place in Confucian society, because Confucian thought is antithetical to democracy. And yet, now you find strong democracies developing in Asia. They said that Germanic cultures could not produce democracy, and yet today Germany is a very strong democracy. People claimed that Latin America, with its idea of Kaddio, or the strong man, would not allow democracy to take root, and yet democracy is firmly in place. I believe that democracy can take place in all of these societies. If you look at where Yemen is today compared to where it was a decade ago, in terms of the press, in terms of political parties, in terms of women’s participation. Ultimately, if people are given a choice, they will choose democracy over systems that deny them the ability to affect the larger political issues that affect them. And so I think that that while there may be impediments and hurdles to democracy, ultimately those impediments and hurdles can be overcome. I think that there are ways to bring in the traditional cultures that exist in these societies, in a way that complements the democratic system and does not undermine those traditional cultures. I think that there are political avenues that can be provided for those tribal leaders that can bring them into the democratic process and not isolate them from that process.
Q: Do you think that the political parties in Yemen are politically mature?
A: No. There aren’t too many countries in the world where political parties are mature. All over the world there is a crisis of confidence in political parties. This is a great challenge for political parties all over the world, including for traditional democracies. So no, I would not say political parties are mature in Yemen, but I would say that political parties are not mature in most states of the world. The challenge I think is for political parties to be accessible to the public, to listen to people, to provide opportunities for young people and for women to be engaged in politics, and to be engaged in the life of the political parties, because ultimately it will be the political parties that aggregate the interests of the citizens and debate public policy issues, and run for political office. They play a special role in society, they are part of the social fabric of society, and if they do not fulfill their special role, a vacuum will be created, and will be filled by a non-democratic force. Therefore, the parties have a heavy responsibility.
Q: People say that these parties are just tribal congregations, and are in a separate category from political systems.
A: Yes, but I think that over time, once a political system is in place, that those tribes can ultimately be integrated into the democratic political life of a country. It requires a lot of civic education, it requires a lot of innovative mechanisms, but I don’t think that that becomes the single greatest impediment to democracy. Ultimately I think that it is the will and the aspirations of the people that will prevail if a political system is open enough to allow them to participate in that process. These are natural tensions that exist, but ultimately how you manage those tensions becomes the challenge. As I aid, I am not an expert on Yemen, but I am confident that Yemen will find its own way.
Q: In what way do you think that this forum can help the work of development in Yemen?
A: Well, first of all I think that it is important for countries that are going through a transition process to understand that they are not carrying out this transition in isolation, and that other countries have traversed the same course, and that they face similar challenges, and that they have been able to cope with the same difficulties. This is true not only for Yemen, but it is true for the other countries that are coming here. For them to be able to share their experiences, to understand that other countries have been able to make progress in certain areas, and they have established certain mechanisms with which to strengthen democratic institutions. The first thing is for Yemen to realize that it is not alone, that other countries are facing similar challenges, and that contributes to the political reform process. People realize that they are not alone, and these problems are not unique. Secondly, I think that Yemen can learn from some of the achievements that other countries have made, some of the mechanisms and the vehicles used to strengthen those democratic values and ideals in other countries. The Yemenis can borrow from other countries and adapt it to their own environment here. Other countries can learn from Yemen’s experiences as well. I think that the network that can be established here, between democrats, can help these countries strengthen their own systems. They can borrow from and learn from other systems. If you look at economic and political development around the world, people are borrowing ideas, borrowing concepts, and borrowing mechanisms and practices from each other.
Q: Freedom of the press is considered to be one of the pillars of democracy. But in Yemen, where illiteracy is around 87%, electronic media is vital, but it is still monopolized by the state. How do you assess freedom of the press in Yemen?
A: I can’t answer that. I am not an expert on press freedoms in Yemen. I do believe, whether it is any country going through a transition, that it is one of the challenges. In many countries the state owns the mass media, and owns the broadcasting rights. In some countries the states have privatized the mass media, other states have provided some channels that are privatized. Some places have state ownership of the broadcast media, but they provide mechanisms that will enable the media to be independent. I think that one of the challenges is to create mechanisms that will enable the mass media to be independent when the broadcasting systems are owned by the state. Media that is owned by the states has to abide by different standards than media that is owned privately.
Q: Do you deal with government and opposition parties equally? How do you find the work of the opposition parties in Yemen?
A: As a matter of fact, when we were planning this conference, we worked closely with all the major parties, both those represented in parliament and those outside of the parliament. We consulted very closely with them. NDI has a separate political party program with the major political parties here, so I believe we have a very close and cordial relationship with all the parties, both ruling and opposition, and those parties will be represented at the conference. NDI’s role is not to side with a particular political party, our role is to support a political process where people across the political spectrum can participate. We are not here nor in other countries to take sides in a democratic process, but to help provide assistance to help strengthen that process. An opposition in Yemen and anywhere in the world is an integral part of a democratic system. A strong, loyal opposition is a vital ingredient of democracy.
Q: In any democratic country, there shouldn’t be a Ministry of Information, but in Yemen we still have this.
A: I can’t judge these institutions. I do not believe that there are other democratic countries that have Ministries of Information. In my view it is how institutions like this behave and act. Their very existence doesn’t necessarily indicate that democracy has come or not come to these societies. I tend to judge people and organizations and institutions by their behavior, not by their presence.
Q: Do you think that the absence of Dr. Saqqaf, who was considered to be the most important defender of human rights and democracy in Yemen will affect the democratic process in Yemen?
A: He was very courageous and a strong visionary, and I believe that his legacy will be a strong one, and so therefore his contribution to the democratic process in Yemen, because of his personality, and the force of his dedication will outlive him for many years. That is his great legacy to this country.
Q: Any closing statement?
A: Let me just say that I think that the world has seen dramatic changes over the past decade. As I said earlier today, the world has heard a great deal about the democratic movements in countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, and Poland, but too often there is a class of countries in every region of the world that do not get the attention that they deserve. Too often people travel over these countries to reach other countries. I think that the purpose of this conference is to bring those countries together, to shine an international spotlight on countries that have been carrying out economic and political change in relative obscurity, and to provide a support network for those countries, and to demonstrate that their is a strong international interest in those countries and their development. This conference will hopefully not only stimulate discussion that will help individual countries further their democratic systems, but also establish relationships and networks so that this learning process will continue long after this conference is concluded.