Conference analyzes democracy

Prime ministers, AU officials discuss North American elections

This past weekend, distinguished guests and experts in the field of democratic studies were featured in a conference on elections and democracy in North America.

With speakers ranging from a former prime minister of Canada, the former foreign minister of Mexico and a former U.S. presidential candidate, the conference goals were, according to AU Vice President of International Affairs Robert Pastor, "to learn from each other, to look at best practices with elections, and to help all three peoples think about ourselves differently, as genuine neighbors."

More than just lectures, the conference was an open dialogue between representatives from each country with the exchange of ideas and best practices. Joe Clark, former prime minister of Canada and one of the speakers, best epitomized the conference when he began his remarks with the statement that "I am here to learn."

The need for America to learn from its neighbors became pressing after the 2000 presidential election where, as Pastor said, "the process was discouraging as each county held the election differently and showed that even in an advanced democracy, we can't take anything for granted."

While Congress did try to fix the problem, the U.S. "didn't bother to learn from its neighbors, and this is why we're here, to learn from each other," Pastor said.

The conference kicked off on Friday night with an opening dinner and keynote addresses on what's wrong with democracy in Canada, Mexico and the U.S., followed by a full day of panels on Saturday that discussed issues like the administration of elections, campaign finance and constitutional implications related to elections.

The conference was "a framework that brings together huge issues regarding democracy and elections in North America which, as an entity, is inventing itself as we speak," according to Susan Burgerman, associate director of AU's Center for Democracy and Election Management.

Though there were many experts in this field as well as distinguished diplomats and representatives from the three countries, many who attended came to hear those most intimately involved with democracy discuss, as sophomore Sonia Goravanchi said, "what is wrong with their democracy and how they think it can be fixed."

Sylvia Crowder, from the Department of Education, said that through the conference, she hoped to gain "a better understanding of issues affecting North American democracies and the interaction between the three countries."

Talking about the "bizarre state of Canadian democracy," Clark discussed how the current prime minister has been ousted by his own party but has not said when he would leave and allow his successor, "who is like the Dick Cheney of American politics," assume the office.

Clark discussed a theme that was repeated by many in Canada and Mexico, that they have assumed reforms "to deal with a problem in the U.S.", because of an overwhelming pressure to replicate the American political system. As Clark said, the result is that "Canada has few checks and no balance of the American system."

Jorge Castaneda, former foreign minister of Mexico, also espoused this view as he felt Mexico has tried to "adopt the U.S. type of government without having the U.S. type society." As a result, a situation exists where the political arena is dominated by "institutions of the authoritarian past when we need [institutions] of the democratic future," Castaneda said.

One thing Castaneda advocated was the use of the referendum, where the president brings issues directly to popular vote by the people to deal with a Congress where nothing gets done.

Representing the U.S. view was John Anderson, former state attorney general, U.S. representative and presidential candidate. He voiced his opposition to the two-party system because it has "resulted in a conspired lockup and the lack of a vibrant democracy."

Citing Founding Fathers like James Madison, Anderson said the U.S. was a "democratic paradox where state institutions determine how the contest for state institutions is staged."

His other main criticism of American democracy was redistricting that result in "gerrymandering of designer districts where you can almost always determine the winner of that district months before the election."

The editors of the Electoral Law Journal first approached Dr. Pastor earlier this year about the possibility of a special symposium on democratic issues. As a result of Pastor's vision and planning, assisted by the newly established AU Center for Democracy and Election Management and the Center for North American Studies, the conference was, according to Burgerman, "the combination and extension of Pastor's passions and probably the first of its kind in North America."

AU President Benjamin Ladner said in his welcome remarks that this conference further shows how American University is becoming the premier global university. Burgerman added that "events like this are what place AU on the map of policy formation and refocus AU into a policy institution, and I look for more events like this at AU"

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