Presidential Debates Ignite Policy Dialogue in Paraguay

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Introduction

In 2008, Paraguay’s political system emerged from 60 years of one-party rule when the Electoral Alliance won the elections and ousted the Colorado Party from power. With the end of the single five-year term of President Fernando Lugo in sight, elections were scheduled for April 2013. The upcoming presidential elections presented the perfect opportunity for the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and the Development in Democracy Foundation (DENDE) to strengthen democratic governance in Paraguay. CIPE and DENDE conducted a nationwide survey to gauge public opinion on the most pressing issues for voters and organized two televised presidential debates where the leading candidates presented their policy agendas to the electorate and engaged in a discussion on the issues. The presidential debates ignited genuine policy dialogue in Paraguay for the first time, while informing over 3.4 million voters and strengthening the country’s fragile democracy in the process.

Lack of Policy Dialogue and Political Competition

With the transition to democracy in 1989 and the reform of the electoral code, traditional political parties in Paraguay had become less focused on substance, devoting all their organizational effort and economic resources to electoral politics. As a result, powerful political patronage machines developed to win elections, both within the parties and in contests between parties. As the political parties evolved in this fashion, discussion of public policies all but disappeared from electoral campaigns. When former President Fernando Lugo of the Patriotic Alliance for Change was elected in 2008, he had not presented a single public policy program for his government and did not develop one until six months into his administration.

In the aftermath of President Fernando Lugo’s sudden impeachment in mid-2012, the Development in Democracy Foundation (DENDE), a non-profit organization with a mission to promote economic growth and development policy, came up with a plan to address the lack of policy dialogue in Paraguay’s electoral campaigns. With no incumbent on the ballot, and no clear frontrunner, there was a willingness on the part of the political parties to try something new. In an effort to avoid another hollow campaign season in advance of the April 2013 election, CIPE began working with DENDE to identify what Paraguayan voters were interested in knowing about the economic proposals of the presidential candidates, and to organize public presidential candidate debates in which the candidates could present their plans.

“Paraguay Debate”

Under previous projects, CIPE strengthened DENDE through capacity building in order to enable the organization to facilitate dialogue between political parties, civil society, and the private sector. Furthermore, CIPE shared best practices and lessons learned on the importance of participatory democratic governance from similar projects conducted in Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico. CIPE staff traveled to Paraguay to provide additional technical assistance during the execution of the project.

In the run-up to the election in April 2013, DENDE formulated a strategy to contribute to a democratic dialogue between political parties, the private sector, and civil society, with the ultimate goal of organizing presidential candidate debates. The effort was led by a steering committee made up of well-known individuals from diverse segments of society, including a journalist, economist, lawyer, businessperson, and academic. This committee was responsible for developing survey questions, deciding which policy recommendations to discuss at public forums, and synthesizing results into unified policy proposals that would serve as the focal point for the candidate debates.

The first step involved working with a variety of civil society and private sector organizations to conduct nationwide surveys of Paraguayans via email and cell phone to identify general policy priority areas. The public surveys were key to ensuring that the planned candidate debates were focused on issues important to the general population. Roughly 5,365 Paraguayan’s responded to DENDE’s email and cell phone surveys and indicated which political, economic, and social policy issues were most important to them. These results were then distilled and discussed by five civil society and private sector working groups during a series of interactive forums. This process culminated with the compilation of a document containing 46 specific policy proposals, which were then shared with representatives from every political party. These proposals ranged from incorporating domestic (household) workers into the social security system to provide them with health and retirement coverage, to strengthening the management of education policy by imposing a more participatory, efficient, and coordinated mechanism between the national, departmental, and local levels.

With the policy priority areas set by the survey results and working groups, DENDE worked with the Center for Regulation, Norms, and Communications Studies (CERNECO) to organize a series of televised presidential debates that would create a platform for candidates to present their views on the issues. With agreement from the political parties, this effort culminated with the two official Paraguayan presidential debates on March 17 and 24, 2013. Four presidential candidates participated in the debates covering the topics of governance and economic development (which included the national budget, tax framework, investment, public-private alliances, commercial policy, governance and security), and social and environmental policy (which included poverty, education, health, and environment). Candidates included Efraín Alegre from Alianza Paraguay Alegre, Horacio Cartes from Asociación Nacional Republicana, Mario Ferreiro from Avanza País, and Miguel Carrizosa from Patria Querida.

Impact

DENDE’s working groups established a dialogue process between the private sector and broader society that allowed it to build, with broad democratic participation, public policy proposals that were then addressed by the presidential candidates. Additionally, through cell phone and email surveys DENDE was able to incorporate public input in the policy recommendations that served as a sample for discussion in the presidential debates.

The impact of the democratic dialogue process was most significant for civil society, particularly because it acquainted citizens with the processes involved in public policy formulation such as research, participation, and systematization. The process itself promoted dialogue, deliberation, and consensus and consequently generated management guidelines that civil society groups will use for years to come. The debates themselves amplified and improved citizens’ access to information, educated the electorate on the issues, and promoted greater interest in candidates’ proposals as opposed to their personalities. Presidential candidate Mario Ferreiro said,

“The debate is part of a citizens’ right to access information about the plans of each candidate. The debate can contribute to the diffusion of each presidential candidate’s plans in a short, clear and simple format.”

This project also fostered better coordination among civil society organizations and the business sector, and incorporated the media in an effort to create a more democratic discussion of candidates’ policy proposals. The debate was broadcasted simultaneously on all seven public television stations and one cable channel, as well as on 500 commercial and community radio stations. As a result of the public debates, approximately 3,400,000 citizens received information about the candidates’ public policy proposals, 71 percent of whom heard them for the first time. Overall, this initiative helped provide much-needed tools for information, solid analyses, and recommendations to policy leaders and decision makers, while also providing a channel for citizens to voice their concerns and opinions to these leaders.

Lessons Learned and Best Practices

The lessons learned from this initial effort can be applied to two main categories—the democratic dialogue process and the candidate debates.

Democratic Dialogue

  • Use of mobile technology: Mobile phones proved a useful medium for expanding the scope of citizen feedback and provided an effective complement to the more targeted email survey. The mobile phone survey reached 150,000 subscribers and yielded a 3 percent response rate. The email survey yielded a better 14 percent response rate, but only reached 7,000 people.
  • Include strategic actors: To create a truly representative democratic dialogue, it is important to include government and political party representatives as well as strategic actors from the private sector and civil society. Each of these groups are fundamental in a democracy.
  • Involve the media and journalists from the start: Democratic dialogue can be greatly enhanced by including the media in the process. The media has the ability to reach remote areas of a country that might otherwise not be informed, leading to an increase in the number and diversity of survey respondents—again, promoting a more representative democratic dialogue.
  • Advanced research: Democratic dialogue is generally designed with a methodology to address politically controversial and technically complex issues. In this sense, extensive prior research helps set the environment for dialogue, and can be distributed and exchanged among participants before the dialogue sessions take place. This facilitates an orderly dialogue and participation, and allows those involved to identify points of convergence.
  • Accurate recordkeeping: Developing and documenting technical procedures to monitor the democratic dialogue development process, as well as to evaluate, organize, and record activities and results are crucial to its success.

Candidate Debates

  • Universal inclusion: The Paraguayan presidential election featured 14 candidates. Due to a number of constraints DENDE only invited the four candidates with highest rating in the polls – resulting in some criticism. By including all presidential candidates in the debates, an organization can avoid being labeled as favoring certain candidates over others. Also, including all candidates ensures that viewers are informed by all possible alternatives, and doing so helps strengthen freedom of expression and access to information.
  • Allow media attendance at debates: Although the debates were widely broadcast in Paraguay, the impact could have been greater if journalists were allowed to attend the debates. At the same time, DENDE could have avoided media criticism by doing so—eliminating a diversion of attention from the actual debates. Providing the media with pre and post-debate information is crucial to the success and dissemination of the event.
  • Increase the number of debates: The impact of the two debates is evident, but this impact could have been expanded to include organizing a series of debates instead. The ability to cover additional topics at subsequent debates could more adequately address the issues that were most important to the general public.
  • Efficient management and disseminating results: When undertaking a similar project, it is essential that organizers understand the importance of having efficient management tools and staff. After each debate the host should summarize the relevant information and distribute it through the media. It is also important to create a full transcript and summary of the debate, including which candidates participated and the public policy proposals presented in the debates.
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