The Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA), the Tampere Peace Research Institute (Tapri) and the Euro-Mediterranean Study Commission (EuroMeSCo) jointly organised the seminar “Partnership in Transition: The Nordic Countries and the Arab Spring” in Helsinki on March 14th. The seminar gathered speakers from Scandinavia and North Africa. Demo Finland was represented in the seminar, as senior advisor Sari Varpama held a presentation on the role of political parties in the post-Arab Spring democratization process.
Related to the seminar, Demo also participated in a roundtable discussion on the rule of law and participatory democracy arranged by the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Finnish Parliament. The participants were parliamentarians from North Africa, Middle-East, the Baltic countries, Turkey and Scandinavia. Among the participants were Mohamed Yatim, vice-chairman of the Moroccan parliament, sheikh Humam Hamoudi, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of Iraqi parliament and representatives of five different political and religious movements and parties in Egypt.
Timo Soini, chairman of the Finnish Foreign Affairs Committee, concluded that parliaments have a key role in promoting unity inside nations. “Different views on society can be openly discussed and debated in a parliament. In parliamentary work, political parties learn how to make compromises which are inevitable in democracies. Making compromises requires trust which is gained step by step. It’s learning by doing”, Soini said.
Democratization – a long process
The Foreign Minister of Finland, Erkki Tuomioja, opened the FIIA seminar, bringing forth the resemblance of the events of the Arab Spring and the situation in Finland after independence (1917). The segmentation of society and the inequality of people lead to a deep division which escalated to a bloody civil war. However, this did not prevent Finland from developing a culture of politics of consensus and building a welfare state. Minister Tuomioja stressed that this process took decades, which is why one should also be patient about the Arab countries. Democratization and institutional reforms do not happen in a couple of years, and one should not underestimate the challenges they pose. This was a message that was repeated by several speakers during the seminar.
The themes of the seminar were democratic transitions with their challenges and prospects of cooperation, economic challenges and civil society. In addition to patience, the key words in the presentations of all 18 speakers were dialogue and consensus, gender equality, institutional reforms and equal opportunities for all to education, livelihood and political participation.
Political parties in a key role
In her presentation, Sari Varpama, Senior Advisor at Demo Finland, introduced the role of political parties in democracies and the work of Demo Finland in North Africa. Supporting parties is essential, because they have a key role in building a pluralistic and representative democracy. With the expansion of the political space in the post-Arab Spring situation, parties face several challenges, the outcomes of which will determine the future development of these societies. Parties need to strengthen their organisational capacities, create distinct identities and win the trust of citizens. Among the difficulties they need to overcome are the polarisation of societies and the inexperience in decision-making and accountable responsibility. In this situation it is important to negotiate differences in a peaceful manner and adhere to values of a pluralistic multiparty political culture, which requires compromises. Like minister Tuomioja, Varpama reminded the audience about the Finnish “conflict to consensus” -experience that demonstrates how successful coalition politics can be.
Demo Finland has worked in the Arab Spring countries especially supporting the participation of youth and women in politics. This is essential, because despite of their important role in the uprisings, these groups have mainly been neglected after the revolutions. In Tunisia, Demo Finland, together with three partners, run the Tunisian School of Politics, which strengthens the capacities of young politicians on democracy and multiparty politics. With a Libyan women’s organisation, Demo has also organised a seminar for women election candidates in Libya. In addition, Demo Finland has collaborated on a project in Egypt, organising Skype cafes on women’s political participation and gender equality.
At the end of her presentation, Varpama made recommendations on democracy support and cooperation with political parties. She stressed the significance of cross-party dialogue and opposition and reminded that the most important factor in consolidating democracy is the commitment of local political actors.
The speakers of the seminar pointed out that the experiences of the Nordic countries should not be considered identical to what is happening in the Arab countries and that the democratization process is always lead by these countries themselves and not by foreign supporters. Nevertheless, several areas of work were mentioned where the post-Arab Spring societies could take a look at the examples set by the Nordic countries. Among these are equality, building of welfare society, politics of consensus, innovation and regional integration. Despite the challenges facing the region, the speakers remained optimistic about the future. After all, the democratization process is only taking its first steps, and with its young population and newly-activated civil society the region has lots of opportunities.