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Global Challenges to Democracy Discussed at Conference


Challenges to democracy in the complex world of the 21st century are the topic of a week-long conference that opened in Washington Tuesday. Sponsored by the Global Electoral Organization, the meeting discusses the democratic process in dozens of countries around the world. VOA's Sean Maroney reports from the "Every Vote Counts" conference.

More than 200 election officials and experts from 67 countries are in Washington for a meeting of the Global Electoral Organization, an international nonprofit group that supports the building of democratic societies. This year's GEO conference is zooming in on how to use 21st-century progress to enhance the free-election process worldwide.

A senior U.S. State Department official, Undersecretary for Democracy and Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, says democracy is the best form of government for nations dealing with important world issues.

"We think that the evidence is really overwhelming when you take a look at it - that effective democracies are better able than repressive or poorly governed states to deal with global issues such as infectious disease, management of environmental resources, human trafficking and other forms of transnational crime," Dobriansky said.

She points out that an effective democracy is one that develops within a country naturally, and is free from outside pressure.

"Promoting democracy, by the way, doesn't just consist of taking one model, or anyone else's, and basically taking it and planting it on someone else's soil," she added. "Democracy will and should reflect traditions and realities in each particular country."

Luis Carlos Ugalde, president of Mexico's Federal Electoral Institute, oversaw last year's hotly contested presidential election.

The vote capped months of intense campaigning that showed a broad divide between Mexico's rich and poor. Officials had hoped to announce a winner a few hours after polls closed, but it took weeks to get the final vote count.

During that time, backers of the two leading candidates staged rowdy demonstrations, while the Federal Electoral Institute proceeded with its methodical recount of the ballots. Conservative Felipe Calderon ultimately won the presidency by a narrow margin over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

Ugalde said this helped strengthen Mexico's democracy. "I think that when a system is put to a test - an extreme test, as it happened in Mexico - you have an opportunity to get the experience, to share the experience and then to promote the changes to the system into the future," he said.

Delegates to the conference are also discussing new issues facing elections, including the impact of technology.

Diane Davidson of Elections Canada says her country is working on electronic vote-counting methods similar to those used in some areas of the United States.

She says governments must pay attention to continuing developments in technology and communications, such as the increasing role of online blogs in political debate.

"We know in Canada that parties and candidates increasingly use the Internet for electoral advertising," she says. "This raises the question of whether the time has come to assess the need for regulating its use."

The Internet is playing a big role in the U.S. presidential campaign, which is already under way more than one and a half years before the next nationwide elections. Some candidates are using the Internet to boost their own campaigns, others to undermine their rivals'. And voters, too, are using the Internet to make their preferences public.