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Cooperation between NGOs and political parties

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July 8, 2002
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On June 22 the Agency for Legal Initiatives hosted an international seminar entitled “Making Civil Society Concerns Heard: Prospects and Problems of NGOs’ Cooperation with Political Parties” in Kiev. The conference gathered representatives of NGOs from the Republic of Moldova, Mongolia, Russia and Ukraine. Association for Participatory Democracy “ADEPT” and Institute for Public Policies represented Republic of Moldova.

This issue is not new at all. The cooperation between NGOs and political parties is in fact very natural, as both are public associations and represent the so-called civil society. In this respect joining their efforts according to certain principles might prove extremely useful in strengthening civil society. Nevertheless, the goals and methodology of NGOs and political parties differ a lot. NGOs are established for citizens to exercise their right to association and to pursue goals set by the founders and proponents. NGOs may either pursue a public or a mutual interest. Although political parties are established under the same right to free association, their goal is to legally accede to power by selling their governing programs to the electorate. That is exactly why very frequently political parties are considered to be some sort of interface between the society and state bodies.

As the goals pursued by political parties are different one may wonder if by cooperating with them NGOs may impair their image of unpartisan organizations? This is not mere a rhetoric questions as it is provided for in the incumbent legislation of the Republic of Moldova. Thus, in the 1996 presidential race the major players Petru Lucinschi and Mircea Snegur enjoyed the support of 60–70 NGOs each. Back then the society witnessed a race for securing public declarations of support from as many NGOs as possible. By this, candidates’ image-makers sought to highlight which of the candidates enjoys a greater “support of the civil society”.

One of the results of such a massive NGO support to electoral contestants was the adoption of the Law on Public Associations several months latter. The law distinguished between public and mutual benefit organizations; the latter enjoying larger fiscal and other kind of incentives. One of the criteria for receiving public benefit status, issued by the Certification Commission of the Ministry of Justice is for the NGO to be non-partisan with no previous records of publicly supporting electoral contestants. The NGO, which supports an electoral contestant might be entitled to some privileges as long as the relevant contestant wins elections, otherwise if it loses elections the NGO might expect a discriminatory treatment from the winner. Both ways, involvement in politics may impair NGO’s image as non-partisan. However, open support of contestants isn’t prohibited, just that those NGOs may not claim public benefit status. In such a case they are regarded as organizations of mutual benefit of those, who support a certain political party.

The Law had a positive impact, so that in the next 3 electoral campaigns NGOs refrained from publicly supporting political parties. At the same time the Law was an occasion to speak about ways of NGO involvement in politics. Indeed, Moldova NGOs organize themselves around their field of interest so as to jointly solve problems, such as environment, human rights, youth, gender, etc. Those organizations may not ignore public policies in the relevant fields promoted by the parties in governing and cannot refrain from expressing their standpoint on those policies as long as those policies affect public interest. Therefore, NGOs positions are the more credible the less partisan NGOs are. It seems that the Moldovan NGO community has reached the conclusion that a difference should be made between NGO’s involvement in politics (by publicly supporting political parties and governing programs), and NGO promotion of public policies for the public interest without any ideological implication. If guided by the assumption that NGO should have nothing to do with the public policies, then NGOs would have to forget about the dialogue initiated by President Vladimir Voronin within the framework of a Social Pact, especially as the president is also the Chair of the Communist Party. In such a case NGOs would have to isolate themselves, just at the time authorities are willing to “edify a civil society in the Republic of Moldova”. Though, many skeptical analysts claim it is hard to distinguish between political involvement and promotion of accountable public policies. In this respect, the difference between a NGO and political party is that between a miss and a Mrs., the former is still free to choose, the latter has already made its choice and is bound to it.

In the Republic of Moldova relationships between NGOs and political parties are not exactly perfect. Immediately after 2001 parliamentary elections when the great majority of democratically oriented parties failed, a series of pretended “independent” media outlets, but in fact partisan ones, claimed that the victory of the Communist Party is due to “the absence of civil society in the Republic of Moldova”. Those allegations were addressed to the 2,000 NGOs, which although claimed to be part of civil society, were mere “devours of grants”. Of course there is some truth in those allegations, but just a little, as the collapse of democratic parties is the fault of the parties themselves and their leaders.

To avoid such allegations in the future it would be appropriate to clarify the objective and subjective factors of the democrats’ loss in elections and actions to be undertaken in view of strengthening civil society.

Firstly, it’s the image NGOs and parties enjoy in the society. According to the recent polls, the great majority of citizens trust neither political parties, nor NGOs. However, NGOs enjoy a more positive image in the society than parties and trade unions. Noteworthy, immediately after elections Vladmir Voronin stated that he was very much aware of the fact that the Communist Party won elections not because of its program but rather due to the protest vote of the electorate.

Further, media controlled by political parties worked to denigrate opponent parties. As a result the image of all political leaders had to suffer. Left wing and center-left leaders are accused of coming from URSS nomenclature, which upon the proclamation of independence have turned into democrats so as to take part in the privatization process. As for the right-wing leaders, they are accused of limiting their electorate due to their option for national values instead of generally accepted ones.

Secondly, democratic parties failed in the 2001 parliamentary elections due to the fact that in the 11 years of independence living standards had considerably declined, so that the nostalgia for the relative stability and welfare of the soviet times has been recurring. Finally, the political and corruption scandals involving leaders of democratic parties, especially those of the Alliance of Democratic Forces in governing between 1998–2000 greatly eroded their image, although it wasn’t proved that those allegations were grounded. Interestingly enough citizens are not the only ones to believe those allegations, as leaders of parties themselves share the same believe with regard to their political rivals. That is why political leaders keep calling for alliance of the parties of the same spectrum, but with rare exceptions those alliances never happen. An illustration of this may be the Democratic Forum of Moldova. It was established three months after the 2001 parliamentary elections, as a self-defense and “unification of democratic forces” reaction against the policies of the Communist Party, however it only survived for several months.

Another factor dictating the electorate behavior is the democrats’ failure to speak on the voters’ language. That is why only left-wing parties, which promise to solve social problems are able to pass the threshold of representation. Domestic analysts explain this by the absence of a middle class, which in democratic countries account for the great majority of the population, ensure political stability in the country, and vote for center-left and center-right parties. “Middle class” is distinguished according to its income, which may entitle them to a certain living standard and to certain personal freedom. As the basic values of the civil society are pluralism and citizens’ free initiative, one may claim that civil society values are in fact those shared by the middle class, consequently strengthening civil society goes hand in hand with the development of a middle class.

As the Communist Party claims to edify a civil society in the Republic it should be aware of the fact that what it intends to edify is a middle class, defined in the Marxist theory as the “small bourgeoisie”. Marxist leaders wrote in the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto entitled “Bourgeoisie and Proletarians” that the bourgeoisie was the one to “awake the great majority of citizens from the stupid somnolence of the rural life”. Needless to say that in the Republic of Moldova at the beginning of the XXI century rural population outnumber urban population. As for the bourgeoisie, or middle class, in the last century it was annihilated in Moldova whenever it managed to full-fledge. Consequently a major goal for the Moldovan political elite striving to edify a civil society, should be boosting middle class. Leaders of the Communist Party have already announced the modernization of the party and even revision of their program. They also pointed to the need of revising the Constitution in such a manner so as to satisfy any party acceding to power. It is encouraging that Communist Party talks about values shared by the entire political spectrum. International political situation, i.e. integration processes worldwide and in Europe, has also pushed the governing party in the same direction.

However, it would be naive for us to expect that a strong middle class aware of its political and economic needs might appear soon. Even under favorable political and economic situations, it would take quite a time. In this respect some of the major challenges to be met would be social culture and civic education. And this is exactly the field where NGOs and political parties could efficiently cooperate.

Firstly, NGOs may assist political parties in identifying and educating community leaders on leadership, communication skills, etc. In fact NGOs are already doing such kind of work. Quite a number of grassroots leaders benefited of the community development projects undertaken by NGOs. Those models may be replicated in other rural communities. It is too early to speak about a mass community movement, however success stories should not be neglected. After addressing community problems often enough those leaders start looking for parties able to offer national and regional programs addressed to grassroots social problems. Thus, community leaders and political parties might find common grounds. An example in this respect was shared by Serbian youth organizations with Moldovan counterparts in May. NGO leaders of Serbia refrain from electioneering in favor of political parties, rather they promote successful initiatives in solving community or neighborhood problems. In electoral campaigns, it’s enough for those leaders who managed to gain the trust of the community, to hint the candidate they regard as reliable, for that candidate to be in the top of electorate’s preferences. In Moldova also, political parties are looking for would-be grassroots leaders, but by doing so they resort to promises, which as a rule are not kept. In this respect Serbian strategy may prove more successful. For instance, Communist party has recently launched an initiative aimed to identify leaders for the upcoming local elections from among the entrepreneurs popular in the community. This may be an indication that the Communist party understands the importance of reviving middle class.

Secondly, there is quite a number of NGOs able to provide assistance and consultation to political parties on various issues. NGOs could provide trainings in other fields as well. Further, there are several think-tank NGOs, in fact two types. The first type includes NGOs favoring a certain political doctrine and preferring to cooperate with parties embodying such a doctrine. For instance, Socium-Moldova Foundation cooperates with social-democratic oriented political parties. Institute of Social Technologies prefers to work with the Communist Party. The second type does not give preference to any political doctrine, while conducting studies and polls on the most important problems society is facing. Illustration of such think-tanks is Institute for Public Policies, as well as NGOs working in specific fields Institute for Social Initiatives “Viitorul” — public administration; Association for Participatory Democracy “ADEPT” — elections, political parties, NGOs. It’s true there are think-tanks within the parties themselves or within media outlets, however they have a different status.

The above factors of cooperation greatly depend on the self-organizations of NGOs. In the last years Moldovan NGO community seems to have found a certain form of self-organization and launch very good projects. Certainly, in self-organizing Moldovan NGOs follow the same path as their Central and Eastern European counterparts. The regional NGO Forums aiming at identifying the most active NGOs in the region embody the first level of self-organization. The Sector Forums are becoming a tradition as well, for example Forum of the Environmental NGOs, Youth NGOs, Gender NGOs, etc. National NGO Forums embody the second level of self-organization. Since 1997 three such forums have already been organized. Delegates to the forum are selected based on the following criteria: performance, territorial, and field of activity. The Forums focus on the major challenges of the NGO community, decide on joint initiatives, partnership with government and business, etc. Further, the Forum electes the NGO Council entrusted to implement the Forum Resolutions as well as to monitor the development of the sector and represent its interests in relations with other parties. In their activity Council members are guided by a Code of Best Practices and do voluntary work. The Council Chair is elected by rotation from among the Council members. After three National NGO Forums and two NGO Fairs, NGOs reached the conclusion that the Council should represent only the NGOs participating at the Forum, so as to enable the rest of NGOs out of 2,700 to find other ways of self-organization. If self-organization is based on best practices’ standards, the risks of scissions or conflicts within NGOs are very slim.

Last year Moldovan NGO community launched the idea of organizing a Civic Forum, a framework for NGOs, political parties, trade unions, and government meet and talk about prospects of the Moldovan NGO sector development. This would have embodied the highest form of self-organization, however the initiative failed to gain support. Political parties were busy healing the wounds of the last electoral campaign. Some of the trade union leaders viewed the initiative as premature, on the grounds that NGOs haven’t yet gained the right to talk to such a strong partner as trade unions. Trade unions have thousands of members, they are equal partners to Government and employers’ unions at the negotiation table, and who are NGOs? Needless to say, in the middle of political crisis the President of the country launched the idea of a Social Pact and within it’s framework host reunions similar to those envisaged in the Civic Forum, however this time the initiative gained the support of both political parties and trade unions. This is encouraging, but there are some risks at stake when the very same initiative is rejected when it comes from NGOs and is supported when it comes from the governing party.

After 2002 political crisis, political parties too realized they need some sort of cooperation mechanism. Thus, at the recommendation of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly a Permanent Round Table, open to all political parties and NGOs, was set up. The Round table aims to defend and promote democracy and political pluralism in the context of Communist majority in Parliament, which entitles them even to amend the Constitution. There are too many skeptical opinions on the sustainability of such a mechanism for political dialogue. Participants to the roundtable pursue different goals. The skepticism is coupled with suspicions that one political party might take advantage of the roundtable. Nevertheless, the strength of the roundtable is that it joins parties sharing the same values and issuing the same solutions to the problems society is facing, both may lead to sustainable alliances or fusion. Further, political parties participants to the roundtable have appealed to the informational assistance of NGOs, thus proving that cooperation with them is a real advantage.

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