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A better argument: debates inspire issue-based Albanian election process.

Although the Albanian government has changed significantly since the fall of communism in 1991, the political culture remains personality-based. During election season, political parties traditionally focus on political leaders and gaining popular support, rather than building platforms and campaigning on issues. Candidates often engage in personal attacks and fail to address issues important to voters, such as economic improvement, crime, corruption and employment.

Consequently, prior to the June 23 national elections, many Albanian voters could name the candidates, but couldn't say what they stood for.

Prior to the election, I visited several high schools to discuss the role of social media in politics and how televised presidential debates had evolved in the United States. Students often said they wished Albanian candidates would debate on television but did not think it could ever happen. Most said that leaders of the political parties would never agree to an uncontrolled debate with their rivals, and some thought such an event would quickly devolve into uncontrollable mudslinging.

Nevertheless, the youths said televised debates would give young voters an opportunity to break from family voting traditions and make a more educated decision in the coming elections.

With that in mind, U.S. Embassy in Tirana staffers began discussing how to support the upcoming elections. The public affairs, political and USAID offices recognized the need for an issues-based campaign and a public debate that would force party representatives to take positions on issues and develop platforms. Then, voters could choose among ideas and proposals, not just personalities.

As part of its Act Now! Initiative, which aims to improve citizens' dialogue with elected officials, the embassy approached leaders from the nation's five largest political parties and offered to sponsor Albania's first televised campaign debates with members from the party youth wings. All parties agreed to participate.

To organize the debates, initiative coordinator Elizabeth Barnhart worked with Dr. Christine Standerfer, a J. William Fulbright scholar and associate professor of Communication at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service.

To ready them for the debate, Standerfer spent six weeks training 14 young leaders from the five parties to present and defend their positions. Deputy Chief of Mission Henry Jardine temporarily converted his living room into a debate training center for the participants, who met with several embassy officers, including the ambassador.

Many debate participants also received training and advice from their party leaders, members of parliament and local universities. Municipal governments in Tirana, Shkoder and Fier provided space for the three debates, which took place in April and May and were aired on three television stations. Popular evening talk show host Ilva Tare moderated the final debate in Tirana.

For the debates, the embassy collected via its Facebook page more than 500 questions, marking the first time the public was able to directly address party representatives during an election campaign. A panel of experts selected the topics for each debate. Questions, which were kept sealed until the event, covered important issues such as employment, education, rule of law and the economy.

Each debate attracted broad media attention, and many political leaders attended, including two former presidents, members of parliament, party leaders, ambassadors and media representatives. For many of those watching via TV, it was their first opportunity to hear the parties' platforms. Most important, the three debates showed the next generation of political leaders and voters how to conduct responsible political discourse in a civil and respectful manner.

The public response was overwhelmingly positive. "This is the future," said one commenter on the embassy's Facebook page. "We should learn from the most democratic country in the world! Thank you to the embassy, [and] the Ambassador and his staff for this initiative."

Many politicians commented on how the young debaters formulated their cases within the time allotted and without engaging in personal attacks.

Prior to the final debate, U.S. Ambassador Alexander Arvizu said, "Depending on how a politician performs in the course of a debate, or a series of them, an obscure candidate can become a viable contender almost overnight. Or a front-runner can suffer a sudden plunge in the poll numbers." Sometimes, he continued, "an election is won or lost based on the public's perception of the debate performance."

"A democracy can function properly only when the rules of the game are observed, and when the citizens make informed choices about their elected representatives," he observed.

The debates had a positive effect on the campaigning, with several international observer groups noting that the 2013 election campaigns included much more issue-based debate and discussion than before. Following the debates, party leaders held town hall meetings around the country to discuss some of the same platforms and proposals youth debaters presented on television. The nation's prime minister and opposition leaders began engaging voters through their Facebook profiles.

Participants said the debates had the potential to change Albania's political landscape. "This type of debate is a strong blow to old politics," said debater Indrit Sefa. "This format focuses on the fact that politicians should serve the citizens, and not the other way around." Sefa said politicians should be accountable for what they promise, and that removing personal insults from a campaign is a major step forward.

Most of the debate participants got to know each other, and said they found it difficult to attack their opponents. Elinda Guri, a Socialist Party debater, said, "These debates are the end result of training to be constructive, build cases and refute arguments without being offensive. During training, we learned that we each have core values. Now we are friends with each other; what we are debating are political arguments and the means by which we will fulfill our promises."

After the debates, two parties included members of their debate team on their candidate list for the elections. Depending on post-election appointments within the new government, Kejdi Mehmehtaj, who participated in the live debate in Tirana on May 3, could be seated in the new Parliament. At 19, she is only one year over the minimum eligibility age and would be the youngest parliamentarian in Albania's history.

It wouldn't be surprising if, a few short years from now, several others whom the embassy trained in these debates became elected leaders, playing their part in making public debate a part of Albania's vibrant, democratic future.

By Jay Porter, political officer, U.S. Embassy in Tirana
COPYRIGHT 2013 U.S. Department of State
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Author:Porter, Jay
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:4EXAL
Date:Oct 1, 2013
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