Helping Build Democracies

WHEN Congress reconvenes in September, a conference committee will seek to reconcile differences between the House and the Senate over renewing authority for the National Endowment for Democracy.

On June 22 the House voted 243-181 to kill a $35 million authorization for NED. On July 28, the Senate, after lengthy debate, restored it by a vote of 74-23.

At issue is whether government funds will be used to finance democratization activities by private organizations abroad.

NED was established by Congress during the Reagan administration to provide a mechanism to assist political parties, trade unions, and civic organizations in fledgling or threatened democracies. It works either directly through the Endowment's discretionary fund or through four national organizations: the Republican and Democratic parties, the US Chamber of Commerce, and the AFL-CIO.

Grants help buy such essentials to political activity as computers, printing presses, and broadcasting facilities. Support is provided for training, election monitoring, and legal assistance.

Debate in the US House and Senate centers around several issues: Is this activity necessary in a time of deficit reduction? Is a US-financed campaign for democracy needed, now that communism no longer threatens the democratic order? Does NED duplicate programs of the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Agency for International Development (AID)? Is it proper to funnel US taxpayer funds through private organizations, or is it unwarranted interference in the other nations' affairs?

Legitimate questions can be raised regarding the need for federal funding through private organizations. The answers lie in the peculiar problems associated with the development of democratic institutions. Pluralistic democracy is based on the existence of effective alternatives to power and the ability of such alternatives freely to organize and express their views. When an authoritarian regime is in power - whether in a communist or noncommunist country - all contrary voices are suppressed. When the re gime collapses, if democratic forces do not have the means immediately to contest for power, old regimes may return.

This is happening in several former communist countries where leaders of the past, under new party labels, are holding or regaining power. In countries new to democracy, like those in the former Soviet Union, or emerging from dictatorships, like those in the third world, political groups lack both basic equipment and knowledge and experience of political action. A successful democratization program requires providing alternative voices the capacity to compete in the political process. In many cases - Pol and, Lithuania, Ukraine, Latvia, and Belarus are examples - help can be given directly to organizations in the country; in others, such as Iraq and Burma, this can only be done by working through groups in exile.

Some members of Congress are uncomfortable with US intrusion into the political affairs of other countries. Democracy is, however, a political process. If America is to help in the political affairs of other countries, help by organizations at the heart of the American political process is both appropriate and necessary.

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