In June 1994, I was sent to Macedonia by the National Democratic Institute to conduct “Democracy Training” in small communities in the new nation.
Alan, my translator, and I were driving to a town about two hours from Skopje, the nation’s capital. Our driver was a member of a local community-organizing group that was sponsoring one of these democracy training workshops. Macedonia had recently split from the formerly communist Yugoslavia and was soon to conduct only the second “free” national elections in its short history.
We passed an old stone farmhouse that had clearly been well maintained. The brick was clean and the grass around the home had recently been mowed, but the fields around the house were not tilled or otherwise tended. I stared at the austere farmhouse as we drove by and my gaze clearly caught the attention of the driver.
“It is the home of a family here,” he said in a deep voice with a heavy accent. “They haven’t lived there since 1943, when the Nazis took them away.” He sighed. “Some of the old families maintain the house so that when they return, it will be in good condition.”
We drove on.
The training was held in an old school classroom, with desks and a blackboard at the front. My talk was to be 30 minutes and cover the basics of democracy, how to vote, where to vote, and a bit about the formation of political parties. Then there would be Q&A, which was to last another 30 minutes.
At the end of the Q&A, when I asked, “Any more questions?” a man probably in his mid 80s raised his hand and began to talk. Alan translated for me.
“He said, ‘The problem is that all our politicians are crooks. We wanted them to build a dam to stop the flooding in our city and we paid them money for them to build the dam, and they took the money we paid, and never built the dam. And now we have no dam and no money. They are all crooks.”
I asked him, “Do you know of people who are honest and not crooks?”
“Yes, I do,” he replied.
“Convince them to run for office so that you give people a choice between honest people and crooks,” I said.
He looked me in the eye and said, simply, “You mean we can do that now?”
That question was quickly followed with one from another participant in broken English: “And how do we make sure the crooks give up their power? Without violence?”
I responded that fair and transparent elections were important, but mostly there must be a common commitment by the people and their leaders to adhere to the basic principles of democracy — respecting the will of the people and the process to determine the winners and losers.
I cited the long history of peaceful transition of power in the U.S. where we have tens of thousands of elections every year, and we have no violence because of that common commitment.
I am not sure I can say that anymore. Can we trust our leaders to maintain and promote that commitment?
Rick Ridder is a Denver-based political consultant and researcher who has worked in 23 countries abroad and is an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies. Portions of this essay were previously published in his book, “Looking for Votes in All the Wrong Places: Tales and Rules from the Campaign Trail.”
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