During the three-day event, delegates from countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa examined some of the most critical issues in election administration, including how to resolve election disputes, the role of the media in elections, and tracking money in political campaigns.
Among the delegates was Mazllum Baraliu, the chief executive officer of Kosovo's Central Election Commission. He said he had come from Prishtina because of the challenges he and his colleagues face as they try and plan two elections this year -- one local and one national.
Challenges For Kosovo
Under the proposal recommended by UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari, Kosovo's assembly must adopt two new election laws, which Baraliu and his team must then implement.
"We have many specific issues and challenges because of the Ahtisaari plan and because of the specificity of the processes, with new municipalities, the creation of that, and especially relating to the elections -- it's going to be a full challenge," Baraliu said. "And [there is] much responsibility for us in respecting preparation, respecting the law, formulating the law, and adopting the legislation, and as well to prepare and to realize the fair, democratic and transparent process of election in Kosovo."
Baraliu said he had come to the conference to learn from other election and democracy experts around the world, and establish contacts that he can draw on for assistance.
"We are here just to learn, to contact people, experiences, information with different people, election commission members and representatives," he said. "Which is very, very useful to us as a country in the process to be created as a state. So it's very useful."
One of the experts Baraliu had the chance to learn from at the conference was Marcin Walecki, whose expertise is in anticorruption and political finance programs.
Working with IFES -- an international nonprofit orgnanization that helps build democratic societies -- the Polish-born Walecki has consulted on U.S.-funded elections programs in several countries and regions in transition, including: Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Iraq, Kosovo, Romania, Russia, and Ukraine.
Follow The Money
Walecki told RFE/RL that tracking the money spent on political parties and campaigns is one of the most critical issues for democracies for several reasons.
A campaign event in Macedonia in June 2006 (epa)
One, it fosters links to criminal organizations and interest groups seeking improper influence in election outcomes. Two, he said, 99 percent of people cannot afford to become candidates because they can't afford the cost. Third, he said political campaigns have become like "arms races," with each candidate trying to outspend the other.
"All those issues bring me to the conclusion that we've been talking about free and fair elections in the 20th century, but now those issues would be, are those elections transparent, accountable, credible?" he said. "And once we start discussing those issues, you can't avoid the issue of money and what role is money playing in politics."
That question often becomes even more important after elections, when Walecki says new laws get passed and the groups or individuals that funneled money into the winning campaign begin to reap advantages -- economic or other -- from the new legislation.
In his years spent shining a flashlight in the dark corners of countries' political parties and election commissions, Walecki says he's come across "some really unaccountable politicians who are only thinking about enriching themselves."
Times Are A-Changin'
But he has also found reasons to believe the situation is changing, in large part because the public is paying closer attention.
"I think standards are changing and politicians will have to recognize this -- that as we are now in the 21st century, public opinion is applying different standards to politics, to politicians, to political parties," he said. "They're not allowed to do things they were doing in the 19th and 20th centuries. People have high expectations, high demands, and they will keep politicians accountable."
For three years running, Transparency International's annual report measuring corruption in democracies has found the public considers political parties the most corrupt institutions in many societies.
Voting in Tehran in December 2006 (MNA)
Walecki said he is encouraged that, along with the increased public scrutiny of how political parties and campaigns raise and spend money, elections officials are also being given more power. Across Europe, he says more campaign finance cases are being prosecuted now than were just a few years ago.
"I don"t want to give names of certain presidents or prime ministers, but what they have been doing in [the] '90s, they could not do now," he said. "Even in Germany, a certain chancellor would be prosecuted now, because there is new legislation. In the U.K., many politicians would be prosecuted now because there is a new legislation. In fact, the U.K. electoral commission has more powers that the police investigating a murder case. So we are actually seeing that some regimes are actually taking this very seriously and it's going to hurt some politicians."
Walecki says as of now, about a third of the world's democracies don't have any campaign-finance laws in place, a third have some basic regulations, and another third hves laws that are not implemented or enforced. He predicts that in the next 10 years, the situation will improve, as a result of anticorruption agreements within the Council of Europe, from the UN, and at the African Congress.
But he added that in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, some governments are motivated to strengthen their political financing laws so they can more effectively can harass and oppress the opposition.