Paraguay debate: The challenge of nourishing the political debate in times of elections

14 October 2014
SERIES Think tanks and elections 17 items

[Editor’s note: This article was written by Marcelo Mancuello, researcher and consultant of the Center of Analysis and Diffusion of the Paraguayan Economy (CADEP). In 2013, CADEP, Instituto Desarrolloand other 5 civil society organizations developed the Paraguay Debate initiative, in order to nourish the political debate in the country in face of the April 2013 elections. During the experience, Marcelo was in charge of coordinating the platform.]

Paraguay Debate has its origins in the pre-electoral period of the 2013 General Elections in Paraguay. It was an initiative of the think tanks CADEP and Instituto Desarrollo, which had presented proposals to the Think Tank Initiative to fund the preparation of Public Policy Notes as a contribution to the debate in the electoral process. From this original idea, and inspired by CIES’s experience in Peru, CADEP and ID sought coordination with different actors of civil society interested in taking part in the electoral process in order to develop an inter-organisational platform that eventually gathered several institutions: besides CADEP and Instituto Desarrollo, the alliance also included Centro de Información y Recursos para el Desarrollo (CIRD)DECIDAMOS Campaña por la Expresión CiudadanaDesarrollo en Democracia (DENDE)Gestión Ambiental (geAm),  Semillas para la Democracia) and 5 others as organisations.

The challenge was huge. Since the events that led to the parliamentary destitution of former President Fernando Lugo, the social and political climate was troubled. Besides of the known patronage logics that signaled the transition process of democracy in Paraguay, political speeches often ended in confrontations and the prevailing approach to political campaigns in the country tended towards the construction of images and the use of marketing tools.

In this context, it was hard to reorient the debate towards public policy content and show the that different political groups could come together around their approaches and proposals and not just through conflicts or aggressions. These kind of personality-based discussions which led to confrontation were also promoted by the media, which created an inertial effect that ended with society expecting little or nothing from the political debates.

Within this scenario, and in order to fulfill the objectives of the Paraguay Debate platform, the alliance designed an influencing plan that eventually promoted a TV debate among the main contenders over topics related to economic and social development.

During the experience, communication activities were targeted at three different audiences. First, Paraguay Debate tried to reach politicians by producing evidence-based information for the development of government’s plans and programmes. Second, political journalists were targeted with materials that aimed to qualify the topics they were interested in and strengthen their capacity to delve deeper into a number of issues relevant for development. Finally, the general public, the main beneficiary of the initiative, was a focus of the partners’ efforts in order to wake up their interest towards the candidates and their parties’ proposals over the main topics affecting their lives and the country’s development.

The main strategy consisted in the production of Policy Notes, based on the expertise of each of the organisations involved in the platform. A total of 12 Policy Notes were produced on:

  1. Economic Development
  2. Governance
  3. Environmental Sustainability
  4. Climate Change
  5. Education
  6. Health
  7. Public Finance
  8. Agricultural Development
  9. Childhood Investment
  10. Tax Reform
  11. Open Government and
  12. Justice Reform.

Different formats were used in order to communicate the notes: they were published in digital form, disseminated through social networks, presented in radio, printed as technical summaries, compiled in publications for the general public, analysed through interviews, presented and debated with candidates and their political teams, and their main aspects were emphasised in various publications directed to political journalists in order to help them to ask the candidates the key questions about their government plans. All these tools were inspired by documents and mechanisms implemented by CIES during the General Elections in Peru in 2011.

This strong awareness campaign led to quick changes among the different social actors we were targeting. The presence in the media of Paraguay Debate’s messages raised the interest of the candidates to offer their opinions about the topics considered in the policy notes. It also increased the public’s knowledge of the candidates’ opinions and of journalists who began to demand answers to the candidates and parties. At the same time, it triggered a considerable increase in public debate activities in the media, which started to consider the policy implications of the electoral campaign more assiduously.

But Paraguay Debate aimed further: the project tried to bring the candidates’ confrontation of ideas onto the public sphere. The platform promoted a series of 4 debates with each candidate’s technical teams. This activity had to tackle the usual obstacles of political confrontation, and the two main parties (Asociación Nacional Republicana and Partido Radical Liberal Auténtico) did not participate of the discussion. They thought that they would be conceiving an advantage to their opponents if they were to present their programmes in public.

Despite the absentees, the debates worked as a test of the methods that would be used for the presidential debate. Moreover, interest in the initiative was triggered among subnational actors, who promoted 2 additional debates among the candidates for Governor of the Departments of Caaguazú and Ñeembucú.

Finally, the debate on TV was agreed by the partners of the platform, the 4 main candidates (including current president Horacio Cartes) and the Center of Regulation, Norms and Communication Studies (CERNECO), which gathers the main radio, TV and press companies of the country. The debate was broadcasted by every terrestrial channel, cable channel and was also web-streamed. According to estimates, the broadcast reached 1.5 million households. The debate took place in a context of respect and compliance with the rules established and agreed with during the preparations.

As a final balance, it is possible to say that Paraguay Debate produced a series of positive results: organisations were able to influence as they had never been able to during the public debate by introducing the issues that interested each of the organisations integrating the platform as the key topics for the discussion; after the elections, the platform became  new space of reference regarding policy proposals; the proposals in the documents were considered in many of the government programmes of the main parties; the current National Development Plan, with its main pillars (Inclusive Economy, Poverty Reduction and Paraguay’s International Insertion), was clearly influenced by the analyses included in the Policy Notes; and the importance of approaching these topics was installed in the media and among journalists, whose role in the success of the initiative was central.

As a key lesson it is necessary to recognise the pragmatic role of political campaigns: parties and candidates will participate of a broader discussion just as long as they consider that they will obtain political advantages from doing so; unless in situations in which public pressure makes this unavoidable. Moreover, during the discussions previous to the TV debate it was necessary to make concessions regarding the procedures and rules of the debate, which modified the dynamics of the discussion. As this practice becomes increasingly consolidated election after election, the methodology may be improved and the quality of the discussion should also be enhanced.

[Editor’s Note: this post was translated to Spanish by Federico Frascheri and revised by Enrique Mendizabal.]