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Inter-Parliamentary Union - Martin Chungong: keeping faith with democracy

24 Mar 2024
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Inter-Parliamentary Union - Martin Chungong: keeping faith with democracy

Martin Chungong, secretary general of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, at the organisation’s villa headquarters known as “Maison des Parlements” in Grand-Saconnex. (IPU)


Inter-Parliamentary Union - Martin Chungong: keeping faith with democracy

Dubbed “the United Nations for parliaments”, the Inter-Parliamentary Union has been on a mission to help parliaments promote peace and democracy for 135 years. Its secretary general Martin Chungong speaks to Geneva Solutions about efforts to keep parliamentary talks going in coup-hit nations and between countries at war.

Propped up on the coffee table in Martin Chungong’s wood-paneled office, one object stands proudly on display. “You see this picture?” he points to the frame, besieged by a traffic jam of model cars.

Taken in 2018 on the sidelines of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) biannual assembly in Geneva, the photo shows two men shaking hands, glasses of white wine in front of them, about to share a toast.

“That's the leader of the South Korean delegation to the IPU, and the other one, the leader of the North Korean delegation.” Chungong stands beside them. It is a rare show of friendship between the two countries, which are once again at a new low in their relations.

Though the moment has long faded, the photo is still earning its place on the table, showing what the 135-year-old organisation sets out to do: promote peace and democracy through parliamentary diplomacy and dialogue.

Founded in 1889 by two pacifist parliamentarians, Frédéric Passy and Sir William Randal Cremer, one French, and the other English – both winners of the Nobel Peace Prize –,  the IPU today counts 180 member parliaments and 15 associate members around the world.

The 66-year-old Cameroonian is almost halfway through his third elected term as secretary general and 10th year in the job that saw him become the first African leader of the organisation that has traditionally been led by Europeans.

Back then, Chungong described his appointment, in an interview with Swiss newspaper Le Temps, as a “recognition of the progress of democracy in other regions across the world”.

Ten years later, after a wave of military coups on the continent and many Africans losing faith in democracy, does this statement still stand? “The principles of democracy have been challenged in a serious way,” he concedes.

This trend is not limited to Africa. In 2024, more than half of the world’s population living in 76 countries will head to the polls, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, which estimates that of the 71 elections it covers, only 43 will enjoy free and fair votes.

Africa will be the continent with the most elections but its citizens have become increasingly disenchanted by the versions of democracy offered by politicians, with military leaders stepping into the fray. Still, Chungong argues that the trend of overthrowing elected governments remains a “minority phenomenon”.

“We are talking of five to six countries that have observed coups in the last two or three years. But we forget that there are 54 countries in Africa and that the vast majority of these countries are more or less stable.”

Elections in Liberia in November, when incumbent leader and football legend George Weah peacefully conceded defeat to opposition leader Joseph Boakai, offered up some bright spots. “It's something that would have been unheard of a few decades ago,” says Chungong, when the country was in the midst of a brutal civil war.

Nigeria’s elections in February 2023, though marred by problems including violence and reports of voter intimidation, also saw a largely peaceful transition of power, he argues. “Of course, the practices are not perfect. And that's why we're keen to accompany the processes in these countries.”

The IPU provides technical assistance and support to strengthen parliaments, like in Gabon, where Chungong recently paid a visit to its military leaders that took power last summer. He offered the IPU’s expertise in writing a new electoral code as the central African country eyes a return to the polls in 2025. It came after visits last year to other coup-hit nations, including Mali, Guinea, and Burkina Faso.

Even as Africa’s disillusionment with democracy grows, Chungong’s faith remains steadfast. “It can rise from the ashes like a phoenix,” he says fervently. Indeed, in many countries that have experienced coups, military rulers are working on a transition back to civilian rule, albeit with varying degrees of success.

“Democracy is something that is not called into question. What is called into question is how you practice that democracy, and the institutions that you have put in place to exercise democracy,” Chungong says.

His own country Cameroon, which has been ruled by 91-year-old Paul Biya for more than four decades, is one case in point. Elections are planned for 2025, though Chungong steers clear of commenting.

With under two years left of his mandate, Chungong is focused on delivering on the IPU’s 2022-2026 strategy, including sharpening its focus on core areas of its work, like helping to build more inclusive parliaments. “During my tenure, we have seen an upsurge in the number of parliaments that are increasingly representative, especially women,” he says.

The IPU’s flagship report on women in parliament shows representation has never been so diverse, with women taking an average 25.8 per cent of seats up for election  in 2022. However, progress remains slow, with sexism and sexual harassment still too often barriers to women entering politics, Chungong adds.

Already working closely in partnership with other UN agencies, he wants the organisation to engage with a broader set of actors, including civil society and academia, in helping parliaments deliver on voter’s expectations.

The sustainable development goals are at the heart of those aspirations, Chungong says, because “at the end of the day, that's what matters to the ordinary person. They want to see their democracies, peaceful societies translating into better health care, better educational facilities for their children”.

Other priorities include helping parliaments address major global issues such climate change, human rights, and peace and security. It’s under this theme that the organisation will hold its next annual assembly in March.

Returning to Geneva for the first time since 2018, does Chungong expect the gathering to produce any similar surprise political encounters? He prefers not to tempt fate.

However, this week sees him travel to Armenia and Azerbaijan, where he hopes to advance talks on the creation of a mechanism within the IPU for facilitating dialogue on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Though unlikely to result in a photo moment, using its good offices and creating a space for parliamentary dialogue between the two countries in conflict – like it has done between parliamentarians in Russia and Ukraine, and between a divided Cyprus – would already be memorable enough.

If it leads to a further encounter between parliamentary delegates of the two countries in Geneva, there will be space waiting on his coffee table.


BANNER IMAGE: Annual Hearing at the UN, 18 February 2020 © Inter-Parliamentary Union, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.



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