Much like visitors who gawk at fish in the National Aquarium, a delegation of Mozambique politicians came to Baltimore yesterday to observe the city's newest exhibit: the 1999 mayor's race.
The eight African officials are guests of the National Democratic Institute, a Washington agency created to foster world democracy. The contingent, which included two elections commissioners, spent a day with three of Baltimore's leading mayoral candidates, getting a front-row seat to what has become a turbulent campaign involving 27 candidates.
Although the eastern African nation gained its independence from Portugal in 1975, it had a single-party government until 1990. The group is preparing for Mozambique's second two-party election in December and called yesterday's glimpse into the Baltimore contest a welcome preview.
"We are impressed by the openness and sincerity of the process," said Castigo Langa, head of the studies and analysis section for the nation's Frelimo party. "We come from a country where the multiparty system is so new, we only have many concepts."
The group began its day with a visit to the office of former East Baltimore City Councilman Carl F. Stokes, whose supporters explained the fund-raising process.
Mozambique's newspapers are operated by the state, which pressures journalists who might criticize the government. The Baltimore campaign has been full of coverage of candidate troubles that has led to protests of the media.
The delegation learned that one candidate has been arrested, another questioned about the repossession of his car, and a third asked about falsely claiming a college degree. The visitors particularly liked how the American media reveal campaign contributors.
"The role of the press to ensure free and fair elections is important here," said Dr. Chico Francisco of the Renamo party.
Visiting with mayoral candidate City Council President Lawrence A. Bell III in the afternoon, the observers noted the similarities between the Stokes and Bell campaigns.
"The campaigns are run very smoothly," said Antonio Matonse, media adviser for the Frelimo Elections Office. "And it shows me that for American society, being opposition is just to be a competitor and not the enemy."
So, even if you lose, the visitors said, you win. "Opponents are respected, they have a place in the society," agreed Francisco. "Their place as opponents is useful in society to promote dialogue."
In addition to the two elections commissioners, the group included three representatives of the nation's two parties. The Frelimo party is Mozambique's ruling party, while the Renamo party is the rival group.
Though the visitors seemed comfortable together, their amicable viewing of an American political race is an accomplishment, said Eric Hubbard, a South African assistant with NDI. "It takes them out of their situation in Mozambique, so they can have frank discussion, which actually helps democracy," he said.
The day ended at a media conference held by the Service Employees International Union, which endorsed Councilman Martin O'Malley for mayor and Councilwoman Sheila Dixon for City Council president.
The Mozambique officials sat in the audience before getting on a plane to New Hampshire to watch some of the activity leading up to next year's presidential election. Then they travel to the Rainbow Coalition convention in Chicago before stopping in Iowa for a presidential straw poll.
Most memorable about the Baltimore visit, the group concluded, was the way U.S. democracy holds politicians accountable. "There is no opportunity for the political leader to act as an owner," Francisco said. "We need to take these examples back."