Civil Society and Democratic Backsliding

by | May 10, 2023

Democratic backsliding, the process by which a democratic country gradually loses its democratic features and becomes more authoritarian, has become a growing concern around the world. In recent years, many countries have experienced democratic backsliding, which threatens the health and vitality of democratic institutions. In this article, the origins of democratic backsliding will be touched upon. Then, a discussion of how an active and engaged civil society can play an important role in preventing and stopping democratic backsliding, achieving many notable and recent successes. The discussion will also touch upon civil society’s weaknesses, and equally note some success by governments around the world in causing democratic backsliding and eroding democratic rights and values.

The origins of democratic backsliding can be traced back to a number of factors, including economic, political, and social factors. Notably, economic inequality and political polarisation provide fertile ground for the rise of populism and authoritarianism within political discourse, and subsequently become the key factors that contribute to democratic backsliding. These factors can erode trust in democratic institutions and democratic norms and values slowly over time, which makes it easier for authoritarian leaders to undermine democracy.

Civil society has an important role to play in stopping democratic backsliding. Civil society is a broad umbrella that refers to the informal and formal groups of people and organisations existing in a country, but which sit outside of the government and the private sector, such as: non-governmental organisations (NGOs), advocacy groups and grassroots movements. Civil society plays a unique and critical role in promoting democratic values, protecting human rights and holding governments to account. However, the strength, size, and culture of civil society is different within each country, and there are more reasons and factors at play in growing and sustaining a strong and competent civil society. That is why it could be said that with the rise of authoritarian and populist politics, the important and potentially influential role civil society can play to alleviate the erosion of democratic norms is not always given the attention it deserves.

Nevertheless, one considerable strength of civil society actors in their ability to stop democratic backsliding is their direct link to the wider public. As civil society sits within this domain and outside of the government and private sector, they are therefore not subject to the same political influence or commercial pressures. For many, they are simply citizens who begin to be activists for their personal political causes. In practice this means that for many civil society actors their overarching and common goal is the strengthening of civil rights and democracy and prevention of potential democratic backsliding, in comparison to businesses and state institutions which must balance competing influences and pressures within their operation.

While this is a strength, it also reveals an undoubted weakness: national governments which seek to hasten democratic backsliding hold the power to quickly begin to restrict the rights and protections of which its civil society actors rely upon to uphold democratic values and rights. This is usually the ulterior motive, but populist and authoritarian governments will deploy a political discourse centred on security and fairness in their attack on civil society. For example, in 2017, Hungary passed a law requiring NGOs that receive a certain amount of funding from abroad to register with the government and to label themselves as “foreign-funded.” In 2023, the Georgian government attempted the same. The Hungarian government argued that the law was necessary to promote transparency and to prevent foreign influence in Hungarian politics. A closer look at the national political discourse in each country, however, and a frequent argument posited was that the Hungarian and Georgian civil society actors were seeking to undermine and even overthrow their governments for the sake of US and EU interests.

Nonetheless, actions like this are exactly the cause célèbre which civil society can use to highlight the populist and authoritarian policies, the politicians who espouse them, and the overall anti-democratic political trajectory; in an attempt to mobilise public opinion against authoritarian leaders and policies. Civil society groups can use their networks and platforms to raise awareness about the erosion of democratic institutions and the threats to human rights. They can organise protests, marches, and other forms of activism to demonstrate their opposition to authoritarianism. 

While this can be controversial, a physical manifestation of opposition by civil society can be a powerful sign of letting it be known that democratic backsliding is not the only option. In turn, this can put pressure on governments internally and externally – by diplomatic efforts of other countries – to respect democratic norms and values and make it harder for authoritarian leaders to implement their policies. A recent example of this is the Israeli governments’ 2023 judicial reform legislation that has been paused due to the mass demonstrations and strike actions by civil society. Hundreds of thousands of protestors; a general strike; and opposition from across the political, business, and civil society sectors made it clear that the Israeli government could not force through legislation that causes democratic backsliding due to a clear lack of popular legitimacy and real risk of civil strife.

Civil society can also stop democratic backsliding by providing alternative sources of information and news. In many countries, authoritarian governments adopt policies to tighten their grip on the media – particularly government sponsored outlets – and use it to spread propaganda and disinformation. Civil society groups can provide alternative sources of information and news that are independent and trustworthy. Not only this, but civil society can also foster independent and grassroots journalism in all its forms. This can help to counteract the spread of propaganda and disinformation and can promote democratic values such as freedom of speech and freedom of the press. A pervasive issue faced here, however, is the popular and traditional belief in institutionalised forms of media – such as a national broadcaster – in comparison to independent journalism. Therefore, civil society must also begin to encourage and create a culture whereby citizens receive their news from various outlets, in order for their message to be heard.

In addition, civil society can play an important role in promoting civic education and engagement. Civic education teaches citizens about their rights and responsibilities and helps to promote democratic values such as tolerance and respect for diversity. Civic engagement encourages citizens to participate in the democratic process, such as voting and petitioning their government. This can help to strengthen democratic institutions and promote democratic norms and values. However, it could be argued that this policy can only be introduced while there is a government sympathetic to strengthening democratic norms in power. Therefore, this would be amongst policies that can be put in place at a later stage and in the name of the prevention of future democratic backsliding.

While civil society has been successful in many cases, such as in the examples of Israel and Georgia in the beginning of 2023, there are also challenges to their efforts to stop democratic backsliding. As previously mentioned, governments may use tactics like censorship, surveillance, and repression to limit the ability of civil society groups to organise and mobilise. This type of legislation has even been witnessed in the United Kingdom and in Italy with the purported aim of controlling public security and health. Instead, this legislation covertly weakens the right to organise and protest such as the Italian governments’ 2023 “anti-rave” bill, which now permits the Italian government more strict controls on gatherings consisting of 50 people or more. Alternatively, the UK’s more outright  “Public Order Act” liberalises the ability of the government to threaten protestors with imprisonment and high fines if, for example, they are too disruptive or if they use the method of physically attaching themselves to buildings or structures while protesting.

To overcome these challenges, civil society groups need support from other sectors of society, including the private sector, the media, and the international community. Individuals in the private sector who are sympathetic to preventing democratic backsliding can support civil society groups by providing funding and other resources, and by using their platforms to raise awareness about the situation. The media, meanwhile, can play a critical role in exposing government abuses and promoting democratic values. The international community is also an important pillar which can provide diplomatic support, financial assistance, and other forms of aid to civil society groups. In the cases of Georgia and Israel in 2023, the EU and the US were two such international actors which put pressure on the respective national governments to pause or stop their reforms, with the message that causing democratic backsliding will sour their relations with important international allies.

In conclusion, democratic backsliding is a growing concern around the world, but civil society has an important role to play in stopping it. Civil society can mobilise public opinion, provide alternative sources of information and news, promote civic education and engagement, and work with other sectors of society to defend democratic values. While there are challenges to their efforts, civil society groups have had success in many cases, and they will continue to be a critical force in promoting and defending democracy in the years ahead.

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