Democratization is a long, hard slog. What can accelerate the process? Consider, for a moment, the possibility of a “democratization triangle,” with the three corners being popular protests, civil society and a loyal opposition.
The first corner of the triangle, street protests, have been around for a long time, but they increasingly focus on democracy and accountability, whether they occur in countries that Freedom House calls free, part-free or not free. Recent events in some countries may focus more on “good governance” than on democratization, especially since democratization ultimately depends on governmental accountability. As seen in the Arab Spring, the Internet has had an enormous impact on protesters, well documented by websites such as Tech President and Democracy Spot. These websites also explore other novel connections between technology and democracy such as the political jujitsu (such as video) used by demonstrators to manipulate oppressive governments.
The second corner of the triangle is civil society. Without a vibrant civil society, protests often yield only temporary success. Unless protests are linked to a strong civil society, positive outcomes are often temporary. For example, street protests organized online in Belarus against President Alexander Lukashenko in March 2006 largely failed. In 1989, however, much of the political leadership in Eastern Europe collapsed when confronted with robust civil societies, even though social media was in its infancy.
Civil society, as defined by Victor Perez Diaz, is comprised of d 1) markets 2) associations and 3) a sphere of public debate. Markets include micro-enterprises, small businesses and, even large corporations. Associations encompass labor unions, religious organizations, chambers of commerce, development NGOs and the democratization NGOs I describe in my book. The sphere of public debate includes not only media, but also the ways in which citizens communicate with each other.
Although democratization NGOs have a more direct impact on politics than other actors in civil society, the wider civil society can help advance democratization. Development NGOs, for example, often engage citizens in local socio-economic projects. After women become the owners of micro businesses, they usually become more politically active in their communities. For their part, democratization NGOs can enhance the democratic impact of other organizations. For example, corporations in Argentina that received training on corporate responsibility from Fundacion Compromiso, a democratization NGO, increasingly view themselves as part of civil society
Major scholars such as Jurgen Habermas have argued that the sphere of public debate first emerged in the coffee houses of early 18th Century London. Indeed, censorship of public speech and discussion among citizens may be more damaging to democratization than censorship of outside sources such as Google. Democratization NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina all support different forms of public discourse and deliberation in local communities.
But can demonstrators organized through social media connect to civil society? It many countries it may be difficult, since protesters tied to social media often have only minimal access to newspapers or labor unions, much less to democratization NGOs. Not only are civil society organizations, particularly democratization NGOs, thinly spread in many countries, they also lack funding. Moreover, civil society leaders are easier targets for authoritarian regimes than masses of unknown protesters.
Social media need to focus on how to link protesters to civil society. If social media could strengthen freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and public conversation as well as promoting protests, it could help sustain democratization. And associations—particularly democratization NGOs–need to reach out to a constituency that includes both protesters and the wider civil society. By expanding the definition of civil society beyond associations to include businesses and the sphere of public debate, democracy advocates may find that there is more going on in their own countries than they imagined.
The third, and potentially most challenging corner of the democratization triangle is loyal opposition, defined in a classic study written over forty years ago as “the most advanced and institutionalized form of political conflict.” Loyal opposition unites support for a democratic constitution and political system with opposition to a particular political regime. And by their efforts to help create and sustain an independent legal system, democratization NGOs provide essential, if indirect support for the emergence of a loyal opposition.
Most scholars tie loyal opposition to political parties. In many developing countries, however, democratization NGOs promote novel forms of opposition not tied to parties because they fear the loss of their nonpartisan image. Indeed, democratization NGOs sometimes become a part of the loyal opposition. In South Africa, for example, democratization NGOs led a civil society coalition called the Treatment Action Campaign that successfully sued the government over its failure to prevent mother-child transmission of HIV through antiretroviral drugs. Since the South African legal system is strong and independent of the executive, this decision also reinforced government accountability,conformity to the constitution, the right of judicial review, and children’s rights.
Democratization NGOs also strengthen and support the autonomy and potential oppositional role of the larger civil society. The Judicial Consortium in Tajikistan successfully challenged a government decision to revoke the license of an independent TV station.
Advocacy by democratization NGOs is often most visible at the provincial or municipal level. In Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, NGOs helped create Deliberative Council, which allows citizens, as a kind of loyal opposition, to continually interact with the city government. In South Africa, the Good Governance Learning network of 15 local democratization NGOs exchange ideas with each other about strengthening the impact of citizens on local governments.
Political parties, on the other hand, are often the orphans of the democratization movement. While a loyal opposition based on civil society is clearly a step forward from autocratic rule, further democratic progress may depend on what happens to political parties. Although parties are a vital part of the democratic process, many struggle with small constituencies or leadership based on individual personalities. These privilege special interests and personal or ethnic loyalties over policy proposals that address the concerns of citizens.
To deal with these pitfalls, democratization NGOs need to overcome their fear of being labeled partisan. NGOs could strengthen their efforts to build a loyal opposition by, for example, hosting multiparty workshops with a focus on constituency building. Strategic networking among NGOs could help strengthen this most difficult corner of the democratization triangle- loyal opposition- and also strengthen ties with protest movements and the larger civil society.