Civ­il Soci­ety and Demo­c­ra­t­ic Back­slid­ing Con­fer­ence (Istan­bul)


Loca­tion: Istan­bul

Addi­tion­al event info: Con­firmed speak­ers include: Shali­ni Ran­de­ria, Mar­lies Gla­sius, Ajay Gudavarthy

The con­fer­ence is joint­ly orga­nized by Soci­ety and Legal Research Foun­da­tion (TOHAV) and Aberdeen University’s Cen­tre for Cit­i­zen­ship, Civ­il Soci­ety and Rule of Law (CIS­RUL)

An extra­or­di­nary range of coun­tries across the world tran­si­tioned to democ­ra­cy in the 1980s and sub­se­quent decades, intro­duc­ing mul­ti-par­ty elec­tions, con­sti­tu­tion­al pro­tec­tion for minori­ties, free­dom of speech and con­science, and oth­er mea­sures con­sis­tent with inter­na­tion­al human rights treaties and covenants. One set of pro-democ­ra­cy actors came to be known as “civ­il soci­ety”: a loose term but which often refers to legal­ly-estab­lished orga­ni­za­tions and asso­ci­a­tions, from NGOs and social move­ments to think tanks and the media, which main­tain a degree of auton­o­my from gov­ern­ments and polit­i­cal par­ties, and which attempt to place pres­sure on gov­ern­ments through mon­i­tor­ing, advo­ca­cy and pol­i­cy recommendations.

In the past decade, how­ev­er, author­i­tar­i­an prac­tices and poli­cies have been on the rise in many con­texts. Coun­tries as dif­fer­ent as Turkey, Hun­gary, Poland, Brazil, Mex­i­co and Tan­za­nia, all held to be con­sol­i­dat­ing as democ­ra­cies, have been crit­i­cized for “demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing”. The term is not whol­ly sat­is­fac­to­ry because some of the author­i­tar­i­an prac­tices are new – this is no sim­ple return to old habits – and there is no sin­gle trend across coun­tries. For exam­ple, though much atten­tion has been paid to shifts toward the polit­i­cal Right, Mex­i­co is a case of author­i­tar­i­an prac­tices on the Left. Nei­ther are the process­es exclu­sive to new­er democ­ra­cies: India is an old­er democ­ra­cy that is now accused of author­i­tar­i­an­ism, and Trump’s USA was arguably anoth­er exam­ple. Yet “demo­c­ra­t­ic back­slid­ing” does seem to cap­ture some of the expe­ri­ence of these coun­tries: their gov­ern­ments have aban­doned some of the demo­c­ra­t­ic agen­das and prin­ci­ples to which they appeared pre­vi­ous­ly committed.

One com­mon fea­ture is pre­cise­ly that gov­ern­ments tend to denounce “civ­il soci­ety” for being elit­ist and block­ing the will of the peo­ple, includ­ing by kow-tow­ing to inter­na­tion­al donors and pow­ers like the EU and the US. Civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions that once strug­gled against mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship or one-par­ty rule have found that their long­stand­ing strate­gies are ill-suit­ed to these times. For exam­ple, civ­il soci­ety was instru­men­tal in draft­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic con­sti­tu­tions and mon­i­tor­ing their imple­men­ta­tion, yet in recent years gov­ern­ments have mod­i­fied the con­sti­tu­tions and turned them to author­i­tar­i­an ends. Gov­ern­ments have also looked to har­ness the judi­cial insti­tu­tions that civ­il soci­ety used to work through and with. Mean­while, civ­il soci­ety has found itself vul­ner­a­ble to gov­ern­ments’ abil­i­ty to ral­ly new con­stituen­cies in order to com­mand elec­toral majori­ties, often by stig­ma­tiz­ing minori­ties which find them­selves per­ma­nent­ly exclud­ed. Gov­ern­ments use their new­found polit­i­cal pow­er to neu­tral­ize and frus­trate attempts to lim­it that pow­er, whether by civ­il soci­ety orga­ni­za­tions, social move­ments, oppo­si­tion par­ties, the media, or autonomous insti­tu­tions like elec­toral tri­bunals and human rights commissions.


Hagen SoftAuthoritarianisms