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Civil Society, Democratization, and Hybrid Regimes

“The issue that we’re talking about…defending civil society…is an issue that’s been with us for some time now,” remarked Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The onslaught of attacks on civil society is a contemporary one and first manifested in 2005 in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. Unquestionably, the constriction of civil society space is not unique to Ukraine.  Gershman explained how this was currently taking place in Russia as autocrats continue to “preempt any civil society function.”  According to Gershman, this trend arose from the third wave of democratization and the rise of hybrid regimes, or regimes that possess both democratic elements (e.g. elections), but remain autocratic in their functioning.  As a result, many governments today are systemically passing laws that reject democratic norms and raise barriers to establishing non-governmental organizations (NGO).  “The rule of law becomes the rule by law” in this case, Gershman said, as governments quell civil society through legislation aimed to prevent any form of dissent or political coalescence in the country.  

Contrarily, international support for civil society is a relatively recent phenomenon. Therefore, NED provides grants to NGOs worldwide so that these organizations are able to self-sustain and provide balance to these illiberal regimes. In Gershman’s opinion, it is important that “donors…continue contributing, local groups adjust, and the international community stand[s] firm” so that government does not attack civil society with impunity.  Although there is an international working group that helps fund and defend civil society, he emphasized how the manner in which local groups respond to this threat is crucial. Gershman concluded his remarks by stating that in light of this ongoing contest between governments and civil society, the free world should continue to provide technical, moral, and even financial support when possible to civil society.

Hungary: An Example of Civil Society’s Disempowerment

Nilda Bullain, Vice President of Operations, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, used this discussion as an opportunity to “demonstrate the complexities of the issues on the ground.” As a Hungarian citizen, she finds the political situation in Hungary to be unbelievable not only because of what the government is doing, but also due to the relative weakness of local civil society groups. In her estimation, the government is undermining democracy and the rule of law by centralizing the judiciary, reducing the freedom of the press, eliminating executive term limits in the country’s constitution, and gerrymandering the electoral districts in favor of the governing party, and yet “all of these things are happening and what are the Hungarians doing? Nothing,” Bullain charged.  Furthermore, she argued that the System of National Cooperation put in place by the Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the Hungarian government has made it difficult to establish any type of civil organization that is able to hold the government accountable in an official way.

She concluded her remarks by saying that, though the state of affairs in Hungary is indicative of a trend across many nations worldwide, this specific situation can be ameliorated if Hungarians transition to a mentality where citizens understand that the government is meant to serve them and not the other way around. To promote this change, Bullain asserted that the European Union should be more active in protecting democracy within its borders and encourage citizen engagement.

The International Response to Attacks on Civil Society

“This discussion is not just about the Global South, not just about the governments that are seen as non-democratic… [It is] a problem everywhere…We need to defend and expand the space for civil society. [This] is really about democracy,” said Maina Kiai, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and of Association. Current trends against democracy and diminishing civil society space are dangerous as civil society is an integral component of democracy and development.  At present, China’s model for foreign assistance is becoming increasingly popular as donor countries do not hold their recipients to a standard of regime functionality and practice; undemocratic traditions do not affect aid status.  Kiai expressed frustration owing to the appearance that the international community had learned nothing from the Arab Spring.  In his opinion, sustainable economic and political growth is impossible without democracy and should be the basis by which countries are deemed eligible for foreign aid.

“Governments are getting very clever, very smart,” argued Kiai, because they are no longer banning civil society, but rather are restricting national and international funding by asserting that these actions are necessary in assuring the country’s sovereignty.  Kiai cited examples of how even in western countries (i.e. Switzerland) governments are harshly constraining the rights to free assembly and protest. Moral pressure can work in assuring that civil society remains relevant even in antagonistic relations with the government.

What More Can Be Done?

The consensus among the panel was that the status of civil society worldwide remained tenuous. “Democracy is never safe,” Gershman argued and “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”  In fact, this cannot be done by the international community alone, but in conjunction with mobilized forces from within.  International efforts can only support a civil society that wants to be empowered and help maintain a balance between the government and the people. The empowerment of civil society actors is fundamental to sustainable democracy.