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Civil Society and Democratic Backsliding Conference (Istanbul)

May 23, 2022 May 24, 2022


Mon 23rd – Tues 24th May, 2022

Istanbul, Turkey

Hosted by Society and Legal Research Foundation (TOHAV) and Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL), Aberdeen University

Keynote speakers:

  • Shalini Randeria President and Rector, Central European University
  • Marlies Glasius, Professor in International Relations, University of Amsterdam
  • Ajay Gudavarthy, Associate Professor, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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.

Society and Legal Research Foundation (TOHAV) has joined forces with Aberdeen University’s Centre for Citizenship, Civil Society and Rule of Law (CISRUL) to invite researchers to share their experience and understanding of civil society’s predicament, debating these with civil society practitioners from across several countries. The following questions are indicative:

  • How does comparing countries help us to understand authoritarian practices? Does “democratic backsliding” capture recent authoritarian practices across countries, or are other concepts more useful?
  • How is “civil society” understood in each country, and what role is envisaged for it? Is civil society considered different to activism, for example? And have understandings of civil society changed over the decades, and what does this reveal?
  • What strategies have proved effective in the past in countering authoritarianism, and do they remain effective in the present? Is there a need to find new kinds and methods of action? Do any of these go beyond “civil society” as understood previously? For example, does civil disobedience prove effective and/or should organizations engage in electoral politics rather than remain aloof?
  • How realistic is it to expect organizations who depend on donors, grants, and international funds (and are sometimes pilloried for that) to counter elected governments with ready access to public funds that engage in authoritarian practices?
  • “Civil society” is often criticised as being elitist, unrepresentative, and accountable only to their donors. How can organizations best respond to those accusations?

Further information, including the programme and details of how to join, is available on the conference page.


May 23, 2022
May 24, 2022
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