By Tsetan Dorjee
When lawyers and paralegals in neck ties and black coats marched through the streets of Islamabad in March 2007, demanding the immediate reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhary whom General Pervez Musharraf as the president had imprudently suspended, Pakistan got itself a spanking new civil society, resolute on defying the authoritarian military ruler who had subdued democracy in the name of peace and stability for far too long.
The lawyers didn’t manage to topple the regime, but they did consolidate democracy by forcing the government to recognise the independence of the judiciary.
From Otpor movement in Serbia to the engineers of Orange revolution in Ukraine, and from lawyers’ defiance in Pakistan to the card carrying communist party cadres in Nepal posing as civil society members to launch a movement against the authoritarian king Gyanendra Shah, the idea of a classic, clichéd western take on civil society somehow assumes that some form of democratic opposition to the government of the day is a pre-requisite to qualify one as a civil society.
Even then, in the conventional sense of ‘check and balance’ in and outside the government, the merits of such a civil society to deepen and consolidate democracy cannot be overlooked.
Usually, civil society bases its idea on a political culture managing discrepancies in society through some form of people-centric association and organisation. This theory itself conjures up the idea of democratic consolidation. But does the existence of a strong civil society truly strengthen our exile Tibetan democracy?
To answer that, we first need to explore the nature of relationship between civil society and democracy itself.
Linking Civil Society and Democracy
Relations between civil society and democratic political society were probably first explored at length by the French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville. He believed that through association of people for shared benefits, people are able to build a vigorous civil society operating autonomously from the state.
What does civil society consists of then? What is it made of? In basic vocabulary and with a hint of sceptical third world perspective, it is some journalists, well funded human rights activists, NGO entrepreneurs, non profit sector, selected trade unions, politically steered student groups, some professional societies and narrow pressure groups coming together more with the purpose of opposing certain types of governments and their works than truly championing for the welfare of the masses. After all, a polity without active civil society would be “intolerable, an invitation to the tyranny of the majority.
How does it do it?
Larry Diamond states that “civil society has played a crucial role in building pressure for democratic transition and pushing it through to completion”. Thus, Civil Society has become a term which is now increasingly used to encompass social activity and societal organizations which, directly, or indirectly, support, promote or struggle for democracy and democratisation.
Here are a few examples on how civil society may have consolidated democracy.
In Nepal during the April 2006 Peoples’ Movement to restore democracy, political leaders were mostly seen following the lead of the democratic movement spearheaded by civil society leaders, teachers and professors, doctors, artists and student groups. There was a genuine mass uprising against the King and it was mainly because of the potent and overwhelming participation of the civil society that the King ceded executive power back to the parliament.
Imagine Czech Republic without Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77 and Civic Forum. Charter 77 was a proclamation to get the civil society off the ground in insisting that people be conferred basic human rights. Civic Forum that pressed for democratic reforms achieved momentum and gave shape to the bloodless Velvet Revolution of 1989.
So we can safely claim that civil society by its virtue is the public space where practice of dynamic citizenship in search of general public welfare is conducted, thus the very concept of civil society and democracy is umbilically tied and intertwined. It is that space for the members of the society where government’s policies and actions, and everyday problems facing the people are deliberated, individual differences are reconciled so that democratic practices are kept alive. Imagine democracy without civil society as we know.
Exile Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?
In analysis of the Tibetan Diaspora, It is very much clear that only having a strong civil society does not lead to consolidation of exile democracy as there are “potential and limits of civil society as a vehicle for deepening democratic values in newer democracies”. They must be actively nurtured. It needs to go hand in hand with political institutions that are central to consolidation of democracy. Institutions placing efficient checks and balances on executive supremacy are particularly essential.
In our exile community, Civil Society is still viewed as an agent of political opposition against the Dalai Lama’s institution. Tibetan Exile Government is often appears to be gripped by contradictions: theocracy co-exist with limited democratic practices. We do have Civil Society, not as vibrant as the one in the West, but there is a considerable presence.
But why has the issue of democracy not been at the centre of any civil society initiatives?
“For civil society to contribute to democratic political change, a critical mass of civil society
Organizations must develop autonomy from state, a pro-democracy agenda, and the ability to build coalitions.
After decades of institutional dilemmas, it would be naïve to hope that a strong, vibrant civil society would sprout out of the blue sky. There is a trace of it but the road to work for the fully democratic institution is bound to be long and arduous.
The intricacy thus lies in how well we actually understand and established democratization. One way to have democratic practices become firmly established in exile is through the presence and operation of strong institutions that can bear the burden of a changed system. But who coerces and obliges the change? How do we make sure that the institutions, howsoever strong, adjust to the new way of process and operation? This is where civil society, and only civil society, becomes multipurpose and effective, thereby consolidating and strengthening representative democracy in our exile community.
Tibetan Exile Government truly lacks democracy legitimacy: a very limited explicit consent, public participation and also public accountability are generally weak. So, it is no exaggeration to say that contemporary exile institution has provoked a crisis of Kalon Tripa 2010: an issue that is very much debated and hyped in exile Diaspora. I don’t want to go into further detail but I doubted the crisis derived from two major problems i.e. structural deficiencies and Institutional Dilemma.
The structural deficiency in contemporary democracy is the disjunction between the pull of modernity and realistic optimism. Decades after His Holiness blessed Democracy, yet exile institution continues to languish under the tradition of Buddhist serenity and conservatism. These structural problems are evident in democratic deficits that pervade institutional dilemma. Yet our very own level of bureaucracies, nepotism, limited democratic credentials, and hardliner politicians back home in Dharamsala in fact hampering in terms of advancing our exile democracy. Do they really care about advancing democracy in Post modernist discourse?
With this cautionary note firmly in mind, I think there are number of ways Tibetan civil society can consolidate the questions of legitimacy against yardsticks of our exile democracy.
First and foremost, civil society contributes to promote political participation and institute the culture of democracy through public education activities. NGOs can do this by education people about the rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to listen to election campaign and vote in elections.
Second, civil society fuel debate in and about exile government’s policies, democratic rule rests in part on vigorous, uninhabited discussion of diverse views. Inputs from civil society can put a variety of perspectives, methodologies, and proposals into the policy arena. For example, civic groups have been instrumental in generating and publicizing debate about the so-called Washington Consensus in global economic governance.
Third, civic mobilization can increase the public transparency of our exile government. It can also help to develop the other values of democratic life of tolerance, moderation, compromise and respect for opposing points of view. These values cannot be simply taught; they must also be cultivated and experienced through various programs that practice participation and debate.
Finally, Civil society organizations have a vital role to play in monitoring the conduct of free and fair elections. This requires a broad synergy of coalition that ensures the voting and vote counting is entirely free, fair, peaceful and transparent. Without civil society it is very unlikely to have credible and fair elections in a new democracy. Undoubtedly, a democratic government cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate, with the respect and support of its citizens. Thus, civil society can provide a space for the expression and platform between the democratic government and its citizens.
My premise is that it will require action on three fonts: i) to invent the momentum for research and public debate, ii) developing a platform where the state-society relationship is one of balanced power, iii) plugging into empirical studies that systematically measure and establish correlation between civil society and democracy.
But there are limitations too. “Democratic consolidation requires the evolution of a democratic political culture where all the main political players (both in the elite and the mass public), parties, organised interests, forces and institutions view and accept democracy as ‘the only game in town’”. This is somewhat a long shot and perhaps an unfair duty expected on civil society’s part. There will never be such a utopian state of affairs where evolution of democratic political culture takes such a shape where political actors start to wholly agree with each other. Differences - political, religious, ethnic, racial, class - are there, and civil society as of now hardly has the capacity or the admiration from the intended beneficiaries, especially in the global South, to reconcile such differences and do its bit on democracy promotion and strengthening in exile community.
So, why Tibetan democracy cannot be consolidated without a strong civil society then?
One of the reasons has to be its indisputable value in times of crisis and conflicts. One very effective way civil society consolidates representative democracy, especially during crises, according to Larry Diamond, is by ‘cutting across sectional interests and mitigating political conflict’. Kenya in recent turmoil could be presented as an example here.
Another possible and very compelling reason why representative democracy cannot be consolidated without a strong civil society is because the arena within which civil society “provides non-partisan election monitoring which deters and checks fraud and monitors judicial and legal reforms in new democracies”. Who else or what else in the world, other than civil society, holds the authority to supervise elections in struggling democracies and either provide a stout stamp of approval for the conduct of free and fair elections, or damning verdict on rigged and fixed election results?
So, is civil society the only entity that consolidates democracy? Are there any other systems, bodies, or mechanisms that can strengthen democracy?
Whatever the strengths or shortcoming of civil society, one thing is sure that they play a unique role in our democratic systems. Despite all the challenges, all the political stakes we have, I think we can be really hopeful about the future only if we do things differently and collectively. The next Kalon Tripa 2010 Elections should be neither romanticized nor demonized rather it should be seen as a framework for sober assessments of our performance to date and possibilities for our future democratic structures.
1) Ehrenberg, John, ( 1999) Civil Society: the critical history of an idea, New York University Press, New York
2) Robert D. Putnam, et al : ( 1994), Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy,Princeton University Press, New Jersey, VII
3) Pocklington, T. C., ( 1994) Representative Democracy, Harcourt Brace, Toronto, Canada
4) Diamond Lary, ( 1997) Introduction in Search of Consolidation, in Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner et, A;, (eds) Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies : Themes and Perspective,Johns Hopkins University, Press Baltimore, MD
5)Guideline for Strategic Plans, ( 1996) USAID, Washington DC
6)Diamond, Larry ( 1994), Rethinking Civil Society, Journal of Democracy, Vol 5,Nr.3, Washington DC
The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
The writer is a law graduate student from London Metropolitan University( UK) & Roosevelt University (USA). At present, he is studying Postgraduate in Refugee Studies at York University, Canada.