Democracy and Space for Civil Society

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15 September is celebrated as international democracy day across the world. UN has termed this year 2015 as year for creating space for role of civil society in strengthening of democracy. In this regard, civil society has vital role to play for sustainability and strengthening of democracy in Pakistan also. Democracy is said to be a system of decision making by citizens collectively and through free will about their own political, economic, social and cultural matters and thereby full participation in all aspects of their lives. There is no single democratic model though different democracies across the world share various common features. Democracy is in fact a political system for selecting and replacing the government through free and fair elections. It gives rise to the active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life. It results into protection of the rights of all citizens through rule of law, in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens. To accomplish this goal, there is need of civil society to come forward and have coordinated efforts.
Civil society is actually comprised of various types of organized groups and institutions that operate autonomous of the state, often voluntary, self-governing and sometime self-dependent also. Civil society therefore constitutes the free mass media, social groups, non-governmental organizations, think tanks & political lobbyist, education and research organizations, universities, lawyers, other professional and religious groups and so on and so forth. These groups being part of civil society, have to meet some conditions to be have an influence on democratic development. Significantly enough, democracy requires civil society groups to have respect for the rule of law, recognition of equal rights of individuals irrespective of class, color, and creed, and respect for freedom of expression inclusive of the rights, interests, and opinion of other groups. The very word civil entails the messages of diversity and pluralism constituted of tolerance, politeness and acceptance of space for every individual.

Civil society groups can institute connections with political parties and the state, but then again they must maintain their independence and refrain from seeking any political role and gain for themselves. The prime purpose of this relationship should be to join hands and make efforts for sustainability of democracy. A robust and vigilant civil society actually safeguards the democracy with all its real features. However, civil society needs to be careful because often in the due course, some interest groups emerge alongside civil society that tend to exploit their positions and try to dominate the political processes for vested interests. In pursuing their own intended objectives, these groups in fact do not tolerate and respect the right of opposition groups. Additionally, these groups through their personal agenda become a fronts for some political parties. They are not part of civil society and they therefore put great loss to democratic development rather than contributing to democracy.

In order for real democracy to survive, civil society organizations needs to act as supportive of democracy as a professional groups, think tanks, research & advocacy groups, capacity building and as watch dog organizations that are often independent, voluntary, lawful, pluralistic and tolerant of diversity. Civil society organizations need to play diverse role.

First, the primary role of civil society is to have check on the state for exercise of authority and power of the state. The state authorities assume limitless power that may be sometimes out of control with no check and balances. Societies are governed by laws and civil society can make state accountable to society according to law of the land. Democracy has direct relationship with well-functioning of the state and especially when a country is emerging as democratic state after decades of dictatorship like Pakistan, there is need of civil society organizations to find ways to monitor, set limits and restrain the power of government and state machinery. Civil society as watch dog may observe and expose the likely abuse of power. These groups through lobbying should make governments to follow best governance procedures by adopting universally accepted governance procedure such as transparency, public accountability and participation, role of law, access to information, including freedom of information laws, and institution building and conspicuous control on corruption.

Second, one of the significant function of civil society is to monitor and expose the corrupt practices that are often associated with governments and the conduct of public officials. These groups may after close liaison with political forces and governments, together lobby for good governance restructuring, reforms and practices. Though, in most of the countries, there are available various legal practices to counter corruption and misconduct, however these laws are even difficult to function effectively without the vigorous support and participation of civil society.

Third, public participation in governance matters is considered as prime feature of modern democracy. However, citizens are often not aware of this constitutional right. In this regard, civil society groups can promote political participation by advocacy campaigns and educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens; they may provide relevant information of elections, political participation, and encourage citizens to vote and participate in election campaigns. Further, NGOs and other organized groups can also help in capacity building of citizens and aware them to identify public issues and work for solving the common problems.

Fourth, modern democracy constitutes some essential values of democratic life such as acceptance and tolerance for others’ ideas along with enlightened moderation and respect for conflicting views. Without these values and culture of accommodation, the stable and sustainable democracy cannot be achieved. Civil society groups especially NGOs with different programs can help inculcating these democratic values in citizens through debates, civic sessions, seminars, training workshops and through publishing relevant material and dissemination through modern technologies including internet.

Fifth, civil society can also help to develop programs for democratic and civic education in the schools as well. Years of dictatorship in the country has been a major problem in the way of democratic fruits of Pakistan. Therefore, depending upon the specific countries, once as well as repeated all-inclusive social and political reforms are required to revise the curricula, rewrite the pro-democracy textbooks, and training of various segments of civil society inclusive of pedagogy to work further to teach others the universal principles and significance of democracy. On the government side, these civil society groups can be involved in a constructive partnership for advocacy for democracy and human rights training.

Sixth, democratic achievements requires concrete and coordinated efforts of various segments of civil society. These groups with their diversified interests and professional knowledge and expertise can lobby to decision making authorities for the changes. These groups include the women, youth, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors, and so on can present their opinions, assessments and observations before parliaments and provincial assemblies to guide and pressurize them to certain policies. Civil society may also institute a dialogue with relevant government ministries to pursue their concerns and interests. In fact, only the well-organized, oriented and practical groups are able to have their voices heard and influence decisions. It is identified that most oppressed and marginalized segments of society when organized, were able to aver and defend their rights.

Seventh, modern democracy is strengthened if citizens conform to new ideologies and collective interests based on professional solidarities that dilutes old forms of tribal, linguistic, religious, and race identities. Democracy can be problematic and instable if citizens start associating themselves with some particular religion or identity and create distinctions. Accordingly, in democratic countries across the world, citizens with diverse ethnic and religious identities frame the shared interests like women, students, workers, doctors, artists, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, scholars, environmentalists, and so on and so forth. With this civic participation increases and there arises society with affluence, tolerance and peaceful with high standards.

Eighth, civil society can play a role in capacity building of political class and future political leadership. NGOs and other groups can help to identify and train new types of leaders who have dealt with important public issues and can be recruited to run for political office at all levels and to serve in provincial and national cabinets. Experience from other countries shows that civil society is a predominantly significant field from which there emerge trained future women leaders. Even these platforms are significant for social, economic and political inclusion of all marginalized segments especially women and minorities.

Ninth, different civil society groups are already engaged with different type of researches, surveys, and opinion polls, quite many among these are often vigilant of important public issues. Therefore, they can work in close coordination with governments, political parties, and other common citizens to identify problems and possible solutions. Though active mass media plays this role, however the civil society groups especially NGOs are the appropriate forum for debating public issues and respective public policies and lobbying or publishing information about public issues before parliamentarians and policy makers that have interest and influence in the parliament and government for different groups, or of society at large.

Tenth, the conflict of interests and democratic development goes side by side especially in plural societies. CSOs can play significant role for peace and democracy through conflict mediation and interfaith dialogue among conflicting parties. In different countries across the conflict zones, NGOs have been running formal programs, trainings, and policy debates to mitigate the political and ethnic conflicts through target groups.

Eleventh, the most significant function of civil society organizations is to play their role in civic and voter education through dissemination of relevant, authentic and essential electoral information. CSOs are also significant for election monitoring to ensure free, fair and independent elections by providing level playing field for all political groups and parties. The impartial electoral process requires civil society organizations to monitor some of the polling stations at various districts to get the idea of smooth, free and fair conduct of elections. It is very hard to have credible and fair elections in a new democracy unless civil society groups play this role.

Finally yet importantly, all civil society to do is to work in close coordination with governments and avoid any conflict of interests with the state. Working as independent of state does not give civil society a mandate to always criticize the governments on policies. The most robust, independent, and vigilant civil society organizations need to engage with citizens to make governments and public departments more accountable, responsive, inclusive, and effective. In this way, governments by adopting these good governance initiatives can draw their legitimacy and efficiency. Civil society is vibrant essential partner for states to materialize their goal of democratic development and establishment of positive relationship and mutual respect between the state and its citizens.