democracy

 

  • ‘Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive’

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders and their allies about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Annika Savill, Executive Head of the United Nations’ Democracy Fund (UNDEF), which is dedicated to funding projects that empower civil society, promote human rights and encourage the participation of all groups of society in democratic processes.

    How do you see democracy - is it simply a system to elect governments, a means to solve other problems, or an end in itself? What are its essential components?

    The most successful examples of a functioning democracy are holistic: those encompassing the procedural and the substantive; the rule of law, formal institutions and informal processes; majorities and minorities; government, civil society and independent media; all genders; the political, the economic and the cultural; and at the national and local levels. Democracy works best when people associate it with the advancement of the quality of life for all human beings; this means democracy is key to reaching the Sustainable Development Goals. We know that development is more likely to take hold if people are given a genuine say in their own governance, and a chance to share in the fruits of progress. Conversely, democracy has a far better chance to thrive if people associate the democratic process with improvements in their daily lives; faced with bleak prospects and unresponsive governments, people are more likely to act on their own to reclaim their future.

    What are the main challenges for democracy around the world today?

    Democracy is showing greater strain than at any time in decades. There is a crisis of faith. We’re seeing growing and deepening divides among people, as well as between people and the political establishments that exist to represent them. Globalisation and technological progress have lifted many out of poverty but have also contributed to inequality and instability. Fear is driving too many decisions. This is a danger to democracy.

    Democracy dies when no one works at keeping it alive. We need to look beyond responses to today’s news cycle, and instead seek answers for the systemic challenges to democracy. We need to think beyond criticism of individual leaders, and beyond trying to solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. This means tackling inequality, both economic and political. The interests of the very wealthy are often seen as taking precedence over the well-being of the middle class and working families. The poor and minorities feel excluded from decision-making. Governments - working together - need to spread more fairly the benefits of globalisation and ensure more equitable access to the levers of power. This means making our democracies more inclusive, bybringing the young, the poor and minorities into the political system. We should explore true representation and participation in decision-making, including demographically representative citizens’ assemblies, as alternatives to what can be interpreted as a self-serving and self-perpetuating political class disconnected from their electorates. This means making our democracies more innovative andmore responsive to new challenges, including throughnew technologies, while addressing the democratic challenges brought by new technologies themselves.

    Many of the world’s democracies are well past middle age, but the digital age is still in its infancy, and questions of ownership and control are evolving. The answers do not lie in technology alone. But some answers do lie in better interaction and understanding between thinkers of technology and thinkers of democracy. Sixty years have passed since CP Snow declared that society was divided into two cultures - humanities and science - separated by a gulf of mutual incomprehension. We need to bridge this. We need futurists to think about a future that leaves no one behind. What impact will migration, climate change, or cybersecurity issues have on democracy in the next generation? How can a reinvigorated democracy help mitigate the challenges these issues create? How are democratic processes impacted on by a transition from an internet to a brain-net, by an on-demand world of biological software upgrades, personalised medicine, and artificial intelligence? A better grasp of how we humans function - how we trust, learn and cooperate, but also how we hate, fight and manipulate - can help public policy-makers and citizens build better governance and better lives.

    What is the role of civil society in supporting democratisation and the consolidation of democracy, and how does UNDEF help civil society to play this role?

    Ultimately, civil society is the oxygen of democracy. Speaking the truth takes two: one to talk, the other to hear. My work with UNDEF has brought home to me that a lively, open and candid discussion among men and women sitting under a tree can sometimes do more for participatory democracy than all the government summits and cabinet meetings in the world. When grassroots activists, community organisers, labour mobilisers, young people and women leaders come together at their own initiative, all with a stake in the outcome, they will persevere until all sides have a say. This is why it is so important that someone in the capital is listening. A confident nation gives citizens a role in the development of their country; the most effective, stable and successful democracies are in fact those where a strong civil society works in partnership with the state, while holding it accountable at the same time. This is what creates a virtuous circle of rights and opportunity under the rule of law, underpinned by a vibrant civil society and an enterprising private sector, backed by efficient and accountable state institutions. For democracy to thrive, this inclusive discourse must never end.

    But civil society faces increasing challenges, as CIVICUS has very clearly highlighted in its 2018 State of Civil Society Report. Over the recent years, an alarming number of governments around the world are increasingly addressing civil society as a threat, not a partner. We need to make it better understood that to have a strong state and strong civil society at the same time is not only possible, but it is also desirable and necessary. What do the stable and prosperous states of the world have in common? A combination of both.

    What does UNDEF do in the face of those challenges?

    UNDEF is a fund within the UN Secretariat that manages and finances projects implemented by civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world. Since it became operational 12 years ago, it has funded over 750 projects in over 100 countries, totalling over US$175 million. UNDEF works directly and resolutely with civil society, often in delicate collaboration with state and private-sector actors, but always independently of them. We use quiet diplomacy where needed to work in challenging environments. We support projects designed at the grassroots to address democratic deficits and denied freedoms. Our grant process begins and ends at the project site: we are demand-driven, not supply-oriented. We commit to our partners’ success. Our capacity-building works through mentoring and evaluation, and by offering a platform for groups and institutions that otherwise would have no knowledge of one another’s projects to share experience and expertise. Lessons learned from each project become a resource for all - participants, future applicants and other funders - as well as the larger community working to build more responsive and inclusive societies. A self-sufficient and largely autonomous part of the UN system, funded entirely by voluntary contributions, UNDEF is uniquely positioned to build mutual understanding and cooperation between states and civil society at the local, national and global levels. Our strategy is to support local civil society and community leaders in addressing locally identified needs and priorities. This allows us to target scarce resources where they are needed most. It is also an investment in the ability of local people to assert their rights and improve their well-being long after our involvement has ended. We keep our staff and operational budget very small by leveraging the expertise, services and extensive field presence of partners from the broader UN system who provide expert advice and monitoring.

    We support a wide range of projects, including initiatives that provide political facilitation, encourage popular participation, support civil society’s role in free and fair elections, foster the development of a culture of democracy, advance political pluralism and build civil society capacity to interact effectively with government at local and national levels. We aim to advance transparency and accountability, promote the rule of law and encourage responsive and inclusive government, while always supporting local ownership and domestic engagement, and explicitly promoting gender equality. UNDEF’s work is financed by voluntary contributions from more than 40 traditional and emerging donors on every continent. As independent third-party evaluators have found, UNDEF is not beholden to the vision, doctrine, or geostrategic interests of any member state, commercial entity, or philanthropic institution. Our evaluation process and lessons learned database advance accountability not only to donors, but also to partners and participants. We answer to project participants and to a governance structure unlike any in the field of democracy support. Our Advisory Board, which provides policy guidance and reviews project proposals, brings together a range of stakeholders, not only from governments - of countries that have made the largest financial contributions to the fund and countries reflecting geographical diversity - but also from individuals and CSOs - including CIVICUS, during the UNDEF Board's 2018-2019 term.

    Learn more about UNDEF’s work through itswebsite orFacebook page, or follow@UNDemocracyFund and@SavillAnnika on Twitter.

     

  • ‘Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and Hong Kong people are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways’

    Ahead of the publication of the 2018 State of Civil Society Reporton the theme of ‘reimagining democracy’, we areinterviewing civil society activists and leadersabout their work to promote democratic governance, and the challenges they encounter in doing so.CIVICUS speaks with student leader Yiu Wa Chung about his involvement in the pro-democracy movement and the prospects for democracy in Hong Kong.

    1. Three years after the 2014 protests, what has happened to the pro-democracy movement?

    Two separate processes have unfolded over the past few years: street protests and an institutional process that took place around the Legislative Council elections. What we demanded through street demonstrations in 2014 was true universal suffrage. We wanted China to change its electoral guidelines and the pro-China Chief Executive to resign.

    Since Britain returned it to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, which means the Hong Kong government has jurisdiction over internal affairs and trade relations, while the government of China is in charge of Hong Kong’s defence and foreign policy. We therefore enjoy limited self-determination and political rights, although we do have an independent judiciary and a free press.

    Hong Kong has the status of a Special Administrative Region, and our government is led by a Chief Executive who is chosen by a “nominating committee” of 1,200 people, most of them from pro-China elites. The Legislative Council is the legislative branch of government.

    The thing is, when Hong Kong was returned to China, we were promised that we would be able to elect our Chief Executive by universal suffrage by 2017; however, in 2014 it became clear that free elections were not going to happen, as a reform framework was passed in August that established that only a few committee-vetted (pro-China) candidates would be allowed to compete in these elections. And that was the trigger for the massive 2014 protests known as the Umbrella Movement, one of the biggest – if not the biggest – in Hong Kong’s history.

    The main reason that mobilisation decreased in the years after 2014 is that people were discouraged by the lack of results. After such a big movement and 79 days of occupation that paralysed major roads in the financial centre, we got no reply from the government, and there was no institutional change. People devoted a lot of energy, time and effort and they sacrificed so much. Almost every single young protestor who appeared on camera or was interviewed by the media in 2014 is being prosecuted or is in jail. And it was all for nothing. In other words, the costs of protest increased and the expected gains decreased, so the momentum passed and street protest declined.

    However, in the years since 2014 there were two elections, for the local District Councils in 2015 and for the Legislative Council in 2016. Because of the atmosphere and because voting in elections has much lower cost than going out to the streets, the results of those two elections were quite good for the pro-democracy camp.

    But it is important to note that half the legislative seats are filled through small circle elections within functional interests, which works almost like an appointment, so regardless of how well we fare in the elections we still face considerable obstacles when looking at the overall composition of the Legislative Council. Moreover, what happened in 2016 is that after the elections that the pro-democracy camp won, the government found an excuse to disqualify six of the elected legislative councillors. For instance, they argued that one of the councillors had not taken his oath properly because he had changed the tone of his words, so his promise to obey the laws of the People’s Republic of China sounded more as a question than a statement. He hadn’t changed a single word, but according to the government he pronounced them in a questioning rather than a neutral tone. Another elected councillor took the oath properly, in a neutral tone and all, but after he had been sworn in, he chanted a pro-democracy slogan, “Rights to the people.” Another one paused excessively in between words and mispronounced the word “China,” and so on.

    The judicial process following a demand for disqualification takes about a year, during which time these elected councillors were banned from taking part in the Council’s deliberations. And when they were eventually disqualified, they were required to pay back the salaries they had received. This is something that not just anybody can afford. In other words, the government is using every means at their disposal to bend people’s opinion, including by forcing us to go bankrupt. The message that Beijing is sending to people in Hong Kong is that resisting is pointless.

    In sum, both in the streets and at the institutional level, the pro-democracy movement is currently in decline.

    1. Do you think a “culture of protest” emerged out of the Umbrella Movement, and that the public is now more prone to mobilising than in the past?

    It did look like it around 2015, but the enthusiasm has long since dissipated. By 2015 the government was not as authoritarian as it is today, and community organising flourished. There were lots of new organisations that put their efforts into all kinds of issues, including labour rights, universal suffrage and institutional change. But by 2016, with the government on the offensive, trying to disqualify elected lawmakers, passing restrictive bills and jailing people, protest and mobilisation had declined.

    I believe that the current authoritarian trend is no accident; it fits the long-term plans of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Since the handover, the CCP has devoted a lot of human and financial resources to setting up satellite organisations in Hong Kong. They have consistently worked to infiltrate each and every sector and change the democratic culture, step by step. Hong Kong people resented this; resentment built up and resulted in the 2014 protests. The Umbrella Movement took the CCP and the Hong Kong government by surprise; nobody expected so many people to take to the streets. But they chose to ignore it and let it wear out by providing no response whatsoever to its demands. The occupation lasted 79 days, during which the CCP clearly sized the movement up. They got to know its weaknesses and limits perfectly well. They were aware that people were getting tired. They saw us as a wave coming from the ocean, gathering strength and gradually wearing out, and they waited it out. As the movement weakened, the CCP asserted its power. Increasingly authoritarian methods are hard to resist once you have used up all our energy. All that has been done has yielded no results, so people have retreated further and increasingly refrain from voicing their opinion.

    It should be noted that unlike in China, control in Hong Kong can be subtle. Different methods are being used, the prosecution and jailing of protestors being just the most blunt of them. But the government has also been deliberately increasing the cost of living in Hong Kong, and most notably rent, which is already the highest in the world. The effects of this are appalling: for many people, it means they have to work longer hours, with little time or energy left for leisure or politics, and that they have no leftover money for anything else, and organising obviously costs money. Additionally, the Hong Kong economy is very dependent on China, and if you have business with China you will lose everything for not playing by their rules, which include political alignment.

    Control is also cultural and educational. There is an increasing control of the school curriculum, and changes are being introduced in the content of schoolbooks, so young children learn from an early stage that they have to love and obey China and its leaders. Children are being told to love the CCP, the “most democratic” party there is. There is also an ongoing attack on our language, as they are trying to impose Mandarin instead of Cantonese in schools. In short, combined control tactics are being applied from all sides – they are truly a tight network of control - so there is no room to even think of resisting.

    The democratic camp has kept trying to mobilise support, but people are tired and less ready to respond. Public reactions against authoritarianism and rights violations have become exceptions rather than the rule in the present context.

    1. A number of pro-democracy activists were jailed in 2017. What was the background to this, and what was the civil society response?

    In August 2017, three student leaders of the pro-democracy movement were sentenced to between six and eight months in jail. They had originally been sentenced to community service for storming a fenced-off section of the government headquarters. They were charged with unlawful assembly, and inciting people to take part in illegal rallies. However, the local government appealed against the case arguing that community service was too light a punishment, and they were eventually sentenced to jail. Additionally, they were barred from running for public office for five years, which meant that one of them, who was considering running for a legislative position, would no longer be able to do so.

    In reaction to the sentencing tens of thousands of people took to the streets and marched to the Court of Final Appeal. This was the biggest demonstration since 2014. Sadly, it was only an isolated reaction, which probably was due to the fact that these students were some of the most visible leaders of the Umbrella Movement and their cases drew lots of attention.

    In contrast, in December 2017 the government approved changes in the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedure that would break the balance between pro-democracy and pro-China camps, and there was no visible reaction. The democratic camp called for a protest, but only a couple of hundred people showed up and were easily removed. These procedure changes were accomplished because, with six of its democratically elected legislators disqualified, the pro-democracy camp did not have enough votes to block them. Over several weeks, numerous pro-democracy legislators were kicked out of the chamber for disrupting the debate with filibustering tactics, and the amendments eventually passed. As a result, the president will now have the power to reconvene meetings, to ban and combine amendments, and to stop legislators from raising adjournment motions.

    1. Looking ahead, what are the main challenges to the sustainability of the pro-democracy movement, and how are they being addressed?

    All the major tools that we had are gone. For protesting in the streets you get arrested and thrown into jail, and if you try the institutional path, you get disqualified or stripped of decision-making power. The cost of involvement in both arenas is going up.

    Democracy is much more than street protest and institutional politics, and it is much more than what you can see on camera. People in Hong Kong are now resisting in all possible and impossible ways, such as setting up a tiny bookstore to counter state-sponsored indoctrination, using public space for cultural activities or creating semi-public spaces for reading groups.

    But of course we are not going to defeat the network of control that oppresses us by ourselves, with a music concert or a reading group. We need help. This could take the form of the international media focusing more on Hong Kong, the United Nations setting up a special commission, or foreign governments putting economic pressure on China to change its Hong Kong policy. However, we all know that this will hardly happen. Not even Britain, our former colonial power, reacted strongly as China recently stated that their Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, which laid the blueprint for Hong Kong to organise after its handover to China, no longer had any practical significance. China is not fulfilling its promises and Britain is not doing anything about it. There’s a lot the international community could do, but there’s not much they are willing to do, given the facts of China’s economic and military rise. They all want to do business with China and do not dare bring up the Hong Kong issue. The cause of Hong Kong is unfortunately not nearly as popular as that of Tibet.

     

  • ‘Dutch citizens feel a major disconnect from politics’

    The special theme of the 2018 State of Civil Society Report will be ‘reimagining democracy’. The report will explore how citizens and civil society organisations are working to build more participatory forms of democracy, and how civil society is responding to the citizen anger and sense of disconnection that is driving more extremist and polarised politics in many countries. Ahead of publication, we’ll be interviewing civil society activists and leaders in countries experiencing these trends. Here, CIVICUS speaks to René Rouwette, Director of Kompass, a civil rights organisationin the Netherlands. Kompass seeks to make human rights accessible to all and strives for ordinary people to exercise as much influence on laws and policies as large companies. It brings people together around projects on racism, refugees and ethnic profiling, among other issues.

    1. How would you describe the state of democracy in the Netherlands?

    The Netherlands scores very high on the international Democracy Index. Still, I am concerned about specific developments affecting democracy in the Netherlands. Many Dutch people do not feel represented in Dutch politics. Citizens feel a major disconnect from politics, especially towards the European Union as well as at the national level. Political parties are losing members and are increasingly unable to recruit new ones, and many people who are still involved are actively seeking a political job rather than trying to challenge their parties, and change their country or the world. As local newspapers are disappearing, there is hardly any awareness about local politics either.

    Many unhappy voters have turned to the right and the extreme right. And at least one such extreme right-wing party, the Freedom Party, is highly undemocratic. Its leader, Geert Wilders, is actually the party’s only formal member, which means he is the only one who can make decisions regarding the topics the political organisation will tackle and the positions it will take. This is a true anomaly among Dutch political parties.

    The political landscape is polarising.  After years of consensus politics, the left and right in the Netherlands are increasingly apart. People are locked up in echo chambers, so they resist any information that does not conform to their beliefs and show very little interest in finding common ground. Parties at the centre of the political spectrum are struggling, and are increasingly accommodating language from the extremes, and especially from the extreme right. The landscape is highly fragmented. A record number of 81 contenders, many of them single-issue parties, registered to compete in the national elections that took place in March 2017. Thirteen of those parties made it to Parliament, making it very hard to reach consensus.

    A major issue of current democratic tension in the Netherlands is focused on referendums. Over the past few years, referendums were introduced at the local and national levels. Almost all votes so far have resulted in wins for anti-establishment forces. In the first national referendum that took place the Netherlands, in April 2016, two-thirds of voters rejected the European Union accession treaty with Ukraine. As a result, the ruling coalition decided to put an end to referendum opportunities at the national level. People are now angry about the government’s unwillingness to follow up on the referendum results as well as about the decision to suspend referendums.   

    1. Has the practice of democracy in the country changed (for better or worse) over the past few years?

    More than with democracy, I think that the problem in the Netherlands is with human rights. 

    When talking about human rights in our country, you always have to start by saying that the Netherlands is not China, and that we are doing better than Rwanda and Uganda. There is a general feeling that human rights are something for other countries to be concerned with and it all comes down to issues of such as the death penalty and torture. But that is not what Eleanor Roosevelt and her colleagues meant when they drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights are about many other things as well, including housing, schooling, education - a minimum standard for basic rights, in every country. 

    The Dutch mind-set towards human rights is actually very contradictory, as Dutch people also tend to be pioneers and innovators. I think it is very un-Dutch to consider the human rights status quo as good enough, and to settle for an increasing mediocrity. While holding firm to the feeling that human rights are an issue for other countries, it is worth noting that Rwanda is now scoring better in terms of women’s equality and Uganda now scores better in terms of human rights education than the Netherlands. While the Netherlands is actively involved in bringing human rights to other countries, Dutch school kids score very low in terms of their knowledge of human rights.

    At the same time, human rights have increasingly become an issue of political contestation. Political parties right and centre have openly criticised human rights and human rights treaties. They have even fought the Dutch constitution on this. The new government, established after the latest elections, is now investigating how to get rid of refugee treaties. A coalition of Dutch civil society organisations (CSOs) has recently concluded that in the past five years the human rights situation in the Netherlands has deteriorated. The victims of this deterioration have been not only refugees and Muslims living in the Netherlands, but also ordinary Dutch citizens. Human rights are about rights for all; the power of human rights is that they are all important. There are no left-wing human rights and right-wing human rights. Let us stick to that.   

    1. In which ways have the recent elections altered the political and ideological landscape? Has the political conversation deteriorated as a result of the challenge posed by Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party?

    There is a major international misconception that the extreme right lost the Dutch elections. This is wishful thinking. In reality, Geert Wilders’ party increased its presence in the Dutch Parliament, from 12 to 20 seats. Moreover, a new extreme right-wing party, the Eurosceptic and nationalistic Forum for Democracy, also won two seats in the Dutch Parliament. Leftist parties have become very small in comparison to their past selves.

    At the same time, parties at the centre have increasingly accommodated language from the extreme right, so the public conversation has definitely changed for the worse. Even in the left, among social democrats, there are voices calling for ignoring refugees’ basic rights. The Christian-Democratic Party is obsessed with winning back political power, and references to exclusion have therefore become vital to their political strategy. It is going to be hard – not to say impossible – for these parties to return to their traditional positions and, in fact, to their core ideologies. But of course that there are still some good people with a heart for human rights within those parties, and we should work with them to make things better.

    1. What is progressive civil society doing, and what should it do, to resist the rise of authoritarian, isolationist populism?

    The major current challenge for Dutch civil society is to bridge differences and to start working together. In the past, many CSOs have focused on competition rather than cooperation, and on their own cause rather than the general cause. I have a feeling that this is changing, and that is for the best. CSOs can all contribute to a cause from their own experience and skills, as long as we share an agenda. An interesting trend in Dutch civil society, as well as at the international level, is that new CSOs tend not to focus exclusively on themes anymore, but rather on specific skills and assets. As a civil rights organisation, for instance, Kompass focuses on using lobbying experience and techniques to advance human rights. There is another new organisation in our country that focuses on litigation. We need to cut internal discussions short, and start working on outreach. 

    It is important to note that CSOs are setting the agenda again: that civil society is being able to frame issues rather than just respond to issues put forward by other actors. We have some things to learn from the (extreme) right, who have managed to communicate a clear message through their own media, as well as through the mainstream media. It is important for us to take a position, and not appear as indifferent.

    At the same time, it is important to avoid taking a high moral ground. Actively seeking polarisation will bring us nowhere. The election result was clear, and the fact that so many people abandoned progressive and left-wing parties needs serious consideration. Parties that criticise human rights treaties like the Geneva Conventions and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights now have a majority in Parliament; it is important to take stock of this. Polarisation might be useful to bring together very leftist or progressive groups, but it will alienate many others, even those in the centre. It is important to find a common ground: to persuade rather than accommodate or win discussions.

    What we can learn from commercial lobbying is how to build political support among parties that do not necessarily agree. In the past, some CSOs were of the opinion that they had a role in raising problems, but that it was politicians’ job to come up with a solution. That approach just does not work in the current political setting and climate. We do not need to create moral upheavals, but to propose concrete solutions and actions. The reason why companies are spending such enormous amounts of money on lobbying is that it works. We need to learn from what they are doing.

    • Civic space in the Netherlands was recently downgraded from ‘open’ to ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that rates the conditions for civil society in every country in the world. This downgrade was influenced by increasing infringements of protest and expression rights and a rise in hate-inducing and harmful speech during the election.
    • Get in touch with Kompass through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow @KompassNL on Twitter

     

  • ‘La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa’

    English

    CIVICUS conversa con Ramiro Orias, abogado y defensor de derechos humanos boliviano. Orias es Oficial de Programas de la Fundación para el Debido Proceso (DPLF) e integrante y ex director de la Fundación Construir, una OSC boliviana establecida con la finalidad de impulsar procesos de participación ciudadana para fortalecer la democracia y el acceso igualitario a una justicia plural, equitativa, transparente e independiente.

    Hace unos días se produjo en Bolivia una protesta nacional contra la posible re-reelección presidencial. ¿Observa en el intento del presidente Evo Morales de volver a reelegirse una degradación democrática?

    El intento del presidente de volver a buscar la reelección forma parte de un proceso más amplio de erosión del espacio cívico democrático por efecto de la concentración de poder.

    La búsqueda de una nueva reelección presidencial requiere de una reforma de la Constitución de 2009 (que fue promulgada por el propio presidente Evo Morales). Algunas de las disposiciones introducidas entonces en el texto constitucional fueron muy progresistas; hubo un importante avance en materia de derechos y garantías. Al mismo tiempo, se incluyeron reformas políticas destinadas a consagrar un proyecto de poder. Por ejemplo, hubo un cambio en la composición y en los equilibrios políticos de la Asamblea Legislativa destinado a sobre-representar a la mayoría; se destituyó anticipadamente a las principales autoridades del Poder Judicial (los miembros de la Corte Suprema y el Tribunal Constitucional fueron enjuiciados y obligados a renunciar) y se instauró un sistema de elección mediante el voto, sin una fase previa de calificación de méritos. Las instituciones árbitro, como la fiscalía, el Órgano Electoral o el Defensor del Pueblo, también fueron cooptadas en diversa medida por el Ejecutivo.

    En relación con el Ejecutivo, la principal reforma constitucional consistió en habilitar la reelección, pero por una sola vez, es decir para un máximo de dos mandatos consecutivos. El primer mandato de Evo Morales (2006-10) hubiera debido contar, porque así lo establecía una cláusula transitoria de la nueva Constitución; sin embargo el gobierno luego argumentó que ese primer mandato no contaba porque se había producido bajo la vieja Constitución (la cual lo inhabilitaba a una nueva elección consecutiva). De modo que el presidente fue reelecto dos veces, en 2010 y en 2015. Es decir, ha cumplido tres mandatos consecutivos, uno más de los que permite la nueva Constitución, y ahora está buscando alguna vía constitucional para habilitar un cuarto mandato.

    A principios de 2016 el gobierno convocó a un referéndum para consultar a la ciudadanía sobre una posible reforma de la Constitución para que Evo Morales pudiera competir nuevamente por la presidencia en 2019. Por un ajustado margen, el gobierno perdió ese referéndum; por eso acaba de presentar ante el Tribunal Constitucional una demanda de inconstitucionalidad, que el tribunal aceptó considerar.

    Según el presidente, la prohibición de volver a competir afecta el principio de igualdad y discrimina contra los actuales representantes electos, por lo cual sería contraria al Pacto de San José de Costa Rica (la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos). Es el mismo argumento que utilizó en Nicaragua el presidente Daniel Ortega, quien logró que la Corte Constitucional declarara inconstitucional su propia Constitución y le permitiera reelegirse. Es un argumento bastante forzado, porque los derechos invocados no son absolutos, sino que admiten regulaciones en función del bien común y el interés general (de hecho, el derecho a competir por la presidencia incluye restricciones de nacionalidad y edad, por ejemplo) así como limitaciones en función de valores superiores de una sociedad democrática – por ejemplo, el de la alternancia y el fortalecimiento de las instituciones democráticas.

    El 10 de octubre pasado, precisamente cuando se cumplían 35 años de la restauración de la democracia en Bolivia, se realizó una manifestación nacional contra la reelección indefinida y en defensa de la voluntad expresada por la ciudadanía en el referéndum del año pasado. Esta protesta fue convocada por diversas organizaciones cívicas, plataformas ciudadanas y partidos políticos de oposición. Fue una expresión callejera masiva, con las mayores concentraciones en las ciudades de La Paz y Santa Cruz y otras menores en Cochabamba, Potosí y Oruro. Afortunadamente el derecho de reunión pacífica fue respetado, en el sentido de que no hubo violencia ni intentos de suprimir las protestas. Sin embargo, el gobierno reconoció que la división de Inteligencia de la Policía siguió y vigiló de cerca de las marchas y a los propios dirigentes opositores, al punto que recabó al detalle las conversaciones que mantuvieron ese día. Lo cual es inadmisible en una sociedad democrática, ya que el uso de una policía política es propio de los gobiernos autoritarios.

    ¿Piensa que la lucha por la reelección se dará en los tribunales o acabará saldándose en las calles? ¿Convocará el gobierno movilizaciones a favor de la reelección?

    Creo que la demanda de inconstitucionalidad es un artificio jurídico; no estamos ante un problema de derecho constitucional, y menos aún ante una cuestión de derechos humanos de los que detentan el poder. El proceso judicial es una táctica más en una estrategia de lucha política en pos de la concentración del poder y la permanencia en el gobierno. La solución de esta controversia se dará en el terreno político. Una característica de la ética política de este régimen es que cuando un tema está en discusión, la aceptación de un arreglo o acuerdo no necesariamente es el punto final.

    ¿Diría que la sociedad civil está dividida en función del apoyo o el rechazo al gobierno?

    La sociedad civil está dividida. Como en todo proceso de cambio político, hay sectores ganadores, que han recibido beneficios importantes y apoyan la continuidad. Por ejemplo, algunos grupos sindicales, como la Confederación Sindical de Colonizadores de Bolivia (CSCB). Al mismo tiempo, hay sectores que en principio se sentían representados por el MAS pero acabaron perdiendo. El gobierno boliviano ha perdido apoyos, sobre todo en su base social indígena, debido a algunas medidas que supusieron retrocesos en la agenda indígena – por ejemplo, la decisión de construir una carretera a través del área protegida del TIPNIS (Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro-Secure), sin respetar el proceso de consulta previa, libre e informada de los pueblos indígenas titulares de ese territorio. El gobierno también autorizó la explotación de hidrocarburos en áreas protegidas. Esto resultó en cierto alejamiento de la base social que le había dado una amplia mayoría en los inicios de su gobierno.

    La llegada de Evo Morales Ayma a la presidencia y las reformas que se plasmaron en la nueva Constitución implicaron una transformación política, social y cultural enorme, sobre todo en términos de inclusión. Sin embargo, la falta de institucionalización, que se expresa en la ausencia de nuevos liderazgos, ha hecho que el proceso se agote y ya no represente un abanico tan amplio de la sociedad boliviana. Hoy es más difícil para el gobierno erigirse en representante de los movimientos sociales en sentido amplio. Muchos sectores de la sociedad civil que en algún momento vieron con simpatía el proceso de cambio liderado por Evo Morales, hoy lo ven con preocupación porque se ha convertido en un proceso de acumulación de poder político que no ofrece garantías para que puedan realizar libremente su trabajo.

    El resquebrajamiento de sus apoyos llevó al gobierno a imponer regulaciones dirigidas a desmovilizar a la sociedad civil que no adhiere en forma militante al proyecto gubernamental. Esto está afectando seriamente la capacidad de trabajo de muchas OSC. La situación se ha vuelto bastante difícil para los defensores de derechos humanos, y en particular para los defensores de pueblos indígenas y del medio ambiente, que han recibido diversos embates y presiones a su labor.

    También ha habido cambios importantes en la regulación de las OSC nacionales. El principal cambio normativo, que dejó a las OSC en una posición de gran vulnerabilidad, fue la ley No. 351 de Otorgación de Personalidades Jurídicas (2013). Esta ley exige el alineamiento de los objetivos y acciones de las OSC con las políticas gubernamentales y reemplaza el principio de reconocimiento de la existencia legal de una organización, que se deriva de un acto constitutivo de derecho civil, por el otorgamiento de la personería jurídica por parte del Estado, un acto administrativo que concede amplia discrecionalidad a las autoridades centrales. La personería jurídica puede ser revocada mediante un procedimiento administrativo, sin ninguna garantía del debido proceso. Al mismo tiempo, las OSC no alineadas con el gobierno son estigmatizadas públicamente.

    ¿Qué se requeriría hoy para lograr la concreción de esa promesa democrática que en su momento expresó Evo Morales?

    Al revés de la tendencia dominante de entregar más poder a una sola persona, uno de los principales temas pendientes en la agenda democrática boliviana es el reencauzamiento de la representación política a través de un sistema de partidos plural, institucionalizado, con prácticas internas democráticas. Si el tema de la reelección presidencial está en la agenda, es precisamente porque falta institucionalización: la fuerza en el gobierno no tiene un liderazgo de recambio. Más que un partido político, en el gobierno hay una coalición de diversos intereses que solo el presidente Morales logró amalgamar.

    La democracia representativa, sostenida en instituciones, es un sistema que permite ciertas certidumbres en la vida política, con reglas que se cumplen con regularidad y actores que se someten a ellas de buena fe. Lo que estamos viendo actualmente es que el gobierno usa los mecanismos democráticos cuando le sirven, y cuando no le sirven se aparta de ellos y trata de modificarlos en beneficio propio.

    En el marco de un sistema de partidos políticos débil, la sociedad civil cobra un relieve particular. Cumple un rol de preservación de las libertades de asociación, expresión y manifestación pacífica gracias a las cuales puede promover sus ideas de cambio social. La sociedad civil trabaja por una democracia no solo más representativa sino también más participativa.

    ¿Qué apoyos necesita la sociedad civil boliviana para superar los obstáculos y avanzar en dirección de una democracia más participativa?

    Lo más importante que necesita la sociedad civil en sus labores de promoción y defensa de los derechos humanos es un sistema de justicia independiente. Ha habido un proceso de debilitamiento de las instituciones judiciales por parte del Ejecutivo, que difícilmente podremos revertir en el corto plazo sin la cooperación de otros actores, nacionales e internacionales.

    Necesitamos, entonces, solidaridad internacional. De hecho, hay un diálogo político intenso con los embajadores acreditados en Bolivia, que reconocen la necesidad de crear un ambiente habilitante para la sociedad civil, así como valoran la urgencia de promover un sistema de justicia independiente. También necesitamos apoyo para que las OSC se empoderen, mejoren sus propios procesos internos de rendición de cuentas y aseguren la transparencia de su propia gestión institucional. Pero lo cierto es que mientras no haya una justicia independiente capaz de tutelar derechos fundamentales, la situación de la sociedad civil seguirá siendo de extrema indefensión.

    • El espacio cívico en Bolivia es clasificado en elCIVICUS Monitor como “estrecho”.

    Contáctese con Fundación Construir a través de susitio web o perfil deFacebook, o siga en Twitter a @fconstruir.

     

  • ‘The anti-corruption protests have turned the inhabitants of Romania into a whole new generation of alert citizens’

    CIVICUS speaks to Viorel Micescu, Executive Director of CENTRAS: The Assistance for Non-Governmental Organizations,an independent non-profit organisationaimed at contributing to the development of democracy in Romania through the strengthening of civil society. Established in 1995, CENTRAS provides training, technical assistance and informational support to communities, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses and governments interested in civil society and democracy development. CENTRAS has a branch in Constanta (the third largest county in Romania) and supports a network of regional resource centres.

    1. What triggered the protests that took place in Romania in early 2017, and how would you describe them?

    In January 2017, a new government came into office. It had been elected on a series of financial promises but instead, the first thing they did was pass legislation to amend the Criminal Code and decriminalise certain acts of corruption. This was intended to create much better conditions for politicians who had been involved in corruption to get away with it, thereby effectively slowing down the ongoing fight against corruption. The Ministry of Justice tried to pass this legislation through an emergency decree. Upon becoming aware of these plans, in mid-January 2017, citizens active on social media organised two marches to put pressure on the government. As a result, the president intervened to have the government drop this piece of legislation. However, the law was subsequently adopted by surprise in the middle of the night on 31 January 2017.

    As soon as the word spread that the government had done this despite public protests, people were back on the streets. First the government ignored them but later, as numbers grew and the protest in front of the government building went on day after day, it was forced to withdraw the emergency legislation. These were the biggest protests in decades. At some point, it was estimated that half a million people took to the streets, including more than 200,000 in the capital, Bucharest. The protests were mostly peaceful, although clashes periodically erupted between police and protesters. When demonstrators threw objects at the police, officers responded with tear gas. In the aftermath of one clash in Bucharest, 20 people were arrested and eight were injured.

    Within 10 days of the protests, the government had backed down. But this didn’t stop the demonstrations, because people kept expressing their anger and frustration with the undemocratic way in which the decree had been initially pushed through and passed, and were now demanding that the government step down. Government officials refused to resign; however, they did give up on the emergency decree and eventually the Minister of Justice, Florin Iordache, was forced to resign. A non-partisan personality from academia was appointed as his replacement.

    However, the former Minister of Justice, who as the author of the controversial decree that would have protected politicians from prosecution for corruption offences had been at the centre of the story, ended up occupying a high position in parliament. In October 2017 Iordache was appointed president of the parliamentary committee for ensuring legislative stability in the field of justice. So in the end, the struggle moved from government to parliament. The government backed off but members of parliament still defied public outrage. Several months after the facts, people occupied the square in front of the government building in Bucharest.

    1. Did your organisation play any role in supporting the protests?

    We are, above all, a resource centre for civil society development. In view of the ongoing events, since February 2017 we provided support to informal groups of citizens who organised on Facebook and other social media. As a result, there are now three large communities that are very active and exist not only on Facebook but also in the form of organised offline structures. They are monitoring closely what is happening. We estimate that between 50,000 and 80,000 citizens are involved in these groups.

    Many people who took part in the protests had not been involved in civil society or political action before. As a result of the government’s actions in January and February 2017, a lot of people who were living within a narrow private triangle – work, family, vacation - suddenly became engaged citizens.

    It suddenly became obvious for everybody that there was a huge gap between the people and the so-called political class. CSOs were out in the streets and the square as well. In this context, the reasonable thing for us to do in order to collect and disseminate credible information was to reach out to mobilised people. So once the ways in which the protest movement was being fuelled through social media became apparent, and those groups started gaining prominence and leading the events, we got in touch. The whole idea was to explain to the people out there that it is not enough to be a ‘protest citizen’ and only get out to the streets when something really bad happens. You must undertake civic work every day on top of your job and family obligations.

    Protesters were mostly people who came from educated backgrounds and hold good jobs, and who also want the social and political environment to improve so they can enjoy life. The wishes and expectations of citizens who want a better life cannot really be fulfilled just by marching on the streets. From the streets you can stop a legislative initiative but you can’t interact sustainably with the government. We tried to make clear to these people that this would be not be the ultimate war against corruption, and that much more would be required to win. The people in the protests needed to organise for the long haul, and they had to do it quickly or otherwise it would be difficult to mobilise people again when a new backlash took place.

    We realised that these active citizens with enough financial resources are the most likely to support the civil society sector. So along with one of the protest groups, in March 2017 we launched a small fund, which we named the Fund for Democracy, backed by donations from Romanians living in and outside Romania. We told people who cared about strengthening civil society that they could achieve this aim by putting money into the fund, which we would coordinate. Within a week we gathered €22,000 (approx. US$27,000), all of it in private donations transferred through the banking system. We initially received recurring donations only from selected donors, but we will eventually widen our base of support by going public. We make sure donations are managed properly by isolating projects from the rest of the organisation and having a separate board make decisions about them.

    Once we got the funds, we launched a call for ideas on social media and funded eight civic projects. These are all centred on the idea of civic values and range from education to civic involvement and monitoring good governance, and they are open not only to formal CSOs but also to informal groups of citizens and investigative journalists. All of this is happening at a time when there is a huge funding gap at the international level, and there is virtually no money for civic-minded civil society.

    1. Did protesters also gather in CSOs after demonstrations ended?

    Protesters did not have an actual leadership; only those who started the Facebook page had some kind of organisation, and most were doing their organising in addition to their day jobs. This would not have been sustainable, and in fact about a month and a half into the process some of those people started talking to each other and some groups merged as they became aware that they had to specialise. In this process, they acquired some kind of structure with an executive leader, with some kind of division into areas of work and task forces. Organisations emerged that dealt not just with corruption and governance issues, but also with health, education and the environment, among other issues.

    Lots of people in the CSO community tried to provide protesters with information on how to get organised. The whole point was to help them get organised on their own by equipping them with the capacities to build the organisations that were best adapted to their needs. These were large emerging masses of people who were just starting to feel and behave as citizens, and persuading them to fit into existing structures was by no means the best available solution.

    Many of these new organisations are still not registered as CSOs. The largest groups will surely eventually register, but not in the short term: this takes a lot of time, and registering an organisation with tens of thousands of members is complicated. Most importantly, we know that politicians have only just given us a break, and we have not won for good. The battle is ongoing, and nobody has much time for bureaucratic procedures. Every day we must produce, process and disseminate new information – so much of it, that it is difficult to keep up. Nobody really has much time to do anything else.

    1. Did the government make any changes in terms of its anti-corruption policies in the aftermath of the protests?

    In April 2017, the government responded to requests from the European Union (EU), the USA and other actors, to analyse the legislation properly, including through debates and consultations with judges and magistrates. In doing this, the government took the slow road; however, the results of the inquiry were unsatisfactory to party and government leaders because they showed that practitioners didn’t want the legislation softened in any way.

    Regarding pardoning prerogatives, for instance, the only consensus that exists in the judiciary is that they should not apply to people convicted in corruption cases. The majority believe that allowing public officials imprisoned for bribery, official misconduct, conflict of interest or influence trafficking to benefit from pardons would introduce the wrong incentives into our judicial system. So many people, including justice officials, now have the feeling that their own government has betrayed them.

    In June 2017, the government lost the support of the ruling party for failing to respond to their political urges to slow down anti-corruption reforms. The government collapsed but the Prime Minister refused to resign. In August, the Justice Minister proposed new reforms that, according to critics, would undermine not just the fight against corruption but also the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary. In other words, this took us back to square one – or almost.

    As a result of the turmoil of February and March 2017, the ruling party now has big internal problems. However, elections have passed in 2016, and politicians managed to get through them by bribing people – by promising, for instance, to raise their salaries by 50 per cent. Their next encounter with voters is years away. In the meantime, the leaders of both houses of parliament are under criminal investigation on corruption charges, and will be convicted unless they manage to change the legislation. Many other members of parliament are in trouble as well, as they face various corruption charges. So all of them want a more favourable legislation, and in particular they rely on the introduction of pardoning prerogatives for corruption cases.

    So in November 2017, nine months after the first protests, Romanians again protested against proposed legislative changes and to remind the government that they remained vigilant in case there was any attempt to slow down the fight against corruption.

    More recently, on 15 January 2018, the ruling coalition forced yet another government, including the Prime Minister, to resign – mainly based on accusations that they have not done enough to pass the desired modifications to laws on justice – so citizen groups summoned a massive protest in Bucharest for 20 January 2018. So it seems that a political crisis is under way, and street mobilisation will continue. It shall be another busy winter for the citizens of Romania, as the 'criminal interest group' has managed to hold on to power in the ruling party, albeit their position is being seriously weakened.

    1. What has been the role of the international community throughout this process, and how could international civil society support Romanian civil society to fulfil its role?

    In Romania, when the government gets on the wrong track, the international reaction is usually sufficient to set it straight. But this time it has been different. There was a majority parliament, and the EU and USA have been immersed in their own problems, and couldn’t or wouldn’t intervene immediately. That’s why it’s so good that people got out to the streets and protested. This caught the attention of the international public and allowed for a bigger reaction. But the fact that this reaction eventually took place was important – protesters in the streets would not have sufficed.

    The whole process was self-reinforcing. People invested lots of energy and creativity in the protests. They used humour, created witty slogans and memes and repurposed symbols of pop culture. This allowed them to win over the hearts of the international media, who saw everyday Romanians get out in the cold weather after work, stay there for hours into the night and exhibit all that creativity. I remember meeting a number of journalists from big international TV stations and other global media outlets one of those days, quite late in the evening, in a small café by the square. They commented that they were impressed by the vividness of the protest and by protesters’ ability to respond to questions in several languages while displaying their slogans. As a result, they provided extensive and positive coverage of the events in the international media, which put pressure on European politicians to do something about it, and therefore for European countries to react strongly, which they did.

    Romanian civil society is not yet mature; it needs international support and is very pleased when its efforts are acknowledged – it gets all the more energy when its actions get wide international coverage. In that sense, the visit of a delegation of the European Parliament in March 2017 was particularly significant. The visitors met with protest group leaders, lots of journalists wrote about them and the world discovered that Romanian citizens want good governance, hold European values and support anti-corruption efforts. Whenever someone writes and publishes something along these lines it is news for the Facebook community, and it gives civil society increasing strength.

    1. What impact do you think the protests might have on future citizen participation in Romania?

    CSOs like ours have spent a quarter of a century trying to make citizens out of the inhabitants of Romania, with relatively little success. It was as a result of the recent protests that we regained hope. We now have a whole new generation of alert citizens. Politics has become one of the most likely subjects of everyday conversation. Debates and forums are being organised to channel all these energies, because people have not been in the business of practising civic values for a long time, and they are just learning how to participate, how to form and express an opinion, how to interpret political events.

    In normal times, a typical protest against some form of government abuse would gather a few hundred people. Sometimes, environmental organisations would manage to summon around 10,000 people, but in February 2017, close to 600,000 came out from all over Romania on a single night. Most importantly, the protest reached places like small cities and towns, where there had never been protests before.

    Eastern Europe does not have a big protest tradition, and these were by far the largest protests ever experienced in this part of the world. Additionally, protests against corruption and in favour of European values mean a lot more in times of uncertainty, after the Brexit vote and the progress made by the extreme right in the Dutch and French elections. These protests gave a message of unity around European values, and in that sense they can be viewed as model protests for the times to come.

    These are fascinating times. On one hand, never before have we had politicians who are so mean and selfish, and of such little human and professional quality. On the other hand, there is now a large mass of new people entering the civic arena, getting ready to monitor the government and eventually to help educate politicians. Politicians will be educated only if citizens educate themselves first: there is a need for millions more to wake up and understand that there is another way of living their life.

    1. What challenges do you see moving forward?

    Most importantly, our anti-corruption struggle is ongoing. Despite daily public protests in front of the parliament, new laws on judicial organisation were passed in December 2017 and submitted to the president for approval. The president could veto them, but the ruling parties have a sufficient majority to override the veto. The adoption process was marred by abuses and lack of consultation, which was not surprising, given that the parliamentary committee that drafted them was led by the same former Minister who started the fire in January 2017. These pieces of legislation as well as their adoption process will surely come under the scrutiny of the Constitutional Court in the following months.

    Additionally, the same parliamentary committee is now getting ready to amend the Criminal Code and the Criminal Procedures Code. This is the big stake for politicians; if passed, these amendments will make even the emergency decree passed in January 2017 look soft.

    Still, public support for the ruling party has not gone down enough. To keep popular support, the government keeps trying to deliver on their promise to double salaries, although this is not sustainable, as it would create a huge pressure on public finances.

    CSOs are also being the target of restrictive legislation. It will not be as bad here as it has been in neighbouring Hungary, but the political majority is moving along the same lines. A smear campaign against CSOs is ongoing, and it is being repeatedly insinuated that CSOs have a hidden interest in destabilising the country. In June 2017, a draft bill was proposed to allow for the forced closure of any CSO that does not publish reports of its revenues and expenses, as well as the names of all of its donors, twice a year. This is an arbitrary burden, much more demanding than that applied to other sectors, meant to increase political control over civil society. Although the bill was put on hold for the summer due to the negative public reactions it caused, it was tacitly adopted by the Senate in November 2017, and was then sent to consideration by the Chamber of Deputies. We are confident that we will be able to block it, but we also know that a new move by the government will follow to restrict civil society.

    • Civic space in Romania is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    • Get in touch withCENTRAS through theirwebsite.

     

  • ‘What is underway is the promotion of an unequal society’

    As part of our 2018 report on the theme ofreimagining democracy, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score. CIVICUS speaks to Silvia Stilli, spokesperson of AOI, the largest civil society platform in Italy, and director of ARCS, a civil society organisation that promotes active citizenship and participatory democracy. Well known for her active commitment in the peace movements of the 1980s, she has 20 years of experience in volunteer work, humanitarian aid and international cooperation. Silvia is particularly active on issues related to migrants and refugees, and recently made astatement on behalf of AOI on the denial of entry to Italy for the migrant rescue boat Aquarius.

    1. Italy’s March 2018 general election led to the formation of a coalition government by two populist parties, the Five Star and the League. What are some of the reasons behind this?

    The reasons for the current situation do not lie just in the last year, but in the last 10 years. Over the past 10 years, relations between political parties and civil society - which in Italy is very broad - have been getting looser and looser, so the opportunities for engagement have declined. There has been a distancing between political parties and civil society.

    During this time, civil society in Italy has become increasingly engaged on social issues, especially since the 2008 global economic crisis, and it has done so by acknowledging the strong interdependence between global challenges and domestic challenges, including in poverty and migration flows. There has been a convergence of the different parts of civil society, including movements that are mobilising to demand rights. Civil society has been mobilising to try to connect global, regional and national issues. Migration is not a standalone issue. It’s something that affects us domestically, but because of our geographic location in the Mediterranean region.

    While civil society has taken a joined-up approach, political parties, including progressive parties, were treating poverty and the economic crisis as purely economic issues requiring domestic responses. Citizens found themselves caught between these two completely different views of how to deal with the situation.

    Another element is the huge mobilisation that has happened around the Five Star movement, which brought together many people around the need for change. This was an entirely new movement that attracted a lot of interest and support. People mobilised without necessarily looking at the depth of their political views, their orientation and programmes. Let’s see if they will actually bring some change.

    2. How are these current changes in politics being experienced by civil society?

    As well as concerns about migration, Italian citizens have experienced concern about security - both personal security, because there have been terrorist attacks, and livelihood security, given the difficulty of finding jobs. These sort of uncertainties and perceptions of insecurity have created the idea among some citizens that the work traditionally pursued by civil society organisations (CSOs), even if done with the best of intentions, is not taking into account their fears and insecurities. This anxiety has somewhat detached citizens from groups working on social issues.

    Over the last two years, donations from citizens, be it voluntary contributions or allocations from tax deductions, have been decreasing. This was an alarming issue even before the election. However, overall, there has been no decline in citizen engagement, as seen for example in volunteering. This has been stable or even slightly increased, particularly among young people, who if anything are more inclined to engage through civil society than join a political party.

    But at the same time that citizens are giving less - including to the many groups that are active in providing support and services in Italy to communities and vulnerable groups, some of which have had services outsourced to them by municipalities, including those run by the League - there are more demands on civil society. So we see on the one hand some financial decline, and on the other hand increasing need.

    Civil society’s role is under discussion. The new message seems to be that civil society can only operate to implement policies established by the government. This is opening up a crisis because it was not the case until now.

    3. How have politicians and political parties cultivated support, and what have been the impacts on rights?

    The current confusion of citizens has happened because of the language that has been used, not just by the current government but by previous governments of both right and left. They started to use language revolving around security against migrants, border control and safety. They attack CSOs working on these issues, seeking to detach citizens from the so-called ‘do-gooders’ of civil society. The fact that the centre-left also spoke this language has confused many citizens, including the more progressive part of the citizenry who might naturally embrace tolerance and sensitivity towards social issues. The consequence is that some citizens have become disconnected from traditional values of democracy.

    What is underway, to some extent continuing some measures of the previous government, is the promotion of an unequal society. They are talking about reduced rights and privileges for whoever is different, especially foreigners and migrants, and not only those coming now by sea, but also those who are already in Italy.

    More broadly, a number of rights that have been expanded in recent years - on same-sex civil unions, abortion, living wills, access to services for a number of minority groups - are all now being undermined. Every day new ministers of this government are making declarations that undermine these and the victories civil society helped achieve in the past. The language used by the government and mainstream parties is more and more attacking minority groups, and the civil society that works with them.

    Recently a Five Star member of parliament posted a Facebook message saying that CSOs that are mobilising for migrants need to be got rid of, in effect calling for a ‘fumigation’ of Italian civil society. This is the kind of language that parts of the new government are using against civil society.

    There is also the ‘Soros effect’ in Italy. The Minister of Internal Affairs now wants to check the budgets of CSOs to see if they are getting money from George Soros and Open Society Foundations. The same minister wants to create a racial profiling of the Roma community, who in most cases are citizens of Italy and not foreigners. This profiling on the basis of race is something that previously wouldn't have been possible in Italy.

    Within this new coalition government, the party that most extremely speaks the language of security is the League, from which the minister of interior affairs comes. It joined the new government as the minority partner, but the latest polls show that its leader, who is being assertive about security, is gaining support.

    These changes have opened up a big crisis of cultural values and challenges, both for the Catholic and secular parts of civil society, which have both played a key role in promoting equality and access to rights. This new approach is disorientating a broad part of established civil society.

    4. How is civil society responding, both to demonstrate its value, and to help those being targeted politically?

    On 24 July 2018, several parts of civil society in Italy collectively organised an ‘email bombing’, all sending an email to the coastal guard. This initiative was joined by millions of citizens. This was a huge mobilisation to request that the coastal guard disregard instructions to devolve the management of migrants to the Libyan coastal guard. This was the first time since the election that we witnessed such a massive mobilisation.

    After a very difficult period when civil society groups in Italy have faced defamation, smear campaigns and accusations, not only from political parties but also from citizens, this event was positive and shows negative trends being challenged, with citizens offering a massive mobilisation in support.

    Italian civil society is almost unanimously aligned on one point: that basic and fundamental human rights cannot be denied, and so they do not support the closure of ports and the blocking of ships and their return to Libya. In the case of the Aquarius, the response has mostly been to point to international treaties and norms, and to call for opening ports in the name of safe ports. Libyan ports clearly don't meet the definition of safe ports.

    Civil society is asking that humanitarian organisations can continue to work with the coastal guard and others involved at sea, as was the case in the past. There have been a number of judicial decisions that back the actions of civil society rescue ships. When rescue ships have been blocked, judges have determined that the ships have been in compliance with international norms, especially the Law of the Sea, and that this definitely overrides the state’s ability to block them.

    Civil society is trying to mobilise different actors within Italy - not only civil society groups, but also local authorities and parts of government, such as those that deal with health and education, and is calling for a more integrated and strategic approach, at least at the national level, looking into rescue at sea and also best practices in integrating communities. It is also calling for changes in foreign policy and development cooperation policy, to look at the complexities and dynamics of countries and regions that migrants come from, and how best to stabilise these and prevent people from needing to migrate: to take a more joined-up approach, at least at the Italian level, but this should also be the approach at the European level.

    Civil society points to the need for a strategic policy at the European level on this issue. On this, if not on the issue of the closure of ports, there is an alignment of civil society and government views.

    5. What else could Italian civil society do to respond, and what are its support needs?

    Although Italian civil society is now well connected and belongs to European and international networks, it has probably started late in engaging meaningfully in those networks. At the beginning, it was often enough to belong, but not be really actively engaged. We then realised the importance of using these channels to engage, such as to bring to wider attention what is happening with migration in Italy that some other parts of Europe might not be experiencing as we are: to raise awareness of the real challenges and struggles. It is crucial for Italian civil society to open up further to regional and international networks. Within key European civil society networks there is recognition of the need to bring forward a new narrative on migration and the integration of migrants in Europe, which could point to the positives of these, and not only the economic argument, but also the benefits of social and cultural growth for Europe. There is a need to invest in this as a medium and long-term political strategy. This is one of the most crucial things that Italian civil society should be doing together with broader European networks to change views of fear about insecurity and instability.

    The second thing we need to do is work with new generations, including in schools and informal spaces, to find channels to engage them in ways that interest them, and invest in their understanding of today’s dynamics so they can be the drivers of change in future. We need to promote more volunteering abroad and the hosting of volunteers in Italy, and exchanges among students and young people who have come from areas of crisis.

    Third, we need to work more with parliament, since there has been a major turnover of those who sit in parliament. There are new people who may not be much aware of the issues and so endorse populist narratives. We need to talk with them and influence them.

    Fourth, we need to work more strategically with the media, to push for a better narrative and try to work through the media to shape opinion.

    Finally, it’s important to highlight critical issues about civil society as well as positive ones. The fact that the credibility of civil society has been undermined, creating a decrease in donations and contributions, has prompted civil society to work more on our self-evaluation tools, to be critical, honest, self-assess how we have been doing things, and move towards more transparency and giving more feedback to citizens, including through participatory budgets and more transparent reports. Not only is it necessary for citizens to know where their money goes, but it is also the right way to respond to attacks.

    Civic space in Italy is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch withAOI andARCS through their websites or follow@AOIcooperazione and@ArcsCultSol on Twitter.

     

  • “Listen to us and let us have a direct say,” say citizens worldwide

    By Andrew Firmin, CIVICUS' Editor-in-Chief

    A group of women fighting back against sexual harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Marginalised members of the discriminated Dalit caste in Nepal who believe politicians only talk to them when they want their vote. People concerned about the impacts of corruption in Mexico. What do all these people have in common? They all live in societies that describe themselves as democracies, where every few years people get to vote for a leader and party. Yet still they feel no one listens to them. People see political power as something impossibly distant from them.

    Read on: Equal Times 

     

  • A Free and Diverse Media is Essential to Protecting Democracy in the 21st Century

    By Danny Sriskandarajah

    Images of protestors flooding the streets – whether in Caracas, Bucharest, Istanbul or Washington DC – send a powerful message to those in power, especially when they are plastered across newspaper front pages. In far too many countries, the response has been to shut down the space for citizens to organise and undermine the ability for dissent to be reported. Even in the most mature of democracies, the ability of citizens to organise and mobilise, and the freedom of journalists to report when they do, are being undermined. In an era of rising populism and spreading curbs on fundamental freedoms, we need to do more to protect civic rights and press freedom.

    Read on: Inter Press Service 

     

  • Alert: Continued deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela

    Spanish

    Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) are deeply concerned about the continuing deterioration of democratic institutions in Venezuela. On 28 and 29 March 2017, the Constitutional Chamber of Venezuela’s Supreme Court (TSJ) issued rulings No. 155 and 156 by which it declared the National Assembly in contempt of court, stripped legislators of parliamentary immunity, and assumed congressional powers as well as the prerogative to delegate them to whoever it decided, namely the Office of the President.

    In practice, many civil society organisations in Venezuela have expressed an opinion that these rulings amounted to an attempted coup against the legislative branch of government, a fundamental pillar of democratic institutions and the embodiment of the people’s right to be represented in the arena where key decisions concerning their lives and rights are made. Similarly, the Venezuelan Attorney General considered these decisions represent a rupture of the Constitutional order.

    The latest developments are the culmination of a several years’ long process of erosion of congressional authority which has plunged the country into a deep social crisis. Through the past year and a half, the TSJ issued more than 50 rulings that undermined the functions of the National Assembly and conferred unlimited powers onto the executive branch of the state. This is the reason why the backing down by the TSJ on its latest rulings did not amount to a restoration of the separation of powers and the rule of law. The fact that this reversal was executed at the executive’s request further emphasised the judiciary’s lack of independence and the on-going degradation of Venezuelan republican institutions.

    Over the years, the erosion of constitutional checks and balances and the resulting political polarisation have progressed hand in hand with increasing restrictions on civic freedoms, namely the rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly without which an empowered and enabled civil society cannot exist.

    In turn, the increasing concentration of decision-making powers in the executive leadership has led to serious policy-making failures, thereby intensifying rather than resolving the social crisis facing the country, including acute shortages of food and other basic goods, challenges with the public health system and a spike in street violence which disproportionately affects impoverished communities. We are also concerned about state repression against individuals and civil society groups when they speak up, organise and protest about their troubles.

    In the face of this multidimensional crisis, we call on Venezuelan Government to:

    • Restore the constitutionally defined functions and resources of the National Assembly as well as the prerogatives of its members, devolve the extraordinary powers conferred onto the executive by subsequent TSJ rulings, and introduce measures to guarantee the independence of the judiciary.
    • Repeal the current state of exception, established through an executive decree, and comply with human rights commitments under international law to guarantee basic enabling conditions for human rights defenders and civil society organisations. 
    • Guarantee the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and of expression. Security forces must refrain from the use of force against, or the arbitrary arrest of peaceful protestors.
    • Engage in dialogue with relevant national actors, including civil society, to resolve the current crisis; and ensure access to food and medicine for the entire population.

    We also urge the international community and in particular, the Organization of American States and its members to assist in resolution of the social and political crisis facing Venezuela.

    Contact:
    Eleanor Openshaw, ISHR NY Office: +1 212 490 2199,
    Inés Pousadela, CIVICUS Policy and Research: +598 2901 1646,

     

  • Alerta: Continuo deterioro de instituciones democráticas en Venezuela

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS y el Servicio Internacional para los Derechos Humanos (ISHR) expresan su profunda preocupación por el creciente deterioro de las instituciones democráticas en Venezuela. Los días 28 y 29 de marzo de 2017, la Sala Constitucional del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) de Venezuela emitió las sentencias N° 155 y 156, mediante las cuales declaró a la Asamblea Nacional en desacato, privó a los legisladores de inmunidad parlamentaria y asumió atribuciones del Congreso, así como la prerrogativa de delegarlas en quien juzgara conveniente, en este caso en la presidencia.

    Numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil venezolanas han manifestado que estas decisiones equivalen en la práctica a un intento de golpe de Estado contra el Poder Legislativo, un pilar fundamental de las instituciones democráticas y la encarnación del derecho de la ciudadanía a estar representada allí donde se toman las decisiones clave que repercuten sobre sus vidas y sus derechos. Del mismo modo, la Fiscal General consideró que estas decisiones del TSJ representan una ruptura del orden constitucional.

    Los últimos acontecimientos han sido la culminación de un proceso de erosión de la autoridad del Congreso que lleva varios años, y que ha sumido al país en una profunda crisis social. Durante el pasado año y medio, el TSJ emitió más de 50 resoluciones que socavaron las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional y otorgaron poderes ilimitados al Ejecutivo. Esta es la razón por la cual la decisión del TSJ de dar marcha atrás sobre sus últimas decisiones no supuso un restablecimiento de la separación de poderes y del estado de derecho. El hecho de que el TSJ revirtiera sus decisiones a petición del Ejecutivo, asimismo, no hizo más que enfatizar la falta de independencia del poder judicial y la degradación en curso de las instituciones republicanas en Venezuela.

    A lo largo de los años, la erosión de los controles constitucionales y la consiguiente polarización política han ido acompañados de restricciones cada vez mayores sobre las libertades cívicas, es decir, sobre los derechos a la libertad de asociación, de expresión y de reunión pacífica sin los cuales no puede funcionar una sociedad civil activa y empoderada.

    A su vez, la creciente concentración de poderes de decisión en el liderazgo ejecutivo ha redundado en graves fallos en la formulación de políticas públicas, intensificando en vez de resolver la crisis social que afronta el país, con fenómenos que incluyen una aguda escasez de alimentos y otros bienes básicos, el desmoronamiento del sistema público de salud y un aumento de la violencia callejera que afecta desproporcionadamente a las comunidades empobrecidas. También resulta preocupante la creciente represión estatal contra individuos y grupos de la sociedad civil que se expresan, organizan y protestan acerca de estos problemas.

    Frente a esta crisis multidimensional, hacemos un llamado al gobierno venezolano para que:

    1. Restaure las funciones y recursos constitucionalmente definidos de la Asamblea Nacional, así como las prerrogativas de sus miembros, devuelva las facultades extraordinarias conferidas al Poder Ejecutivo mediante sucesivas sentencias del TSJ, e introduzca medidas para garantizar la independencia del Poder Judicial.
    2. Derogue el estado actual de excepción, establecido mediante decreto ejecutivo, y cumpla con los compromisos de derechos humanos asumidos bajo el derecho internacional en materia de garantía de las condiciones básicas para el trabajo de defensores de derechos humanos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil.
    3. Garantice el derecho a las libertades de reunión pacífica, asociación y expresión. Las fuerzas de seguridad deben abstenerse del uso de la fuerza y el arresto arbitrario de manifestantes pacíficos.
    4. Participe en un diálogo con actores nacionales relevantes, incluyendo a la sociedad civil, para resolver la actual crisis; y asegure el acceso a alimentos y medicamentos para toda la población.
      Instamos también a la comunidad internacional, y en particular a la Organización de los Estados Americanos y a sus Estados miembros, a colaborar en aras de la resolución de la crisis social y política que enfrenta Venezuela.

    Contactos:
    Eleanor Openshaw,
    ISHR Oficina de Nueva York
    +12124902199

    Inés Pousadela
    CIVICUS Políticas e Investigación
    +598 2901 1646

     

  • Alerta: Continuo deterioro de instituciones democráticas en Venezuela

    La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS y el Servicio Internacional para los Derechos Humanos (ISHR) expresan su profunda preocupación por el creciente deterioro de las instituciones democráticas en Venezuela. Los días 28 y 29 de marzo de 2017, la Sala Constitucional del Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (TSJ) de Venezuela emitió las sentencias N° 155 y 156, mediante las cuales declaró a la Asamblea Nacional en desacato, privó a los legisladores de inmunidad parlamentaria y asumió atribuciones del Congreso, así como la prerrogativa de delegarlas en quien juzgara conveniente, en este caso en la presidencia.

    Numerosas organizaciones de la sociedad civil venezolanas han manifestado que estas decisiones equivalen en la práctica a un intento de golpe de Estado contra el Poder Legislativo, un pilar fundamental de las instituciones democráticas y la encarnación del derecho de la ciudadanía a estar representada allí donde se toman las decisiones clave que repercuten sobre sus vidas y sus derechos. Del mismo modo, la Fiscal General consideró que estas decisiones del TSJ representan una ruptura del orden constitucional.

    Los últimos acontecimientos han sido la culminación de un proceso de erosión de la autoridad del Congreso que lleva varios años, y que ha sumido al país en una profunda crisis social. Durante el pasado año y medio, el TSJ emitió más de 50 resoluciones que socavaron las funciones de la Asamblea Nacional y otorgaron poderes ilimitados al Ejecutivo. Esta es la razón por la cual la decisión del TSJ de dar marcha atrás sobre sus últimas decisiones no supuso un restablecimiento de la separación de poderes y del estado de derecho. El hecho de que el TSJ revirtiera sus decisiones a petición del Ejecutivo, asimismo, no hizo más que enfatizar la falta de independencia del poder judicial y la degradación en curso de las instituciones republicanas en Venezuela.

    A lo largo de los años, la erosión de los controles constitucionales y la consiguiente polarización política han ido acompañados de restricciones cada vez mayores sobre las libertades cívicas, es decir, sobre los derechos a la libertad de asociación, de expresión y de reunión pacífica sin los cuales no puede funcionar una sociedad civil activa y empoderada.

    A su vez, la creciente concentración de poderes de decisión en el liderazgo ejecutivo ha redundado en graves fallos en la formulación de políticas públicas, intensificando en vez de resolver la crisis social que afronta el país, con fenómenos que incluyen una aguda escasez de alimentos y otros bienes básicos, el desmoronamiento del sistema público de salud y un aumento de la violencia callejera que afecta desproporcionadamente a las comunidades empobrecidas. También resulta preocupante la creciente represión estatal contra individuos y grupos de la sociedad civil que se expresan, organizan y protestan acerca de estos problemas.

    Frente a esta crisis multidimensional, hacemos un llamado al gobierno venezolano para que:

    1. Restaure las funciones y recursos constitucionalmente definidos de la Asamblea Nacional, así como las prerrogativas de sus miembros, devuelva las facultades extraordinarias conferidas al Poder Ejecutivo mediante sucesivas sentencias del TSJ, e introduzca medidas para garantizar la independencia del Poder Judicial.
    2. Derogue el estado actual de excepción, establecido mediante decreto ejecutivo, y cumpla con los compromisos de derechos humanos asumidos bajo el derecho internacional en materia de garantía de las condiciones básicas para el trabajo de defensores de derechos humanos y organizaciones de la sociedad civil.
    3. Garantice el derecho a las libertades de reunión pacífica, asociación y expresión. Las fuerzas de seguridad deben abstenerse del uso de la fuerza y el arresto arbitrario de manifestantes pacíficos.
    4. Participe en un diálogo con actores nacionales relevantes, incluyendo a la sociedad civil, para resolver la actual crisis; y asegure el acceso a alimentos y medicamentos para toda la población.
      Instamos también a la comunidad internacional, y en particular a la Organización de los Estados Americanos y a sus Estados miembros, a colaborar en aras de la resolución de la crisis social y política que enfrenta Venezuela.

    Contactos:
    Eleanor Openshaw,
    ISHR Oficina de Nueva York
    +12124902199

    Inés Pousadela
    CIVICUS Políticas e Investigación
    +598 2901 1646

     

  • Alpha Condé wants a third term in Guinea. The AU must stop him

    By David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead 

    President Ramaphosa and the AU have a crucial role in aiding the continuation of Guinea's democracy. Guinea’s nascent democracy hangs in the balance as current President Alpha Condé’s resolve to defy the constitution and stand for a third term in office threatens to plunge the country into violence. Under the current constitution, President Conde is only allowed to serve two five-year terms. The only way he can change the presidential limit is through a new constitution, which requires a referendum.

    Read on: The Africa Report 

     

  • Are women the last line of defence against Brazil’s authoritarian shift?

    By Ana Cernov, human rights activist and Inés Pousadela, Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS

    In a matter of days, 2.5 million Brazilian women had gathered on Facebook to discuss how to best present their case against Bolsonaro and how to take their action offline and organise themselves locally.

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • Backsliding on civic space in democracies

    By Mandeep Tiwana

    It’s no secret that democracy is facing a global stress test. Divisive politicians are creating a chasm between the majoritarian impulses of electoral democracy and the inclusive strands of constitutional democracy. The former emphasises a simplistic ‘winner takes all’ mentality to advance partisan political agendas while the latter accommodates dissent and minority voices through checks and balances. Notably, civil society activists and organisations speaking truth to power and seeking inclusion in decision making are facing severe hurdles as civic space appears to be backsliding in several democratic countries.

    Read on: Open Democracy

     

  • Can Democracy Stand Up to the Cult of the Strongman Leader?

    By Mandeep Tiwana and Andrew Firmin

    Donald Trump’s presidency, recent protests in Russia and South Africa and the referendum to consolidate presidential power in Turkey have reignited debate about an emerging form of macho conservative politics called ‘Putinism’. This new form of politics is shaping contemporary notions of democracy while undermining the international rules-based system and harming civil society.

    Read on: Diplomatic Courier

     

     

     

  • Citizen rights and the upcoming presidential elections in Africa

    By David Kode

    It is a big year for democracy on the African continent. Millions will head to the polls in at least eight presidential elections. In many of these countries there are big aspirations for political change, while in others there are concerns about whether the elections will be fair and transparent. 

    Read on: East African Standard

     

  • CIVICUS interview with Malaysia electoral reform coalition, Bersih 2.0

    In the lead up to the 14th general elections in Malaysia on 9 May, CIVICUS interviewed the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0 which means "clean" in Malay). The coalition - made up of like-minded civil society organisations - was officially launched in 2006 with the objective of campaigning for clean and fair elections in Malaysia.

    Among its eights demands include: cleaning the electoral roll; reforming postal balloting; the use of indelible ink; a minimum 21 days campaign period; free and fair access to media for all political parties; strengthening public institutions to act independently and impartially in upholding the rule of law and democracy and halting corruption and dirty politics.

    Since 2007, it has organized five massive street protests to the have drawn tens of thousands of people to protest on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country calling for electoral and national reform. Smallers protests have also been held in different countries across the world. Ahead of these mass rallies Bersih 2.0 organisers have been arrested or harassed by the authorities and authorities have seized their computers, mobile phones and documents.

    Over the last month, Bersih 2.0 raised concerns about the redelineation of constituencies which was done in haste in favour of the ruling government, highlighted problems with the overseas postal voting system, publicized vote buying by candidates and the manipulation and abuse of power by the Election Commission (EC) on Nomination Day

    More information on Bersih 2.0 can be found at https://www.bersih.org

     

  • Do referendums improve democracy?

    By Inés M. Pousadela is a Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS

    In Ireland, 2019 gets going on the heels of a busy, bumper year when some watershed changes were delivered via referendums. And by the looks of it, there’s more on the way.

    In October 2018, almost two thirds of Irish voters chose to remove a constitutional ban on blasphemy. But even this crucial advance in the freedom of expression was dwarfed by the unprecedented outcome of a referendum held five months earlier, which led to the legalisation of abortion in this staunchly Catholic nation.

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • DRC: ‘The 2018 elections carried the hope of change’

    Felix Tshisekedi DRC1

    French 

    Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so.In the aftermath of the December 2018 election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which led to a new president being elected, CIVICUS speaks to Pascal Mupenda, Programmes Director of Partnership for Integrated Protection (PPI), a not-for-profit, non-partisan and non-religious civil society organisation that seeks to protect human rights defenders and promote peace. Pascal is also the national rapporteur of New Dynamics of Civil Society in the DRC(NDSCI),a network of organisations established in 2013 to strengthen citizen action in the DRC. It currently has 103 local member associations, including two citizen movements.

    Félix Tshisekedi has just been inaugurated as President of the DRC. What were the major challenges encountered in the DRC between the elections of December 2018 and the inauguration?

    General elections were held in the DRC on 30 December 2018 to elect the successor of President Joseph Kabila, as well as to fill the 500 seats of the National Assembly and 715 Provincial Council seats. The post-election situation has been marked by four major elements.

    First, there was the assessment of appeals that some presidential candidates submitted to the Constitutional Court. The electoral law allows dissatisfied candidates to submit such appeals following national presidential and legislative elections. The final results are only proclaimed once the Constitutional Court has issued a ruling. It should be noted that, ever since the Constitutional Court was established in 2006, the Congolese people in general, and human rights defenders (HRDs) in particular, have decried its composition, given that several of its members have very close ties to the government. By way of illustration, the rulings on the appeals lodged with the Constitutional Court after the 2006 and 2011 elections did not satisfy the applicants and were at the root of the violent post-election conflicts between the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, and the candidates who claimed to be his legitimately elected successor.

    After the elections held on 30 December 2018, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) provisionally proclaimed the victory of Félix Tshisekedi, the candidate of the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition. In response, supporters of Martin Fayulu, the Lamuka coalition candidate, began demonstrating and faced bloody police repression. In the meantime, Martin Fayulu filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court to contest CENI’s provisional results and request a vote recount at all polling stations. Several electoral observation missions, such as those of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), the Catholic Church, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union (AU) and Congolese civil society organisations (CSOs) also supported this approach, claiming that they hold evidence in that regard.

    Notably CENCO, which had deployed the largest number of election observers - around 40,000 - said that its data did not confirm Félix Tshisekedi’s electoral win. On this basis, Martin Fayulu has consistently called for the intervention of the national and international community to ensure that votes are counted and the popular will is respected. Thus, on 17 January 2019, AU heads of state requested the Constitutional Court to postpone its ruling, scheduled for 19 January, and offered to send a delegation that would arrive on 21 January, to try to solve the blossoming crisis. Their mission was cancelled as the Court went on to issue a ruling on 19 January as planned.

    As expected, the Constitutional Court confirmed and proclaimed Félix Tshisekedi as President of the DRC, after rejecting Martin Fayulu's request on the basis that it was unfounded. As soon as the decision was made public, Martin Fayulu held a press briefing saying that he rejected the ruling and considers himself the sole legitimate president, urging Congolese citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations to demand “the truth of the polls.” But apart from some demonstrations in a few places, overall a precarious calm persisted over the country. However, at the last minute the inauguration ceremony, initially scheduled for 22 January, was postponed, eventually taking place on 24 January.

    Second, there is the fact that the results of provincial and national elections were also challenged in several provinces across the country. CENI proclaimed these results when most of the paper ballots remained in the various localities and had not yet been compiled. Therefore, people wonder where CENI got those results from, given that the law does not allow for electronic voting, let alone electronic transmission of the results. Demonstrations around this issue are now taking place almost daily in various parts of the DRC. In the provinces of Kasai, North Kivu and South Kivu, for example, the population has continued to march to say ‘no’ to the election results. The vast majority of Congolese citizens, who voted for change, find it inconceivable that, although President Kabila's nominated successor failed miserably in his bid for the presidency, his Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition seems to have won an overwhelming majority of provincial elections and the majority of national legislative seats in 23 of DRC's 26 provinces.

    Third, the context has been marked by the violation of the Congolese people's right to access information. Indeed, for more than three weeks, the internet connection and signals from foreign media such as Radio France Internationale (RFI), TV5 Monde and France 24, as well as the text messaging system, were interrupted. To access the internet, listen to foreign radio, or watch foreign television, one had to resort to foreign internet providers. The shutdown of communications, along with the restrictions on the freedom of assembly following the elections, were aimed at creating an environment in which the civil and political rights of the Congolese citizens could more easily be violated.

    Finally, threats against HRDs, which had been massive before the elections, have not relented. The South Kivu artivist known as Cor Akim recently went missing and was found unconscious three days later. I was harassed and arrested during an observation mission and kept overnight in the Bukavu police headquarters. Several activists from the Lutte pour le changement (LUCHA) social movement were arbitrarily arrested. These are just a few of the many cases that PPI published in its monthly newsletter’s December 2018 edition.

    What was the significance of these elections for Congolese citizens?

    For Congolese people, the 2018 elections carried the hope of change, on hold since 2016, when the second and last term of incumbent President Joseph Kabila ended without him stepping down. For the first time in history, our country could now have both an outgoing living president and a living incoming president. All our previous presidents were either murdered before leaving power or driven out and forced to live in exile before being eventually murdered.

    But the elections would have been more interesting if the process had been inclusive. Some candidates were excluded as a result of politically motivated prosecution. In addition, CENI greatly undermined the credibility of the elections, especially because of the way it compiled results. Today most elected officials are young, but at the same time many are also from the FCC, which means that voters’ expectations of change will not necessarily be fulfilled.

    In sum, the elections were more significant in terms of voter aspirations than because of their results.

    What roles did civil society play in trying to make the elections as free and fair as possible?

    In the face of the elections civil society launched several campaigns calling for the renewal and rejuvenation of the political class. These included the ‘We, the Youth Can' campaign carried out by PPI alongside other CSOs. Numerous young people ran as candidates.

    Civil society also worked hard to raise awareness of the importance of elections. It contributed with awareness campaigns and programmes to encourage people not only to demand elections, but also to make a useful and responsible use of their vote to achieve the desired change. Thanks to the work done by CSOs, the population had a relatively good understanding of the voting method and how to use a voting machine, although it was not possible to guarantee total mastery of the voting machines by a population that is more than 80 per cent illiterate.

    In addition, many CSOs denounced the human rights violations orchestrated during the election campaign. They also collaborated with CENI to make sure the electoral calendar was respected, and everything was done in conformity with the Constitution and electoral laws.

    Civil society has continued to play an important role during the examination of the candidates’ appeals to both the Constitutional Court for the presidential race and to the Courts of Appeals for the national and provincial legislative elections, providing evidence that the results from polling stations diverged from the provisional results that were proclaimed.

    Do you think the state of democracy in the DRC will improve in the short term?

    An improvement of the state of democracy in the DRC is possible, but some preconditions are necessary for it to happen. First, there needs to be systemic and systematic change of government personnel. If CENI would proclaim the actual results yielded by the ballot it would help avoid a popular uprising. It would also be wise for the Constitutional Court and the provincial courts of appeals to manage properly the cases surrounding national and provincial legislative seats so that the door to violence does not open.

    Second, local and municipal elections should be held, as provided for by the electoral law, in order to bridge the gap between rulers and ruled.

    Third, the justice sector should be reformed, including by strengthening its technical and managerial capacities.

    Fourth, bilateral partnerships between the technical bodies of ministerial cabinets and CSOs should be formed so that joint approaches are adopted to face the challenges of democracy.

    Finally, fundamental freedoms must be respected and tolerance encouraged, so that public space gradually opens up.

    What should the international community do to help improve democracy in the DRC?

    The international community can contribute in many ways. First, it should provide sufficient financial resources to CSOs involved in the protection and empowerment of HRDs and pro-democracy activists. It should also support the participation of Congolese civil society in the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and their advocacy to question the Congolese government’s human rights record and demand that it respects the fundamental notions of democracy.

    Second, it should promote accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for economic crimes committed by Congolese political and economic actors, often with the complicity of international partners.

    Looking to the future, it should also support government plans for security reform and national development, with an emphasis on strengthening relations between civilians and the military in a way that enhances the protection of democratic gains.

    Civic space in the DRC is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with PPI and NDSCI through their websites.

     

  • How to Undermine Democracy – Curtail Civil Society Rights

    By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera, and Marianna Belalba

    Recent elections and referendums in a growing number of countries from Turkey to the USA and beyond are producing leaders and policies, which directly threaten some of the core principles of democracy.  In an increasing number of established and fledgling democracies, we see ruling parties violating the fundamental freedoms to speak-out, rally behind a cause and get involved in a social movement.

    Read on:Inter Press Service 

     

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