Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Julie Fisher, a current associate and retired program officer of the Kettering Foundation whose book, Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikstan and Argentina, will be released by the end of March. Here, she discusses how democratization NGOs can bolster civil society and government accountability by strengthening a country’s loyal opposition.
In a classic study written over forty years ago, Ghita Ionescu, a political scientist, and Isabel de Madariaga, a historian, described loyal opposition as “the most advanced and institutionalized form of political conflict.” Loyal opposition unites support for a democratic constitution and political system with opposition to a particular political regime.
Most scholars tie loyal opposition to political parties. In many developing countries, however, democratization NGOs promote new and different forms of opposition. Because democratization NGOs are afraid of losing their nonpartisan image, these forms are not tied to political parties. Indeed, democratization NGOs sometimes become a part of the opposition themselves. Although this may not build loyal opposition in the traditional sense, it does contribute to policy dialogue and push governments to become more accountable to their citizens. On the other hand, political parties are too often the orphans of the democratization movement. Building deeper democracies will ultimately require this to change.
One way that democratization NGOs become part of a loyal opposition is to join or organize a coalition on socioeconomic issues of interest to other NGOs. In South Africa, democratization NGOs were leaders in a civil society coalition called the Treatment Action Campaign that successfully sued the government over its failure to prevent mother-child transmission of HIV through antiretroviral drugs. Since the South African legal system is strong and independent of the executive, this decision also reinforced government accountability, conformity to the constitution, the right of judicial review, and children’s rights.
Another example comes from Tajikistan, where the League of Women Lawyers provided a draft law and space for public discussions about human trafficking to Dubai. The league organized a wide coalition of NGOs that successfully promoted an anti-trafficking law.
Advocacy related to political and legal processes is often even more visible at the provincial or municipal level. With support from national democratization NGOs and forty citizen monitors of the city council in Rosario, Argentina, an NGO called Ejercicio Ciudadano (Citizen Practice) cooperated with the city in creating a transparency agreement that NGOs in six other provinces subsequently adopted. In Tajikistan, a democratization NGO called Jahan teaches local police about human rights. When I asked how they were able to do this given Tajikistan’s authoritarian government, Shahlo Juraeva, the director of Jahan, explained that the regime “doesn’t want trouble at the municipal level.”
Democratization NGOs also strengthen local civil society through their support for political dialogue. In Argentina, Fundacion Ciudad (City Foundation) uses public deliberation to build ties between NGOs and community organizations. In a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires province, a series of eight deliberative forums co-sponsored by Fundacion Ciudad and a local community library led to a program employing local teenagers to pick up garbage on a daily basis. Once citizens decided to launch the effort, the provincial government cleaned up a huge backlog of garbage and provided financial support. The garbage company provided the teens with gloves and uniforms.
The success of Fundacion Ciudad suggests that democratization NGOs could help create a stronger loyal opposition by enlisting ordinary citizens who belong to community organizations. Democratization NGOs that join coalitions could also do more to educate their NGO partners about the political process and invite them to join political networks.
While a loyal opposition based on civil society is clearly a step forward from autocratic rule, further democratic progress may depend on political parties. Parties are a vital part of the democratic process, but many struggle with small constituencies or leadership based on individual personalities. This privileges narrow ideologies and personal loyalties over policy proposals that address the concerns of citizens. To deal with these pitfalls, democratization NGOs need to overcome their fear of being labeled partisan. NGOs could strengthen their existing efforts to build a loyal opposition by, for example, hosting multiparty workshops with a focus on constituency building. Strategic networking among NGOs would help build this missing piece of the democratization puzzle: stronger political parties.