CC BY-NC 2.0 Dr Case / Flickr. Some rights reserved.The growing tide of populism in the west is a symptom of failing representative democracy. Current political systems increasingly struggle to translate popular preferences into public policies. The crisis of democracy leads to disillusionment, mistrust and consolidation of populist politics.
Civil society, with active and effectively engaged citizenship could help mend deficiencies in representative democracies. High level of mobilisation and civic oversight, as demonstrated by developments in the transition economies, such as Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova, offer important insights into successful anti-populist measures.
Populists can be many things in disguise, but their main threat to representative democracy is their anti-pluralism and uncontested claim of the moral right to represent “real people”. They undermine accountability, because they refer to “popular will” as the sole driver of their actions.
Because of the relative democratic tranquillity over the last decade, the civic sector in consolidated democracies has concentrated on delivering innovation and much needed social services. In view of current risks to democracy, there is an opportunity that effective civil society can be a safeguard against populist politics thanks to of its high social trust, connection to the needs of various constituencies and commitment to inclusive values.
In many countries in Europe, civil society enjoys much higher levels of trust than governments. For example, in the UK 54% of people trust charities compared to only 34% who trust the government. Globally, giving and volunteering are showing positive long-term trends. Civil society organisations increasingly play a role of facilitators and conveners around the issues of inequality, gender, conflict resolutions and human rights. The sector often leads a way to social innovation at national and global levels.
To seize the opportunity in putting a cap on populist politics, civil society oversight and control should be directed mainly towards ruling elites, who under the temptation of quick wins adopt populist rhetoric. Civic actions could include fact checking of party candidates and politicians for the use of false narratives. For example, VoxCheck in Ukraine regularly rates politicians for lies and populist rhetoric. In Georgia, a coalition of civil society organisations. led by the Media Development Foundation, monitors disinformation and anti-liberal propaganda disseminated by media outlets and politicians. Such “name and shame” campaigns could shed more light on the fact that populist rarely win on their own and need collaboration from mainstream parties to rise to the top.
By offering meaningful engagement for citizens beyond elections, civil society could help shape inclusive policy. This kind of engagement should be easy, clear and extend across different ages. For example, in Ukraine consultative Civic Councils at the Ministry of Health and National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) deliver civic representation at the national level. Over 70,000 citizens participated in electing the council members online that maintain a feedback loop between citizens and national agencies. The council member can join administrative and disciplinary committees of NABU, which hire new personnel and review its performance. Two out of five committee members are from civil society. After vetting the candidates, each tenth applicant was rejected due to a high corruption risk. Other tools might include development of participatory budgeting at the local level, where a share of a local budget is allocated for projects voted digitally by the local community. It helps generate ownership and interest of citizens in the life of municipalities.
Finally, effective communication could bridge disconnect between citizens and elites and help channel citizens’ view into political society. By monitoring the implementation of public policies, civil society organisations could bring to the table practical policy results and identify false narratives spanned by the populists. Various policy barometers, independent opinion polling could be designed to explain trends and policy impact. By focusing on public issues, civil society organisations could steer discussion away from personalisation or moralisation of political conflict. In Moldova, strong civic mobilisation backed by independent expertise of Legal Recourse Centre managed to stop legislative initiative on capital liberalisation and tax incentives due to high money laundering and corruption risks.
But in order to capitalise on those opportunities, civil society has to carry weight and legitimacy, which mainly comes from strong links to constituency and accountability. It is important to avoid the trap noticeable in the transition region, where civic groups turn into elitist networks, which use access to decision-makers and western donors to influence policy. Non-profits in the region often act on behalf of citizens, rather then jointly with citizens. Instead of strengthening democracy they breed NGO-cracy. The proposed anti-populist remedies are also contingent on strong downward accountability and transparency of the sector. Civil society groups need to stay focused on their missions, retain integrity and nurture current levels of social trust.