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Democracy in Exile: Is Civil Society the Answer?

August 7, 2010

By Tsetan Dorjee
Phayul
August 6, 2010

When lawyers and paralegals in neck ties and
black coats marched through the streets of
Islamabad in March 2007, demanding the immediate
reinstatement of Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad
Chaudhary whom General Pervez Musharraf as the
president had imprudently suspended, Pakistan got
itself a spanking new civil society, resolute on
defying the authoritarian military ruler who had
subdued democracy in the name of peace and stability for far too long.

The lawyers didn’t manage to topple the regime,
but they did consolidate democracy by forcing the
government to recognise the independence of the judiciary.

 From Otpor movement in Serbia to the engineers
of Orange revolution in Ukraine, and from
lawyers’ defiance in Pakistan to the card
carrying communist party cadres in Nepal posing
as civil society members to launch a movement
against the authoritarian king Gyanendra Shah,
the idea of a classic, clichéd western take on
civil society somehow assumes that some form of
democratic opposition to the government of the
day is a pre-requisite to qualify one as a civil society.

Even then, in the conventional sense of ‘check
and balance’ in and outside the government, the
merits of such a civil society to deepen and
consolidate democracy cannot be overlooked.

Usually, civil society bases its idea on a
political culture managing discrepancies in
society through some form of people-centric
association and organisation. This theory itself
conjures up the idea of democratic consolidation.
But does the existence of a strong civil society
truly strengthen our exile Tibetan democracy?

To answer that, we first need to explore the
nature of relationship between civil society and democracy itself.

Linking Civil Society and Democracy
Relations between civil society and democratic
political society were probably first explored at
length by the French political scientist Alexis
de Tocqueville. He believed that through
association of people for shared benefits, people
are able to build a vigorous civil society
operating autonomously from the state.

What does civil society consists of then? What is
it made of? In basic vocabulary and with a hint
of sceptical third world perspective, it is some
journalists, well funded human rights activists,
NGO entrepreneurs, non profit sector, selected
trade unions, politically steered student groups,
some professional societies and narrow pressure
groups coming together more with the purpose of
opposing certain types of governments and their
works than truly championing for the welfare of
the masses. After all, a polity without active
civil society would be “intolerable, an
invitation to the tyranny of the majority.

How does it do it?
Larry Diamond states that "civil society has
played a crucial role in building pressure for
democratic transition and pushing it through to
completion”. Thus, Civil Society has become a
term which is now increasingly used to encompass
social activity and societal organizations which,
directly, or indirectly, support, promote or
struggle for democracy and democratisation.

Here are a few examples on how civil society may have consolidated democracy.

In Nepal during the April 2006 Peoples’ Movement
to restore democracy, political leaders were
mostly seen following the lead of the democratic
movement spearheaded by civil society leaders,
teachers and professors, doctors, artists and
student groups. There was a genuine mass uprising
against the King and it was mainly because of the
potent and overwhelming participation of the
civil society that the King ceded executive power back to the parliament.

Imagine Czech Republic without Vaclav Havel’s
Charter 77 and Civic Forum. Charter 77 was a
proclamation to get the civil society off the
ground in insisting that people be conferred
basic human rights. Civic Forum that pressed for
democratic reforms achieved momentum and gave
shape to the bloodless Velvet Revolution of 1989.

So we can safely claim that civil society by its
virtue is the public space where practice of
dynamic citizenship in search of general public
welfare is conducted, thus the very concept of
civil society and democracy is umbilically tied
and intertwined. It is that space for the members
of the society where government’s policies and
actions, and everyday problems facing the people
are deliberated, individual differences are
reconciled so that democratic practices are kept
alive. Imagine democracy without civil society as we know.

Exile Democracy: Is Civil Society the Answer?
In analysis of the Tibetan Diaspora, It is very
much clear that only having a strong civil
society does not lead to consolidation of exile
democracy as there are “potential and limits of
civil society as a vehicle for deepening
democratic values in newer democracies”. They
must be actively nurtured. It needs to go hand in
hand with political institutions that are central
to consolidation of democracy. Institutions
placing efficient checks and balances on
executive supremacy are particularly essential.

In our exile community, Civil Society is still
viewed as an agent of political opposition
against the Dalai Lama’s institution. Tibetan
Exile Government is often appears to be gripped
by contradictions: theocracy co-exist with
limited democratic practices. We do have Civil
Society, not as vibrant as the one in the West,
but there is a considerable presence.

But why has the issue of democracy not been at
the centre of any civil society initiatives?

"For civil society to contribute to democratic
political change, a critical mass of civil society

Organizations must develop autonomy from state, a
pro-democracy agenda, and the ability to build coalitions.

After decades of institutional dilemmas, it would
be naïve to hope that a strong, vibrant civil
society would sprout out of the blue sky. There
is a trace of it but the road to work for the
fully democratic institution is bound to be long and arduous.

The intricacy thus lies in how well we actually
understand and established democratization. One
way to have democratic practices become firmly
established in exile is through the presence and
operation of strong institutions that can bear
the burden of a changed system. But who coerces
and obliges the change? How do we make sure that
the institutions, howsoever strong, adjust to the
new way of process and operation? This is where
civil society, and only civil society, becomes
multipurpose and effective, thereby consolidating
and strengthening representative democracy in our exile community.

Tibetan Exile Government truly lacks democracy
legitimacy: a very limited explicit consent,
public participation and also public
accountability are generally weak. So, it is no
exaggeration to say that contemporary exile
institution has provoked a crisis of Kalon Tripa
2010: an issue that is very much debated and
hyped in exile Diaspora. I don’t want to go into
further detail but I doubted the crisis derived
from two major problems i.e. structural deficiencies and Institutional Dilemma.

The structural deficiency in contemporary
democracy is the disjunction between the pull of
modernity and realistic optimism. Decades after
His Holiness blessed Democracy, yet exile
institution continues to languish under the
tradition of Buddhist serenity and conservatism.
These structural problems are evident in
democratic deficits that pervade institutional
dilemma. Yet our very own level of bureaucracies,
nepotism, limited democratic credentials, and
hardliner politicians back home in Dharamsala in
fact hampering in terms of advancing our exile
democracy. Do they really care about advancing
democracy in Post modernist discourse?

With this cautionary note firmly in mind, I think
there are number of ways Tibetan civil society
can consolidate the questions of legitimacy
against yardsticks of our exile democracy.

First and foremost, civil society contributes to
promote political participation and institute the
culture of democracy through public education
activities. NGOs can do this by education people
about the rights and obligations as democratic
citizens, and encouraging them to listen to
election campaign and vote in elections.

Second, civil society fuel debate in and about
exile government’s policies, democratic rule
rests in part on vigorous, uninhabited discussion
of diverse views. Inputs from civil society can
put a variety of perspectives, methodologies, and
proposals into the policy arena. For example,
civic groups have been instrumental in generating
and publicizing debate about the so-called
Washington Consensus in global economic governance.

Third, civic mobilization can increase the public
transparency of our exile government. It can also
help to develop the other values of democratic
life of tolerance, moderation, compromise and
respect for opposing points of view. These values
cannot be simply taught; they must also be
cultivated and experienced through various
programs that practice participation and debate.

Finally, Civil society organizations have a vital
role to play in monitoring the conduct of free
and fair elections. This requires a broad synergy
of coalition that ensures the voting and vote
counting is entirely free, fair, peaceful and
transparent. Without civil society it is very
unlikely to have credible and fair elections in a
new democracy. Undoubtedly, a democratic
government cannot be stable unless it is
effective and legitimate, with the respect and
support of its citizens. Thus, civil society can
provide a space for the expression and platform
between the democratic government and its citizens.

My premise is that it will require action on
three fonts: i) to invent the momentum for
research and public debate, ii) developing a
platform where the state-society relationship is
one of balanced power, iii) plugging into
empirical studies that systematically measure and
establish correlation between civil society and democracy.

But there are limitations too. "Democratic
consolidation requires the evolution of a
democratic political culture where all the main
political players (both in the elite and the mass
public), parties, organised interests, forces and
institutions view and accept democracy as ‘the
only game in town’”. This is somewhat a long shot
and perhaps an unfair duty expected on civil
society’s part. There will never be such a
utopian state of affairs where evolution of
democratic political culture takes such a shape
where political actors start to wholly agree with
each other. Differences - political, religious,
ethnic, racial, class - are there, and civil
society as of now hardly has the capacity or the
admiration from the intended beneficiaries,
especially in the global South, to reconcile such
differences and do its bit on democracy promotion
and strengthening in exile community.

Conclusion
So, why Tibetan democracy cannot be consolidated
without a strong civil society then?

One of the reasons has to be its indisputable
value in times of crisis and conflicts. One very
effective way civil society consolidates
representative democracy, especially during
crises, according to Larry Diamond, is by
‘cutting across sectional interests and
mitigating political conflict’. Kenya in recent
turmoil could be presented as an example here.

Another possible and very compelling reason why
representative democracy cannot be consolidated
without a strong civil society is because the
arena within which civil society “provides
non-partisan election monitoring which deters and
checks fraud and monitors judicial and legal
reforms in new democracies." Who else or what
else in the world, other than civil society,
holds the authority to supervise elections in
struggling democracies and either provide a stout
stamp of approval for the conduct of free and
fair elections, or damning verdict on rigged and fixed election results?

So, is civil society the only entity that
consolidates democracy? Are there any other
systems, bodies, or mechanisms that can strengthen democracy?

Whatever the strengths or shortcoming of civil
society, one thing is sure that they play a
unique role in our democratic systems. Despite
all the challenges, all the political stakes we
have, I think we can be really hopeful about the
future only if we do things differently and
collectively. The next Kalon Tripa 2010 Elections
should be neither romanticized nor demonized
rather it should be seen as a framework for sober
assessments of our performance to date and
possibilities for our future democratic structures.


Works cited
1) Ehrenberg, John, ( 1999) Civil Society: the
critical history of an idea, New York University Press, New York
2) Robert D. Putnam, et al : ( 1994), Making
Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern
Italy,Princeton University Press, New Jersey, VII
3) Pocklington, T. C., ( 1994) Representative
Democracy, Harcourt Brace, Toronto, Canada
4) Diamond Lary, ( 1997) Introduction in Search
of Consolidation, in Larry Diamond, Marc F.
Plattner et, A;, (eds) Consolidating the Third
Wave Democracies : Themes and Perspective,Johns
Hopkins University, Press Baltimore, MD
5)Guideline for Strategic Plans, ( 1996) USAID, Washington DC
6)Diamond, Larry ( 1994), Rethinking Civil
Society, Journal of Democracy, Vol 5,Nr.3, Washington DC
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