Civil Society: A hallmark of Democracy

Over the past few decades, demands for strong political leadership in increasingly complex societies have risen. And so have the demands of citizens for more direct participation. The current pandemic has only exacerbated these possibly contradictory developments.

Many citizens throughout Western democracies, not least in the EU, are not satisfied with the way democracy works. They feel insecure about their place as, ostensibly, ultimate arbiters of policies, they distrust the institutions and they do not know how multi-level governance functions – or they just feel unheard. This explains the low turnouts in elections, especially among young people.

Though election turnouts continue to be high in Malta, political parties would be foolish to think that this signifies that citizens are happy with the way things are. One only has to see the results of the Eurobarometer survey to discover how low in their esteem, citizens hold political parties and most state institutions.

Trust in political parties is just 25%, that in Parliament is 46%, and the Government does not fare any much better, at 49%. As for the justice system, the various reforms in recent years do not seem to have impressed citizens much, trust in it being only 35%. The Press and broadcasting media also fail.

It is scant consolation that trust in political parties, Parliament, Government, and public administration is even lower in the EU. The EU fares better on trust in the justice system and the Press/Broadcasting, as well as on the Police and Army. 

Citizens in most countries expect political leaders and the Government to provide policy efficiency and to offer a plausible and trust-inducing political narrative in a world that is increasingly perceived as confusing and chaotic. At the same time, rising levels of self-confidence, self-efficacy, and education among an increasing section of society have made citizens expect a higher participation in democratic decision-making.

The problem, though, is that organisations of democratic and political intermediation are increasingly viewed with suspicion and distrust by governments everywhere. In the Western countries of today, governments and state institutions declare their goals as including closer social ties and inclusion, yet they fear those very same ties and inclusion might restrict their ability to govern.

This problem has manifested itself in big ways in many countries, starting with the United States itself, where millions of people have decided that the government is determined to strip them of their liberty, and helped elect Donald Trump to the Presidency. Anti-politics and disillusionment have become a near-permanent feature of politics in most EU states.    

The feeling among ordinary citizens is that their elites are particularly disconnected from voters’ realities. This is probably inevitable, once political parties raise expectations to the sky in their electoral campaigns with bold promises to stand a chance of beating their rivals. The victorious party starts its mandate with strong legitimacy and popularity, but more often than not spends the years thereafter dissipating the trust placed in it.

Malta is no exception. The Labour Party enjoys an unassailable lead in the polls. It tends to make the party and the government think that they have some special connection with voters. But the Eurobarometer statistics show otherwise. The lead the PL enjoys is, in my opinion, due in a major way to the PN’s continuing inability to connect with a wide swathe of society.

What particularly disappoints me is the PL’s ambivalent stand with respect to civil society organisations. In spite of bold promises in 2013, the PL let the government machinery get away with its mania for control, such that opportunities for civil groups to be integrated into a coherent narrative for a modern and contemporary social democracy were soon waysided.

In many countries, civil society organisations face ever-tightening restrictions, whether via strict media oversight, burdensome regulatory hurdles, limited access to national and foreign funding available for advocacy, rights-based activities, or “causes that challenge the status quo”.

The turmoil following the Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, and other scandals made things worse, with the emergence of certain civil society groups, particularly Repubblika. A siege mentality has prevented many leaders from seeing what merits serious consideration in that organisation’s work, and concentrate instead on its excesses.

I am hoping that the new administration will realise that, if it wants to play a leading role in the necessary social-ecological transformation of the country in the post-COVID world, it must enhance civic participation in the deliberations of the State, engage citizens in debates, and involve them actively in decision-making. Only in this way will it be able to increase their sense of ownership of a government and State that reflect their needs and visions, to truly develop a public sphere, and to reinforce the democratic legitimacy of the country’s institutions.

To a certain extent, the pandemic has not helped. It has tended to reinforce centralised decision-making and atomise the voice of single individuals or organisations. Ironically, if all can have a say, the individual is hardly heard, and more power remains with those formulating the question and pre-selecting the answers. One only needs to look at money surveys and other “consultation exercises” to confirm that many of them are pro forma attempts to involve citizens, with many of the answers already provided by the authors’ own pre-conceptions and biases.

Nelson Mandela once said that “If we want any significant development, we must co-opt civil society”. Only a genuine partnership between government and its people will bring about positive change to create a just society. Civil society is undoubtedly a very important hallmark of democracy.

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