Civil Society, Democracy and Global Governance In Malaysia

Bersih 2.0 rally on 9 July 2011.

WZWH discussing this posting in relation to a rally (streets demonstration) by Bersih 2.0 in the scope of civil society, democracy and global governance in Malaysia.

The role of civil society actors in Malaysian politics has received much attention recently. There has been a tendency to idealize “civil society” actors as democratic forces. 

Yet, as Jan Aart Scholte (2002: 299) has pointed out, “we do well to balance enthusiasm for civil society engagement of global governance with due caution”  and “demand of civic associations that they not merely assert – but also demonstrate – their democratic credentials.” 

Nevertheless there is a lack of research on the democratic credentials of civil society actors. Empirical studies of democratic aspects of the interaction between civil society actors and global governance institutions are particularly rare. A step forward through a focus on the democratic qualities and contributions of civil society actors and their interactions with a range of governance institutions above the state. 

We need analysing different kinds of civil  society activism related to various forms of global and regional governance with the aim of analysing and discussing the extent to which such interventions are democratic, seek to build or contribute to democracy.The focus might, for example, be on problems of representation and accountability as well as the tension between coercive and non-coercive forms of activism. 

We can identify three basic positions concerning the democratic credentials of civil society actors which operate beyond the nation-state:
  1. First, there has been a tendency, especially on “global civil society” in the 1990s, to portray civil society actors in a romantic way as champions of democracy  and other normatively “good” causes. The idea that civil society by definition must be pro-democratic has been strong in conventional civil society theory.
  2. A second position is represented by those sympathizing with other powerful actors in global governance (such as governments,  transnational corporations and multilateral institutions). From this perspective, the legitimacy of transnational civil society actors is questioned, often in a very sweeping and one-sided way.
  3. More constructive criticism comes from a third position, offering systematic analyses of democratic problems and prospects of civil society actors. During the last decade there has been a tendency to pay more attention to  democratic shortcomings of NGOs.
In the discussion of democratic credentials of civil society actors, problems of representation and accountability are central. This is one set of democratic problems that could be addressed. Critics of NGOs often point out that their  membership might be  very limited, perhaps excluding most of the people  on whose behalf the NGO claims to speak.  Unlike governments in democratic states, the leadership of many civil society groups is  not elected by any constituency, although  membership-based organizations may have regular elections of leadership positions. 

Civil society activists in global governance institutions represent “positions rather than populations, ideas rather than constituencies". The use of undemocratic methods is another aspect of the potential democratic deficit of civil society actors, on which systematic research is lacking. Recent instances of violent actions at the margins of transnational protests associated with a global justice movement have been condemned as undemocratic behaviour. 

Moreover, a number of non-violent but still confrontational social movement activities have also been questioned from a democratic perspective. Those adhering to a competitive or representative model of democracy typically consider civil disobedience undemocratic (unless it is targeting an authoritarian regime). But such methods can also be seen as a practice of direct or participatory democracy. From the perspective of deliberative democratic theory, the coercive and confrontational methods of the more radical sections of civil society are also seen as problematic. The tools of arguing and communicative action are central to the deliberative democratic ideal. The activities of social movements, however, are often confrontational and coercive and, hence, do not fit well within a deliberative democratic framework. 

From a social movement (and activist) perspective, the ideal of deliberative democracy can be criticized on the ground that deliberation does not work in societies characterized by structural inequalities. Direct activism and opposition like street-marches, boycotts, or sit-ins are often necessary to achieve social change.  The theme resonates with a key debate within contemporary transnational social movements on the merits of non-confrontational, persuasive and cooperative strategies versus confrontational, coercive, and sometimes violent methods.


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Other links:
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