Civil Society Role in Fostering Democracy


In the last decade, there has been an increased flurry of activities of civil society organizations in many countries of the world in relation to the push for democratic dispensation in the election process and good governance. As a matter of fact, reliance on the election outcomes alone in many countries around the world has shown that the end results do not guarantee democratic rule. It is also evident that countries that hold democratic elections in environments where winners are in a position to account for the “clear standards of good governance share key advantage: strong civil society institutions” (Mansfield & Snyder, 2008). Hirst (1994) conducted a study of the present and the emerging democracies and found out that civil society and democracy have a mutual coexistence in ensuring a just society.

One question that would resonate in an individual’s mind is: What contributions do civil societies have towards ensuring good governance? Basically, we do see civil societies as an extension of the voluntary organizations that offer their civil support to the societies in which they formed hence fosters civil relations. The aim of this paper is to identify and justify the idea that civil society has a role in ensuring good governance in emerging democracies. In other words, I have delved into how structural associations of modern civil society can foster good governance in these visibly fragile emerging economies.

Statement of the Issue

When we extend our observations beyond the abstract view, we realize that the question can never be specified so easily. While some of the civil society structural associations are laudable, some have been observed to be undesirable in their end results. The problem is therefore the inability of civil society to come together as one unit in the push for a common agenda, especially in the emerging democracies in Africa and Asia.

The idea of civil society has been identified to mean so much in terms of meaning and scope. The range of theoretical views is wide hence the need to clarify its dimensional perspectives as has been constructed in the modern school of thoughts reflected in the modern societal studies. Subsequently, there should be a clear connection between these theoretical perspectives that will outline the role of civil society as watchdog institutions in enhancing democratic society before, during, and after elections.

Civil society as associational life

This school of thought is rooted in the belief that civil societies act as the host of societal good conducts, enhancing the micro-dimensional value of the society in terms of developing critical and ethical values that further create a culture of democracy protection (Hirst, 1994). Some of these values are the ability of the members of the society to tolerate one another, cooperate for a common goal, and share skills necessary in building lasting mutual benefits of democracy (Hirst, 1994).

The problem is that the actual and real associational life is comprised of all diverse and conflicting values as reflected by an individual’s specific competitive interests (Hirst, 1994; Ferguson, 1995). Secondly, we are all brought up in diverse backgrounds, but sometimes spend most of our time in places designed to shape our thinking such as schools, workplaces, religious institutions such as churches and mosques, and political institutions. These places do not offer voluntary dispensation to associate with the rest of the society, thus the disconnection in the societal linkages between its own members. Similarly, the civil societies themselves cannot reach any consensus as far as political direction is concerned because they are as diverse in the background as the people who formed and run them. In other words, they are unable to form any broad political union to push for the necessary reforms due to their structural and divided opinions.

Civil society as the good society

Proponents of this school of thought believe that civil society is in itself a good society that is, forming a good relationship with the rest of the society including the government (Berry, 1999). It is hinged on the notion that none of the institutions should replace the other in relation to roles and duties, but should pull together in one direction in an attempt to offer a mutually beneficial society for everyone. For instance, a society where markets functions normally and successfully should not be overtaken by non-market structures or ideologies. The belief in this ideology has always been linked with how United States’ market economy succeeded with its well-functioning market economy in the twentieth century and how East Asia got off the hoods after the Second World War (Berry, 1999). The two examples illustrate how the mutual relationship between the people, their governments, and the business as a whole created a better society.

However, Berry (1999) notes that the question of a good society’s perfect role in enhancing a just society is questionable in many ways. If in case all these institutions move towards one direction, who will decide what direction is the best and under what criteria? This concept sometimes confuses and one will wonder if the institutions make collective decisions by involving themselves in trade-offs and agreements reached through reconciliation, how will the judgment of good and bad, or effective and ineffective be made, and by who? These questions lead us to another school of thought (Berry, 1999).

Civil society as the public sphere

The thinking behind this school of thought is linked to the belief that the ‘public’ as a concept is basically based on the fact that civil society should act as a public body with a clear mandate as champions for the common good of the society (Berry, 1999; Warren, 2000). Put differently, civil societies are hinged on the deliberate action to push for the public good, which is principally the desire to enforce democratic dispensation into the thinking of the citizens, governments and other institutions that constitute the society. Warren (2000) highlights that the desire to see one another as mutual partners through the developed common interests, where each partner is willing to cede some ground in favor of the other who may be different either ideologically or structurally is what constitutes an effective ad good governance in all dimensions of the democratic society. Through this, conflicts can be resolved peacefully, and society is able to solve its problems in a practical manner.

So what’s the role of civil society in this societal interrelationship? As a public sphere, civil society sets the stage where members of the society can argue their thoughts, in a constructive manner, and deliberate in the issues that may affect the mutual co-existence between the institutions. According to Warren (2000), democracy cannot operate where alternative viewpoints are not embraced, where others are suppressed not to raise a voice or excluded, where some voices are heard more than others- as this will kill the public interests and subsequently becomes the onset of public suffering.


The study involved secondary research. Material Sources and Search Terms were used:

The study focused on the search for materials from specific databases which have the latest information on democracy as a component of clean elections, narrowed civil societies. Some of the databases searched are CQ Researcher, Ethnic NewsWatch, JSTOR, Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research, Project Muse, Sage Online, and of course Google scholar.

In the search, the terms used were: “civil society”, “roles of civil society”, “democracy and civil society”, “clean elections in emerging democracies” and “theories of civil society and politics”. Although there were hundreds of results generated in the search, it was narrowed down to articles, e-books and journals written in English, specifically publications that have the current updates in relation to the current political and civil society development in emerging democracies. This was to ensure that the current happenings in civil society are linked to the theoretical perspectives that have been developed.

Related Literature

The idea that civil society is a watchdog ensuring a clean and fair election is enforced by several studies that have been carried out in the past. Hirst (1994), in his study of “Associative democracy as a new form of economic and social governance”, accounts that civil society should be treated as a distinctive moral bridge between societal institutions, hence justifying the nature of human interrelations. The emphasis is placed on the ability of the people to organize on their own and create a moral yardstick for society to follow. This yardstick is the civil society, whose ideals are used as the principal guidelines to monitor the political developments in the said society. His findings reveal that the roles of political institutions such as senate representations, government branches (both state and national) are so protective that the only way to ensure fairness in their operations is to establish a middle ground body in the civil society (Hirst, 1994). Van (2000), on the other hand, found out that a precursor to effectively link model democratic space is based on the ability of the specific democracy to strengthen functions of the state, and provision of a powerful connection between the government and the people. This kind of connection can only be offered through a fair and just election process. He concludes that the only institution that can assure the public that the election was conducted fairly is civil society, as the public reflected more confidence in them more than any other institution.

In his studies, Rommel (1999) notes that elections in some of the nations are subject to thorough civil society’s activities that ensure the incumbents are put in the same rank doing elections to conclude just elections. Lope (2003) studies the case of the Philippines and concludes that the state-society association has been interfered with, thus causing confusion in what should be the public watchdog. In this case, the civil society’s insignificance presence as per those years led to a scenario where the state’s failure to provide some of the basic provisions to the public is rampant. He states that the weakness is basically in both the state itself and the civil society. Offe (2006) identified that which will ensure the people making policies get accountable is a vibrant civil society.


Active and well-organized civil societies have helped many societies in achieving electoral success. This has enabled many countries to achieve what to some extent would pass public approval in an overall sense. Indonesia for example has benefited a lot from its vibrant civil society organizations. Although there have several fears of political conflicts after elections, its vibrant and active civil society has helped the country achieve what would be called a minimum adherence to democracy and political norms. This has been achieved through some specific groups such as Democratic Forums as well as organizations that are linked to the universities (Offe, 2006). Critically, the democratic space was realized when civil societies pressurized the political class to adhere to the rule of democracy, by keeping their promises and exercise accountability during and after election periods.

The Ethiopian success is another notable case worth mentioning. It is noted that the country’s first-ever democratic election was realized in 2005. This success was realized with the assistance of civil societies, whose primary concern prior to this was how to support relief and development activities in the country. It’s the civic education that was spearheaded by the civil society organizations that ensured the number of opposition legislatures rose from 9 to a whopping 173 out of the total 547 (Offe, 206). Civil society organizations such as Fefan organized protests to force the government to acknowledge and accept the true outcome of the election process, which was in danger of being bungled (Offe, 206). With the help of civil society, the Ethiopian parliament has managed to adopt new media laws that prevent any government attempt to censor private media

Other notable examples that are worth highlighting are the civil society’s activities in countries like Georgia, Slovakia and Serbia. The activities and roles of civil society are seen in the way they have managed to mobilize their citizens in pressing for fair and just elections. They have managed to push for changes in electoral systems with the “desire to uphold clean and fair” elections through what is popularly termed as “free election movements” (Offe, 206).

The Philippines as a country has benefited a great deal with the support of civil societies is expecting elections in May 2010. Organizations such as Justice and Peace, PbsP, Philippines Partnership for the development of Human Resources in Rural Areas, among many other organizations are expected to continue with their activities such as civic education to ensure clean and fair elections is realized.


Recent developments of beliefs that civil societies have a role in ensuring free and fair elections have intensified considerably, with many observers’ increased view of civil societies as the prime watchdog for the welfare of the general society gaining entry into the academic world. One of the main reasons for the development and construction of civil societies was to ensure political accountability in the early years of political struggles in the present advanced democratic societies we have in the West. Does that role still stand, particularly in the emerging democracies? Basically, emerging democracies, especially in Asia and Africa have had a fair share of problems as far as clean and fair elections are concerned. For example, there is a flurry of civil society activities in the Philippines in preparation for the May 2010 elections. How will these activities affect the election outcome, considering the past happenings in the country and other countries as well?

With the current structural organizations of the country’s civil society, the institutions are expected to continue with their role of organizing civic campaigns to ensure the public is enlightened on matters pertaining to elections. Notably, they have increased the effectiveness of their actions through networking and collaborations, pushing for changes in policy issues or policy reforms. The civil society concept in the Philippines has clearly and distinctively indicated that guidance, clarification and identification of the effect of the civil society can enhance the realization of democratic space. In fact, many of the countries highlighted above so far have managed to expose the role of civil society in this society in building the bridge between a particular regime and the citizens. That is, as a public sphere, civil society sets the stage where members of the society can argue their thoughts, in a constructive manner, and deliberate on the issues that may affect the mutual co-existence between the institutions. In this aspect, democracy is achieved through people embracing alternative viewpoints.


The roles of civil society in enhancing clean and fair elections may seem abstract in nature. However, findings in several emerging democracies illustrate that with vibrant and active civil society organizations, some positive gains in democracy can be realized. This is because civil societies have defined their roles as the functional bridge between the citizens and state, which subsequently produces a mutual co-existence between the institutions. Furthermore, these organizations have managed to realize some important electoral reforms in the past decades in many nations, thus construing the democratic dispensations.

It’s therefore worth noting that a healthy democracy goes beyond the scope of political systems. The free and fair electoral process relies on the non-electoral process and vice versa. That is to say, civil societies’ activities may be engaged in a non-electoral process, but their activities will directly affect the electoral process. It’s, therefore, necessary to develop a vibrant civil society to foster a culture of electoral process among the people and their regimes.


Berry, J. M. (1999). The New Liberalism: The Rising Power of Citizen Groups, Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Ferguson, A. (1995). An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hirst, P. (1994). Associative Democracy: New Forms of Economic and Social Governance, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Lope, K. (2003). The Rise of PhilippineNGOs in Management Development Assistance. Manila. Synergos Institute.

Mansfield, E.D., & Snyder, J.L. (2008), Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Offe, C. (2006). Modernity and the State: East, West, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rommel, M. (1999). Strategies of Corruption Prevention in the Philippines: Mobilizing Civil Society. Asia Pacific School of economics and Management working Papers, Gov., pp. 99-4.

Van T.J. (2000) Growing Civil Society: From Nonprofit Sector to Third Space, Bloomington. Indiana. University Press.

Warren, M. E. (2000). Democracy and Association, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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