democracy

 

  • Chad’s transition to nowhere

    By Ine Van Severan, Civic Space Researcher & David Kode, Lead of Advocacy and Campaigns cluster

    Chad’s return to civilian rule is under threat. 15 months into a political transition that is supposed to last 18 months, the Transitional Military Council (CMT) has done little to prepare for elections and is repressing voices expressing concern. We are no closer to the possibility of Chad’s caretaker leader, Mahamat Déby, ceding the position his late father, Idriss Déby, held for over 30 years.

    On 20 April 2021, when the military assumed power following the killing of Idriss Déby by Chadian rebels, the country was already facing dual challenges from inside and outside the country.

    Read on African Arguments

     

  • CHILE: ‘For the first time the extremes are inside the parliament and there are unacceptable undemocratic voices’

    Alberto PrechtCIVICUS speaks with Alberto Precht, executive director of Chile Transparente, about Chile’s presidential elections and their persistent pattern of low electoral turnout. Founded 23 years ago, Chile Transparente is a civil society organisation (CSO) that promotes transparency in public and private institutions and the fight against corruption.

    What have been the peculiarities of this electoral process?

    There have been three recent votes in Chile: first, the national plebiscite held in October 2020, in which citizens were asked whether they wanted a new constitution and, if so, which body should be in charge of drafting it; then the elections of representatives to the constitutional convention in May 2021; and now, with the constitutional convention in place, the presidential elections, with the first round held on 21 November and the second round scheduled for 19 December.

    These electoral processes have been quite peculiar because each of them has produced quite different results as measured on the left-right ideological axis. On the one hand, a progressive constitutional convention was elected, including a significant hardcore left-wing component. On the other, both in the primary elections and in the first round of the presidential election, a hardcore right-wing candidate, José Antonio Kast, won first place, followed by Gabriel Boric, a progressive candidate running in coalition with the Communist Party.

    The political environment is quite polarised, but what is most striking is that between 50 per cent and 60 per cent of Chileans do not show up to vote. This makes the election results very uncertain. Moreover, whoever wins will do so with 13 or 14 per cent of all eligible voters. It is not surprising that there are usually wide currents of anti-government opinion, since the government never represents a majority. 

    Why do so few people vote?

    It is paradoxical, because in the current context one would have expected a higher turnout. The 2021 election for the constitutional convention was the most important election since 1988, and turnout did not reach 50 per cent. The only vote that exceeded that threshold was the 2020 plebiscite, with a 51 per cent turnout, but that was different because it was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. This low turnout was striking, because although no one expected a 80 or 90 per cent turnout, as was the case in the historic 1988 plebiscite that said ‘no’ to the Pinochet dictatorship, turnout was expected to be closer to 60 per cent.

    It is very likely that we will see even lower participation in the second round, even though there are two very clear and distinct options, which would hopefully motivate more people to vote.

    In Chile there is a structural problem of low participation. In part, this has to do with the fact that voting is voluntary, but it also has to do with the fact that the political offer is not very attractive. Although the offer has changed a lot and the latest reform in the system used to elect parliamentarians has allowed for greater pluralism, this has not been enough to motivate people to vote. The latest elections have been a rollercoaster and therefore very hard to analyse; the only certainty we have is that at least 50 per cent of Chileans do not feel represented in the electoral system.

    How could people be motivated to vote?

    Some legal reforms are already being introduced to that effect. The national plebiscite that will take place in 2022, where people will say whether they agree with the new constitution, is going to be a mandatory vote. Additionally, the vote is going to be organised in a georeferenced way, so that people will be able to vote at a polling place within walking distance of their residence.

    This is not a minor detail: in Chile, voting places are not assigned according to place of residence, so people, especially low-income people, must take a lot of public transport to get to the polls. Even though it doesn’t cost them money, because it’s free, they have to invest the whole day in going to vote, which many can’t do. These changes will increase participation rates, but it will be very difficult for Chile to reach 80 per cent participation in the short term.

    The big questions that no one has been able to answer are who the people who don’t vote are and what they think. Between the constituent convention elections and the presidential election there seems to have been a turnover of voters. Younger voters showed up to vote in the constitutional convention elections, while older voters tended to participate more in the presidential election.

    What role does Chile Transparente play in the electoral process?

    Chile Transparente has a system of complaints and protection for victims and witnesses of corruption that has been receiving complaints of misuse of electoral funds. Today we are stuck with a very important controversy involving the candidate who came third in the first round of the presidential elections, Franco Parisi. He is a neo-populist candidate whose campaign has been funded in quite opaque ways.

    We also work to motivate participation and have participated in observations of local electoral processes that had to be repeated. We receive the support of the European Union for a programme called Transparent Convention, which publicises the functioning of the constitutional convention, highlighting certain issues that might seem relatively opaque and that need to be brought to the public’s attention.

    We are one of the few organisations in the country that are active in transparency and anti-corruption issues and we play a very important role alongside investigative journalists.

    How are these elections influenced by the protest movement?

    The election for the constitutional convention fed off the strength of the 2019 protests; in fact, at one point in the Constitutional Convention came to reflect the people who were protesting. But by the time of the presidential elections, held one year later, only the hangover from the protests remained, and the results were rather a reflection of the people who had suffered the effects and were against the protests.

    We need to understand that the mobilisation process has not been purely romantic, but has been accompanied by a lot of violence. Between the pandemic and the protest violence, there are people who have not been able to reopen their businesses, who cannot go to work in peace, who have lost everything. At the same time, we obviously have a debt in terms of human rights violations.

    These tensions were expressed at the polls, and we will surely have a heart-stopping second round, in which the competitors are a candidate who represents a hardcore right wing, quite different from the traditional right that has governed in recent years, and a candidate who has formed a coalition with the Communist Party, until now marginal in a political game that has rather gravitated towards the political centre.

    What has happened to the established Chilean party system?

    There is undoubtedly a weariness with the democracy of the last 30 years, regardless of all the progress the country has made. There are large sectors that believe the centrist consensus that characterised the transition to a so-called ‘democracy of agreements’, consisting of doing what was considered to be within the realm of the possible, does not provide solutions. This has led not only to a social outburst, but also to a conservative reaction. It is a textbook situation: every revolution is followed by a counter-revolution.

    On top of this there is a problem of migration management, which has caused a huge electoral shift throughout the country, especially in the north. Chile used to vote for the left and now it voted for two candidates – one from the extreme right and a populist candidate – who proposed harsher measures against migration, such as the construction of border ditches or mass expulsion: nothing could be further from a culture of human rights. 

    At the same time, the left has lacked any self-criticism. It has not understood how important it is to respond to people’s concerns about insecurity and to attend to the victims of violence. When there is an outbreak of violence, violence victims will vote for those who offer them order. As is well known, in Chile there has long been a major conflict with the Indigenous Mapuche people. There is also conflict with non-Mapuche sectors, often linked to organised crime, who have taken violent action. In those areas, where one would expect a vote for the left, the complete opposite has happened. In certain localities where violence has become endemic, the conservative candidate has received up to 60 or 70 per cent of votes. 

    What would be the implications for civil society depending on which candidate wins in the second round?

    A part of the more traditional press seeks to give the impression that if Boric wins, it will be the advent of communism, while another part claims that if Kast wins, he will take us back to the times of Pinochet. However, thanks to social media and new technologies, alternative media outlets have flourished in recent years. There are more pluralistic television channels and channels with quite diverse editorial lines, which have more nuanced views.

    I believe that both alternatives entail risks, because both candidates include within their coalitions people or parties that seek to limit the space for civil society, that adhere to a narrative that the press is financed by international powers, that Chile Transparente serves certain mega-powers, and promote conspiracy theories. Let’s remember that the Communist Party candidate who lost the primary elections against Boric proposed an intervention in the media. For his part, Kast has the support of hardcore Pinochetist elements.

    However, in the second round, the two candidates have moved towards the centre to capture the votes they need to win. The groups that followed former President Michelle Bachelet, who initially opposed Boric, are now working with him. On the other side of the spectrum, in order to attract segments of the liberal right, Kast also has had to moderate his discourse.

    Perhaps hope lies in parliament acting as a regulator of the two extremes. It is a diverse parliament where no party will have a majority, so whoever gets to govern will have to do so in negotiation with parliament. At the same time, the constituent process, which is still underway, can produce a constitution of unity that would set the conditions for the new president to govern.

    The problem is that for the first time the extremes are inside parliament and there are some voices that are unacceptable from a democratic point of view. For example, two deputies elected by the extreme right recently mocked an elected candidate who is transgender. Some not very encouraging positions on human rights have also been expressed by the left. For example, the Chilean Communist Party has just recognised Daniel Ortega as the legitimate president of Nicaragua and continues to recognise Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela.

    Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Chile Transparente through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram profiles, and follow@Ch_Transparente and@albertoprechtr on Twitter.

     

     

  • Citizen rights and the upcoming presidential elections in Africa

    By David Kode

    It is a big year for democracy on the African continent. Millions will head to the polls in at least eight presidential elections. In many of these countries there are big aspirations for political change, while in others there are concerns about whether the elections will be fair and transparent. 

    Read on: East African Standard

     

  • CIVICUS interview with Malaysia electoral reform coalition, Bersih 2.0

    In the lead up to the 14th general elections in Malaysia on 9 May, CIVICUS interviewed the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0 which means "clean" in Malay). The coalition - made up of like-minded civil society organisations - was officially launched in 2006 with the objective of campaigning for clean and fair elections in Malaysia.

    Among its eights demands include: cleaning the electoral roll; reforming postal balloting; the use of indelible ink; a minimum 21 days campaign period; free and fair access to media for all political parties; strengthening public institutions to act independently and impartially in upholding the rule of law and democracy and halting corruption and dirty politics.

    Since 2007, it has organized five massive street protests to the have drawn tens of thousands of people to protest on the streets of Kuala Lumpur and other parts of the country calling for electoral and national reform. Smallers protests have also been held in different countries across the world. Ahead of these mass rallies Bersih 2.0 organisers have been arrested or harassed by the authorities and authorities have seized their computers, mobile phones and documents.

    Over the last month, Bersih 2.0 raised concerns about the redelineation of constituencies which was done in haste in favour of the ruling government, highlighted problems with the overseas postal voting system, publicized vote buying by candidates and the manipulation and abuse of power by the Election Commission (EC) on Nomination Day

    More information on Bersih 2.0 can be found at https://www.bersih.org

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘People are tired of the long hegemony of political elites who are also economic elites’

    Gina RomeroCIVICUS speaks about the recent presidential election in Colombia with Gina Romero, executive director of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy (RedLad).

    Founded in 2008, RedLad promotes the full exercise of democracy as a way of life for the common good in the Americas. It undertakes advocacy in the inter-American human rights system; research through the Citizen Observatory on Corruption, Observatory on Freedom of Religion and Belief, reporting on 11 countries for the CIVICUS Monitor; work to open democratic dialogue within civil society and among civil society and international bodies, governments, the private sector and others; action to strengthen the capacities of Latin American civil society through leadership training; and advocacy in defence of the rights of vulnerable populations.

    How would you assess the choice available between the two candidates in the second round of Colombia’s presidential election?

    It was very revealing that both candidates called themselves ‘anti-system’, positioned themselves against traditional politics and ran outside traditional political parties. Colombian citizens are tired of the long hegemony of traditional parties and of political elites who are also economic elites.

    The defeated candidate, Rodolfo Hernández, represents a right-wing political sector, although his campaign sought to emphasise his closeness to the people by championing the fight against corruption, despite the fact that he is under investigation for corruption. The winning candidate, Gustavo Petro, represents a left-wing position. The fact that a leftist option was elected for the first time in history says a lot about citizens’ social demands, the same ones that have been expressed publicly on the streets since 2019.

    I believe that the second round was not a polarised confrontation between an extreme right and an extreme left, but rather a confrontation between innovative – one could say populist – proposals outside traditional politics, and particularly against the legacy of former president Álvaro Uribe, which is also embodied by the outgoing incumbent, Iván Duque.

    A citizenry fed up with politics and social inequality, which has intensified as a result of the pandemic, made for a ticking bomb that manifested itself in the elections. It is great that this found expression through democratic channels, rather than through political violence, as used to be the case in the past.

    How do you interpret the fact that Hernández made it into the second round?

    Hernández’s presence in the runoff was quite surprising, since the candidates that were thought to have a chance were Federico Gutiérrez and Gustavo Petro. His discourse was one of closeness to citizens. He campaigned hard on social media, especially TikTok, and focused on the problems people systematically prioritise in the polls, such as corruption.

    Hernández was seen as a simple person, who speaks very simply to ordinary citizens, while other candidates’ discourse sounded too lofty. He convinced many people with the argument that, as a millionaire, he would not steal like the others, and would even refuse the president’s salary. He also mobilised many people who do not understand what it means for Colombia to be going through a peace process, who voted ‘no’ in the 2016 referendum on the peace deal, and who had previously elected right-wing presidents such as Duque and Uribe.

    Added to Hernández’s attractiveness were the big mistakes of centre parties and the fear elicited by Petro, both for being from the left and for being accompanied by a Black vice-presidential candidate, Francia Márquez, who had been a domestic worker and graduated from college at the age of 39. All this contributed to Hernández’s success in the first round, despite the fact that he is completely unfamiliar with politics and is neither fit to govern nor to do a good job as an opposition leader.

    What was the campaign for the runoffs like?

    It was a campaign of strong emotions, more than any other in the past. Political emotions are what ultimately determine the course of an election.

    Fear played a big role. Many people in Colombia are afraid of any left-wing project. Moreover, Colombia is a racist, classist and misogynist country, so a candidate like Márquez also caused fear. I met few people who would vote for Hernández because they liked him rather than because they were afraid of Petro. These people described Hernández as ‘the cute old man who fights corruption and has a lot of money’. This is how right-wing populism gets close to the people.

    The anti-Petro campaign circulated disinformation with the sole objective of generating fear, much as had happened in the campaign for the peace referendum. Among these unfounded fears was that Colombia would become a new Venezuela, as Petro would want to stay in power forever, as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez once did. People repeated this uncritically without realising that, in Colombia, the one who wanted to do this was Uribe, through a constitutional change in 2004 that allowed him to renew his mandate and stay in office for eight years, after which he tried to do it again.

    Another idea associated with Venezuela’s fate was that of impoverishment, currency devaluation and hyperinflation. There was also much talk of the possible business reaction sector to a left-wing government and the supposed large outflow of companies from the Colombian market that would follow. It is true that the dollar rose the week after the election – as it did in Chile when Gabriel Boric won – but the dollar has been rising in recent years and the initial increase has not been catastrophic.

    Fear was also instilled among the public with the irresponsible use of the term ‘guerrilla’ in reference to Petro, who had in the past been a militant in the M19, a now-deactivated guerrilla group. Petro has had a long civilian political career since, and for decades has had nothing to do with any group outside the law. But the stigma remains, which shows how far Colombia still has to go in its reconciliation process.

    Disinformation and digital violence also targeted the two female candidates who ran in this election, Ingrid Betancourt – who stood in the first round of the presidential election – and Márquez. Much research on digital violence argues that when women are in politics, personal information about them is used and facts are misrepresented. But in the case of Márquez, there was real racialised hate speech. Horrible things were said about her, both because of her personal history and her past as a very poor woman, and because she is a Black woman. The worst racist and misogynist jokes were told.

    Colombia needs a profound reflection on how we construct the identity of the other and how we recognise ourselves as a multicultural country. Cali is the city with the second largest Afro-descendant population on the continent, and the entire Colombian Pacific is full of Afro and Indigenous people. But there is a systemic racism that was very apparent in the campaign.

    For the most part, mainstream media have done much wrong by echoing hate speech. A week before the second round, for example, Semana magazine ran a sensationalist cover story wondering who would get elected, the engineer or the former guerrilla fighter. The ex-guerrilla fighter is also an economist, but this was not about the candidates’ professions, but rather about giving a frightening message. In the last months of the campaign, Petro was forced to deny many things, while Hernández hid and refused to participate in any debate.

    Thus, we were sold the idea that we were ‘between a rock and a hard place’ and had to choose the ‘least worst’ candidate. A public narrative was mounted that since the political elite was not represented in this election, all that was on offer was simply bad.

    What kind of voter backed the candidates?

    There was a fairly close overlap between the Colombia that voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the peace accords, the Colombia that in the past elected Duque and the Colombia that now voted for Hernández. It is made up of culturally conservative citizens who fear change, have identified with traditional political elites and have not been drawn to the peace process or felt the appeal of political progressivism. Hernández’s voters in the cities and other parts of the country fear processes of inclusion of vulnerable populations and hardly include Indigenous or Afro-descendant parts of the population. In places with the largest Indigenous populations Petro won with unprecedented numbers.

    The Colombia that voted ‘yes’ in the referendum coincides with the Colombia that voted for Petro. This is the Colombia of the margins, which brings together the least developed regions of the country. Big cities, with the exception of Medellín, also voted for Petro. This is an urban bloc, which Márquez defines as a citizenry made up of ‘nobodies’. The people who voted for Petro are largely a frustrated citizenry that has been affected by corruption like no other, who are not part of the political elite and who have been historically relegated by development processes. These are people who have little, who see in Petro a promise of improvement. Previous candidates have offered no real solutions to their problems – not even a chance of feeling involved.

    The country is divided, but this is not a new division. Past governments have failed to reconcile these differences. We have two Colombias, with immense polarisation: in the elections with the highest participation in the past 20 years, Petro won by just 800,000 votes. That means there are 10 million people who oppose Petro and 11 million who support him. Petro will have to learn how to speak to these two facets of Colombia and ensure that the Colombia that did not vote for him does not feel left behind.

    What are civil society’s expectations or fears following the result?

    Whoever wins, our work as civil society will always remain the same. But personally, seeing what happened when Petro was mayor of Bogotá, I fear that revanchism could hinder the government’s progress. Polarisation, hate speech and the manipulation of institutions can have very serious effects. The potential reaction of the markets to a left-wing government is also a source of fear.

    There is also the fact that Petro is a very passionate person, and often does not communicate in the best possible way; both his and Hernández’s campaigns attacked the press when media criticised them. The press has a fundamental role, and this can be very annoying for any government, but it is essential that it has sufficient guarantees to do its job. There are fears that Petro could be very hostile to the press that is critical of his government.

    Organisations that, like RedLad, engage in international advocacy, are concerned about how Petro will position himself in relation to other Latin American leftists. Currently Latin America has a left that is the source of a lot of hope, that proposes change and is different from the traditional left; this is the left represented by Boric in Chile. But there is also the left of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, not to mention the lefts of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, which have caused serious civic space crises. I think Petro is somewhere in the middle and faces the dilemma of who to side with. I think he should go along a more proactive and development-friendly left.

    Although Petro’s party, Pacto Histórico, achieved good legislative representation in the March 2022 parliamentary election, the transformations he has put on the table are quite broad and deep, and their success they will require a wide political agreement, something that is complex to achieve in Colombia. If this is not achieved, the people who voted for Petro and believed his promises will be frustrated. It will be interesting to see how this government, elected under the banner of the 2019 mobilisations, will respond to people if they happen to mobilise again.

    For the great expectations it has created not to wane, Petro’s government will need to score some early victories, showing progress in advancing the peace process and decreasing the number of assassinations of social leaders. I hope that Petro makes progress on international commitments, that civic space is not further reduced but expanded, and that the freedoms of assembly and expression are guaranteed.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with RedLad through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@REDLADoficial on Twitter.

     

  • CZECH REPUBLIC: ‘We believe that the new government will defend democratic principles’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent Czech elections with Marie Jahodová, Executive Director ofMillion Moments for Democracy, a civil society organisation working to support democracy in the Czech Republic and Europe by fostering civic participation, the accountability of elected representatives and democratic debate.

    Marie Jahodova

    What were the conditions for civil society and media freedoms in the run-up to the October 2021 election?

    One of the key factors influencing media freedoms in the Czech Republic is the distortion of the media market and limited access to information. This is mainly caused by the fact that billionaire former Prime Minister Andrej Babiš owns 30 per cent of the private media market, according to calculations by the European Federation of Journalists.

    The other defining factor is that public service media (TV, radio and press agency) are steered by media councils: the Czech Television Council, the Czech Radio Council and the Czech Press Agency Council. Council members are nominated and elected by simple majority by the Parliament’s Chamber of Deputies. Yet in the past four years the majority in the Chamber of Deputies was held by Andrej Babiš’ party ANO (‘Yes’), communists and the far-right Svoboda a přímá demokracie (Freedom and Direct Democracy) movement. Therefore, when voting for new councillors took place, non-democratic nominees were easily elected and the independence of the public service media was significantly harmed. For that reason, one of the most important tasks for the new democratic government will be to redesign media councils and reform related laws.

    Conditions for civil society were also hardened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Citizen engagement became more difficult, as people could not gather in larger groups and organising protests and mass demonstrations became impossible. For that reason, we at Million Moments switched towards online events and interactions as much as possible. For example, as strict pandemic-related restrictions were in place, we organised an online demonstration and happenings in public space that did not involve the presence of many people.

    The crucial problem, both in the election campaign and in the context of the COVID-19 crisis, has been disinformation. And our organisation has had to deal with disinformation quite often as well.

    How has civil society organised against corruption, and what has been the official response?

    As a part of civil society, we have organised a number of protests and happenings focusing mainly on our fundamental topics, such as conflict of interests of government officials, the need for an independent justice system and the importance of free and independent public media.

    Additionally, we have held events commemorating victims of COVID-19 in the Czech Republic, including one in which we placed white crosses on Old Town Square. By doing so we wanted to draw attention to the fact that the pandemic was mismanaged by the then-government. In other words, the events we organised last year were not focused solely on political corruption, although this is still our long-term topic. 

    Andrej Babiš never gave us any official answer. His inaction is consistent with the fact that dialogue between his government and civil society was always non-existent, and Babiš never supported it. Civil society was repeatedly underestimated and made fun of by both Prime Minister Babiš and President Miloš Zeman. Hundreds of thousands of protesters were called names such as ‘Prague Café fans’ and ‘uneducated kids only undermining the prime minister’s legitimate seizure of power’.

    It is not surprising that Babiš did not like our critical voice pointing at his enormous conflicts of interest, corruption, intent to abuse the public service media and other abuses his government was responsible for. The only ‘answer’ ‘Babiš gave was the often-repeated claim that all of it was a hate campaign against him led by the media and the opposition.

    What impact did the Pandora Papers have on the election?

    The Pandora Papers named Babiš among those keeping assets and spending millions through shell companies in tax havens. Unfortunately, no sufficient data exist to measure the impact of this on the election results. Some people think that the revelation of the Pandora Papers was a decisive moment in the election campaign, yet no hard data proving it are available. As far as we can lean on known figures, the Pandora Papers had no impact on Babiš’ electorate, whose preferences stayed about the same as before the Pandora Papers affair.

    On the other hand, these revelations might have influenced a number of non-voters. Many people who had not planned to vote in the election may have changed their mind after the Pandora Papers came out. This year’s participation rate was five percentage points higher than in the previous election, held in 2017. This increase, especially among young voters, was a very important factor playing in favour of democratic parties in the election. In terms of timing – they were published just a couple of days before the election – the Pandora Papers had the potential to influence the results.

    What were the other key issues during the election?

    The main topics in the election campaign were the COVID-19 pandemic and related precautions, state capture by Andrej Babiš, who was in power for eight years, and the ongoing decrease of trust in politics and politicians.

    The main narrative used by members of the democratic coalition was that we needed change, that we had had enough of an oligarch as Prime Minister, and we wanted to see no more billions flowing illegally into politicians’ businesses.

    On the other hand, Babiš’ party, ANO, used disinformation tactics to defame the Czech Pirate party, which had a very high preference in the pre-election polls in the spring of 2021. For that reason, ANO considered it the biggest competitor and used disinformation to slander it, which significantly harmed its electoral results.

    What are civil society’s hopes for the new government?

    We hope that the new government will defend democratic principles and lead a dialogue with civil society. Dialogue with civil society has in fact already begun, even in a public way. This is definitely a good sign for the future. After many years of rejection, not only our organisation but civil society in general really appreciates that the new Prime Minister, Petr Fiala, seems open to responding to questions and addressing the possible concerns of civil society.

    We do realise though that the new government will not have an easy job, as it came to power at a challenging time. It will need to resolve a difficult economic situation – both the public debt and the national deficit are currently at the highest level in our history – and the pandemic crisis and all the problems linked to it.

    What else needs to happen to strengthen democratic freedoms and root out corruption in the Czech Republic?

    The new government must get rid of the people connected to Andrej Babiš’ company, Agrofert, who are currently employed in public administration. This is an important long-term task.

    There are also other big challenges awaiting the new government, such as the Public Prosecutor’s Office law reform, which could strengthen the independence of the judiciary, and the amendment of the law on conflicts of interest. It’s also necessary to replace some of the members of media councils who are still connected to non-democratic political parties that seek to undermine the credibility of public media. Politicians must also promise to fight disinformation effectively.

    And let’s not forget the Capi Hnizdo affair – allegations of European Union subsidy fraud – in relation to which Babiš has been under prosecution for more than four years already. A resolution of this case should not be postponed again. The investigation needs to move forward and the court should deliver its verdict. Otherwise, it will be a very bad signal for Czech civil society, especially in view of the upcoming presidential campaign.

    Civic space in the Czech Republic is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Million Moments for Democracy through itswebsite or itsFacebook orInstagram pages, and follow@milionchvilek and@m_jahodova on Twitter. 

     

  • Do referendums improve democracy?

    By Inés M. Pousadela is a Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS

    In Ireland, 2019 gets going on the heels of a busy, bumper year when some watershed changes were delivered via referendums. And by the looks of it, there’s more on the way.

    In October 2018, almost two thirds of Irish voters chose to remove a constitutional ban on blasphemy. But even this crucial advance in the freedom of expression was dwarfed by the unprecedented outcome of a referendum held five months earlier, which led to the legalisation of abortion in this staunchly Catholic nation.

    Read on: Open Democracy 

     

  • DRC: ‘The 2018 elections carried the hope of change’

    Felix Tshisekedi DRC1

    French 

    Following the publication of our report, ‘Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination’, we continue to interview civil society activists and leaders about their work to promote democratic practices and principles, the challenges they encounter and the victories they score in doing so.In the aftermath of the December 2018 election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which led to a new president being elected, CIVICUS speaks to Pascal Mupenda, Programmes Director of Partnership for Integrated Protection (PPI), a not-for-profit, non-partisan and non-religious civil society organisation that seeks to protect human rights defenders and promote peace. Pascal is also the national rapporteur of New Dynamics of Civil Society in the DRC(NDSCI),a network of organisations established in 2013 to strengthen citizen action in the DRC. It currently has 103 local member associations, including two citizen movements.

    Félix Tshisekedi has just been inaugurated as President of the DRC. What were the major challenges encountered in the DRC between the elections of December 2018 and the inauguration?

    General elections were held in the DRC on 30 December 2018 to elect the successor of President Joseph Kabila, as well as to fill the 500 seats of the National Assembly and 715 Provincial Council seats. The post-election situation has been marked by four major elements.

    First, there was the assessment of appeals that some presidential candidates submitted to the Constitutional Court. The electoral law allows dissatisfied candidates to submit such appeals following national presidential and legislative elections. The final results are only proclaimed once the Constitutional Court has issued a ruling. It should be noted that, ever since the Constitutional Court was established in 2006, the Congolese people in general, and human rights defenders (HRDs) in particular, have decried its composition, given that several of its members have very close ties to the government. By way of illustration, the rulings on the appeals lodged with the Constitutional Court after the 2006 and 2011 elections did not satisfy the applicants and were at the root of the violent post-election conflicts between the incumbent president, Joseph Kabila, and the candidates who claimed to be his legitimately elected successor.

    After the elections held on 30 December 2018, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) provisionally proclaimed the victory of Félix Tshisekedi, the candidate of the Cap pour le Changement (CACH) coalition. In response, supporters of Martin Fayulu, the Lamuka coalition candidate, began demonstrating and faced bloody police repression. In the meantime, Martin Fayulu filed an appeal with the Constitutional Court to contest CENI’s provisional results and request a vote recount at all polling stations. Several electoral observation missions, such as those of the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Congo (CENCO), the Catholic Church, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union (AU) and Congolese civil society organisations (CSOs) also supported this approach, claiming that they hold evidence in that regard.

    Notably CENCO, which had deployed the largest number of election observers - around 40,000 - said that its data did not confirm Félix Tshisekedi’s electoral win. On this basis, Martin Fayulu has consistently called for the intervention of the national and international community to ensure that votes are counted and the popular will is respected. Thus, on 17 January 2019, AU heads of state requested the Constitutional Court to postpone its ruling, scheduled for 19 January, and offered to send a delegation that would arrive on 21 January, to try to solve the blossoming crisis. Their mission was cancelled as the Court went on to issue a ruling on 19 January as planned.

    As expected, the Constitutional Court confirmed and proclaimed Félix Tshisekedi as President of the DRC, after rejecting Martin Fayulu's request on the basis that it was unfounded. As soon as the decision was made public, Martin Fayulu held a press briefing saying that he rejected the ruling and considers himself the sole legitimate president, urging Congolese citizens to hold peaceful demonstrations to demand “the truth of the polls.” But apart from some demonstrations in a few places, overall a precarious calm persisted over the country. However, at the last minute the inauguration ceremony, initially scheduled for 22 January, was postponed, eventually taking place on 24 January.

    Second, there is the fact that the results of provincial and national elections were also challenged in several provinces across the country. CENI proclaimed these results when most of the paper ballots remained in the various localities and had not yet been compiled. Therefore, people wonder where CENI got those results from, given that the law does not allow for electronic voting, let alone electronic transmission of the results. Demonstrations around this issue are now taking place almost daily in various parts of the DRC. In the provinces of Kasai, North Kivu and South Kivu, for example, the population has continued to march to say ‘no’ to the election results. The vast majority of Congolese citizens, who voted for change, find it inconceivable that, although President Kabila's nominated successor failed miserably in his bid for the presidency, his Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition seems to have won an overwhelming majority of provincial elections and the majority of national legislative seats in 23 of DRC's 26 provinces.

    Third, the context has been marked by the violation of the Congolese people's right to access information. Indeed, for more than three weeks, the internet connection and signals from foreign media such as Radio France Internationale (RFI), TV5 Monde and France 24, as well as the text messaging system, were interrupted. To access the internet, listen to foreign radio, or watch foreign television, one had to resort to foreign internet providers. The shutdown of communications, along with the restrictions on the freedom of assembly following the elections, were aimed at creating an environment in which the civil and political rights of the Congolese citizens could more easily be violated.

    Finally, threats against HRDs, which had been massive before the elections, have not relented. The South Kivu artivist known as Cor Akim recently went missing and was found unconscious three days later. I was harassed and arrested during an observation mission and kept overnight in the Bukavu police headquarters. Several activists from the Lutte pour le changement (LUCHA) social movement were arbitrarily arrested. These are just a few of the many cases that PPI published in its monthly newsletter’s December 2018 edition.

    What was the significance of these elections for Congolese citizens?

    For Congolese people, the 2018 elections carried the hope of change, on hold since 2016, when the second and last term of incumbent President Joseph Kabila ended without him stepping down. For the first time in history, our country could now have both an outgoing living president and a living incoming president. All our previous presidents were either murdered before leaving power or driven out and forced to live in exile before being eventually murdered.

    But the elections would have been more interesting if the process had been inclusive. Some candidates were excluded as a result of politically motivated prosecution. In addition, CENI greatly undermined the credibility of the elections, especially because of the way it compiled results. Today most elected officials are young, but at the same time many are also from the FCC, which means that voters’ expectations of change will not necessarily be fulfilled.

    In sum, the elections were more significant in terms of voter aspirations than because of their results.

    What roles did civil society play in trying to make the elections as free and fair as possible?

    In the face of the elections civil society launched several campaigns calling for the renewal and rejuvenation of the political class. These included the ‘We, the Youth Can' campaign carried out by PPI alongside other CSOs. Numerous young people ran as candidates.

    Civil society also worked hard to raise awareness of the importance of elections. It contributed with awareness campaigns and programmes to encourage people not only to demand elections, but also to make a useful and responsible use of their vote to achieve the desired change. Thanks to the work done by CSOs, the population had a relatively good understanding of the voting method and how to use a voting machine, although it was not possible to guarantee total mastery of the voting machines by a population that is more than 80 per cent illiterate.

    In addition, many CSOs denounced the human rights violations orchestrated during the election campaign. They also collaborated with CENI to make sure the electoral calendar was respected, and everything was done in conformity with the Constitution and electoral laws.

    Civil society has continued to play an important role during the examination of the candidates’ appeals to both the Constitutional Court for the presidential race and to the Courts of Appeals for the national and provincial legislative elections, providing evidence that the results from polling stations diverged from the provisional results that were proclaimed.

    Do you think the state of democracy in the DRC will improve in the short term?

    An improvement of the state of democracy in the DRC is possible, but some preconditions are necessary for it to happen. First, there needs to be systemic and systematic change of government personnel. If CENI would proclaim the actual results yielded by the ballot it would help avoid a popular uprising. It would also be wise for the Constitutional Court and the provincial courts of appeals to manage properly the cases surrounding national and provincial legislative seats so that the door to violence does not open.

    Second, local and municipal elections should be held, as provided for by the electoral law, in order to bridge the gap between rulers and ruled.

    Third, the justice sector should be reformed, including by strengthening its technical and managerial capacities.

    Fourth, bilateral partnerships between the technical bodies of ministerial cabinets and CSOs should be formed so that joint approaches are adopted to face the challenges of democracy.

    Finally, fundamental freedoms must be respected and tolerance encouraged, so that public space gradually opens up.

    What should the international community do to help improve democracy in the DRC?

    The international community can contribute in many ways. First, it should provide sufficient financial resources to CSOs involved in the protection and empowerment of HRDs and pro-democracy activists. It should also support the participation of Congolese civil society in the United Nations Human Rights Council and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and their advocacy to question the Congolese government’s human rights record and demand that it respects the fundamental notions of democracy.

    Second, it should promote accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity, and for economic crimes committed by Congolese political and economic actors, often with the complicity of international partners.

    Looking to the future, it should also support government plans for security reform and national development, with an emphasis on strengthening relations between civilians and the military in a way that enhances the protection of democratic gains.

    Civic space in the DRC is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with PPI and NDSCI through their websites.

     

  • ECUADOR: ‘Civil society must highlight the added value of its participation’

    CIVICUS speaks with Estefanía Terán, advocacy director of Grupo FARO, about the role of organised civil society in Ecuador's presidential elections and the challenges civil society faces today. Grupo FARO is an independent research and action centre in Ecuador that produces evidence to influence public policy and promotes social transformation and innovation.

    Estefanía Terán

    What roles does Ecuadorian civil society play during electoral processes?

    Political parties do not reach out much to civil society organisations (CSOs) to take on board their proposals. While some turn to CSOs for information, others hire private consultants. This happens because very few political organisations have within their structures a team or the necessary tools to develop quality government plans, with clear content, and which respond to the needs of the population or their voters, and are rooted in a diagnosis based on rigorous and objective technical research.

    During elections, CSOs develop initiatives to promote informed voting. They build web platforms and other communication tools to give visibility from a citizen perspective, to the proposals of the various contenders. Through this work, in the latest elections, initiatives were organised according to ideological criteria and in terms of their response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, with the aim of highlighting the ‘how’ of the proposals, which in general only focus on the ‘what’, forums and debates are held among the candidates.

    Grupo FARO is part of a group of CSOs that promotes informed voting; within this framework we developed the Ecuador Decide initiative. This initiative, which has been activated at elections since 2017 – which means it has been implemented on four occasions – aims to encourage voting based on the programmatic proposals of the different candidates and the political organisations that support them. To this end, it compiles, disseminates and analyses the contents of all their government plans.

    In the 2021 elections, Grupo FARO analysed the government plans of all the presidential candidates. We found that, of the 1,500 proposals identified in 16 areas of national relevance, only 55.5 per cent contained information on how they would be implemented, and only 26.7 per cent made clear who their target audience was.

    In addition, based on our experience organising debates among candidates during local elections, we assisted the National Electoral Council in regulating presidential debates, which became mandatory after the Democracy Code was reformed in February 2020.

    What are the causes and consequences of the low quality of political plans?

    The low quality of plans for government, which makes them inadequate instruments to inform the population about the positions of the various candidates and political organisations, is due to the lack of enforcement and regulation by the governing body, which does not require that these documents meet minimum standards and be comparable with each other. In fact, we have analysed some plans that were three pages long and others of more than a hundred pages. Moreover, in many cases they differ from the candidate’s discourse or include proposals outside the candidate’s field of competence.

    It is not common for voters to access these documents to get informed, and therefore, they serve no other purpose than to fulfil a formal requirement to register a candidacy. This contradicts the fact that one of the grounds for requesting the revocation of the mandate of popularly elected authorities is their non-compliance with their plans.

    The high degree of generality of the proposals contained in government plans means that the candidates’ campaign discourse is aimed at the median voter, and that strategically the candidates do not differentiate themselves. This fragments voter preferences, creating complications, as seen in the very narrow margin between the candidates placing second and third in the latest elections, Guillermo Lasso, of Movimiento Creando Oportunidades, and Yaku Pérez, of Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik. This meant that the winner in the second electoral round was someone who in the first round had not even reached 20 per cent of the total vote: he came to power as a result of a compulsory vote, with very low legitimacy, and a high risk of facing governance problems in the medium term.

    What challenges does Ecuadorian civil society face under the new government?

    Although no specific proposals were identified regarding the promotion of civil society participation, President Lasso has sought to send a friendly and collaborative message. However, due to its business background, the government tends to equate civil society with the private sector. This results in two challenges for civil society. The first is to differentiate itself from the private sector and the second is to work harmoniously with the private sector. To this end, it must promote an exercise of reflection on the current role of civil society and highlight the value that its involvement adds to public management. Furthermore, it must insist that this participation is not limited to a few organisations that are close to the government, but that it is open and inclusive, plural and diverse.

    This implies, on the one hand, pushing forward a process of organisational strengthening of civil society for collaborative work among itself and with others. And, on the other hand, it implies initiating a process of learning and trust building with the private sector. There is a great opportunity for organised civil society to contribute so that companies’ support for social causes is done with transparency and public oversight and based on international principles for the effective functioning of public-private partnerships, guaranteeing quality projects and actions going beyond corporate profit.

    The prelude to developing such alliances should be the passing of a minimum CSO law to give us legal security and protect us from the discretion of the incumbent government. At the moment we are regulated by an executive decree and under a logic of concession and control, rather than registration and co-responsibility. Ensuring the enactment of a law that contributes to building an enabling environment and promoting participation is therefore another challenge we face as a sector during this presidential term. In partnership with the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and other allied organisations, Grupo FARO is pushing a proposal for a minimum law, which in the previous National Assembly reached the stage of developing a report for second debate.

     

    Civic space in Ecuador rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Contact Grupo Faro through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow@grupofaro and@eteranv on Twitter.

     

  • EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

    CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

    Eduardo Escobar

    Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

    We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

    Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

    After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

    Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

    The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

    Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

    President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

    The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

    Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

    How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

    Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

    To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

    When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

    We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

    President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

    If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

    Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

    What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

    The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

    Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

    What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

    It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

    We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

    Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through itsFacebook page and follow@CiudadanaAccio1 and@esec76 on Twitter. 

     

  • ETHIOPIA: ‘The June 2021 election is between democratic life and death’

    CIVICUS speaks to Mesud Gebeyehu about the political conflict in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia and the highly contested upcoming Ethiopian national election, scheduled to take place in June 2021 amidst an ongoing pandemic and a continuing state of emergency. Mesud is Executive Director of the Consortium of Ethiopian Human Rights Organisations (CEHRO) and vice-chair of the Executive Committee of CIVICUS’s Affinity Group of National Associations. Mesud is also Executive Committee member of the Ethiopian CSOs Council, a statutory body established to coordinate the self-regulation of civil society organisations (CSOs) in Ethiopia.

     

  • Every single person is a potential activist today 

    Civil society actors and leaders from around the world gathered from 30 May to 3 June 2022 at the World Justice Forum in The Hague, the home of the United Nations’ International Court of Justice, and online to share insights and recommendations on three important priorities for strengthening justice and the rule of law.

    The forum, which focused on fighting corruption, closing the justice gap, and countering discrimination, served as an ideal platform to collectively address the declining state of civil society. I had the privilege of participating in the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Legacy conversation with Sherrilyn Ifill and the Recommendations, Commitments, and Investments to Advance Justice and Rule of Law plenary.  

    Throughout the conference, immense emphasis was placed on the constant threats to and continuously shrinking civic space. Our research from the CIVICUS Monitor shows that, currently, only 3% of the world’s population live in conditions of open civic space, where their governments broadly respect and promote the democratic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly, and expression and allow their citizens to participate meaningfully in the decisions that affect them. Data from the CIVICUS Monitor also shows that in the last year, the top two violations in relation to civic space were the detention of protestors and the intimidation of human rights defenders. This points to a trend of a lack of investment in and strengthening of institutions that are meant to defend human rights and the people that speak on behalf of human rights.  

    In the wake of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, we are witnessing a number of states, and international institutions, particularly in European democracies, divert funding and resources away from institutions and mechanisms that are devoted to defending human rights and strengthening civic space. Not only does this pattern of behaviour display a negative vote against democracy, but it contributes to the continuous fall of trust in public institutions, and not enough is being done to challenge the lack of investment in civil society from those in power. At this point, the fight for democracy rests solely on the shoulders of individuals who are constantly putting their lives at risk to fight against the worldwide decline of civic space.  

    While international and public institutions have the power and resources to address the humanitarian crisis that faces us, their abstinence from actively investing in and protecting civil society displays a glaring lack of moral empathy for those on the ground.   

    In light of these global challenges, the panel discussions at the World Justice Forum brought forth much-needed insights and recommendations to rebuild and strengthen civil society and the rule of law with respect to the three main priorities of the forum.  

    One of the key recommendations from the World Justice Forum’s Outcome Statement highlighted the need for states to create enabling environments for innovation and for civil society to operate. During the pandemic, we witnessed some of the most significant protest movements despite extreme COVID-19 restrictions; this indicates that people are able and willing to mobilise regardless of restrictive laws intended to silence dissent.  

    Conversations during the forum also pointed to the dire need for people-centred approaches. A practical example is citizen assemblies whereby people-driven resolutions are prioritised at international levels. Access to information and access to solidarity mechanisms also play a vital role in enabling people on the ground to advocate for fundamental rights, and states must invest in creating spaces for citizen participation.  

    A stronger effort needs to be taken to ensure that institutions are open to scrutiny and to being held accountable. Too many a times do we witness leaders making promises of a better tomorrow on international stages but do not hold open dialogues with and remain accountable to those who elected them. This includes extending open standing invitations for UN experts to visit and provide recommendations to affected countries.  

    There is a need for norms, narratives and investments that will help stimulate larger segments of trust and support towards civil society from a wide range of state and non-state actors. Concrete examples of how this can be done are available from CIVICUS’ work on reviewing approaches to civil society sustenance and resilience, including in the context of the pandemic.  

    In the 2020 Sustainable Development Goals, we said that this would be the Decade of Action, it is actually the Decade of Agitation, and governments that wake up to this sooner will be wiser because every single person on the planet with a phone is a potential activist today.  


    Lysa John is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS. She is based in South Africa and can be reached via her Twitter handle:@LysaJohnSA. 

     

  • HAITI: ‘The international community has never addressed the root causes of the crisis’

    NixonBoumbaCIVICUS speaks with Nixon Boumba, a human rights activist and member of Kolektif Jistis Min nan Ayiti (Haiti Justice in Mining Collective), about the political situation in Haiti following the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. Formed in 2012, Haiti Justice in Mining Collective is a movement of Haitian civil society organisations, individuals and partners pushing for transparency and social and environmental justice in the face of growing international interest in Haiti’s mining sector. It educates affected communities on the consequences of mining in five areas: the environment, water, work, agriculture and land.

     

  • HAITI: ‘There is opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people’

    Ellie HappelCIVICUS speaks with Ellie Happel, professor of the Global Justice Clinic and Director of the Haiti Project at New York University School of Law. Ellie lived and worked in Haiti for several years, and her work continues to focus on solidarity with social movements in Haiti and racial and environmental justice.

    What have been the key political developments since the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021?

    As an American, I want to begin by emphasising the role the US government has played in creating the present situation. The history of unproductive and oppressive foreign intervention is long.

    To understand the context of the Moïse presidency, however, we have to at least go back to 2010. Following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010, the USA and other external actors called for elections. People did not have their voting cards; more than two million people had lost their homes. But elections went ahead. The US government intervened in the second round of Haiti’s presidential elections, calling for candidate and founder of the PHTK party, Michel Martelly, to be put into the second round. Martelly was subsequently elected.

    During the Martelly presidency we saw a decline in political, economic and social conditions. Corruption was well documented and rampant. Martelly failed to hold elections and ended up ruling by decree. He hand-selected Moïse as his successor. The US government strongly supported both the Martelly and Moïse administrations despite the increasing violence, the destruction of Haitian government institutions, the corruption and the impunity that occurred under their rule.

    Moïse’s death is not the biggest problem that Haiti faces. During his tenure, Moïse effectively destroyed Haitian institutions. Haitian people rose up against the PHTK regime in protest, and they were met with violence and repression. There is evidence of government implication in mass killings – massacres – of people in areas that were known to oppose PHTK.

    Two weeks prior to Moïse’s assassination, a prominent activist and a widely known journalist were murdered in Haiti. Diego Charles and Antoinette Duclair were calling for accountability. They were active in the movement to build a better Haiti. They were killed with impunity.

    It is clear that the present crisis did not originate in Moïse’s assassination. It is the result of failed foreign policies and of the way the Haitian government repressed and halted opposition protests demanding accountability for corruption and violence, and demanding change.

    What currently gives me hope is the work of the Commission for Haitian Solution to the Crisis, which was created prior to Moïse’s assassination. The Commission is a broad group of political parties and civil society organisations (CSOs) that came together to work collectively to rebuild the government. This presents an opportunity for a meaningful shift from foreign interference to true leadership of Haitian people.

    What is your view on the postponement of elections and the constitutional referendum, and what are the prospects of democratic votes taking place?

    In the current climate, elections are not the next step in addressing Haiti’s political crisis. Elections should not occur until the conditions for a fair, free and legitimate vote are met. The elections of the past 11 years demonstrate that they are not an automatic means of achieving representative democracy.

    Today, there are many hurdles to holding elections. The first is one of governance: elections must be overseen by a governing body that has legitimacy, and that is respected by the Haitian people. It would be impossible for the de facto government to organise elections. The second is gang violence. It’s estimated that more than half of Port-au-Prince is under the control of gangs.  When the provisional electoral council was preparing for elections a few months back, its staff could not access a number of voting centres due to gang control. Third, eligible Haitian voters should have voter ID cards.

    The US government and others should affirm the right of the Haitian people to self-determination. The USA should neither insist on nor support elections without evidence of concrete measures to ensure that they are free, fair, inclusive and perceived as legitimate. Haitian CSOs and the Commission will indicate when the conditions exist for free, fair and legitimate elections.

    Is there a migration crisis caused by the situation in Haiti? How can the challenges faced by Haitian migrants be addressed?

    What we call the ‘migration crisis’ is a strong example of how US foreign policy and immigration policy towards Haiti have long been affected by anti-Black racism.

    Many Haitians who left the country following the earthquake in 2010 first moved to South America. Many have subsequently left. The economies of Brazil and Chile worsened, and Haitian migrants encountered racism and a lack of economic opportunity. Families and individuals have travelled northward by foot, boat and bus towards the Mexico-USA border.

    For many years now, the US government has not allowed Haitian migrants and other migrants to enter the USA. They are expelling people without an asylum interview – a ‘credible fear’ interview, which is required under international law – back to Haiti.

    The US government must stop using Title 42, a public health provision, as a pretext to expel migrants. The US government should instead offer humanitarian assistance and support Haitian family reunification and relocation in the USA.

    It is impossible to justify deportation to Haiti right now, for the same reasons that the US government has advised US citizens not to travel there. There are estimates of nearly 1,000 documented cases of kidnapping in 2021. Friends explain that anyone is at risk. Kidnappings are no longer targeted, but school kids and street merchants and pedestrians are being held hostage to demand money. The US government has not only declared Haiti unsafe for travel, but in May 2021, the US Department of Homeland Security designated Haiti for Temporary Protected Status, allowing eligible Haitian nationals residing in the USA to apply to remain there because Haiti cannot safely repatriate its nationals.

    The USA should halt deportations to Haiti. And the USA and other countries in the Americas must begin to recognise, address and repair the anti-Black discrimination that characterises their immigration policies.

    What should the international community, and especially the USA, do to improve the situation?

    First, the international community should take the lead of Haitian CSOs and engage in a serious and supportive way with the Commission for a Haitian Solution to the Crisis. Daniel Foote, the US special envoy for Haiti, resigned in protest eight weeks into the job; he said that his colleagues at the State Department were not interested in supporting Haitian-led solutions. The USA should play the role of encouraging consensus building and facilitating conversations to move things forward without interfering.

    Second, all deportations to Haiti must stop. They are not only in violation of international law. They are also highly immoral and unjust.

    Foreigners, myself included, are not best placed to prescribe solutions in Haiti: instead, we must support those created by Haitian people and Haitian organisations. It is time for the Haitian people to decide on the path forward, and we need to actively support, and follow.

    Civic space in Haiti is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@elliehappel on Twitter.

     

  • HONG KONG: ‘The National Security Law infringes on freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship’

    CIVICUS speaks with Patrick Poon, an independent human rights researcher, on the human rights situation in Hong Kong after a new National Security Law (NSL) was passed in June 2020. Patrick is a PhD researcher at the University of Lyon, France, and has previously worked as a China Researcher at Amnesty International and in various positions at China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Independent Chinese PEN Center and China Labour Bulletin. 

    Civic space in Hong Kong is under renewed attack sincemass protests for democratic freedoms, sparked by a proposed Extradition Bill, began in June 2019. TheCIVICUS Monitor has documented excessive and lethal force by the security forces against protesters, arrests and the prosecution of pro-democracy activists as well as a crackdown on independent media.

       Patrick Poon

    Why has the NSL been imposed in Hong Kong and what have its impacts been so far?

    The NSL, imposed by the Chinese government on 20 June 2020, without any consultation or legislative oversight, empowers China to extend some of its most potent tools of social control from the mainland to Hong Kong. The law includes the creation of specialised secret security agencies, allows for the denial of the right to a fair trial, provides sweeping new powers to the police, increases restraints on civil society and the media and weakens judicial oversight.

    The new law undermines Hong Kong’s rule of law and the human rights guarantees enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. It contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in its Bill of Rights Ordinance.

    The Chinese government’s intention is to use the NSL to curb advocacy and support for independence as more people, especially young people, have increasingly embraced Hong Kong’s autonomy and their identity as Hongkongers. Although Hong Kong’s Basic Law enshrines a high degree of autonomy, the Chinese government apparently regards calls for autonomy and self-governance as a ‘danger to national security’.

    The NSL has seriously infringed Hong Kong people’s freedom of expression and is intensifying self-censorship in the city. Under the NSL, people who advocate for independence, as well as politicians and prominent figures who support foreign governments’ sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who are responsible for enacting the NSL, have been the target of the arbitrary arrests. The government is obviously attempting to scare off others not to follow these people’s calls. 

    Independent media have also been affected by the crackdown. The arrests of Jimmy Lai, media mogul and founder of popular local paper Apple Daily, and senior executives in his company, signify the government’s attempt to punish news media that are critical of it. Reports about criticism against the NSL and calls for sanctions by foreign government officials become the excuse for the crackdown on independent media. This will have long-term impact on Hong Kong media, even further intensifying self-censorship for some media outlets.

    How have civil society and the pro-democracy movement responded?

    Civil society has reacted strongly against the law because the process to enact it violated the principle of the rule of law and procedural justice in Hong Kong, and the vague and broad definitions of various provisions of the law exceed the normal understanding of law in the city. Pro-China politicians and government officials have been trying hard to justify the law, but their arguments are preposterous. 

    How have the opposition and civil society reacted to the government’s decision to postpone the legislative election due to the COVID-19 pandemic?

    The 2020 Hong Kong Legislative Council election was originally scheduled for 6 September 2020, but in July the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, cited an upsurge in COVID-19 infections and used her emergency powers to postpone it for a whole year, so now it’s expected to take place on 5 September 2021. She denied that the change was due to any political speculation, but it was in fact a blow for pro-democracy activists, who were seeking a majority on the Legislative Council. 

    In the midst of massive protests, pro-democracy candidates had already won by a landslide in the 2019 District Council election. Along with the new NSL, the postponement of the election was viewed as part of the government’s strategy to neutralise the pro-democracy movement. Just prior to the announcement that the election was being postponed, 12 opposition candidates were disqualified from running, and four young former members of a pro-independence student group were arrested under the NSL for their pro-independence posts on social media.

    The postponement of the election created some conflict among the pro-democracy camp, with some calling for keeping up the fight in the Legislative Council and others urging a boycott over the government’s decision to postpone the elections. From the government’s decision to disqualify some pro-democracy candidates for their political views, it is clear that the government doesn’t want to hear any opposition voices in the legislature.

    What can the international community and international civil society organisations do to support civil society in Hong Kong?

    Civil society in Hong Kong needs to work together to ensure that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government will not abuse the NSL to curb all dissenting views and closely monitor if the government abides by the principle of the rule of law and international human rights standards.

    The international community should continue speaking up against the Chinese and Hong Kong government’s crackdown on  civil society and keep raising concerns about the NSL, which is being forcibly imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government in the name of national security, but in fact is no more than an attempt to silence dissenting views in the city. The international community should send a clear message that national security should not be used as an excuse to crack down on the freedom of expression.

    Civic space in China is rated as ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor. 

     

  • How to Undermine Democracy – Curtail Civil Society Rights

    By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera, and Marianna Belalba

    Recent elections and referendums in a growing number of countries from Turkey to the USA and beyond are producing leaders and policies, which directly threaten some of the core principles of democracy.  In an increasing number of established and fledgling democracies, we see ruling parties violating the fundamental freedoms to speak-out, rally behind a cause and get involved in a social movement.

    Read on:Inter Press Service 

     

  • India: Democracy threatened by growing attacks on civil society 

    According to the policy brief, published by CIVICUS in November 2017, although civil society in India has been playing essential roles ever since the country's struggle for independence, the space for civil society - civic space - is increasingly being contested.

     

  • JAMAICA: ‘We must establish a republic – where the people are sovereign and not the Queen’

    Rosalea HamiltonCIVICUS speaks about the movement to make Jamaica a republic with Professor Rosalea Hamilton, founding director of the Institute of Law and Economics and member of the Advocates Network.

    The Advocates Network is a non-partisan alliance of individuals and organisations advocating for human rights and good government in Jamaica.

    What are the goals of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

    To understand the goals, let’s break down the concept of republicanism. It means different things to different people. Perhaps the most popular, widespread view of a republic is a state without a monarch. This is the view held by many countries across the region that have removed Queen Elizabeth II as head of state, Barbados being the most recent case, and declared themselves a republic. But the other concept of a republic, as a state in which the people are sovereign, is typically ignored or downplayed.

    Since Barbados became a republic in November 2021, the republican conversation, which had started in Jamaica around 1995, gained momentum. Having learned from the experience of our Caribbean neighbours, many of us now view the concept of a republic as involving not just the removal of the Queen but also the establishment of a state where the people are sovereign and not the Queen.

    Although we have a representative, democratic form of government, it does not effectively represent the will of the people. Therefore, a core objective in creating a republic would be to strengthen and deepen our representative democracy to ensure we have a government of, by and for the people.

    So for those of us who are part of the Advocates Network, our goal is not just removing the Queen as head of state, which we see as a necessary first step, but also deepening our democracy and ensuring the establishment of a state where the Jamaican people are sovereign.

    What explains the recent momentum of the movement for republicanism in Jamaica?

    Most recently, the movement gathered strength in response to the royal visit to Jamaica in March 2022, which was viewed as inappropriate not only because it was during the throes of the pandemic, but because we were – and still are – grappling with pre-existing issues that have been exacerbated due to the pandemic. These include high murder rates, undereducated children, child abuse, gender-based violence and inadequate housing. Many of us in the Advocates Network are actively involved in tackling these problems, which we view as rooted in our colonial past. We think it’s time not only to move away from the monarchy, but also fix these colonial legacy problems. 

    The royal visit was therefore seen as a distraction. But it also provided an opportunity for Jamaicans to learn more about the royal family and their active role in the trafficking and enslavement of Africans. Jamaicans became more aware of the details of past atrocities and have begun questioning the role of the Queen as head of state after 60 years of independence. Social media has played a big role in helping to build awareness and deepen understanding.

    But there are also several other factors at play. The world is changing. For us in the Caribbean and across the Black African world, something shifted with the murder of George Floyd in the USA and the Black Lives Matter movement. As the entire world saw the video of a white man kneeling on the neck of a Black man, we found that our Governor-General – the official who represents the Queen in Jamaica – was wearing an insignia with a white angel standing on the head of a devil depicted as Black. It was a shocking reminder of the link between our colonial past and our institutions today.

    That woke people up. The George Floyd murder, and the many racist incidents that followed in the USA, the UK and elsewhere in Europe, reminded us that we still live in a world where people are treated as less than human based on the colour of their skin. The unheard calls for reparations are becoming louder as we try to come to grips with a past that is still with us.

    The movement for republicanism can therefore be seen as a rejection of our colonial past and its modern-day expressions in the form of racism, discrimination, inequity and more.

    In light of the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, what do you think the relationship between Caribbean countries and the UK will look like going forward?

    A lot will depend on how the UK responds to the growing calls of Caribbean people and our governments for a different relationship than we have had in the past. The formal position of Caribbean governments is to engage in a reparatory process. Governments may choose to be patient with this process, but increasingly many Caribbean people are demanding a formal apology and reparations, as was evident during the royal visits to the region. Many are saying it’s time!

    The voices are getting louder, not only in the Caribbean but in the USA and other parts of the world. The rejection by the majority of the Commonwealth heads of government of Kamina Johnson Smith, the candidate for Secretary-General who was openly backed by the UK, is indicative of this changing relationship with the UK.

    If the UK doesn’t respond positively and continues its racist, discriminatory policies, the relationship is likely to become more antagonistic.

    But I am hopeful things will change. An important part of our response to the royal visit was an open letter listing 60 historical reasons for an apology and reparations from the UK and its royal family. It was a way to bring to their attention the horrors of the past, because we are not sure they understand our history.

    It may be working. I noted that at a Commonwealth conference, Prince Charles said he’s still learning about the past. Most of us are still learning, and unlearning, what we were taught about the past.

    The UK has a great opportunity to rebuild this historic relationship on less exploitative and more humane terms. Engaging in a meaningful reparatory justice process can create a framework to build a mutually beneficial relationship that puts the past behind us and enable us to build a better future for generations to come. 

    How is the Advocates Network working towards these goals?

    We are advocates for human rights and good governance, issues that are central to creating a people-centred republic. So we are actively engaged in public education and building public awareness about what it will take to create a republic where the Jamaican people are sovereign. Right now, we are organising online forums. We won’t stop until we are on the right path to creating a meaningful republic. As we say: ‘Wi Naa Ease Up!’

    Public education is key! The 60 reasons appended to the open letter to the royals was to educate not just the royals about our history but also our fellow Jamaicans. We want Jamaicans to understand the many reasons we must remove the Queen as head of state. It’s simply unacceptable to have a head of state who refuses to formally apologise for an atrocity that the United Nations has labelled as constituting crimes against humanity.

    The major obstacle to overcome is to shift the mindset of Jamaicans to see themselves as owners of Jamaica with sovereign responsibility to determine the future of Jamaica. If we make this shift, a meaningful republic that can better address the pressing issues facing Jamaicans will be within our grasp.

    What international help do the movement and its people need?

    The work involved in creating a meaningful republic as well as pursuing reparatory justice is indeed challenging. It’s a heavy burden. It’s a painful burden to confront our past and change our society. Unearthing the past to guide our future is heavy lifting.

    Collaboration, especially in disseminating information, is important for our education campaign, including through interviews by a global south organisation based in South Africa, such as CIVICUS.

    Financial resources are helpful, but in-kind support is as important and will certainly help us to reduce the burden. Access to research materials, educational opportunities, media facilitation, technological assistance and international forums will be helpful. We welcome opportunities to amplify our voices in collaboration with individuals and organisations with similar objectives in other countries.

    Civic space in Jamaica is rated ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Advocatesnetja and@rosaleahamilton on Twitter.

     

  • Journalists fight back: Media freedom is further eroded in Hungary

    By Aarti Narsee, Civic Space Researcher at CIVICUS & Orsolya Reich, Advocacy Officer at Civil Liberties Union for Europe

    What little media independence remains in Hungary hangs by a thread. The country is in serious democratic trouble. The big question is: does the European Union have the political will to take decisive action?

    Read on Visegrad Insight

     

  • KENYA: ‘The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society’

    Paul OkumuCIVICUS speaks about the upcoming elections in Kenya with Paul Okumu, head of the Secretariat of the Africa Platform (AP). AP is a pan-African civil society platform based in Nairobi, Kenya, that works to strengthen state-society relations to achieve more effective and inclusive development.

    With elections still a few months away, is it clear who the contenders will be?

    Many are unaware that Kenya has only one election day in which all political positions are filled. But although the focus is on the presidential race, the forthcoming elections will bring in 349 members of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, including 290 elected from the constituencies, 47 women elected from the counties and 12 nominated representatives, plus 69 members of the Senate, 47 of whom are elected directly while the rest are elected to represent women, young people and other excluded groups.

    In addition, Kenyans will be electing 47 governors, the regional leaders directly responsible to county assemblies, that is, their respective regional parliaments. Kenyans will elect a further 1,450 county assembly members. So the election is a complex one.

    For the presidential race, some likely frontrunners are already emerging. The current president, Uhuru Kenyatta, is ineligible to stand for re-election after completing his second term; his deputy, William Ruto, is among the leading candidates alongside former prime minister Raila Odinga. It is worth noting that this is the fifth time Odinga is running for president, having lost his previous attempts and withdrawn once in 2017.

    By law candidacies for the presidency will be made official in mid-May, and there are currently almost 45 people who have submitted their names as possible candidates. The election body, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission, will have the final word on which candidates fulfil the legal criteria to run.

    The question many are likely to ask is why there are only two leading contenders. The answer is as complex as the country’s elections.

    In a bid to exercise a divide-and-rule strategy, the British colonial government divided Kenya into regional ethnic units, with people from one unit not allowed to travel to other units without the authority of the colonial government under a system known as Kipande (Identity) system. In addition, people in regions closest to where white people lived were given access to education much earlier so they could work for whites. As a result, these regions (mainly central, Rift Valley and Western) progressed much faster and became dominant in the period leading to and after independence. It helped that these regions are also the most agriculturally productive, which is part of the reason the whites chose them as their residence.

    There are about 43 ethnic groups in Kenya, but just five of them constitute over half of its population of about 50 million. Due to the combined effects of colonial boundaries, which the 2010 Constitution kept intact – a story for another day – and the numeric dominance of these few ethnic groups, the country’s politics, in a quite similar fashion to that in South Sudan, continue to revolve around five ethnic groups. Leading presidential candidates always emerge from these five. Currently, the two leading candidates represent a coalition of three and two of these largest ethnic groups.

    What will be at stake in the upcoming elections?

    The current president is seen to have spent his time investing in sections of the economy that benefited his vast family businesses. From infrastructure to hospitals to the dairy and transport sectors, most of the investments have been in areas that are perceived directly to add value or make it easy for the president’s family businesses to thrive. As a result, there is a perception that what is at stake is the protection of these investments, hence the current complex coalition supported by the president that has brought together people seen to be those who will preserve the status quo.

    But at a deeper level, the country is in a serious crisis. The economy has been in recession for over eight months now. Half of its recurrent budget is used on civil service salaries. The latest economic report by the government shows that for the first time in the country’s history, debt costs will surpass the recurrent expenditure, projected at Sh1.34 trillion (US$1.3 billion) for the coming year. The debt binge is mainly from Eurobond offerings, a package of Chinese loans and syndicated commercial loans taken in recent years. Distress levels are so high that the Central Bank has begun to ration foreign reserves, especially US dollars. Fuel prices have risen by nearly 53 per cent in the past one year, largely due to the fact that fuel has always been an easy target for taxation.

    And that is not all: European countries have always used Kenya as a trade gateway to the continent and have largely made it a multinational headquarters for European companies working across Africa. This has led to massive losses through tax evasion and avoidance and skewed double taxation agreements, and has killed countless small businesses that could not manage the massive resources and subsidies given by European development finance institutions or donor agencies (such as the CDC Group of the UK) to European corporations so they can win contracts and set up businesses in the country.

    But there is a bigger underlying fear among citizens. In 2017 the Supreme Court was forced to overturn the results of the presidential elections after it emerged that the government, through Ot Morpho, a French company fronted by the French government, had manipulated the vote counting and tallying, handing victory to the incumbent president. The subsequent repeat elections were boycotted by the opposition at the last minute on the grounds that the government had refused to make the changes demanded by the Supreme Court to ensure transparent vote counting. This massive collusion and rejection of changes proposed by the judiciary severely eroded confidence in the electoral system. It is believed to be the part of reason for the current low voter registration.

    What are the civic space conditions like in the run-up to the election?

    The executive and the political class had made attempts to water down the constitution significantly through a process known as Building Bridges Initiative, but they were stopped in their tracks by the courts, including the Supreme Court. This has preserved citizens’ freedoms and has strengthened confidence in the judiciary. Because of this there is still considerable freedom of assembly and expression.

    But the government has also tried to limit the work of civil society around the election. In July 2021, the Kenyan Foreign Affairs Ministry sent a confidential memo to all foreign missions and international civil society organisations (CSOs) that usually support civic education, instructing them not to put any resources, either directly or through local CSOs, into civic education and civic advocacy without the express authorisation of the government. To date, such authorisation has not been granted, and it’s not clear if partners have even requested it.

    Interestingly, foreign missions kept quiet and refused to divulge this information to local CSOs. It is not clear why the government took this drastic measure, but it is even more baffling why foreign missions have been so quick to obey it when a few years ago they defied a similar directive by the Russian government and funded civic education in that country. A possible reason lies in Kenya’s centrality, alongside Rwanda, for the politics of Africa and the economies of Europe, which these foreign countries are keen to preserve. 

    As a result of this decision, this year Kenya has had the lowest voter registration in its history and levels of civic awareness have plummeted. The denial of resources for civic education has been a massive blow for civil society, and with the elections under 90 days away, it is not yet clear what role civil society will play around them.

    The window for registration as election observers, usually played by the African Union, the Carter Foundation, the European Union and a coalition of civil society groups, is still open, and it is still possible that with alternative sources of funding, CSOs may still engage in some way.

    What is the potential for electoral violence?

    Violence is highly unlikely. Despite ethnic politics rooted in the colonial regionalisation arrangement, Kenyans are largely peaceful. Most of the post-election violence that Kenya has experienced has been mostly confined to power struggles among the five dominant ethnic groups and has never been about the entire country. Over the past five months, these five ethnic groups have formed two large coalitions, making violence unlikely.

    Of course, conflict between these two coalitions cannot be ruled out if one of them loses the elections, but if it occurs, this violence is unlikely to have an impact on the rest of the communities.

    Civic space in Kenya is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Africa Platform through itswebsite.