The Role of Social Movements and Civil society in the Democratization Process – Essay

Recent analyses which highlight the important role social movements did play in the transition and the key contributions civil society is making to entrench democracy are:

Since authoritarian regimes had compressed the public sphere, it was left to the new social movements to recapture the ‘public space’ and defend its ‘autonomy’.

The NSMs may have been localised, issue specific and non-political but through their activities, they worked to move political power away from the narrow elite of military junta, civilian bureaucracy and technocracy, and foreign investors.

Their demands could have been local and limited but by raising them, social movements were actually invoking the basic issues related to the citizenship rights. For instance, the CEBs, were getting together not simply for religious services. They were also thereby asserting their right to assemble as citizens-a right which they could no longer take for granted under the authoritarian rule.

Rural cooperatives, when struggling for land were simultaneously bolstering the political rights and indigenous movements; when demanding their collective rights were also asserting their ethnic identity. In raising their demands, women or ethnic groups were also presaging a pluralist political culture and envisaging a plural and democratic society.

They were nurturing and spreading values of diversity, tolerance, pluralism, trust, cooperation and consensus- all so important for the consolidation of democracy, An important issue pertains to the linkage of the social movements with the political parties.

In the context of the democratisation process, it is also important to understand the linkage between the political society and the state and their relationship with the social movement. No doubt, social movements in the end seek the defense and expansion of citizenship rights, and thus get projected into the political society. So far, such an argument is tenable.

However, it is naive and optimistic to assume a direct path between the insistence on the right to potable water, voting for the opposition and demand for change of regime. Rather, the linkages and relationship are more complex. For one, social movements may pursue social rights that may contribute not to democracy and citizenship but to dependence and clientelism.

In countries such as Mexico and Brazil, labour and others have had a long tradition of entering into clientele relationship with the state, bartering their autonomy for specific privileges and benefits.

One therefore needs to examine whether the demands of social movements got satisfied through corporatist and clientele relationships or got transformed into more broad-based demands for democratic political change.

Besides, over time, movements also get co-opted or disarticulated. Social movements, to claim rights, need to mobilise, but this may not be possible or may not last until the demands are met.

In Brazil, the wide range of new movements that emerged in the late 1970s focused on everything from the cost of living to gender and race issues, and they mobilised poor neighbourhoods, squatter settlements and working class communities.

The new urban middle class was also an important element in this associational impulse and also provided leadership. The middle class and popular sectors also achieved a temporary alliance during the campaign for direct presidential elections (diretas ja) in 1984.

However since the alliance was temporary and built around atom precarious one single demand, it got dissolved soon after the Brazilian congress negated the demand for a direct presidential election.

The campaign was no doubt an expression of popular search for a lasting democratic solution but it also revealed the volatility of popular protest and the difficulty in sustaining high degrees of mobilisation.

Similarly in Chile, middle class and popular organisations mobilised together in 1983 demanding ‘Democracy Now, but the different groups lacked any principle of unity or a long-term political strategy for democratic struggle; and the military regime could easily withstand such demands.

In Mexico, Cuahetemoc Cardenas challenged the stranglehold of the ruling PRI and had succeeded in mounting a major political challenge during the 1988 presidential election demanding democratisation of the political system.

However, the inability to sustain the coalition of forces backing him and to develop a strategy for democratisation including refusal to negotiate with the PRI regime soon reduced the Democratic National Front to the status of a small opposition party, When social movements mobilise to press for their demands, this also entails their willingness and tests their capacity to negotiate with the state authorities.

In this way, the NSMs differ from the ‘old’ social movements, especially of revolutionary types, which were often intransigent and uncompromisingly committed to the goals of revolution. It is at the stage of negotiation and bargaining that many of these movements may get co-opted or neutralised.

State may also look less like an enemy of the movements. The Brazilian military government of President Figueiredo (1979-85) .had spent considerable resources on housing projects and implemented a wage policy that favoured the poorest of the workers. None of these had meant a commitment to raise popular participation but the military government could neutralise many social movements that were organising the poor.

What is indicated here is that the relationship between social movements and state is more complex than simply one of confrontation. Besides, there are still other severe limitations as to what the social movements can achieve through the combination of mobilisation and negotiations.

The interaction of the social movements with the political society may also produce similar results. Social movements fielded candidates in the more urban areas of Brazil for the 1982 elections, but the clientele ties to the party machines either divided and demobilised the movements or led to the creation of parallel and more conservative popular organisations.

The strategy of mobilisation and negotiation can only be successful where government itself is prepared to negotiate. The daily protest for ‘Democracy Now’ had had no impact on the military government in Chile and Pinochet regime went ahead according to its own institutional design and political timetable set forth in the military Constitution of 1980. Any concessions the military regime made were informal and reversible.

And when it chose to negotiate, the government simply isolated and excluded the more radical elements making thus any mass based radical mobilisation very difficult.

In Argentina, the military government had preempted popular protest by evicting hundreds of thousands of squatters from the shanty-towns of Buenos Aires; and neighbourhood organisations could do nothing to prevent the continued violence except file judicial complaints.

There was nothing in the social movements that could shake the confidence of the military governments both in Argentina and Chile. Or, there are traditional patterns of clientelism that bind many social movements and organisations to the political regime. Large labour and peasant associations remained tied to the PRI regime, notwithstanding political liberalisation and democratic reforms in Mexico during the 1990s.

Even after the loss in the presidential election of 2000, many- popular organisations remain affiliated to the PRI. To summarise the aforesaid discussion, there is no doubt that social movements did play a role in democratising political culture, developing community and self-government, and revitalising local politics.

They did have a role in the creation of at least the foundations of new democratic cultures. When an authoritarian regime is in crisis, social mobilisation can make a difference to the fact and outcome of democratic transition. Social movements may further weaken the authoritarian regimes through greater mobilisation and also influence the strategic calculations of elite actors in the economy and the state.

But, as has been argued, social movements did not have a direct access to the negotiations that underpinned democratic transitions. By the time negotiations began between the incumbent authoritarian regimes and their civilian counterparts, social movements in all Latin American countries had begun to lose impetus.

At this stage, it is the political parties and proto-parties that began to move to the centre stgge. Practically everywhere, focus also shifted from specific social and economic goals to party political and electoral objectives.

In the model of ‘transition through transaction’, such as in Brazil, military elite managed to retain inside influence over the state apparatus, and the process of compromise and pacts with civilian political party leaders led to strong institutional continuities including that of the bureaucracy and a strong presidency.

Social movements simply were sidelined from the transition process and removed from the centres of power. Their connection with the political parties remained weak and at no stage they could define the political agenda. In short, with the transition to democratic rule, social movements began to decline. This is true not only of Brazil but also practically of all other transition cases.

The regional economic crisis had also weakened the case of social movements. With austerity measures prescribed by the IMF implemented practically everywhere, social movements everywhere failed to influence the distributional policies of the ‘transition’ government.

Since social movements were at the most only weakly linked with the political parties, most of them were drawn in the sphere of state where democratic regimes simply co- opted some and demobilised others. It is amazing to note the working of traditional clientelistic and corporatist control mechanisms under democratic regimes in Latin America.

Democratic regimes have also enshrined many rights into the constitutions which they helped frame or amended the earlier ones. Once many of their demands got constitutional and legal recognition, the political energy of social movements generally began to dissipate.

Another reason for the decline of social movements is their inability to learn the rule* of the democratic game. It was impossible for most of them to change from a confrontational style of mobilisation to the one based on negotiations and compromises within the democratic milieu. In the post-transition context, state or its different organs may be receptive or repressive of social movements.

Social movements may insist on defending their autonomy or accept clientelism depending on the circumstances. What however is significant is that in a democracy, the relationship with the state remains ambiguous, and the process of political representation remains tortuous, unpredictable and reversible. Often, the new rules of the democratic political game are uncertain. .

The relationships with the political parties are also more complicated. Political parties do not necessarily have any affinity with the demands of social movements. Also while political parties seek power through territorial representation, social movements continue to press for material benefits and substantive democracy through direct participation, which in the post- transition context proves irksome to the parties.

In short, in a democratic milieu, social movements need to exhibit new initiatives and imagination to work with the democratic governments.

It has been seen that often social movements could not escape the increasing salience of partisan politics in a more open political society, and the democratisation process they helped encourage in the first place created, post transition, the conditions for internal division and competition.

At the same time, some social movement activists also sought party affiliations to advance their own careers. As a result, conflicts arose both within the movements and between movements and the parties; and movements and parties drew further apart and closer together in a fluctuating rhythm.

In Argentina, the transition to democracy created greater space for legal action, accentuating the divisions between different urban social movements especially those of human rights. In Bolivia, the advent of democratic government in 1982 catalysed the factional strife within the rural movements.

In Brazil, the government of Jose Sarney reinforced the heterogeneity of the social movements and left they increasingly isolated. The democratic transitions of Latin America have depended on covert and exclusionary pacts between parties that are elite-dominated and socially conservative.

Their most likely outcome, as expected, has been the restrictive democracy where social movements are isolated, repressed, or marginalised. But the real results vary according to the national political cultures. The strong state apparatuses and highly developed party systems in Chile and Uruguay appear to have displaced social movements and left them diminished after the transition.

Social movements sought institutional expression in parties, unions and NGOs, and could not easily challenge the broad consensus that supported the traditional democratic way of life.

In Argentina, on the other hand, the movements tended to suffer not from democratic but from deeply entrenched authoritarian traditions and despite some influence on party platforms for the 1983 elections, they failed to secure more permanent forms of representation and rapidly lost ground.

In Brazil, some of the social movements found a real voice in the authentically new Workers’ Party, and they mobilised to give it a mass character.

Rather than re-emerging from authoritarian rule, the Workers’ Party transformed itself in response to popular struggle under authoritarian rule and became the centre-piece of an electoral coalition that now controls national government. Be that as it may, social movements risk demobilisation once they join the political parties or enter electoral competitive arena.

In Brazil, the presence of the Workers’ Party had encouraged many movements to participate in the elections of 1982 and in the campaign for direct presidential elections. But regional opposition victories in 1982 and the diversions of the national campaign of 1984 both tended to demobilise the movements as vehicles for community or sectoral demands.

Even in Brazil therefore social movements risked demobilisation if they participated in party politics. In Chile, the more moderate movements were rapidly drawn into political society as soon as the date had been set for the constitutional plebiscite in 1989, grass-roots mobilisation only lasted as long as the plebiscitary and electoral campaigns themselves.

Participation rates dropped dramatically after March 1990, indicating that social movements were likely to be permanently demobilised by the return to democratic politics.

The transition to democracy however does not mean the end of the road for social movements. On the contrary, the historical record has tended to show that electoral politics legitimates other forms of association and protest by providing legal protections.

The rights to organise, recruit, speak, assemble, publicise, and demonstrate are essential to multiparty systems with universal suffrage; and it is difficult for governments to withhold these rights from other social actors even in elite or restricted democracies.

In Latin America too, the entrenchment of electoral politics is leading to the spread of social movements; but the character of such movement might be different in that they have to work out new strategies of negotiations and compromises within the democratic process.

One can already see that the democratic transition has helped the rise of ‘new unionism’ in the countries of South Cone. In both Colombia and Venezuela, several social movements have tended to come under an alliance to challenge the political domination of the traditional two parties and deepen and expand the elite-based democratic arrangements.

All through the 1990s, social movements have joined and helped the formation of political alliances representing popular needs and aspirations; and which have contested elections against well- established parties glued to the market-oriented economic policies.

On the evidence of it, social movements are unlikely to radically transform large structures of domination or dramatically expand elite democracies-certainly not in the short term. But they may still have an important role to play in democratising social relations and in mediating between local communities and political systems, thus strengthening the connection between civil society and the institutional politics.

The decline of the movements that followed the democratic transition need not therefore mean the end of their political potential. New collective identities have been created. Civil society has been discovered and transformed. Politics is motes plural. Democracy is now valued as an end in itself.

Indeed the critique of current democratic arrangements as being ‘elitist’ and unconnected with the ‘lived’ experience of the mass of the position has been characterised as the social movements’ perspective.

At the moment, the clear predominance of elite over popular democracy is expressed in the strong adherence to neo-liberal economic policies and in the denial of many citizenship rights. It is for the social movements and civil societies to push for a participatory democracy and at the same time seek social safeguards in the liberalising economy.