Owen Lippert (PhD)
January 3, 2022
Democracy, few dispute, could face a long retreat globally. Larry Diamond, dean of National Endowment for Democracy scholars, identified a growing “democratic recession” as authoritarian governments from above and populist ones from below impose restrictions which violate democratic norms, all the while claiming legitimacy through (rigged) elections. A new concern is the use of internet disinformation campaigns against minority groups and electronic surveillance/repression aimed at opposition leaders and media voices. The opponents of classical liberal democracy grow bolder as its defenders try to come up with creative strategies and new resources.
Existing organizations for democracy promotion admit frustration with delays and distractions, some of their own making. The NED and its affiliates, the German Stiftungs, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, UNDP, and a slew of peacemaking CSOs have grown in size and resources often by addressing issues beyond their original raison d’etat, which is the axiom that free and fair elections determine who forms government, and that the winners and losers follow the responsibilities and restrictions of the result. Worthy ancillary issues of diversity, curbing religious extremism, and environmental and social issues have been added as priorities to organizations, structurally much the same since the 1980s. Their ability to assess what works is hampered by higher political considerations and burdensome M&E requirements designed to catch petty fraud.
President Biden acknowledged tacitly the situation and the need to reinvigorate the democratic mission when he convened the Summit for Democracies in December of 2021. Over the next year, governments and civil society will address three issues: digital threats of disinformation and surveillance repression, corruption’s harm to the reputation and resources of democracies, and the need for civil society to work with governments to protect human rights.
Canada offers a microcosm of some of the challenges. For well over a decade, Canada has debated starting its democratic agency, which now has a working name the Canadian Centre for Peace, Order and Good Government. A concern is redundant programs.What can any country or civil society group offer that is original and effective? The scenario has played out before. As priorities shift and funding becomes available, organizations with any claim to expertise rush to start a program. Witness what’s happening in combatting online disinformation. A related effect is casting issues as posing short-term technical and empirical problems rather than long-term challenges requiring education and mediation.
Creativity may lie in getting back to basics, the interplay between government and opposition parties over the mandate to govern. As eluded to above, scholars such as Susan M. Hyde have studied the weakening of democratic procedures due to the institutional bias of donor institutions and civil society in favour of existing governments. The hesitation to engage the Opposition is understandable as neutral bodies want to avoid accusations of choosing sides. Self-interest and taking the path of least resistance also play a role. UN agencies with some exceptions, e.g. Myanmar, have a bias in favour of the current governments who provide them access and status. What official agencies for democratic assistance are reluctant to do, civil society can do — deal directly with the Opposition, not just well-meaning career activists as proxies.
For nearly 20 years, I have researched these issues including stints abroad in South America, Eastern Europe, and Asia, research director for the House of Commons committee to plan a democracy agency, and recently out of the growing need for creative responses. Like-minded private individuals including me conclude that we might contribute a civil society (non-official) effort to address the competition between government and Opposition.
A “level playing field” strengthens the function of the checks and balances of political competition. Governments will always have resources and more international recognition. What’s needed is assistance to the Opposition, whatever their policy hue — within the spectrum of core democratic commitments and human rights.
We (practitioners/scholars/advocates, and former legislators) propose Opposition International (www.opposition.international). OI would provide a resource for and about opposition political parties, of all types and stripes. A global survey of the number, leaders, visibility and influence of opposition parties would be our first major step.
Opposition International could offer “virtual” specific training that traditional democracy agencies won’t risk. For example, why, when and how to press for a no-confidence vote inside and outside the legislature. How to research and put together an “alternative budget” and the pros and cons of international reform alliances. OI could facilitate purpose-driven media training closer to private services for leader profile and contrast communications and advertising.
OI would also focus on the diaspora’s contribution to their homeland’s Opposition of ideas, money, and overseas voters. There is a need for international standards of transparency and access to diaspora fundraising. Overseas voting rules are widely divergent. The increase in think tanks and issue-CSOs has been remarkable, but not matched by the absorptive capacity of opposition parties. Caucus research units are not fully appreciated and utilized.
A longer-term goal is a mixed-format forum for the international validation of opposition parties. It could take the form of an assembly with legislature-like rules of order, committee structure, and recording transcription, and dissemination of the proceedings. A global opposition assembly could provide a means to present to an international audience “alternative budgets” and legislative amendments if not able to do so in their domestic legislature.
Such an assembly would be virtual, but sited in Toronto because of its freedoms of assembly and speech, ease of visa access, affordability, and diaspora communities which could provide services, such as translation.
Is Opposition International a good idea in tough times?
Weighed in the balance of urgency versus expense and stability versus change – Yes.
The lawyer says OI may not qualify yet for charitable status in Canada or the United States. Non-profit (501c only) status, yes.
At present, the non-profit incorporation documents are ready for submission once the board of directors is finalized. The corporate name and ICANN registration for “Opposition International” is reserved and secured; in French as well, “L’Opposition Internationale”. The website, podcast RSS feed, and YouTube service are in production, with equipment purchased.
The call for contributions starts soon. The opportunity is now to be a founding partner.
Please aid a new and unique effort to strengthen democracy, our challenge in these turbulent times.
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Best to all for 2022!