Abercromby Square Gazebo

Defending civic space: When are campaigns against repressive laws successful?

1:00pm - 2:00pm / Wednesday 30th November 2022 / Venue: Seminar Room 6 Rendall Building
Type: Seminar / Category: Research
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Many civil society organizations (CSOs) are fighting for survival as governments introduce legislation to curtail their activities. This article examines how domestic civil society campaigns can persuade parliamentarians to reject “anti-CSO” legislation. We employ pairwise comparisons in two regions – East Africa and Central Asia – as well as process-tracing within four cases: two successful campaigns waged by CSO coalitions against repressive legislation in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, and two unsuccessful campaigns in Uganda and Kazakhstan. We find that traditional structural explanations – most notably the degree of international linkage and leverage and the quality of democracy – play an important role in creating greater opportunities for domestic actors, but are not determinative.

CSOs also need to take advantage of the more conducive environment to defend democracy. Doing so is more likely when campaigns: are pre-emptive and sustained, frame the issue in a manner that resonates with the electoral incentives facing parliamentarians, coordinate with influential international actors, and engage pragmatically with both the informal political rules that shape legislators’ behaviour and the formal procedural ‘mechanics’ of legislatures. The article therefore demonstrates the significance of both political structure and agency, and of international actors using their influence to create space for domestic groups, “leading from behind”.

Nic Cheeseman (@fromagehomme) is Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, and was formerly the Director of the African Studies Centre at the University of Oxford. He mainly works on democracy, elections and development, including a range of topics such as election rigging, political campaigning, corruption, “fake news” and presidential rule. The articles that he has published based on this research have won a number of prizes including the GIGA award for the best article in Comparative Area Studies (2013) and the Frank Cass Award for the best article in Democratization (2015). Professor Cheeseman is also the author or editor of ten books, including Democracy in Africa (2015), Institutions and Democracy in Africa (2017), How to Rig an Election (2018) – selected as one of the books of the year by the Spectator magazine – Coalitional Presidentialism in Comparative Perspective (2018), and The Moral Economy of Elections in Africa (2021). In addition, he is the founding editor of the Oxford Encyclopaedia of African Politics, a former editor of the journal African Affairs, and an advisor to, and writer for, the late Kofi Annan's African Progress Panel. In recognition of this academic and public contribution, the Political Studies Association of the United Kingdom awarded him the prestigious Joni Lovenduski Prize for outstanding professional achievement by a midcareer scholar in 2019. In recent years he has also won the Celebrating Impact prize of the Economic and Social Research Council for “outstanding international impact” and the Josiah Mason Award for Academic Advancement. A frequent commentator of African and global events, Professor Cheeseman’s analysis has appeared in the Economist, Le Monde, Financial Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, Daily Nation and he writes a regular column for the Africa Report and the Mail&Guardian.