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Portugal's democracy and the role of civil society

With municipal elections just around the corner, we believe it’s the appropriate time to take a good look at the role that civil society could play in building and strengthening democracy in Portugal.  

Defining what we mean by “civil society”

Civil society is the entire range of organized groups and institutions that are independent of governments, are voluntary, and must be self-generating and self-reliant. It does include non-governmental organizations like independent mass media, citizen media groups, think tanks, universities, and social and religious groups as well.


True civil society organisations and "fronts"

To be part of civil society, groups must meet some other conditions as well.  In a democracy, civil society groups have respect for the law, for the rights of individuals, and for the rights of other groups to express their interests and opinions.  Part of what the word “civil” implies is tolerance and the accommodation of pluralism and diversity. 


Civil society groups may however establish ties to political parties and to governments, but one thing they must do always, is to ensure that they always retain their independence. In fact, true civil society organizations never seek political power for themselves.


It is a factor of life that during phases of political, economic or social instability, groups arise that seek to monopolize the lives and thinking of their members.  These groups (organisations) whether formal or informal do not tolerate the right of their members to dissent, and they do not respect other groups that disagree with them.  In fact, many of these groups are merely fronts for political partieselitist movements, or business-instigated movements – which have the common goal and objective of “winning” (or taking) control of the government decision making process through induced influence for their sole benefit.


Perfect examples of “non-civil society organizations” are groups created as fronts by big corporations directly or indirectly via their foundations, or by political parties - these organizations in our opinion do not really fall within the “civic society” definition.


Traditionally, these types of organizations created by big corporations tend to capture many government leaders as pawns to protect their vested interests – these types of front organizations, are traditionally used by big corporations as government lobbying and pressure groups. These groups are not part of a true civil society and they do not contribute to building a democracy, instead they create dysfunctional and anti-democratic environments that have a negative impact on the rest of the world.


Let’s take a look at what are the roles that the "true" civil society should play within a democratic development and maintenance context

Limit the power of governments and the "control" exerted by government leaders. 

Of course, any democracy needs a well-functioning and authoritative government.  But for example when a country is emerging from decades of dictatorships (like what happened in Portugal when it broke away from Salazar’s regime in the 70’s), it also needs to find ways to check, monitor, and restrain the power of political leaders and state officials. 

In the Portuguese context, we can argue that many civil society organizations appear to have been hijacked or created as tools to protect either political or business interests. 40 years on, we have a country that has in our opinion, a dysfunctional civil society environment across the board.

However, not everything is bad. We are now starting to see the development of real civil society movements being created as community groups. These are spreading like mushrooms across the country, and they are not linked to big businesses or to political or religious bodies. But this development is still in its infancy. It’s an emerging situation. Much more needs to happen before we can truly say that the Portuguese civil society environment has matured.

Civil society organisations have the responsability to watch how state officials use their powers.

They should be involved in raising public concern about any abuse of power.  They should lobby for access to information, including freedom of information laws, and rules and institutions to control corruption. 


This constitutes a second important function of civil society:  to expose the corrupt conduct of public officials and lobby for good governance reforms. 


Even where anti-corruption laws and bodies exist, they cannot function effectively without the active support and participation of civil society. One civil society organization working in Portugal that is following this principal is “Transparency International - Portugal”, however it is still developing its sphere of influence and impact. 

Promote political participation. 

NGOs can do this by educating people about their rights and obligations as democratic citizens, and encouraging them to listen to election campaigns and vote in elections.  NGOs can also help develop citizens’ skills to work with one another to solve common problems, to debate public issues, and express their views.

Help to develop the other values of democratic life:  tolerance, moderation, compromise, and respect for opposing points of view. 

Without this deeper culture of accommodation, democracy cannot be stable.  These values cannot simply be taught; they must also be experienced through practice.  There are fantastic examples across the world on how NGOs have cultivated these values in young people and adults through various programs that practice participation and debate.

Help to develop programs for democratic civic education in the schools as well. 

Comprehensive reforms are needed to revise curricula, rewrite textbooks, and retrain teachers in order to educate young people about the crimes of the past and teach them the real principles and values of democracy.  This is too important a role to leave it only in the hands of officials in the education department alone. Civil society must be involved as a constructive partner and advocate for democracy and human rights training.

An arena for the expression of diverse interests, and one role for civil society organizations is to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members (men, women, youth, professions, etc), or on behalf of beneficiaries (ocean, forests, animals, etc).

NGOs and interest groups can present their views to parliament and local councils, by contacting individual members and testifying before parliamentary committees.  They can also establish a dialogue with relevant government ministries and agencies to lobby for their interests and concerns. And it is not only the resourceful and well organized that can have their voices heard.  For example, groups that have historically been ignored or marginalised can organize to assert their rights and defend their interests as well. 

Strengthen democracy by promoting a culture of diversity - race, language, religion, age, sexual preferances, etc. 

Democracy cannot be stable if people only associate with others of the same race, religion or political affiliation.  When people of different religions and ethnic identities come together on the basis of their common interests as women, artists, doctors, students, workers, farmers, lawyers, human rights activists, environmentalists, and so on, civic life becomes richer, more complex, and more tolerant.

Help to inform the public about important public issues. 

This is not only the role of the mass media, but of NGOs which can provide forums for debating public policies and disseminating information about issues before parliament, or local government that affect the interests of different interest groups, or of society at large.

Play a vital role during elections. 

This role may require a broad coalition of organizations, unconnected to political parties or candidates, that deploys neutral monitors at all the different polling stations to ensure that the voting and vote counting is entirely free, fair, peaceful, and transparent.  It is very hard to have credible and fair elections unless civil society groups play this role.

In conclusion

Because civil society is independent of government, it doesn’t mean that it must always criticize and oppose the state.  In fact, by making the government at all levels more accountable, responsive, inclusive, effective—and hence more legitimate—a vigorous civil society strengthens citizens’ respect for the government and promotes positive engagement with it.

A democratic government cannot be stable unless it is effective and legitimate, with the respect and support of its citizens. Civil society is a check, a monitor, but also a vital partner in the quest for this kind of positive relationship between the democratic government and its citizens.




Source: Personal notes taken during various conferences attended between 2004 and 2006 - adapted to the Portuguese landscape.


Some Interesting References About the Subject Matter:

  1. How Do Civil Society Associations Promote Deliberative Democracy? By Douglas Chalmers
  2.  “Human Rights in the Constitution” Kathmandu Center for Civil Society & London School of Economics, 2007
  3.  Klingelhofer, Stephan, & David Robinson, 2001. “The Rule of Law, Custom and Civil Society in the South Pacific: An Overview,”
  4.  Shah, Saubhagya, 2008 Civil Society in Uncivil Places: Soft State and Regime Change in Nepal
  5. Timsina, Netra Prasad, 2009 “Institutionalizing the Achievements of Nepal's Democratic Struggle”
  6. Vesselin Popovski et.al., 2008. “Governance through Civil Society Engagement in Asia.”
  7. Diamond, L. (1989) Beyond autocracy: Prospects for democracy in Africa. Beyond Autocracy in Africa.
  8. The Essential Role of Non-Governmental Organizations in the Development of Democracy, Barry F. Lowenkron, Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Remarks to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Washington, DC, June 8, 2006
  9. Accornero, Guya and Pedro Ramos Pinto. 2015. “Mild mannered’? Protest and mobilisation in Portugal under austerity, 2010–2013.”
  10. Bermeo, Nancy. 2007. “War and Democratization: Lessons from the Portuguese Experience.” 
  11. De Sousa Santos, Boaventura. 1990. O Estado e a sociedade em Portugal (1974-1988).
  12. Fernandes, Tiago. 2014. “Rethinking Pathways to Democracy: Civil Society in Portugal and Spain, 1960s–2000s."



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