TRS.20.041 – Angels or villains? The role of civil society organisations in defending democracy or promoting autocracy

Route: Towards resilient societies

Cluster question: 033 How robust is democracy, how much confidence does society have in it, and how can we make improvements in both cases?

In recent years, democracy appears to be in decline. Many democratic states have seen their democratic systems erode, as manifested in expanding executive powers, weakening institutions, a shrinking civic space, and a decline in liberal rights and freedoms. In explaining this so-called ‘third wave of autocratisation’, civil society organisations (CSOs) are usually understood as strongholds promoting a democratic culture and defending representative institutions.

This project investigates the role of CSOs as either facilitating or resisting democratic decline and breakdown. The project aims to identify ways to support CSOs that seek to protect and promote democracy today, and that might help reverse the current wave of democratic decline. Combining insights and theories from political science with a historical perspective, the first and second waves of autocratisation (the interbellum and the 1960s-70s respectively) are investigated and compared to the current period.

The project makes three major scientific contributions: (a) research on democratic decline and authoritarian backsliding tends to focus on elite-driven explanations and does not account for the role of citizens in democratic breakdown, (b) research on CSOs appears biased towards their role in defending democracy, rarely considering their potential to function as supporters of autocratisation, (c) research on the role of CSOs in earlier historical periods of democratic reversal can provide useful insights for present-day processes.

The project is a collaboration between the Department of Political Science at Radboud University and the Radboud Institute for Culture & History and will include international academic partners with expertise on democratic erosion and civil society. National and international civil society partners will be included in the consortium to ensure that research-results can be adequately translated into actionable output; insights from civil society can be incorporated in the project; and cross-fertilisation and mutual learning between academia and practice is promoted.


autocratisation, civil society, democratic breakdown, democratic erosion


Organisation Radboud University Nijmegen (RU)
Name Prof. Dr. C. (Carolien) van Ham