Democratic Activism in Comparative Perspective: Challenges and Opportunities

This event is hosted by The Contemporary Democracy and Authoritarianism research cluster at the University of Leeds.

The Contemporary Democracy and Authoritarianism research cluster is a new group that brings together colleagues from the School of Politics and International Studies and around the University of Leeds working in areas including comparative politics, political philosophy, international development and international security.


Keynote speaker: Laurence Whitehead (Nuffield College, Oxford University): ‘Representative Democracy and the Challenges of Direct Democratic Activism’

Jean Grugel (University of Sheffield): ‘International Norms and Activism in and around Child Labour in Bolivia’
Dirk Tomsa (La Trobe University and University of Freiburg): ‘Mobilizing Apathetic Citizens for Democracy: Can Volunteers Change the Nature of Electoral Competition in Indonesia?’
Lars Berger (University of Leeds): ‘Who are the Arab Democrats? Evidence from a 12-Country Survey’


International Norms and Activism in and around Child Labour in Bolivia
(Professor Jean Grugel, University of Sheffield)

Social conflict can result from disagreement around the appropriateness and meaning of international norms, such as democracy and human rights. 

Attempts to codify and police what these norms mean in local contexts can result in clashes both along an international-domestic axis and within and between domestic groups. This paper examines one such conflict, around the meaning and value of codifying internationally rules on child labour. International campaigns against child labour have focused on the use of children in global commodity chains in particular, but not all child labour falls into this category. What happens when campaigns to eradicate child labour are regarded as an infringement of locally acceptable production practices?  Convention 182 of the ILO led to an international commitment to eliminate the worst forms of child labour; but the agreement has also been subject to intense criticism, especially in societies where child labour is prevalent.  The debate as to whether it is better for working children to seek eradication of child labour or to push for its legalization is a telling example of how international human rights norms can fuel dissensus. Focusing on Bolivia, the paper sheds light on the complex and sometimes ambiguous impact of global human rights norms in local contexts, reveals that local responses to international rights norms are complex and sometimes divergent and reminds us of that civil society is always a heterogeneous and political space of action.

Mobilizing Apathetic Citizens for Democracy: Can Volunteers Change the Nature of Electoral Competition in Indonesia?
(Dr Dirk Tomsa, La Trobe University and University of Freiburg)

Just a few years ago, Southeast Asia seemed to be on the cusp of a small democratic wave. Opposition parties and movements were making strides in autocracies like Burma, Malaysia and Singapore while the region’s largest democracy, Indonesia, looked more stable than ever before. Today, however, hopes for democratization in Burma, Malaysia and Singapore have evaporated and Thailand, in the 1990s still the poster boy of democracy in Southeast Asia, has once again regressed back to military rule. Indonesia, too, flirted with a return to authoritarianism in 2014, but staved off the challenge when Jakarta governor Joko Widodo (Jokowi) won that year’s presidential election against the former army general Prabowo Subianto, who had openly flaunted anti-democratic ideas in the lead-up to the poll.

Significantly, Jokowi won the election not only against Prabowo, but also against stiff opposition from a broad coalition of deeply entrenched elites with questionable democratic credentials – including many from within the party that had nominated him for the presidency. This feat was possible only because of the unprecedented mobilization of volunteers who helped Jokowi’s otherwise shambolic campaign to remain on track. These volunteers comprised a diverse range of democracy activists, pragmatic opportunists and ordinary citizens at the grassroots. This presentation examines the diverging motivations and strategies of these volunteers, asking what long-term impact their successful involvement in the electoral process may have on political developments in Indonesia and beyond.  

Who are the Arab Democrats? Evidence from a 12-Country Survey
(Dr Lars Berger, Associate Professor in International Security, University of Leeds)

The rise and fall of the Arab Spring’s pro-democracy activism has reignited the debate about the demand-side of Arab democracy. This paper contributes to this debate by shedding light on the socio-economic and attitudinal profile of those respondents who support the concept of democracy in twelve Arab countries. It utilizes responses to an Arab Barometer survey which covered roughly half of all Arab countries and more than 80 percent of the Arab world’s total population. As the period of fieldwork (2012-14) coincided with elections that brought Islamist parties into power in Tunisia and Egypt, the data analysed here offers a particularly tantalizing opportunity to inject robust empirical evidence into the often very heated debate about the relationship between Islamism and democracy.

Regression analyses reveal that demographic profiles in themselves offer little explanatory value when compared with the robust and consistent impact of views on economic policies, globalization, Islamism and gender equality. Optimistic views on the impact of globalization as well as support for economic redistribution via taxes on the wealthy and the right to strike, gender equality and the clear separation of politics and religion all exhibit a remarkably consistent correlation with increased support for democracy across a range of very different country contexts. The fact that access to the internet and general political awareness also contribute to increased support for democracy suggests a number of pathways for those within the region and outside interested in promoting the cause of Arab democracy.