Analyzing civil society resistance to elite-led democratic backsliding in Africa, the article argues that the non-militant, civil society-based transitions experienced in the 1990s left a legacy of a pro-democracy cleavage that is mobilized when central constitutional rights are threatened. Building on insights from social movement theory, the paper argues that the conduct of multiparty elections at regular intervals provides an opportunity for contestation over constitutional rules, and the historical legacy of pro-democracy movements provides a mobilizing structure for civil society to organize for the protection of constitutional rights. The theoretical argument is illustrated by a comparison of the democratic trajectories in Zambia and Malawi. In both countries, incumbent elites’ have attempted to remain in power through constitutional revisions. However, processes of executive aggrandizement have been stalled by civil society mobilization that again have resulted in incumbent defeat and electoral turn-overs. Recent waves of democratic backsliding suggest that the autonomy of civil society from political parties may be a key factor for the ability of civil society to challenge autocratization. Malawi’s civil society has maintained a high degree of autonomy but in Zambia, the close cooperation between civil society and the Patriotic Front (PF) and the resulting cooptation of key civil society actors have resulted in a process of autocratization.
- Civil society’s autonomy from political parties is essential for its ability to challenge democratic backsliding.
- Reduced focus on democracy promotion from international actors has eased the pressure on elites seeking to undermine democracy.
- The responses of foreign governments, international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and transnational civil society organizations (CSOs) alliances to democratic backsliding are not well understood and should be incorporated into analyses of civil society resistance to democratic backsliding.
- International and transnational collaborators should emphasize innovative and flexible ways to support local NGOs and civil society networks by investing in new platforms for information sharing and institutional learning, expanding country-level networks.