Civil Society in Authoritarian Regimes

The relation between civil society and the state has been questioning for a very long time. From the ancient philosophies to contemporary ones, every thinker highlighted a different side of civil society and its complex relation with the state. For several decades, civil society has been associated with democratization in the non-Western world especially after the end of the Cold War. For instance, civil society is considered a counterbalancing power to the state and it is defined as a compulsory component of a democracy. Therefore, the connection between democracy and civil society has been widely discussed. Despite these positive attitudes towards civil society and democracy, it is not the case all the time. Civil society organizations can foster authoritarianism, patronage and can be used as a legitimization of authorization. Nowadays, the world has been witnessing significant changes in the concept of democracy; the state structures are getting more and more complicated and the lines between ideologies are blurred. Strict separations between regimes, such as democracy or dictatorship, have been losing their momentum for several decades. Moreover, despite the desired scenarios, authoritarian tendencies have increased all around the world. Hence, authoritarian regimes have a major role in global politics. Thus, this article aims to analyze the relationship between civil society and the authoritarian regimes, mainly the CA regimes. This article consists of two chapters: The first chapter will define civil society, criticize the popular generalizations about civil society and define competitive authoritarianism. Second chapter will explain the dynamics between CA regimes and civil society. The article will emphasize the common mechanisms which are adopted by states to determine their position towards civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations.

Definitions and Critics of the Civil Society

There are so many definitions of civil society and its position towards political society. While Hobbes and Hegel criticize the conflictual structure of civil society, Rousseau emphasizes the bounding nature of civil society (Acar-Savar, 2003). Moreover, Karl Marx examines civil society from an economic perspective and states that the French Revolution separated the city and political society and created a civil society without politics. Civil society finds a place for itself in the capitalist system; thus, he argues civil society should be exceeded to withdraw from the capitalist mode of production. The more contemporary arguments are shaped around the liberal and post-liberal theories of the international system. However, this article will adopt CIVICUS’[1](1997) definition of civil society which accepts civil society as “a sphere, other than family, state and the market, where people have mutual relations to protect their common interest.” Hence, one can say that the common interest can be determined by the current political agendas, global trends or ideological placement to which CSOs have belonged. Besides a positive attitude to civil society, there are several critics about the concept. Sefa Şimsek (2004) analyzes these critics in five points. Firstly, he criticizes the popular view about the positive relationship between civil society and democratization. While democratization requires pluralism, civil society is not always the answer for a democratic transition. Secondly, civil society organizations do not necessarily take a position against the state. They can cooperate and reaffirm the state, so CSOs should not take for granted opposition. The misunderstandings about the closed communities and civil society organizations lead to another grey area that makes civil society harder to define. Also, ignoring the authoritarian tendencies within civil society creates misinterpretations just as the previous points. Finally, assuming that civil society as a unanimous and homogenous community makes it impossible to understand their positive interactions with CA regimes. 

What is Competitive Authoritarianism?

The end of the Cold War significantly changed the global dynamics. Promotion of Western values and democracy had aggravated. Membership requirements of some regional organizations such as the European Union increased the strategic shift in favour of democracy. Moreover, the observation mechanisms for human rights violations and undemocratic acts of government gained traction. Consequently, the Western governments had gained more influence on global politics and in the non-Western world. In this environment, democratic transitions have not happened as it should be. Rising populism and representation of massive right-wing groups during the transition processes enables the authoritarian features to flourish especially in fragile democracies. In competitive authoritarian regimes, the opposition and the competition for power exist however their chance of gaining power is low, if not impossible, because of the unfair, biased mechanisms of fraud elections, privileged use of media sources, and patronage. Levitsky and Way define CA regimes as “an uneven playing field between government and opposition” (2002, p.53). At this point, it is important to know their democratic regime definition. They argue that:

Democratic regimes all meet four minimum criteria: 1) Executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; 2) virtually all adults possess the right to vote; 3) political rights and civil liberties, including freedom of the press, freedom of association, and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal, are broadly protected; and 4) elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary control of military or clerical leaders.” (Levitsky&Way, 2002, p. 53).

Therefore, CA regimes have unfree and unfair elections because of the privileged use of resources. Violations of civil liberties such as freedom of expression and biased media organs have contributed to the unfair distribution of power. There are three paths for a CA regime to establish and these are, a collapse of an authoritarian regime, boosted authoritarianism in a rotten democracy and challenging an authoritarian regime with weak opposition.

State-Civil Society Relations: Cooperation, Confrontation and Mechanisms

David Lewis (2013) demonstrates three existing explanations about state-civil society relations, and these are cultural, functioning, and attitudinal approaches to understanding cooperative relations. However, these explanations have missing points to explain the oppositional relations. In other words, three approaches that already exist concentrate on the positive relations between actors. However, most of the civil society definitions view CSOs’ as a counter-balance against the state and define the relations between them as conflictual.

The first approach is cultural which relies on shared values and political culture of that particular state. Thence, the long-lasting structure of the state-society relations shapes the civil society organizations and their perception of the state. Cultural features “reaffirm, legitimize, and reproduce” the authoritativeness. While the cultural approach focuses on history, culture and values, the functionalist approach has more pragmatic and capital-oriented relations with the state. In this approach, there is a win-win situation between the NGOs and the state. While the state is acting like a sponsor of these NGOs in terms of resources, the NGOs legitimize the state’s position in the international arena in return; since functionalism is based on common goals, shared agenda and cooperation rather than questioning the state. The final approach is about reaching out to the marginalized, outsider groups within society, because attitudinal approaches perceive civil society as an arena where different actors socially interact with and another through respect and willingness (Lewis, 2013 p. 329).

Furthermore, Lewis benefits from Iris Young’s (2000)[2] dualism on civil society and introduces self-organization and the public sphere concepts. The self-organization concept can be found in authoritarian states; however, the public sphere has more offensive (Cohen and Arato, 1992)[3] features and aims to change political agenda. The self-organization concept is about “service delivery” rather than challenging the state’s authority and legitimacy. Yet, the public sphere concept sets opposition. According to Lewis, on the one hand, the self-organization aspect leads to the way “fulfill important social functions and may even represent marginalized social groups, who would otherwise have limited access to representation and resources.” On the other hand, in authoritarian states, the state’s responses towards the public sphere aspect are repression, criminal charges and violence. Under these circumstances, in authoritarian states, states determine the CSOs and NGOs’ role and presence in the public sphere. States mostly support or cooperate with NGOs which can gain advantages from. However, states adopt a restrictive and suppressive attitude towards opponent organizations. Because perceives them as a threat to her legitimization.

5-Steps-Mechanisms for Legitimization

Besides Lewis’ aspects, Jasmin Lorch & Bettina Bunk (2017) argues that there are five patterns which were adopted by the authoritarian states to control and cooperate with civil society organizations. These five patterns allow states to maintain their power upon civil society organizations and sustain their hegemony. Lorch and Bunk study the dynamics of civil society in the African continent; thus, their cases are Algeria and Mozambique. In “Using civil society as an authoritarian legitimation strategy: Algeria and Mozambique in comparative perspective” they present implementations of patterns in both cases. All these mechanisms cooperate with the state apparatus in terms of legitimization, as in competitive authoritarian regimes, state and business sectors have strong patron-client relations. With this way, the governments can ensure their time in the office. Moreover, the unfree and belligerent media organs, the opposition groups are having difficulties to mobilize and express themselves. Therefore, civil society organizations enable opposition groups to gather and to be counterbalanced against the authoritarian state.

The first pattern is about using civil society to create a democratic image. In the essence of these mechanisms, democracy can hardly find a place because of the state’s authoritarian elements. Thus, civil society helps the state to portrait itself as a pluralist democracy, on the contrary to reality. The second pattern is “making civil society play by the rules.” This pattern aims to control civil society organizations through different engagements with the state. Thus, while civil liberties and civil association can exist within the current system, they do not challenge the state by their demands or ideologies. The third pattern is about enhancing the sphere of power and influence of the state. CSOs acts as a “feedback mechanism” (p. 990) for forthcoming social policies or regulations. Because thanks to patron-client relations, pro-government associations can reach out to different groups within society. Moreover, the fourth one is about international recognition, since functional CSOs make states the so-called democracies in international politics. Last but not least, as natural consequences of all these patterns, civil society organizations paved the way for reaffirmation, reproduction and sustainability of the authoritarian regimes.

Bilge Yabancı and Two-Ended Civil Society in Turkey

Bilge Yabancı (2019) makes an important distinction among civil society organizations according to their ideological placement. Yabancı argues that there is a two-ended civil society in Turkey which can be distinguished as containment and appropriation. On the one hand, the role of civil society in CA regimes has two different sides. The first one is based upon a checking mechanism for the government’s policies and actions. The second one is a supportive pillar for the government agenda and it analyzes the societal demands and benefits from it (Yabancı, 2019 p. 288). The first contains opponent ideas towards the government, thus their acts are controlled by the authorities to prevent a public mobilization against the government. The abuse of power can be seen in the authoritarian regime in terms of repression and the use of violence. As David Lewis (2013) stated previously, authoritarian regimes do not allow opposition groups to create a more democratic and pluralist civil society and the public sphere to be more visible in the political arena. Hence, the repression mechanisms emerge to suppress civil society. Moreover, these civil society organizations are perceived as a threat to the states’ order and legitimacy. Yabancı states that:

The Turkish case suggests that the result of this dilemma is the expansion of civil society in two distinct ways: (i) variation of dissident activism seeking to carve pockets of resistance within the context of both the opportunity structures and political violence of a CA regime, and (ii) increase in terms of number and organizational reach of pro-government associations and foundations particularly in the field of youth, women, education and family policies in line with the AKP’s conservative-nationalist social agenda.” (2019, p.287)

On the other hand, there is an appropriation side of the civil society which consists of pro-government organizations who have shared values, financial benefits, and common agendas with incumbents. Pro-government organizations have several advantages such as political visibility and representation, financial benefits, and a sustainable membership system. Also, the government can collaborate with these organizations to create a positive public opinion and to enhance its sphere of influence. the appropriation side of civil society shows itself, especially in the youth policies. The parallel relations between the government’s social policies and pro-government organizations agenda show itself clearly in relations with youth and women. The pro-government organizations can create an ideal youth through several events and education. Especially the emphasis on the Turkish-Muslim identity is an important component to understand the basic motivation of the close relations between the pro-government CSOs and government officials. At this point, it is important to remember that it is not the first time that objectification of youth in politics. While the 1960s and 1970s had witnessed different youth movements specifically, the 1990s were the years that polarized civil society gave priority to create ideology-oriented youth. Especially the close relations of the same communities and the Welfare Party continued their activities and influenced especially the young people. The youth was an object of the Islamist-secular contradiction. On the one hand, there was Islamist’s community’s schools and associations; on the other, there was secular Türkan Saylan and Çağdaş Yaşamı Destekleme Derneği. Both sides created an ideal image of youth according to their political agenda. However, they both failed to see the reality of the young people. The agenda of youth was concerning unemployment, terror and unequal education opportunities, unlike the polarized civil society organizations’ agenda (Lüküslü, 2016 p. 354-365). In the case of women organizations, pro-government associations have commonalities about their perception of women, feminism and the unity of the family; so their approach towards femicide, domestic violence and women’s rights (Yabancı, 2019, p. 296). “Their active presence and funds allow them to provide entrepreneurial opportunities to women from disadvantaged groups and aid for poor and refugee women (KADEM.)”. (Yabancı, 2019, p. 298)

According to Metin Heper & Senem Yıldırım (2011), Turkey’s attempts to become a full member of the EU increased the presence and importance of civil society. The existence of efficient civil society requires horizontal relations in terms of public and government. However, Turkey’s long term centralization in-enables the public to have this horizontal relationship. The vertical relations sets certain roles for each actor; the public is the demander and the state is the only answer.[4]


The relationship between the state and civil society has always been a complex and multilayered subject which has been widely discussed by many academics. Despite the popularity of the importance of civil society organizations and their leverage on the state in a democratic regime, this article aims to analyze relations between civil society and the authoritarian states. Different mechanisms and different dynamics affect the civil society organizations’ presence and effectiveness within the political system. The article demonstrates that, firstly, there are cultural functional and attitudinal approaches to highlight the motivations behind the authoritarian state-civil society cooperation. Secondly, the article benefits from Lorch&Bunk’s five-pattern-mechanism. According to their point of view, authoritarian states use CSOs to maintain states’ legitimacy and sphere of influence. Also, civil society functions as a response mechanism for states’ forthcoming political agenda. Lastly, the article shows a specific case study and explains how Turkey has adopted a two-ended civil society approach which bases on the containment of opponent CSOs and appropriation of the pro-government CSO.








[1] Alemdar, Zeynep. (2016). Baskı Grupları ve Sivil Toplum. Karşılaştırmalı Siyaset: Temel Konular ve  Yaklaşımlar. (Der.) Sabri Sayarı & Hasret Dikici Bilgin. İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları. 169-189.

[2] Lewis, D. (2013). Civil Society and the Authoritarian State: Cooperation, Contestation and Discourse. Journal of Civil Society, 9:3:325-340.

[3] ibid.

[4] Heper, M.&Yıldırım, S. (2011). Revisiting Civil Society in Turkey. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 11:1, 1-18.



Acar-Savran, G. (2013). Sivil Toplum ve Ötesi. Ankara: Dipnot Yayınevi.

Alemdar, Zeynep. (2016). Baskı Grupları ve Sivil Toplum.” Karşılaştırmalı Siyaset: Temel Konular ve  Yaklaşımlar. (Der.) Sabri Sayarı & Hasret Dikici Bilgin. İstanbul: İstanbul Bilgi Üniversitesi Yayınları. 169-189.

Heper, M.&Yıldırım, S. (2011). Revisiting Civil Society in Turkey. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 11:1, 1-18.

Levitsky, S., and Lucan A. Way. (2002). Elections without Democracy: The Rise of Competitive Authoritarianism. Journal of Democracy 13, no. 2: 51–65.

Lewis, D. (2013). Civil Society and the Authoritarian State: Cooperation, Contestation and Discourse. Journal of Civil Society, 9:3:325-340.

Lorch J. & Bettina Bunk. (2017). Using Civil Society as an Authoritarian Legitimation Strategy: Algeria and Mozambique in Comparative Perspective. Democratization, 24:6: 987-1005.

Şimsek, S. (2004). The Transformation of Civil Society in Turkey: from Quantity to Quality. Turkish Studies, 5:3: 46-74.

Yabanci, B. (2019). Turkey’s Tamed Civil society: Containment and Appropriation Under a Competitive Authoritarian Regime. Journal of Civil Society 15:4: 285-306. 

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