Skip to main content

State Encroachment on Civil Society? A Comparative Study of Parties, Interest Groups and Welfare-Providing Organizations in Contemporary Democracies

Final Report Summary - STATORG (State Encroachment on Civil Society? A Comparative Study of Parties, Interest Groups and Welfare-Providing Organizations in Contemporary Democracies)

STATORG has looked at how established democracies legally regulate organized civil society including political parties, interest groups and service-oriented organizations and how the legal environments that democratic governments create impact on these organizations’ internal functioning and external activities. Assessing the restrictiveness of legal regulation applicable to these different types of organization across 19 democracies, the project showed that central systemic factors such as legal and welfare-state traditions, along with countries’ democratic history, do shape their propensity to adopt more or less constraining civil society legislation. Being in line with existing literatures on state traditions and policy styles that stress the similarities of legal regulation in different domains, it implies that different democracies, depending on their historically grown dispositions, are more or less resilient towards eroding civil society space when exposed to pressures such as terrorism, populism or austerity that invite increasingly restrictive legislation. It also challenges legally oriented research that to date has evolved in separate subfields specialising in areas such as party law, non-profit or charity law respectively. An integrated perspective on civil society regulation is particularly important as studying regulation applicable to different organizational types in conjunction showed that the regulation of groups and parties can overlap and is often interconnected, with fundamental implications for the nature of legal environments civil society organizations are exposed to and have to manoeuvre. Furthermore, regulation in three of the 19 democracies with very different legal dispositions has been explored longitudinally, showing how legal regulation of different types of civil society organization has become increasingly constraining and more complex, though the intensity of this trend and the extent to which legal restrictions are ‘compensated for’ by state support varies significantly. To examine the consequences of different legal choices STATORG has then conducted large-scale online surveys in four European democracies, generating extensive data on over 3200 parties, interest groups and service-oriented organizations. Analyses of this data most fundamentally suggest that these three types of membership organizations are similarly affected by constraints and pressures in their legal environment and can be useful studied in one overarching framework as developed by STATORG. They also stress the diverse effects of different aspects associated with close state-voluntary relations that are frequently problematized, sometimes labelled as ‘state encroachment’. For instance, being strongly dependent on state funding is associated with members of an organisation being less involved in internal activities. However, this was not associated with lower member control over internal decision-making (i.e. centralization) as often suggested. Meanwhile, access to state funding makes organisations feel more secure and less under stress and facilitates their political engagement (rather than inviting depoliticization). Hence, the effects of state regulation are not necessarily negative. Information on all project outputs, including the datasets generated, can be found here: https://socialsciences.exeter.ac.uk/regulatingcivilsociety/project/