Abstract: Do government-imposed restrictions on civil society organizations (CSOs) predict the weakening and erosion of democratic institutions? We argue that restrictions on CSOs such as funding cuts and smear campaigns are a precursor of democratic decline in formal institutions such as constitutional rights, parliaments and judiciaries. CSOs monitor and mobilize against government violations of democratic norms. Thus, governments have incentives to restrict CSOs before attacking liberal-democratic institutions. By reducing scrutiny and criticism, restrictions on CSOs also facilitate the dismantling of institutional checks on government power. Accounting for unobserved cross-country heterogeneity and reverse causation, our statistical analysis of a global sample of countries in the period 1989–2018 shows that restrictions on CSOs predict democratic decline one to four years in the future. In-depth case studies of three countries in different world regions (Kenya, Turkey and Venezuela) provide evidence of the expected mechanism linking restrictions on civil society to democratic decline.