Abstract: Do government-imposed restrictions on civil society organizations (CSOs) predict future democratic decline? We argue that restrictions on CSOs such as funding cuts and smear campaigns are a precursor of the erosion of formal democratic institutions such as parliaments and judiciaries. CSOs monitor and mobilize against government violations of democratic norms. Thus, governments have incentives to restrict CSOs before attacking democratic institutions. By reducing scrutiny and criticism, restrictions on CSOs 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 decline in the quality of formal democratic institutions in future periods. In-depth case studies of three countries in different world regions (Kenya, Turkey and Venezuela) provide evidence of the expected causal pathways linking restrictions to the erosion of democratic institutions.