2021. Civil Society Under Attack: A Warning Sign of the Erosion of Democratic Institutions

Abstract: Do government-imposed restrictions on civil society organizations (CSOs) affect future democratic decline? We argue that restrictions designed to demobilize CSOs such as funding cuts and smear campaigns are a 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 1989–2018 period shows that restrictions on CSOs predict decline in the quality of formal democratic institutions in future periods. The in-depth study of three typical cases in different world regions (Kenya, Turkey and Venezuela) provides qualitative evidence of the expected causal pathways linking restrictions targeting CSOs to the subsequent erosion of democratic institutions.

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