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The past decade has been challenging for democracies worldwide, with experts pointing to a trend of ‘democratic backsliding’ or ‘autocratisation’ characterised by continued attacks on democratic space. The COVID-19 pandemic has further complicated the picture. The contagiousness and deadliness of the virus forced authorities to implement drastic measures justified by overriding public health concerns. Yet, the crisis has also forced governments to tread a thin line between admissible health measures and the blatant abuse of emergency powers, to the detriment of democratic space.

Our new paper Repression and Resilience: Diagnosing Closing Space Mid-Pandemic illustrates how democratic space was affected by the COVID-19 crisis, drawing on case studies from Burundi, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda and Venezuela, as well as the wider research community. The paper also further develops a conceptual framework for understanding democratic space, initially developed in a previous study.

The research points to the important role of country-specific political developments and other concurring crises in defining the impact of the global pandemic on each country’s democratic space. Across case studies and other literature, we find that the pandemic has aggravated and accelerated existing trends of democratic backsliding. Authorities have been hiding behind pandemic management to further clamp down on civic space, create an uneven level playing field and undermine the system of democratic checks and balances.

The paper first details the conceptual understanding of democratic space that underpins the research. The next chapter dives into structural trends in democratic space during the pandemic. The paper then moves on to take a closer look at the actors that defended democratic space during the pandemic. In conclusion, the paper offers some overall reflections and recommendations on what the pandemic means for practitioners, the EU and EU Member States’ policies and programming.

This research paper is the result of a close cooperation between the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy and the European Partnership for Democracy.

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