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‘Shrinking civic space’ has been the buzzword in international fora and discussions on civil society for the last 10 years. But the problem is not only confined to civil society. In roughly the same period, data and research have shown that democracy is also in decline globally. That means that people have decreasing space to make their voices heard and exercise their democratic rights. The challenges to democracy have only intensified as a result of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the adoption of restrictive measures across the world and serious concerns over the looming economic recession. More and more policy-makers and practitioners are calling on the international community to broaden the narrative of ‘shrinking civic space’ to ‘closing of democratic space’ more broadly. 

The paper aims to broaden the understanding of the different tactics that countries and governments use to close democratic space. By better understanding the reasons why democratic space is shrinking, we hope to contribute to a strategic framework for countering and preventing attacks on democratic space.

As more and more focus is being placed on shrinking democratic space, this study aims to provide an accessible framework to analyse why space is closing and how to counter this trend. It also gives new insights into the behaviour of often-overlooked actors within the political system and the role they play in protecting or undermining space for contestation.

1. Restricting civic space (particularly freedom of expression, assembly and association) with various legal, administrative, extra-legal and political measures, and thereby inhibiting the proper functioning of media outlets, emerging political (opposition) forces, and civil society organisations (CSOs).

2. Changing the rules of the game so as to create an uneven playing field for political contestation. This includes the abuse of state resources by the incumbent, skewed reforms in political party and electoral legislation, and one-sided private and illicit financing in campaigning.

3. Undermining the separation of powers, notably the independence of the judiciary, and thereby politicising legal processes, and allowing impunity and violence to shape the activities of citizens, media actors and CSOs.

1. Attacks on civic space cannot be seen as separate from the wider trend of autocratisation occurring at a global and national level. Restricting civic space, closing the space for political contestation and stifling the rule of law are different ‘tactics’ towards the same end: gradually silencing dissent and concentrating power in the hands of the few. This phenomenon is deeply embedded in the wider trend of regressing democratic space and authoritarian resurgence.

2. Closing space is a multifaceted and non-linear phenomenon. Progressive changes on one level can exist in parallel to regressive changes on another level. Varying combinations of tactics are employed at different points in time. It is thus a multi-layered non-sequential phenomenon affecting the whole political system.

3. Democratic space is being eroded gradually through subtle attacks or protection of the status quo. It is the sum of both the blatant and subtle restrictive actions that are detrimental to democratic space in the long run.

4. Manifestations of closing space have no geographical limitations. Closing democratic space is a global phenomenon, which requires global coordination for an effective response.

5. The judiciary, political parties and civil society play a particularly important role in defending democratic space. Civil society can push back on repressive tactics and expand the space for contestation through advocacy, public litigation, demonstrations, and the building of strategic alliances. Opposition parties can be an important ally for civil society through countering legislative proposals, or in frustrating political processes aimed at closing space.

6. Closing democratic space has a differentiated impact on different population groups, particularly women, youth, or people belonging to minorities. Those who are already facing barriers in participating in decision-making processes are even more affected and further excluded when democratic space is being closed.

7. A variety of actors – including criminal networks, business elites and political parties – play a key role in closing democratic space. While the ruling government is often the main perpetrator of autocratisation, our case studies illustrate the powerful role of criminal networks, business interests or corrupt political parties in breaking down democratic space.

1. Broaden the understanding of and response to shrinking space: Adopt a clear framework for identifying the closing of space that takes into consideration the non-linear and gradual nature of closing space and its effect on the political system.

2. Respond with a multi-level whole-of-society approach: All key actors should be consulted and engaged with when addressing or analysing the closing (or opening) of democratic space in a particular country. This includes those actors who are not well represented at a national level or have no presence in the capital, but play an important role at the local level or in specific communities, like local authorities, local civil society, and people vulnerable due to intersectionalities.

3. Adapt donor support to the reality of gradual non-linear regression globally: Make donors aware of the complexities of closing democratic space and the importance of adaptive behaviour and flexibility in programming, so that funding instruments can allow for a rapid response to regressions or opportunities for opening democratic space

4. Global coordination and political leadership for the EU: Harness the ability of the EU to influence dialogue and achieve change by creating strategic partnerships with other international actors with the political will to defend democratic space

For a full list of recommendations and ideas for action, see the full report here.

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