In December 2021, CIVICUS reported that at least 89 percent of the world’s population now live in ‘closed, repressed or obstructed’ countries. According to CIVICUS, this phenomenon is worldwide and not limited to the obvious autocratic regimes.
Parliaments as enablers of closing civic space
The bad news is that, in some countries, parliamentarians have been playing a major role in curtailing civic space. This is especially true when those MPs represent a ruling party which commands an overwhelming majority. They have done so by enacting legislations that restrict civic space, such as foreign agent laws. For instance, the Congress of El Salvador is currently discussing its own version of a foreign agent law, which would impose an increased scrutiny on civil society and a 40% tax on all funding from abroad. If passed, this law would severely hamper the work of civil society. Most appeals to parliaments to reject restrictive laws have failed and, more strikingly, parliamentary votes have often been used strategically by government to legitimate these laws that close space.
In some of the most striking examples in which civic space has been restricted, parliamentarians have taken drastic steps to undermine the balance of power and limit accountability, through for reforms that undercut judicial independence, which effectively allows the government to attack civil society actors and the independent media with impunity. They have not voiced their concerns against the gradual establishment of ‘digital authoritarianism’ that does not allow for any dissenting voices online, spreads online harassment, and establishes cyber patrol activities that allow the executive to restrict the internet access and the independent flow of information.
Parliaments defending civic space
Thankfully, there are some success stories too, where parliaments have taken an active stance against the executive to fight back against civic space restrictions. They have done so by using their legislative power to amend laws that restrict civic space. In Indonesia, for example, MPs are working on amending the law on the access to internet to counter the government’s misuse of internet cuts since 2019 that has left the media and civil society without access to independent information. In Zambia, parliamentarians have amended the Public Order Act, which required 7 days’ notice to notify a protest and effectively gave the government to opportunity to reject a protest. Amending legislation can allow members of parliament to put the government under microscopic scrutiny, including on their actions to restrict civic space. Social media has been an extremely useful tool to expose the executive on their wrongdoings.
The power of coalitions between parliamentarians and civil society have also been highlighted as a success story. Parliamentarians can work with civil society to build coalitions of local resistance against shrinking civic space. If the coalitions develop strategic actions that put the executive on the spot and speak strongly with one voice against the government, they can tackle the strongest of dictators. Even dictators do not want to be seen as breaking social codes of justice or be on the wrong side of citizens’ interests.
On the flipside, these coalitions require a tireless effort on the part of civil society that needs to convince and involve parliamentarians in their fight to preserve democracy online and offline. This can be done by advancing the argument that restricting civic space often goes hand in hand with restricting political space. Civil society needs to continue to show to parliamentarians the value of an alternative to the closing of civic space by promoting democratic principles. Moreover, civil society should not shy away from taking the executive to court to expose their level of abuse.
Finally, as citizens, we have a responsibility to continue to demand civic space and build democracy – not in spite of the obstacles but because it is the only way the governments and parliaments end up opening up and restoring democracy when it is most threatened.
At the occasion of the 10-year celebration of the Open Government Partnership (OGP), the OPeN consortium organized its Parliamentary Day on December 14th 2021 at the margins of the OGP Summit in Korea. The event featured a session entitled “Strengthening civic space and democratic participation. How can open parliament be a game changer?”, will address the restrictions on civic space introduced in most countries around the world in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their impact on civic freedoms. This blog is based on discussions at that event.