Elections in tight civic space

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and Zimbabwe remind me of the treadmill option at my gym that offers a digital hike through stunning New Zealand or Hawaii woodland. The imagery is so good it brings to mind other national parks; you climb and get the right rush. Even though you cannot deviate, improvise or run any risk, this feels almost like a country walk.

Election simulation?

The elections in Pakistan, Cambodia, and possibly Zimbabwe, feel like elections. At the point-of-delivery, they have the basic elements: there has been political campaigning and some different views aired; many people have been permitted to vote, as the long lines testify; their votes have been counted in some fashion. Each election is imperfect in its own way, because – why leave important matters to chance? Losers complain, that is how it is done. Nonetheless, so far at least, each election has had a reasonable chance of passing as ‘good enough elections’, not fake enough to rock the whole treadmill.

The digital woodland setting at my local gym

Yet, like my digital forest hike, the facts tell us the path of these elections was always, to some degree, pre-programmed. In each of Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan, civic and political space has shrunk significantly and recently. Each of the three elections was staged within a year of political leaders being removed from competition. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe was finally toppled in an intra-elite ‘coup’ last November. In Cambodia, opposition leader Kem Sokha was imprisoned on treason charges in September, and his party banned in November. Last July, the Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was convicted of corruption and disqualified from office, then jailed a month before the polls on corruption charges. The political pathways were thus sharply delimited in each country.

As in my risk-free, climate-controlled virtual forest, these elections blocked out the real features of a democratic political landscape. They went ahead with limited space for reasoned and informed debate, and without the freedoms of the media, of speech, and of association necessary to mobilize public opinion or build representative parties with a chance of competing. Media outlets had been silenced or threatened. Groups making demands of liberal democracy or human rights – NGOs, social movements, or civil society organizations – had been attacked, stigmatized and denounced. Laws and regulations were in place to restrict organizations with foreign funding, and to control digital communications (see here, here, and here).

Closures of civic space of the kinds seen in Cambodia, Zimbabwe, and Pakistan are now widespread. They don’t affect all groups equally: liberal democratic and human rights groups, as well as indigenous and land and resource rights defenders, are on the frontline of most attacks. But there is more space for neo-traditionalist groups, particularly those opposed to human rights or positioned on the right; others advocating violent, extremist, or disruptive measures have forcibly occupied more of the civic space. So civic space is changing, as much as it is shrinking – for some.

Crossroads for development

Elections are always a crossroad, a moment when political pathways are dug into, abandoned, or diverted. But because how political power is won shapes how it is exercised and for whom, elections also foreshadow the nature and pace of development progress. To try to understand the politics of development in closing civic space, a group of researchers has been reading widely and thinking comparatively about what has been happening in Cambodia, Pakistan, and Zimbabwe, among other countries, in the past decade. In this working paper we share our thoughts about how we can understand what changes in civic space mean for development in different countries. We look at how political settlements and state-civil society relations differ across settings to identify the mechanisms at work, and assess the unique development challenges and opportunities of each.

‘Fake development’ in closed civic space?

If our conceptual framework offers any guide, we can hope for higher growth rates in a political settlement forged in tight civic space, particularly with IMF structural adjustment programmes in sight in Pakistan and Zimbabwe. That might look good on spreadsheets, but we know beyond doubt that growth does not reach everyone equally and that inequality has political and economic costs. Where civil society is constrained we may expect more disruptive street protests against price rises or austerity measures: a wave of ‘fuel riots’ in fragile and conflict-affected settings in the past decade shows what happens when more civic modes of engagement fail.

Macroeconomic instability and corruption have been a drag on development progress, and we know that robust civil society and free media scrutiny and evidence can help keep finance ministries honest and stable. But in their often valid efforts to gain control over the national development process, governments have often squeezed the abilities of NGOs to do valuable work protecting the vulnerable, empowering and giving voice to the marginalized, and monitoring government and business to help avoid development disasters, boost inclusion, and improve policies and programmes. If academia and thinktanks cannot independently scrutinize or debate governmental performance, they cannot hold it to account; faith in official data may be thin, weakening generalized political trust.

A critical, independent civil society may give the political opposition an edge at times, but it is also functional for many of the needs of those in power: it improves both the quality of governance and of the wider development process. A robust civil society is good for government – inconvenient in the run-up to elections, but on balance, an essential part of the apparatus of democratic rule. A robust civil society is similarly good for development – again, inconveniently critical at times, but necessary to manage the development process inclusively, equitably, and sustainably enough – to register the kind of fair performance on which political elite legitimacy rests.

If you don’t listen to polite civil society, things start to get rude.

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) with their agendas of inclusion, equity, and ‘leaving no one behind’ are an unlikely pathway from elections fought in such tight civic space. Whether the elections in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, and Cambodia are a simulation of democracy or accepted as the real thing, their new political leaders face the challenge of delivering development in tight civic space. The roles of civil society in development need urgently to be debated, transparently and in a spirit of accountability. Our research group will watch civic space in these countries for whether they open up new paths we anticipate to be necessary for a model of development that has any chance of being sustainable, equitable, inclusive, or of ‘leaving no one behind’.

Download the new paper: What does closing civic space mean for development? A literature review and proposed conceptual framework


Key sources on the closing civic space debate:


All views expressed here are the responsibility of the author, and not of the IDS or of the funders of the research.

The IDS working paper no. 515 What does closing civic space mean for development? was made possible through funding from Act Alliance and UK Aid, who both financed a literature review on closing civic space and the implications for development. The UK Aid financed Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme is supporting the production of the series of working papers so check here for more information.


4 thoughts on “Elections in tight civic space”

  1. With all due respect, this paper indicates lack of authentic information regarding the ground reality in Pakistan. Shaping an argument for the sake of argument and that too based on what the Global Mainstream Media has been incessantly harping upon at the behest of the Globalists Deep State in regards to the election in Pakistan, only equates the attempt with the propaganda disseminated by the MSM. Ask those who live here and grieve upon the unceasing intervention of the Globalist Deep State in our internal affairs… how do we feel?… how do we see the treacherous mainstream politicians who have ruined our country and the nation in a bid to fulfill the agenda of the Globalists? We certainly do not feel the space was simulation or closure of civic space… this is what so-called academic attempts tend to make the world believe. No one was removed, people reaped what they had sown by stealing the wealth and resources of an entire nation.

    1. Many thanks Zara. I really value hearing your point of view. I admit I was not focusing closely on any one of those elections, but drawing attention to an apparent trend, because it is relevant to our recent research. PLease do find the time to read the paper. Many thanks

  2. Thank you for your kind response Naomi. And reiterating the purpose of the research paper. I do understand the paper is focusing upon a trend however my reaction was based upon the fact I have observed a massive campaign of disinformation in the Global MSM in the past few weeks before and after Pakistan Elections more or less on the same lines… hence to see Pakistan’s instance being quoted in a paper that is essentially highlighting a trend in the internal politics of certain states, caused me to react. The point to be noted in case of Pakistan is that the losers are complaining about an Election that was conducted by the officials appointed by the outgoing ruling party itself. Losers have already lost the right to complain. Secondly, Nawaz Sherif, ex-prime minister, was not ‘removed from competition’ – the Sherif Family simply found itself caught up in a legal proceeding stemming from the Panama Leaks. Laundered & looted wealth of an entire nation surviving on the edge for the last ten years of so-called democratic rule with the stooges of Globalists’ sharing power. Based on the MSM disinformation you can say ‘ these elections blocked out the real features of a democratic political landscape’ but that will be a conclusion drawn from a perspective which is not the least in touch with the contextual details of the ground reality not to forget essentially engineered. The MSM in Pakistan was not the least silenced. Parties campaigned as freely as they always do. The pseudo intellectuals lobbying for anti-Pakistan entities in Washington and London, calling for observation of human rights and providing the Western media with CIA Black-ops kind of ridiculous stories, speak the language of their masters. Their narrative is not new either not is their purpose hidden. Hence the truth is there was no ‘closure of civic space’… To conclude my issue is Pakistan did not present a case-study that fit the context of this paper if one takes the ground reality into account. I am not sure about the other two but I can most definitely speak for my own country and nation.

    1. Dear Zara Ali, this is all very interesting. Many thanks for replying. I agree on some of the problems with international media coverage of events like the elections in Pakistan. And that is why I hoped to make it clear I could not myself make any judgement – it felt to me much like an election, and as you say the ‘ground reality’ rarely makes it into international news. Best of luck in Pakistan, and to you,

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