The OGF took place on 3-5 October 2011, and was organised by the UNDP’s Democratic Governance Group in collaboration with United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF), ActionAid, ACT Alliance, World Bank Institute and PRIA Global Partnership. The Forum focused on participatory governance assessments and social accountability as means for strengthening democratic governance at the national and international level.
This paper explores the concept of democratic space in the context of the Asia-Pacific region. It examines the factors that affect the quality and capacity of democratic space to give poor and marginalised groups meaningful opportunities to participate in politics and governance and exercise their human rights. Across the Asia-Pacific region, more people than ever before now have opportunities to democratically elect their leaders. However, the extent to which these leaders actually act on behalf of citizens is questionable, and opportunities for meaningful participation in political life amongst the majority of citizens appear to be declining in a number of countries. This is manifesting itself in different ways, including attacks on journalists, censorship of traditional and digital media, arrests of human rights defenders and incidents of political violence and religious extremism.
This paper was commissioned by the UNDP Asia-Pacific Regional Centre. Its aim is to explore the apparent shrinking and vulnerability of democratic space in a number of countries in the region in greater depth, examine the factors that are driving it, and identify possible entry points and programming strategies that could help to address the problem
This paper is divided into ten sections. Following this introduction, the second section examines the role that democratic space plays within governance and democracy, and explains why it is important that the UNDP works to strengthen and expand it through its programming. Section three elaborates on the
concept of democratic space, outlining the institutions, processes, relationships and structures that affect its depth and quality. Section four examines dynamics in democratic space in the Asia-Pacific region, describing the ways in which it is expanding in some geographical and institutional areas whilst
simultaneously shrinking in others. Section five examines why democratic space is vulnerable across the Asia-Pacific region. We argue that, as in many other regions in the world, democracy in many Asia-Pacific countries consists mainly of formal democratic institutions rather than substantive democratic processes, values and relationships. As a result, the balance of power is skewed away from poor and marginalised groups who remain disempowered to demand and receive democratic accountability from their leaders. As discussed in section six, this leaves democratic space lacking in quality and depth –prone both to manipulation and shut down by powerful individuals and groups in their efforts to retain political and economic power. Section seven examines some of the possible reasons why citizens in Asia-Pacific have had limited success in reclaiming democratic space from elite and majority groups. We argue that the history of economic, media and civil society development in the region has contributed to the vulnerability of democratic space, and that groups working to strengthen and expand democratic space need urgent support. Section eight examines how international dynamics such as economic globalisation and the global war on terror are intertwining with regional and national trends to impact on democratic space. Section nine explores how the UNDP could help to support democratic space through its existing programmatic priorities. Section ten concludes.