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The problem with ‘illiberal democracy’

Jan 25,2016 - Last updated at Jan 25,2016

Poland’s turn towards authoritarian rule has set off alarm bells across the European Union and within NATO.

Since coming to power in October, Jarosław Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) has attacked the country’s constitutional court, politicised the judiciary and the civil service and launched an assault on media pluralism.

Critics of the PiS government, which is led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (with Kaczynski, ruling from behind the scenes as he holds no official post), have described its actions as a blitz to install “illiberal democracy”, similar to what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done in his country over the past six years.

But to call what is being constructed in Poland illiberal democracy is deeply misleading — and in a way that undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats like Kaczynski and Orbán.

After all, it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.

The concept of “illiberal democracy”, attributable to a 1997 essay by the American foreign-policy thinker Fareed Zakaria, was an effort to describe regimes that held elections, but did not observe the rule of law and regularly overrode their political systems’ constitutional checks and balances.

It was an idea born of disillusion.

In the heady days after the fall of communism, a kind of democratic ecstasy prevailed (at least in the West).

The “end of history” had been achieved and elections, representative institutions and the rule of law would, it seemed, always go neatly together.

Soon, however, newly empowered electorates were voting in majorities that used their power to oppress minorities and violate fundamental rights.

The implication was clear: democracy on its own was not enough.

Liberalism — the protection of minorities and individual civil liberties — had to be strengthened.

The word “liberalism”, however, does not mean the same thing to all people.

In many circles, it came to be used to describe unfettered capitalism and full freedom of choice in personal lifestyles.

And it was the alternative meanings that initially allowed politicians like Orbán and the Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to make the case for a different form of majoritarian democracy.

Erdogan, emphasising traditional Islamic morality, started to present himself as a “conservative democrat”.

Orbán, in a controversial speech in 2014, declared his desire to create an “illiberal state”.

More recently, during the refugee crisis, Orbán announced the end of the era of what he called “liberal blah blah” and predicted that Europe would come around to his “Christian and national” vision of politics.

To be sure, the phrase “illiberal democracy” is not necessarily a contradiction in terms.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, many European Christian Democrats would have called themselves “illiberal”. In fact, they might have been offended if one questioned their staunch anti-liberalism.

What this did not mean, however, is that they failed to understand and recognise the importance of minority rights in a functioning democracy (after all, minorities can become the majority in the next election).

Nor did it mean that they believed unelected institutions like constitutional courts were somehow undemocratic.

They associated “liberalism” with individualism, materialism and, very often, atheism; but being anti-liberal did not mean rejecting the importance of rights or independent institutions.

What governments like those in Poland, Hungary and Turkey are proposing is something very different.

It is one thing to criticise materialism, atheism or even individualism. It is something else altogether to attempt to limit freedom of speech and assembly, media pluralism or the protection of minorities.

The first is a disagreement about different political philosophies that can justify democracy. The second is an attack on democracy’s very foundations.

An election, after all, can be undemocratic even if the ruling party refrains from stuffing ballot boxes.

If opposition parties have been hindered in making their case to the electorate, and journalists do not dare to report on the government’s failures, the ballot boxes have already been stuffed.

It is no accident that many of the democracies that emerged after the fall of communism established constitutional courts to protect rights and preserve pluralism.

These institutions ultimately secure and sustain democracy.

As long as critics keep using the phrase “illiberal democracy” to describe what is happening in countries like Poland, leaders like Kaczynski will simply say, “Exactly”!

Far from being received as a criticism, the phrase reinforces such leaders’ image as opponents of liberalism, while allowing them to continue to refer to their actions as “democratic” — which, for all the disappointments over the last quarter-century, is still the most important prerequisite for inclusion in the geopolitical “West”.

Furthermore, the expression “illiberal democracy” confirms the narrative that democracy is the domain of national governments — and that it is the European Union that is pushing undemocratic liberalism.

This allows figures like Kaczynski and Orbán to paint the EU as the agent of rampant capitalism and libertine morality.

The fact that Europe’s new authoritarians have come to power through free and fair elections does not lend democratic legitimacy to their efforts to transform entire political systems to their own advantage.

Instead of describing them as “illiberal” we should be calling them what they really are: “undemocratic”.


The wrier is professor of politics at Princeton University and the author of “Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe”. ©Project Syndicate, 2016.

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