Illiberal democracy

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An illiberal democracy is a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties; thus it is not an open society. There are many countries "that are categorized as neither 'free' nor 'not free', but as 'probably free', falling somewhere between democratic and nondemocratic regimes".[1]

The rulers of an illiberal democracy may ignore or bypass constitutional limits on their power. They also tend to ignore the will of the minority which is what makes the democracy illiberal.[2] Elections in an illiberal democracy are often manipulated or rigged, being used to legitimize and consolidate the incumbent rather than to choose the country's leaders and policies.[3]

Some theorists argue that illiberal democracy is fundamentally undemocratic and therefore prefer terms such as electoral authoritarianism,[4] competitive authoritarianism,[5] or soft authoritarianism.[6][7]

Origin and description[edit]

The term illiberal democracy was used by Fareed Zakaria in a regularly cited 1997 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.[8]

According to Zakaria, illiberal democracies are increasing around the world and are increasingly limiting the freedoms of the people they represent. Zakaria points out that in the West, electoral democracy and civil liberties (of speech, religion, etc.) go hand in hand. But around the world, the two concepts are coming apart. He argues that democracy without constitutional liberalism is producing centralized regimes, the erosion of liberty, ethnic competition, conflict, and war. Recent scholarship has addressed why elections, institutions commonly associated with liberalism and freedom, have led to such negative outcomes in illiberal democracies. Hybrid regimes are political systems in which the mechanism for determining access to state office combines both democratic and autocratic practices. In hybrid regimes, freedoms exist and the opposition is allowed to compete in elections, but the system of checks and balances becomes inoperative.

Regime type is important for illiberal democracies. This is because illiberal democracies can rise from both consolidated liberal democracies and authoritarian states. Zakaria initially wrote his paper using the term illiberal democracy interchangeably with pseudo-autocracies but today they are used to describe countries that are potentially democratically backsliding as well.[9][10] Below it is explained how illiberal democracies—in this case autocratic regimes—may try to demonstrate false liberal tendencies in order to consolidate their regime.

Author Jennifer Gandhi argues that many autocrats allow elections in their governance to stabilize and reinforce their regimes. She first argues that elections help leaders resolve threats from elites and from the masses by appeasing those capable of usurping power with money and securing the cooperation of the general public with political concessions.[11] Gandhi also claims that illiberal elections serve other useful purposes, such as providing autocrats with information about their citizens and establishing legitimacy both domestically and in the international community, and that these varied functions must be elucidated in future research.[12] One example of the regime durability provided by illiberal democracy is illustrated in Mubarak's Egyptian regime. Lisa Blaydes shows that under Mubarak's lengthy rule, elections provided a mechanism through which elites bought votes to support the government (through distributing needed goods and resources to the public) to acquire regime-enforced parliamentary immunity. This enabled them to accumulate illicit wealth and draw from state resources without legal consequence.[13] Such research suggests that, given the stability-providing function of illiberal elections, states governed under illiberal democracies may have low prospects for a transition to a democratic system protected by constitutional liberties.

In order to discourage this problem and promote the development of liberal democracies with free and fair elections, Zakaria proposes that the international community and the United States must promote gradual liberalization of societies. Zakaria advances institutions like the World Trade Organization, the Federal Reserve System, and a check on power in the form of the judiciary to promote democracy and limit the power of people which can be destructive.[8] Illiberal democratic governments may believe they have a mandate to act in any way they see fit as long as they hold regular elections. Lack of liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly make opposition extremely difficult. The rulers may centralize powers between branches of the central government and local government (exhibiting no separation of powers). Media are often controlled by the state and strongly support the regime.[14] Non-governmental organizations may face onerous regulations or simply be prohibited. The regime may use red tape, economic pressure, imprisonment or violence against its critics. Zakaria believes that constitutional liberalism can bring democracy, but not vice versa.


There is a spectrum of illiberal democracies: from those that are nearly liberal democracies to those that are almost openly dictatorships. One proposed method of determining whether a regime is an illiberal democracy is to determine whether "it has regular, free, fair, and competitive elections to fill the principal positions of power in the country, but it does not qualify as Free in Freedom House's annual ratings of civil liberties and political rights."[15] A 2008 article by Rocha Menocal, Fritz and Rakner describes the emergence of illiberal democracies and discusses some of their shared characteristics.[16] Menocal, Fritz, and Rakner try to draw the similarity between illiberal democracies and hybrid regimes. The authors make the case that the "democratic optimism" in the 1990s—following the collapse of the Soviet Union—has led to the emergence of hybrid regimes holding illiberal values. Initially, the Western powers assumed that democratic consolidation would occur automatically and disregarded the alternatives. In reality, the non-consolidation of democracy has led to the rise of hybrid regimes that possess "illiberal values".[17]

Cases of illiberalism[edit]

In a 2014 speech, after the re-election, Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary described his views about the future of Hungary as an "illiberal state". In his interpretation the "illiberal state" does not reject the values of the liberal democracy, but does not adopt it as a central element of state organisation.[18] Orbán listed Singapore, Russia, Turkey, and China as examples of "successful" nations, "none of which is liberal and some of which aren’t even democracies."[19]

The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has also been described as an illiberal democracy. Elections take place regularly, but many foreign observers (e.g. from the OSCE) do not consider them free or fair. The rate at which journalists have been murdered in Russia shows the limits of freedom of speech; most major television networks and newspapers are state-owned or influenced by the government and openly support parties that support the government during elections.[20][21] Russia had also moved towards a period of democracy in the early 1990s, but whilst elections remain in place, state control of media is increasing and opposition is difficult.[22]

An example of an illiberal democracy can be said to also define Singapore, especially during the leadership of its first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.[23]

In a 2015 CNN reportage, Zakaria said that Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has become a textbook case of illiberal democracy.[24] Erik Meyersson observes that using Freedom House’s measure of liberty, Turkey took the last place among electoral democracies in 2015, scoring worse on the liberty measure than some countries that are not even considered electoral democracies.[25]

In the United States, the Republican Party has in recent years faced criticism that it is becoming increasingly illiberal under the leadership of President Donald Trump.[26][27][28] According to a study by the V-Dem Institute, the Republican Party has become more illiberal and populist in the last two decades with an increase under the leadership of Donald Trump.[29][30] Trump's populist style of governance has been considered by some to be a dangerous risk to the heart of liberal democracy, as well an indifference towards traditional democratic allies and praising other "strongman rulers" in the world like Putin.[31]

Relationship with populism[edit]

With the different types and different examples of illustrations discussed, a key component in the rise of illiberal democracies today is populism. Current populist leaders—especially within Western states—have the tendency to promote illiberal values, a notable example being the exclusion of immigrants and openly xenophobic statements. This wave has been labeled as "xenophobic populism".

Authors Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser discuss the role of populism in deteriorating liberal democracies. Within the article, Mudde and Kaltwasser argue that populism—although surrounded by negative connotations—is democratic in nature, as it gives a voice to the people and heavily follows the idea of majoritarian rule. The problem arises within liberal democracies, as the authors argue that liberal values and democracy internally contradict each other. Democracy promises majoritarian rule while liberal values promise the protection of minorities.[32] Furthermore, it is argued that populism is a product of democracy, but in general populist leaders try to use the democratic aspect of liberal democracies to undermine liberalism. This is closely related to Zakaria's argument. The authors try to establish the idea that the rise of populism is undermining liberal values as populism at its core rejects plurality and minority protection—often the evident liberal values.

Moreover, Sheri Berman supports that idea that democracy being unchecked by liberalism can lead to populist—and in some regards dangerous—rule, but further argues that liberal values unchecked by democracy can be just as dangerous, as she argues, through the use of historical examples, this can lead to oligarchic rule. Berman takes a different perspective on the role of populism and argues that it is rather the weakening of democratic institutions that has led to the rise of populism and the deterioration of liberal democracies.[33] When discussing this matter, Berman through the example of Western states—United States and Europe—has attributed the cause of populist backlash to national government disregarding the interests of average citizens for business elites. In sum, Berman is trying to demonstrate that populism has led to the rise of illiberal democracies, while the populism has gained traction as a result in democratic institutions being too elite-led.[34]


Writers such as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way reject the concept of an illiberal democracy, saying it only "muddies the waters" on the basis that if a country does not have opposition parties and an independent media, it is not democratic.[35] They argue that terms like "illiberal democracy" are inappropriate for some of these states because the term implies that these regimes are at their heart democracies that have gone wrong. Levitsky and Way argue that states such as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milošević, Zimbabwe and post-Soviet Russia were never truly democratic and not developing toward democracy, but were rather tending toward authoritarian behavior despite having elections, which were sometimes sharply contested. Thus, Levitsky and Way coined a new term to remove the positive connotation of democracy from these states and distinguish them from flawed or developing democracies: competitive authoritarianism.[5]

According to Wojciech Sadurski, "illiberal democracy is largely an oxymoron" in Poland, because "[b]y dismantling various checks and balances, and the many democratic institutions related to elections and judicial review, the ruling party greatly weakens the democratic character of the state". Sadurski prefers the term "plebiscitarian authoritarianism".[36]

In 1998, author Marc Plattner argued that democracy and liberalism have a turbulent relationship, where throughout history they constantly repel and attract one another. Plattner believes that the rise of illiberal democracies is merely part of a democratization cycle, where states democratizing will often shift from liberal to illiberal tendencies. From this, Plattner believes that through the careful assistance of consolidated democracies these 'illiberal democracies' can slowly push themselves out of this cycle.[37][needs update]

According to a study by George Washington University political scientist Michael K. Miller, multiparty autocratic elections predict significantly better outcomes on health, education, gender equality, and basic freedoms relative to non-electoral autocracy. Effects on health and education are as strong as those of democracy and are significantly better than in non-electoral autocracy.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ O'Neil, Patrick. Essentials of Comparative Politics. 3rd ed. New York, New York, W. W Norton & Company, 2010. pp. 162–63. Print.
  2. ^ "Contents", The People vs. Democracy, Harvard University Press, pp. v–vi, 2018-12-31, ISBN 978-0-674-98477-6, retrieved 2021-02-08
  3. ^ Nyyssönen, Heino; Metsälä, Jussi (24 September 2020). "Liberal Democracy and its Current Illiberal Critique: The Emperor's New Clothes?". Europe-Asia Studies: 1–18. doi:10.1080/09668136.2020.1815654. Thus, there is a real danger of ‘pseudo-democracy’, especially because elections can be manipulated and often are. In these cases, elections and other democratic institutions are simply adapted patterns of authoritarianism, not democracy in some imperfect form, having the dual purpose of legitimising the incumbent’s rule and guarding it from any danger of democratic change.
  4. ^ Schedler, Andreas, ed. (2006). Electoral Authoritarianism: The Dynamics of Unfree Competition. Lynne Rienner Publishers, Incorporated. ISBN 978-1-58826-415-2.
  5. ^ a b Levitsky, Steven & Lucan Way. Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Journal of Democracy, April 2002, vol. 13.2, pp. 51–65
  6. ^ DeVotta, Neil (2010). "From civil war to soft authoritarianism: Sri Lanka in comparative perspective". Global Change, Peace & Security. 22 (3): 331–343. doi:10.1080/14781158.2010.510268. S2CID 143630796.
  7. ^ Christie, Kenneth (1998). "Illiberal Democracy, Modernisation and Southeast Asia". Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory (91): 102–118. ISSN 0040-5817. JSTOR 41802094.
  8. ^ a b Zakaria, Fareed (November–December 1997). "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy". Foreign Affairs. Archived from the original on 15 October 2005. Retrieved 6 July 2013.
  9. ^ Puddington, Arch (2017). Breaking Down Democracy: Goals, Strategies, and Methods of Modern Authoritarians. OCLC 989162097.
  10. ^ Muis, Arne; van Troost, Lars (eds.). Will human rights survive illiberal democracy?. ISBN 9789064634147. OCLC 1041192078.
  11. ^ Gandhi, Jennifer (2008). Political Institutions Under Dictatorship. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. Introduction.
  12. ^ Gandhi, Jennifer and Ellen Lust-Okar (2009). "Elections Under Authoritarianism". Annual Review of Political Science. 12: 403–422. doi:10.1146/annurev.polisci.11.060106.095434.
  13. ^ Blaydes, Lisa (2010). Elections and Distributive Politics in Mubarak's Egypt. Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ "In political theory, an illiberal democracy is defined as one that only pays attention to elections, while it violates, in the years between elections, some core democratic principles, especially freedom of expression": Narendra Modi’s illiberal drift threatens Indian democracy, Financial Times, 18 August 2017.
  15. ^ Diamond, Larry & Morlino Leonardo. Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, p. xli
  16. ^ Rocha Menocal, A., Fritz, V. & Rakner, L. "Hybrid regimes and the challenges of deepening and sustaining democracy in developing countries", South African Journal of International Affairs, 2008, 15(1), pp. 29–40
  17. ^ Rakner, Lise (2007). Democratisation's third wave and the challenges of democratic deepening: assessing international democracy assistance and lessons learned. Advisory Board for Irish Aid. OCLC 229412697.
  18. ^ "Prime Minister Viktor Orbán's Speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp". 30 July 2014. And so in this sense the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.
  19. ^ "Orban Says He Seeks to End Liberal Democracy in Hungary". 28 July 2014. Retrieved 22 October 2017 – via
  20. ^ Illiberal Democracy and Vladimir Putin's Russia. "Collegeboard". July 2004
  21. ^ Sultan or democrat? The many faces of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, CBC, 5 June 2013. Retrieved 19 June 2013.
  22. ^ Whatever happened to glasnost?, BBC News, February 7, 2009.
  23. ^ Mutalib, H (2000). "Illiberal democracy and the future of opposition in Singapore". Third World Quarterly. 21 (2): 313–42. doi:10.1080/01436590050004373. S2CID 154321304.
  24. ^ "What in the World: Turkey's transition into an illiberal democracy - CNN Video". Retrieved 22 October 2017.
  25. ^ "Which country has the most illiberal democracy in the world?". 18 June 2015. Retrieved 22 October 2017.
  26. ^ Beutler, Brian (2016-12-07). "Sorry, Conservatives, Trump's Illiberalism Is on You". The New Republic. ISSN 0028-6583. Retrieved 2019-11-23.
  27. ^ Chait, Jonathan (2017-09-10). "The Only Problem in American Politics Is the Republican Party". Intelligencer. Retrieved 2019-11-23.
  28. ^ "Commentary: In U.S. and EU, illiberalism in full bloom". Reuters. Retrieved 2019-11-23.
  29. ^ Borger, Julian (2020-10-26). "Republicans closely resemble autocratic parties in Hungary and Turkey – study". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2020-12-16.
  30. ^ "The Republican Party has lurched towards populism and illiberalism". The Economist. 2020-10-31. ISSN 0013-0613. Retrieved 2020-12-16.
  31. ^ Norris, Pippa (2017). "Online Exchange on "Democratic Deconsolidation" (PDF). Journal of Democracy. 12.
  32. ^ Populism in Europe and the Americas: threat or corrective for democracy?. Mudde, Cas,, Rovira Kaltwasser, Cristóbal. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2012. ISBN 9781139424233. OCLC 795125118.CS1 maint: others (link)
  33. ^ Berman, Sheri (2017). "The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism". Journal of Democracy. 28 (3): 29–38. doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0041. ISSN 1086-3214. S2CID 149050938.
  34. ^ Berman, Sheri (2017). "The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism". Journal of Democracy. 28 (3): 29–38. doi:10.1353/jod.2017.0041. ISSN 1086-3214. S2CID 149050938.
  35. ^ Halperin, M. H., Siegle, J. T. & Weinstein, M. M. The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace. Routledge, 2005. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-415-95052-7.
  36. ^ Sadurski, Wojciech (2019). "Illiberal Democracy or Populist Authoritarianism?". Poland's Constitutional Breakdown. Oxford University Press. pp. 242–266. doi:10.1093/oso/9780198840503.003.0009. ISBN 978-0-19-884050-3.
  37. ^ Plattner, Marc (March 1998). "Liberalism and democracy: Can't have one without the other". Foreign Affairs. 77 (2): 171–180. doi:10.2307/20048858. ISSN 0015-7120. JSTOR 20048858. Archived from the original on 18 April 2005.
  38. ^ Miller, Michael K. (2015-10-01). "Electoral Authoritarianism and Human Development". Comparative Political Studies. 48 (12): 1526–62. doi:10.1177/0010414015582051. ISSN 0010-4140. S2CID 154285722.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bell, Daniel; Brown, David, and Jayasuriya, Kanishka (1995). Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0-333-61399-3.
  • Sajó, András (2021). Ruling by Cheating: Governance in Illiberal Democracy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-84463-5.
  • Sajó, András; Uitz, Renáta; Holmes, Stephen (2021). Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-367-26054-5.
  • Thomas, Nicholas (1999). Democracy Denied: Identity, Civil Society, and Illiberal Democracy in Hong Kong, Ashgate, ISBN 978-1-84014-760-5.
  • Welsh, Jennifer (2016). "Chapter 4: The Return of Cold War". The Return of History: Conflict, Migration, and Geopolitics in the Twenty-First Century. House of Anansi Press. ISBN 978-1-4870-0130-8.
  • Zakaria, Fareed (2007). The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0-393-33152-3.