The contemporary global society is rife with feelings of contempt for liberal democracy due to a persistent rise in societal, economic, and political inequalities.
As a result, countries from all corners of the world are increasingly abandoning this democratic approach to governance for alternative political movements, such as nationalism, populism, and more worryingly, illiberal democracy.
This trend is further demonstrated in EIU’s (Economist Intelligence Unit) Democracy Index.
In the most recent rankings, democracy hit a record low in 2021 as the percentage of nations living in democracies dropped below 50% for the first time since 2006.
Authoritarian-based regimes, most notably illiberal democracies, are increasingly gaining ground in Europe and other parts of the world.
What is Illiberal Democracy?
Also called soft authoritarianism or electoral authoritarianism, illiberal democracy is a system of governance that allows for universal suffrage but suppresses other fundamental liberties.
In his highly cited 1997 piece in the Foreign Affairs journal, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracy as a regime that was elected democratically but deprives citizens their fundamental rights and continuously ignores constitutional limitations of power.
Zakaria adds that these governments are often reaffirmed or reelected via referenda.
Their elections, although seemingly democratic, are also repeatedly manipulated to consolidate and give a stamp of approval to the incumbent leadership.
In many cases, illiberal democracies take the form of populist governments with firm hand leadership.
Liberal v. Illiberal Democracy
A liberal democracy is characterized by full protections for property and individual freedoms as stipulated in the rule of law.
The bedrock of such a government is the constitution. A liberally democratic regime cannot exercise biased judgment against specific groups as it is constitutionally mandated to provide just protections and benefits to all.
Learn more here: Liberal Democracy Examples (+Features, Challenges, and Pros & Cons)
On the flipside, illiberal democracies have weaker limits on the powers of the elected regime.
These governments legitimize their power through populist agendas and use partial adherence to universal suffrage as a disguise for democratic leadership.
With majority rule as the premise for illiberal democracy, most illiberal democracies work against minority groups and use their imposed authority to circumvent or remove constitutional limits.
Nonetheless, despite their stark difference, both illiberal and liberal democracies are indirect or representative democracies, meaning they are not full democracies.
Characteristics of an Illiberal Democracy
A. Populist Rhetoric
Populism is a political strategy designed to appease ordinary residents, who form the majority, by juxtaposing them against the elite or minority groups.
This is a critical tenet of illiberal democracies as leaders use majoritarian rule that purports to give a voice to the masses, thus rejecting plurality and equality of liberal values.
As a result, minorities are highly discriminated against under such leaderships.
This view of majoritarian rule is integral to illiberal regimes as it legitimizes their authority.
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B. Charismatic Leader
All leaders of illiberal democracies have tremendous charisma that enables them to inspire fidelity from the masses.
Such individuals are bold, radical, and eloquent enough to influence others to follow their political ideologies.
C. Restrictions on Liberal Freedoms
Another integral attribute of illiberal democracies is that these regimes suppress the resident’s individual freedoms.
Freedom of speech is among the most affected fundamental freedoms. For instance, in Poland, the government recently assumed full control over all forms of state media as a way of gagging journalists.
The goal is to assert the government’s authoritarian rule by fending off any voice that speaks against the government’s actions or legitimacy.
D. Emasculation of Elections
While illiberal democracies allow people to take part in elections, they commonly interfere with the process to extend and validate their rule.
Issues such as election rigging and manipulation of electoral officers are prevalent in illiberal democracies.
Ideally, allowing people to engage in political elections allows illiberal democratic regimes to paint the picture of a highly democratic state while the reality is that the electoral process is a mere farce.
As explained by Zakaria, elections help illiberal democracies seem “reasonably democratic”, thus gaining these regimes legitimacy and power.
Examples of Liberal Democracies
To the casual eye, this Middle Eastern nation appears to be a reasonable democracy.
Israel has held regular national and local political elections in the past.
These elections are to a great extent fair, conflict-free, and highly competitive, hence the country’s superficial liberal appeal.
Case in point: a record high 41 political parties contested in the recently concluded 2019 general elections and a significantly high voter turnout of 69% was recorded.
However, in reality, Israel’s government has in the past decade applied a conscious effort to redesign the country’s democratic landscape by enacting several legislations asserting the majority’s supremacy at the expense of minority groups.
Consequently, checks and balances in the country’s civil society with specific regards to minority protections have weakened substantially, creating a less liberal and highly ethnocentric society.
In particular, Israel’s majority right-wing calls for annexation of its lands, discriminating against Palestinians living in Israel and left-wingers (the minority).
Moreover, the Israeli government is using brutal force against all forms of political dissent, such as the recent killing of Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, by Israeli forces, as she covered the discriminatory raids on Palestinian households in the occupied West Bank,
Hungary is another standout example of illiberal democracy.
Viktor Orban, the Hungarian president, currently enjoys direct control over the state’s election process, judiciary, and press.
He came to power in 2010 and immediately embarked on a mission to abandon the country’s ‘Western’ system of democracy and adopt an ‘Eastern’ approach founded on discrimination, a weak opposition, and firm leadership.
A major attribute of this illiberal democracy is Orban’s populist rhetoric.
He won the 2010 and 2014 elections using the campaign slogan “To us, Hungary comes first”.
This anti-immigrant sentiment is the foundation of Orban’s political rule as he focuses on ethnic Hungarians and ignores the rights of immigrant groups.
After ascending to power in 2010, Orban used his parliamentary majority to amend the constitution without involving members of the opposition.
Part of this constitutional amendment included removing the constitutional court’s veto power in laws backed by a two-thirds majority, developing gerrymandered voting districts, and creating the National Media and Communications Authority to control the press.
More recently, in 2018, Orban enacted the ‘Stop Soros’ legislation which outlaws helping asylum seekers or illegal immigrants.
All these changes favored Orban’s Fidesz majority party and their populist agenda.
3. Singapore (under Lee Kuan Yew)
Lee Kuan Yew is one of the founding members of Singapore’s majority party, PAP (People’s Action Party), and the country’s longest-serving Prime Minister having been in power from 1959-1990.
Under his regime, and to date, the constitution allows citizens the right to participate in political elections and basic freedoms, such as peaceful assembly, speech, and religion.
However, Lee also imposed heavy-handed legislation that did not favor minority groups.
For instance, Lee enacted the bilingual policy which identifies English, Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay as the country’s official languages.
This policy was Lee’s primary tool of social engineering as it enabled him to offer special privileges to majority racial groups and suppress those of minority groups.
Also, he passed the Internal Security Act which allowed him to sanction the arrest of political criticizers, such as suspected communists, without any official trial.
Furthermore, he abolished jury trials with the goal of asserting his full control over the country’s judiciary.
Using these policies, Lee was able to suppress liberal freedoms and promote populist ideologies while still maintaining a reasonable democratic outlook.
4. Philippines (under Rodrigo Duterte)
Rodrigo Duterte, the former president of the Philippines, was voted to power in 2016 when press freedoms and principles of universal suffrage were firmly in place.
Therefore, unlike most illiberal democratic leaders, Duterte was elected fairly.
However, he has since used his power to strong-arm various arms of government, the press, and poor Filipinos into adhering to his populist agenda.
His tagline was “order over the law”. Duterte argued that his aim was to instil the discipline that lacked in the previous reformist regime.
Among his many acts of “discipline” included enacting a war on drugs which gave military men the authority to shoot and kill any suspected drug dealer or user.
This policy led to thousands of police killings in the country, whereby poor people were the most affected.
Duterte also abolished the country’s Commission on Human Rights due to its persistent criticizing of the government’s brutal crackdown.
Duterte also used threats to intimidate the judiciary and Ombudsman in matters relating to the executions he sanctioned.
He proceeded to gag the press by making bogus claims against major journalism entities, such as Rappler, of illegal ownership, which contravenes the country’s laws.
Despite seemingly observing the people’s fundamental rights, Duterte used his power to suppress basic civil liberties.
5. The USA (under Donald Trump)
The former American president, Donald Trump, is renowned for his famous tagline, ‘Make America great again’. This phrase is the epitome of anti-immigration-based populist rhetoric.
Trump’s administration recognized the basic human rights detailed in the country’s constitution as people were allowed to take part in their civic duties.
However, his populist agenda involved exercising prejudice against minority groups while prioritizing the majority (whites).
Trump’s illiberal policies included proposing building a border wall to prevent Mexican immigrants from entering the country and imposing flight restrictions for people from most Arab nations.
6. Turkey (under Recep Erdogan)
Recep Erdogan’s regime is more or less a one-man government.
Using his strongman leadership style, Erdogan pushed for a referendum and granted himself massive presidential powers that make him the supreme overlord in Singapore.
Case in point: he abolished the prime minister’s functions, shrunk the parliament’s functions, dismissed several judges, and allowed himself to legislate via decree.
In the few years he has been in power, Erdogan has prosecuted many human rights activists and journalists on bogus terrorism charges and has taken direct control over all state media, allowing him to deprive members of opposition ample airtime.
While Turkish citizens are allowed to vote, Erdogan’s illiberal regime gives mere lip service to fundamental individual liberties and minorities.
7. Poland (under Jaroslaw Kaczynski)
In 2015, Kaczynski’s Law and Justice (PiS) party defeated the former Sjem parliamentary majority in the general elections and became the ruling party.
Ever since, the country’s democratic landscape changed for the worse as Kaczynski’s majority party has taken several measures aimed at suppressing the rule of law and the basic rights of Polish people.
Case in point: in a bid to take control of state media, Kaczynski signed a law requiring the government to dismiss and recruit all executives of public media houses in the country.
This strategy is designed to gag the press and ensure the government has total dominion over journalists.
Also, PiS is currently attempting to take charge of the nation’s most superior judicial authority, the Constitutional Tribunal.
The government is pushing for an amendment noting the government should sign off on any judge appointments to this body.
These policies threaten the basic freedoms of Polish citizens, although Kaczynski still maintains a reasonable democratic governing system.
This European state is considered another budding illiberal democracy.
Unlike Poland and Hungary where strongman leaders use all-powerful ruling parties to bend the law to their will, Croatia’s HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) is the biggest part of the country’s ruling coalition but not all-powerful.
The country’s constitution still allows for inclusivity and justice.
However, the government is increasingly censoring the country’s press through political pressure and imposing stringent policies on public broadcasting services.
This growing press censorship is a major threat to basic freedoms in the country and a precursor for more illiberal governance.
In summary, an illiberal democracy is a form of governance that bends the law to its will using power.
At face value, such regimes seem reasonably democratic as they allow residents the right to vote.
However, they suppress basic liberties for minorities through populist agendas and legitimize their authority farciciously.
Some notable examples include Hungary, Israel, Singapore, and the Philippines.