Democracy at the Crossroads
In what has been described as a “decade of decline” (2006–2016) for liberal democracy, freedom has been continuously eroding all over the world. More than 20 years after Francis Fukuyama’s triumphant celebration of the “end of history”, it seems that liberalism, both economic (free trade) and political (pluralism, civil liberties, constitutional safeguards), is in serious crisis.
It is autocracy, not democracy, that has been the norm in human history.A feeling of growing disempowerment has led to political cynicism and a disconnection of the general public from the body politic. Rates of public participation and confidence in institutions and traditional parties have plummeted. With popular anger on the rise, populism has made a spectacular (re)entry on the political scene.
The liberal foundations of democracy appear to be shakier than ever before. In 2015, Turkey ranked last among electoral democracies in Freedom House’s index. The Arab Spring has given way to widespread disillusion and violence. In Latin America, several democracies have regressed on the slippery slope towards cronyism (Brazil) and authoritarianism (Venezuela, Bolivia). Asian democracies are facing trouble too, as illustrated by a regain in nationalist rhetoric (Japan), endemic corruption (South Korea) and outright illiberalism (the Philippines).
What is equally a cause for concern is that democracy is on the defensive in its Western heartland. The Economist’s Democracy Index in 2016 downgraded the United States, the beacon of democracy for much of the modern era, to a “flawed democracy”. Deep disenchantment with democracy is sweeping Eastern and Central Europe as Hungary and Poland dismantle constitutional rights and civil liberties. Populist leaders in Western Europe (Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen, Beppe Grillo, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry) have followed suit.
Paradox: democratic success but liberal decline
Despite such alarming signs, however, democracy remains perhaps the most successful political idea in modern history. In 2015, it was the most widespread form of government in the world, with largely “free and fair” electoral processes in place in 125 countries. Most surveys show that democracy continues to enjoy a near-universal appeal. Even liberal democracy’s detractors such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Narenda Modi, Viktor Orbán, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Beata Szydlo and Donald Trump have all been elected by majorities and praise their own democratic credentials. Outright autocratic regimes such as China (PRC), Cuba and North Korea call themselves democracies too.
We thus face a paradox: while electoral democracy continues to be acclaimed everywhere, a series of indicators measuring political and civic freedom show it to be in deep trouble. This paradox of democratic success but liberal decline calls for a more fine-grained analysis and a sharpening of our analytical tools if we are to better understand the rise of these new forms of elected but authoritarian governance.
The key to this paradox may well reside in the notion of “illiberal democracy”, first coined by Fareed Zakaria in 1997. According to Zakaria, what is fundamentally at stake is not democracy but liberalism. Since liberal democracy for many has come to stand for democracy tout court, it is now seriously challenged by the new phenomenon of illiberal democracies on the ascendency.
Illiberal democracies are best characterised as regimes that have been elected by a popular majority but strive to undermine constitutional safeguards, the rule of law and civil liberties. Adopting a winner-takes-it-all approach (volonté générale), they entertain the myth of a sacred unity between the leader and “the nation” and discriminate against ethnic, religious and/or sexual minorities. They tend to concentrate power in the executive in a process of constitutional re-engineering that co-opts or corrodes the judiciary (Hungary, Poland), the legislative (Venezuela), or both (Russia). They weaken civil society by reverting to a set of “authoritarian best practices” including media censorship and state propaganda. They mobilise resentment and anxieties by constructing enemies, both external (migrants, the European Union) and internal (NGOs, human rights activists). Political opponents are intimidated, publicly vilified (“lock-her-upism”) or subjected to repression by the arbitrary application of purposefully vague laws – often anti-terrorism legislation. The final step in consolidating illiberal democracies consists in emasculating the electoral process: not by rigging elections – which usually remain free and fair – but by loading the dice long in advance.
In a marked difference from more full-blown authoritarian regimes, illiberal democracies are not, however, yearning for the total control of society and regularly seek popular legitimisation through the tools of direct democracy (referenda, plebiscites). Putting in place an elaborate system of societal monitoring and media entertainment, illiberal democracies are only selectively repressive and strive to maintain an illusion of pluralism.
THE Causes BEHIND the rise of illiberal democracies
A number of potential causes may be identified behind the recent surge of illiberal democracies.
First, younger generations show signs of historical amnesia as they are no longer cognisant of the totalitarian horrors of the 20th century. Cradled by the benefits of liberal democracy, millennials, in particular, seem to have lost the sense of urgency of defending civic rights and freedoms.
Second, a generalised sentiment of insecurity and occupational angst in a fast-changing world has led to the estrangement of the citizens from their political elites. The steady rise in economic inequality seems to have fractured the social contract.
Third, the social media revolution, coupled with postmodern epistemic uncertainty, has ushered a new era of “post-truth politics” with little space for rational dialogue. Illiberals are thriving on fake news, equating opinions to truth claims, and on the pretence that power bears intellectual legitimacy.
Fourth, the retreat of the United States from its traditional role of global harbinger of democracy has left a vacuum promptly filled by other powers. China and Russia have been quick to put forth alternative models deemed more competitive, or morally righteous, than Western liberal democracy. Russia has shown little restraint in intervening in European and American politics. Leaders of illiberal democracies, in turn, have professed solidarity with – and mimetically borrowed from – their more experienced authoritarian counterparts.
Fifth, and finally, since its emergence in the Age of Enlightenment, liberalism has entertained a complex and tension-riddled relationship with democracy. As the 20th century has shown, the combination of democracy (equality) and liberalism (freedom) is an utterly fragile construct.Since its emergence in the Age of Enlightenment, liberalism has entertained a complex and tension-riddled relationship with democracy
Whereas the causes behind the current rise of illiberal democracy can be identified with relative ease, the question remains how the phenomenon is likely to evolve in the 21st century. Will the newly emerging illiberal democracies stabilise and become a permanent fixture of geopolitics? What forces and safeguards, on the contrary, are currently working in liberal democracy’s favour and what is needed to preserve it for the future?
Seven cases studies
To answer these questions, the present Dossier, produced in collaboration with the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy and professors of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, investigates seven case studies from around the world, starting from the premise that illiberal democracy is best represented on a continuum ranging from first worrying signs as in Trump’s America to more advanced authoritarian regimes as in Putin’s Russia – with many shades and nuances in between.
1Russia: Haunting Western Democratic Imagination
Ivan Krastev shows that the cause of anxiety in the liberal West is not that Russia will run the world, but that much of the world will be run the way Russia is run today. The West has started to resemble Putin’s Russia more than we are ready to acknowledge.
2Orbán’s Lawfare against Liberal Democracy in Hungary
Shalini Randeria warns that whether illiberal democracies take root in Europe will depend in large measure on the European Union and the European People’s Party continued toleration of Prime Minister Orbán’s undermining of civil and political liberties.
3Turkey: Erdoğan’s Authoritarian Turn
Exploring the paradoxes between Erdoğan The Authoritarian and Erdoğan The Democrat, Jean-François Bayart argues that while Erdoğan draws on the resources of Muslim conservatism to underpin his legitimacy, he relies above all on the old methods of the Kemalist regime to consolidate his power.
4Reinventing Authoritarianism in the Middle East
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou argues that the new-old authoritarian regimes of the Middle East have reasserted themselves in at least three innovative ways: by appearing to embody change while crushing it; by securing international support for, or tolerance of, their campaigns; and by sowing doubts amongst their populations about the value of democracy.
5Uganda: Managing Democracy through Institutionalised Uncertainty
Rebecca Tapscott investigates the situation of democracy in Uganda, a hegemonic party-state that relies increasingly on patronage and violent coercion. Uganda exemplifies how illiberal democracies produce uncertainty to formally manipulate liberal governance for the pursuit of illiberal ends.
6Post-Truth Populism in Venezuela
Venezuela’s Chavist regime seems to be a good example of an illiberal democracy. For Rafael Sánchez, however, Chavism has less to do with democracy, understood as majority rule, than with factors that such an understanding occludes.
7The United States and the Trajectory of Democracy
David Sylvan considers that the jury is still out on whether or not the United States, under Trump, will become an antidemocratic model. What matters is not so much what Trump does as what his fellow citizens do in response.
ODemocracy on the Brink: Four Key Insights
Drawing conclusions from the Dossier, Christine Lutringer argues that we are currently witnessing an expansion of the repertoire of democracy along with that of authoritarianism – or, perhaps, even the blurring of the two. To understand future trajectories of (il)liberal democracies, it is important to study not only the restructuring of state institutions amidst new socioeconomic configurations but also the responses of citizens to these changes.