Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk
Global Challenges
Issue no. 2 | September 2017
Democracy at Risk | Introduction

Democracy at the Crossroads

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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.Robert Kagan, 2015A 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

1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan/Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing the Democratic party.
US Judge magazine, 1896. Public domain. Via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

  • 1
    Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tuva region, southern Siberia. Between 1 and 3 August 2017.
    Russia: 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.

  • 2
    The nationalist Jobbik party’s rally and march against “gypsy terror” in Hejoszalonta, Hungary. 3 April 2011.
    Orbán’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.

  • 3
    People wave Turkish national flags as they gather on at Kizilay Democracy Square in Ankara during a rally against the failed military coup of 15 July 2016. 10 August 2016.
    Turkey: 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.

  • 4
    Girl passing by posters of candidates of Iran’s Parliamentary Election in Tehran, Iran. 21 February 2016.
    Reinventing 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.

  • 5
    Facade with Poster of President Yoweri Museveni, outside Kisoro, Southwestern Uganda. 23 July 2012.
    Uganda: 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.

  • 6
    Volunteer rescuers step aside to take cover as riot police motorcyclists charge on opposition activists protesting against the newly inaugurated Constituent Assembly in Caracas, Venezuela. 4 August 2017.
    Post-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.

  • 7
    US President Donald Trump speaks at a
    The 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.

  • O
    Democracy 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.

By Dominic Eggel and Marc Galvin
Research Office
The Graduate Institute, Geneva

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Definitions of Democracy

Basic definition

Democracy can be defined as, literally, the rule by the people. The term is derived from the Greek dēmokratiā, coined from dēmos (“people”) and kratos (“rule”) in the 5th century BCE. At heart, democracy is based on three principles: popular sovereignty, political participation and political contestation. Democracies may take on different constitutional forms (constitutional monarchy, republic) and modes of territorial organisation (unitary, federal).

Thin vs. thick description of democracy

The ballot box (free, fair and regular elections) defines democracy at its most basic. This minimalist or “thin” conception of democracy can be opposed to a more substantial or “thick” definition holding that in addition to elections, democracy needs to satisfy a series of further constitutional, liberal and/or social criteria.

Direct democracy

In a direct democracy the people govern sovereignly by congregating in popular assemblies and taking decisions by popular vote (usually by show of hands, as in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus). There is no political representation. For thousands of years direct democracy remained the principal model of democracy as exerted in city-states or other small-scale polities.

Example: ancient Athens.

Representative democracy

A representative or electoral democracy is a type of democracy where the people govern indirectly through elected representatives. It requires a set of political institutions different from those of direct democracy such as parliaments and regular elections. Representative democracy became prevalent in the 19th century with the emergence of large nation-states.

Liberal democracy

Liberal democracy is a subgenre of representative democracy defined not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers and the protection of basic civil liberties (freedom of speech, assembly and religion). Liberal democracies limit the exercise of executive power and majority rule through constitutions ensuring independent courts, the protection of minorities, and basic human rights.

Semidirect democracy

Semidirect democracy is a mixed form of democracy where elected representatives govern and legislate but the citizens remain sovereign through referenda, initiatives and recalls. Even though today only Switzerland is a semi-direct democracy in the formal sense, many democracies have institutionalised elements of expression of popular will such as referenda.

Parliamentary democracy

Parliamentary democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch of government depends on the support of the parliament, often expressed through a vote of confidence. The party that wins the largest number of congressional seats selects the prime minister, who controls the legislative process. The executive is divided into a head of government and a ceremonial head of state.

Examples: Australia, Germany, India, Spain.

Presidential democracy

Presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where the executive branch is elected separately from the legislative branch. The parliament controls the budget, legislates, approves appointments to cabinet positions and ratifies foreign treaties. The president appoints cabinet members, commands the army and serves as the head of state and the head of government.

Examples: Argentina, Indonesia, United States, Venezuela.

Semi-presidential democracy

Semi-presidential democracy is a type of representative democracy where a president exists alongside a prime minister and a cabinet. It differs from the parliamentary system in that it has a popularly elected head of state, who is more than a purely ceremonial figurehead, and from the presidential system in that the cabinet, although named by the president, is responsible to the legislature, who can move a motion of no confidence.

Examples: France, Russia, Tunisia.

Participatory democracy

Participatory democracy refers to a regime where citizens participate actively in public decision-making. Instruments to broaden citizen participation include e-democracy and e-voting.

Deliberative democracy

In a deliberative democracy authentic deliberation, not mere voting, is the primary source of a law’s legitimacy. Jürgen Habermas has made a fundamental contribution to deliberative democracy through his work on communicative rationality and the public sphere.

Voting systems: proportional, plurality and majority

In a proportional system parties obtain seats proportionally to the votes they win. In a plurality system, candidates who win most votes in an electoral district are elected. In a majority system, candidates who win more votes than all others combined in an electoral district are elected. Proportional representation usually leads to a multiparty system whereas plurality and majority election favour bipartisanism.

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United States






This table shows the evolution of democracy in the USRussiaUgandaHungaryTurkeyVenezuela over 10 years. Arrows indicate the improvement (↗) or deterioration (↘) of a given indicator between 2006 and 2016. One arrow per 0.4 variance on a scale of 10.

Aspects of democracy Trend
Legislative constraints on the executive ↘↘
Judicial constraints on the executive = ↘↘
Government censorship (internet) ↘↘ = ↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Government censorship (media) ↘↘ = ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Freedom of association
Freedom house rule of law =
Freedom of academic and cultural expression ↘↘ ↘↘ ↘↘↘↘↘↘ ↘↘
Source: V-Dem Website provides 350 indicators and indices on democracy.
Caricature de @Chappatte - www.chappatte.com Caricature de Beatriz Tirado

Source: Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit, EIU)

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What Is Illiberal Democracy?


In his 1997 contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy”, Fareed Zakaria defines illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes, often ones that have been reelected or reaffirmed through referenda, [but] are routinely ignoring constitutional limits on their power and depriving their citizens of basic rights and freedoms”.

Fareed Zakaria

Fareed Zakaria is an Indian American journalist and author with a BA from Yale College and a PhD in Government from Harvard University. He worked as Adjunct Professor at Columbia University and as managing editor of Foreign Affairs from 1992 to 2000 (a post he was appointed to at only 28 years old). Zakaria has also been a columnist and editor for Newsweek, Time Magazine and The Atlantic. Currently he hosts Fareed Zakaria GPS – CNN’s flagship international affairs programme – and writes columns for The Washington Post. Foreign Policy named Zakaria one of its top 100 global thinkers. He is the author of five books, including The Future of Freedom (2003), The Post-American World (2008) and In Defense of a Liberal Education (2016).

15 characteristics
  • Consolidation of power in the executive
  • Charismatic leader
  • Erosion of the independence of the judiciary
  • Weakening status of the parliament
  • Recourse to direct democracy (plebiscites/referenda)
  • Populist rhetoric/propaganda
  • Discrimination of minorities
  • Monitoring and moulding of civil society
  • Media and internet censorship
  • Curbs on academia and educational curricula
  • Targeted repression of opponents
  • Restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly
  • Disregard for rule of law and human rights
  • Misuse of state resources (cronyism)
  • Emasculation of the electoral process
  • Forging of external enemies
Academic criticism

Illiberal democracy as a concept has been criticised for its diffuse meaning and close proximity to related, almost synonymous terms, such as: limited democracy, flawed democracy, hybrid regimes, dysfunctional democracy, deconsolidating democracy, defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism. According to Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, the concept does not distinguish sharply enough democracies which have, in fact, never been truly democratic but claim to be so, from regimes that actually have successfully become or transitioned toward genuine democracy but are backsliding toward autocracy. Others, such as Jørgen Møller, have argued that electoral democracy is, if measured adequately, a better measure than illiberal democracy since truly competitive elections only take place in liberal democracies. Finally, it has also been contended that illiberal democracy is an unfortunate and potentially noxious misnomer since it offers the opportunity to populists and autocrats to promote illiberalism while preserving the veil of democracy.

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