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

Democracy on the Brink: Four Key Insights

Democratisation is not a linear process, nor can the continued development of liberal democracy be taken for granted. Disenchantment with democracy has gained ground among new democracies where many of the promises associated with economic and political freedom have failed to materialise. But trust in political elites and institutions has also plummeted in many of the established democracies.

By drawing attention to changing narratives about the shape, and even the desirability, of democratic institutions as well as examining the practices of governance in many majoritarian democracies, the contributors to this issue of Global Challenges highlight some key aspects of the undermining of liberal democracy worldwide:

  1. Ambiguous impact of the (in)action of international institutions. Neoliberal structural adjustment programmes have had a detrimental impact on representative institutions in several countries of the Global South (and some in the Global North too, as the case of Greece shows), as suggested by Sánchez’s analysis of populism in Venezuela. Yet, paradoxically, where supranational institutions, or international financial institutions, possess some leverage to ensure prevalence of the rule of law, freedom of expression or separation of powers, they often fail to use it to ensure a commitment to these liberal principles. Randeria argues that EU intervention and sanctions have been conspicuous by their absence despite, for instance, Hungary’s systematic dismantling of liberal democratic institutions. For the Middle East, Ould Mohamedou shows how in the name of “stability” and “security” Western governments have tolerated the ongoing “rebranding of authoritarianism“. Democratic ideals in the Middle East and North Africa region have thus been compromised by an interplay of internal and external forces.
  2. Shifts in the attractiveness of democratic and authoritarian models. Sylvan’s analysis alerts us to the worldwide historic influence that the US “democratic model” has exerted through its oft-lauded constitution, its culture of active political participation, and its strong civic movements. The current political scenario, however, calls into question several aspects of this model, and emboldens illiberal voices all over the globe. Moreover, as Krastev suggests, liberal and illiberal democracies today seem to mirror each other’s anxieties. While Russia continues to be obsessed about the Western gaze, the expansion of Russian authoritarianism has gripped the political imagination of the West as well. If there is justifiable concern with the ideological and financial links between Putin and the European Right, there is equal worry that the Russian model may predict the future shape of polities (including Western democracies) worldwide.
  3. Restructuring of state institutions amidst new socioeconomic configurations. Krastev identifies a new pattern of resource extraction in Russia which may be best characterised as “spoliation and neglect”. Randeria delineates the new contours of the Hungarian state, which has narrowed all spaces of dissent while concentrating economic power in the hands of a tiny elite loyal to the leader. In Venezuela, where the expansion of executive power goes hand in hand with a breakdown of political representation, Sánchez explores the emergence of bodily affect as “a crucial political and social crucible”. Given the retreat of the political, the Chavist regime has used control mechanisms embedded in the military and economic machinery of the state to strengthen its own power base.
  4. Use of liberal means to establish and entrench illiberal democracies. Ironically, elections can be instruments for disempowering citizens where they serve to liberate elites from the electorate (Krastev). The 2017 constitutional referendum in Turkey was organised to formally reinforce presidential powers amidst widespread intimidation and massive purges (Bayart). Large parliamentary majorities can be used to undermine the rule of law and to establish instead illiberal forms of rule by hastily passing ad hoc legislation without public scrutiny. Randeria analyses the processes that transformed Hungary’s governance by “rule of law” into an authoritarian “rule by law”. Focusing on Uganda, Tapscott’s analysis reveals the subtle ways in which a state maintains control over society by fostering a climate of uncertainty fuelled by arbitrary interventions. Thus, irrespective of formally liberal politics, “institutionalised arbitrariness” precludes citizens from entertaining reliable expectations regarding state-society relationships.
Los Angeles, USA - January 21, 2017: Activist holds a sign about human rights during Women's March Los Angeles in Downtown LA.
Betto Rodrigues / Shutterstock.com

The lived experiences of democracies today are being shaped by a multitude of reconfigurations at the national, local and translocal levels. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing an expansion of the repertoire of democracy along with that of authoritarianism; or, perhaps, even the blurring of the demarcation between the two. Bayart identifies the power dynamics between the proponents of authoritarianism and those of democracy as the real issue in the face of an intensifying struggle over the redefinition of democracy. Illiberal democracies do not share unique defining features that would allow them to be subsumed under a common denominator, as illustrated by the contributions to this dossier. But in what sense these can be considered democracies at all remains a moot question. We need a better understanding of citizens experiences of politics and the state in everyday life across the world: the protection of civil liberties can hardly be sustained within political, economic and social structures designed to buttress illiberal regimes. These structures influence citizens’ perceptions of the state, which in turn produces particular types of subjects and subjectivities. We are witnessing an expansion of the repertoire of democracy along with that of authoritarianism; or, perhaps, even the blurring of the demarcation between the two. To understand current patterns and future trajectories of (il)liberal democracies, it is as important to study the working and transformations of institutions as it is to analyse the responses of citizens to these changes. Today, the need to counter “the overproduction of opinionated opinion” – as emphasised by Albert O. Hirschman in 1989 – and to get the citizenry to engage critically in the polity is as urgent as ever. Creative imagination is required in order to (re)make democracies into vibrant spaces of participation but also objects of political desire.

By Christine Lutringer
Senior Research Fellow
Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
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.

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)

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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