What exactly is “illiberal democracy”?

What exactly is “illiberal democracy”?

So-called “illiberal democracy” is gaining ground in Central Europe, alongside the far right. On 23 May, Alexander Van der Bellen was elected President of Austria with a lead of only 31,000 votes over the favourite far right candidate, Norbert Hofer. Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia are also going down this road. Is democracy still relevant in Europe,  or is Central Europe pioneering a new model?

What is illiberal democracy and how is it different from liberal democracy?

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban has called into question the efficiency of the different forms of state organization. According to him, the time has come for a state based on more traditionalist values: the liberal state must give way to the rise of an illiberal state.

While we are familiar with liberal democracies in the West, illiberal democracies are, according to Fareed Zakaria “democratically elected regimes often re-elected or reinforced by referendums that ignore the constitutional limits of their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and liberties”.

The number of illiberal democracies is increasing around the world; however, few of them have evolved into liberal democracies. On the contrary, most of them are strengthening illiberal democracy by creating forms of government that mix substantial degrees of populist democracy with strong-man leadership.

Viktor Orban embodies this trend among central European countries. Orban was easily re-elected in 2014, by capitalizing on mounting fears around the refugee crisis. His discourse is especially appealing to small, aging countries who are feeling threatened by demographic decline and fear the loss their ethnic majority if refugee and migrant flows continue.

The axis of illiberalism in Central Europe

Alongside Hungary, three other EU members – Poland, Croatia and Slovakia – are governed by political parties with nationalist and authoritarian tendencies.

In both Hungary and Poland, two main events highlight the decline of the rule of law. Firstly, several attacks against democratic institutions, notably the judicial branch, have called into question the political neutrality of the administration. Indeed, when the Polish government took power, it entered into an open conflict with the Constitutional Tribunal, the country’s highest judicial authority. The UN has reprimanded Orban for weakening democracy by changing voting laws. Freedom House recently compared Hungary’s democratic structure to Balkan states such as Albania or Macedonia.

Secondly, an increased stranglehold over the media underlines the decline of democracy. Poland’s government has taken direct control over state media, through which it has even attacked renowned and historic democratic figures, from Lech Walesa to Donald Trusk. The principal Croatian party of the governing coalition, imposed several contested measures to strangle media and public institutions.

Destabilized by the refugee crisis, now is the right time for Orban to create an axis of illiberalism in central Europe and challenge the strongest figure of Europe, Angela Merkel. The fear of Muslim refugees following the attacks in Paris and Brussels merely increases Central European efforts to construct barriers to defend their territory.

And Orban’s influence is growing. He can can count on powerful support in Brussels, for example the EPP’s president Joseph Daul who supported his re-election in 2014.

Why is illiberal democracy becoming popular?

Budapest affirms that Hungary’s values are different from the ones behind the creation of the European Union. Hungary’s alternative vision of illiberal democracy comprises of order, press control, family, religion, the cult of the homeland, ‘mythification’ of the past, and even the re-establishment of death penalty which Orban considered putting on the agenda in May 2015.

According to Orban, Western values, founded on human rights, respect for minorities, rule of law, and free trade, are now obsolete. In other words, he argues that European Christian democracy has been led astray by liberalism.

Illiberal democracy is in total opposition to the Western model that arose at the end of the Second World War. Orban seeks to turn back on Paris, Berlin, and Brussels with the aim of placing Hungary under the authoritarian model used by Russia or Turkey. Indeed, Russia is actively capitalising on this mindset, seeking to spread its influence by promoting an alternative social and political framework.

Furthermore, hostility towards immigrants leads Orban and others to reject the ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity of their societies because they see multiculturalism as a failed model.

What’s the impact?

Put simply, Hungary’s competitiveness is terrible, and rising levels of state intervention and centralization don’t help.

The Annual Global Competitiveness Report, shows that Hungary’s international competitiveness is getting worse. While the country was ranked 28th in 2011,  this year’s ranking puts Hungary at the 60th place, behind most of the region.

Allegedly in order to solve the problem, Orban is strengthening state intervention in the private sector, but this is in no way the right approach to save Hungary from economic slowdown.

In theory, such a strategy might contribute to the successful operation of a market economy (think the Asian Tigers). However, Orban’s style of increased state intervention has prevented the market signals from functioning properly and reduced efficiency. Moreover, hostility to diversity and migrant labour is the economic equivalent to shooting yourself in the foot. Diversity in the workplace is shown to be highly beneficial, while an influx of students and workers helps to  buttress economies in countries with an aging population.

Viewing liberal democracies as a failed system, illiberal democracies reject the EU’s founding values. Strongly hostile towards immigrants, they seek to suggest an alternative to the mismanagement of Europe and the refugee crisis.

This populist disease in Europe translates into a deep crisis in European identity that needs to be addressed, the rise of illiberalism has important economic impacts that cannot be ignored.

If Central Europe decides to establish illiberal democracy as the new governance paradigm, it will have to face the consequences of lack of competitiveness and isolationism.

Categories: Europe, Politics

About Author

Jason Dozier

Jason specializes in crisis management and the organizational development of terrorist groups. He currently works for the Embassy of Malta in Paris where he serves as Executive Assistant to the Ambassador. Jason holds a Master’s in Terrorism, Security and Society at King’s College London concentrating on a comparative analysis between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. He also obtained a Bachelor in International Relations from the Institute of International Relations in Paris.