Liberal democracy: an inconsistent concept?

Published on January 21, 2023


By Raphael Demias-Morisset.

The success of the illiberal “concept” of democracy in recent years has been hard to ignore. Whether in the press, political speeches or scientific articles, this concept is subject to criticism and appropriation because of its polemical nature.

It owes its success to its use by leading political and media players, most notably Fareed Zakaria, an American academic and journalist at CNN, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who is seeking a third re-election in 2022. But this media success hides many inconsistencies that are not mentioned in a number of works that relativize the conflict between the supporters of illiberal democracy and its “enemies”.

Contrary to what is often said, the concept of illiberal democracy was not first coined by Fareed Zakaria, as the term was used in the 1990s in scholarly literature focusing on democratic transitions. article and later in 1997 and a book by Fareed Zakaria in 2001. This success can be largely attributed to the pamphleteering nature of Fareed Zakaria’s work aimed at warning the world against the dangers of democracy:

Democracy without constitutional liberalism is simply insufficient: it is dangerous, a source of erosion of liberties and abuse of power.

According to him, it is necessary to ensure that democracy does not turn into an illiberal regime.

However, Viktor Orbán expressed this very desire during his requests after his re-election in 2014:

The Hungarian nation is not only a collection of individuals, but also a society that needs to be organized, strengthened and built. In this sense, the new state we have established in Hungary is not a liberal, but an illiberal state.

Although there is no indication that Viktor Orbán is claiming illiberal democracy by referring to the work of Fareed Zakaria, this appropriation has made the concept a real political referent both nationally and internationally. Thus, we find critical references to illiberalism in Emmanuel Macron’s speeches, official documents of NATO and the European Union, and positive references to illiberalism in Eric Zemmur’s articles and speeches. .

An unsatisfactory definition of democracy

The concept of illiberal democracy therefore has a characteristic that suits both its opponents and its supporters, which may seem paradoxical since it is an initially critical and disqualifying term. The growing place of illiberal democracy in the political sphere makes its definition an important issue that causes a number of problems. Indeed, the definition of the concept of illiberal democracy, first of all, involves the definition of democracy and liberalism, which are “essentially controversial concepts”, that is, concepts whose definition is not the subject of consensus due to their specific characteristics and ideological importance.

Thus, the relevance of the concept of illiberal democracy is a matter of considerable debate in the specialized literature, as it is based on a particularly dubious and limited definition of democracy. Indeed, the only “democratic” element of an illiberal democracy is the electoral mechanism. However, the mere presence of elections does not allow us to distinguish between authoritarian and democratic regimes. For elections to be democratic, they must also be free and fair; This implies the addition of other, more demanding criteria, which are the subject of debate between supporters and opponents of illiberal democracy.

Nevertheless, it can be seen that the two camps have agreed on the democratic nature of the electoral mechanism itself. However, since the French and American revolutions, it has been liberals who have advocated representative government against democracy. Paradoxically, proponents of illiberalism therefore defend a “liberal” conception of democracy because the latter is reduced to a minimalist procedural form.

Confusion around the concept of liberalism

To go further, it is necessary to question the concepts of liberalism of the supporters and opponents of illiberal democracy. At first glance, opponents of illiberal democracy such as Fareed Zakaria define liberalism classically. For them, liberalism means the existence of the rule of law, the limitation of the role of the state and the protection of individual freedoms against the tyranny of the majority.

Less conventionally, liberalism is also closely associated with capitalism and the unregulated free market. In this conception, the apologetics of constitutional liberalism against the dangers of totalitarian democracy and the separation of powers remain subordinate to the proclamation of the market and economic development: the rule of law exists above all to protect economic rights such as property.

It follows that liberal authoritarianism is preferable to illiberal democracy for Farid Zakaria. Such a regime is more conducive to economic growth and capitalism; moreover, if (economic) liberalism is preserved, it is not really a dictatorship.

This definition of liberalism has the effect of making the concept of illiberalism incoherent, since an authoritarian regime can be described as “liberal” and consistent with constitutional liberalism because of its adherence to economic liberalism rather than because of its respect for pluralism or separateness. Since political liberties are no longer considered basic “individual” liberties, powers. We can also note that Poland and Hungary are the best past students of the post-communist transition, which was built according to this model, which favors market export rather than democracy.

Therefore, the concept of liberalism of the opponents of illiberal democracy creates a new paradox that relativizes the opposition between the supporters and opponents of illiberal democracy. Indeed, for Fareed Zakaria, the archetype of a “good” liberal regime is Singapore. Fareed Zakaria’s fascination with the Singaporean regime and its architect Lee Kuan Yew has been the subject of ongoing developments since 1994.

Lee Kuan Yew Interview with Fareed Zakaria.

Although he admits it is moderate authoritarianism, he questions the term “dictatorship” to describe the Singaporean state. However, Singapore is one of the countries cited as an example in Viktor Orbán’s speeches claiming to be an illiberal democracy. Adherence by opponents and supporters of illiberal democracy to the Singaporean ‘model’, which prioritizes economic development and political illiberalism, thus suggests that their opposition is relative and that their political orientations may overlap.

Thus, the concept of illiberal democracy seems so inconsistent that it does not allow us to distinguish between authoritarian regimes and democratic regimes, or to distinguish between supporters and opponents of liberalism.

Raphaël Demias-Morisset, Temporary Teaching and Research Attache in Political Science, University of Bordeaux

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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