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The Shadows of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

20 febbraio 2019 -
The Shadows of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Contributo selezionato da Filodiritto tra quelli pubblicati nei Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Bozóki András [1]

[1] Central European University, Department of Political Science (HUNGARY)

 

Abstract

In recent years, somewhat surprisingly, the concept of “illiberal democracy” has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance. While this concept was originally defined negatively, considering it as valid description for countries lacking strong constitutional-liberal tradition, recently some autocratic leaders have proclaimed proudly that illiberal democracy was a positive notion. In the meantime, some scholars analyzed different forms of democracy including the illiberal one.

I argue that considering illiberal democracy as type of democracy is a conceptual mistake, because illiberal democracy in fact belongs to the hybrid regimes. Illiberal democracy might make sense in the grey zone between democracies and dictatorships an alternative setting to democracy. Careful empirical analysis of mixed regimes, like Hungary, helps scholars to avoid inflating the notion of democracy.

 

Introduction

Since the end of the “transition paradigm” [1] which displayed an optimistic belief in political progress, analysts had to accept that the development from dictatorship to democracy could be halted or reversed. General expectations notwithstanding, the democratic upheaval of 1989-1991 did not end in turning all dictatorships into liberal democracies. Not only the countries of “democracy by default” [2] became authoritarian, but even formerly consolidated, liberal democracies could backslide to hybrid regimes, “combining democratic and authoritarian elements” [3]. While the number of liberal democracies increased significantly, it is even more important to note a growing grey zone lying between democracies and dictatorships, where hybrid regimes thrive.

In the following, I will mostly focus on regime types and not on political speeches and supposed intentions of politicians. As we know, important as they are, political speeches often hide, rather than express, real political intentions. “Do not pay attention to what I say, but what I do” said Viktor Orbán memorably to the US ambassador in Budapest about ten years ago. Further, hybrid regimes, in holding on to the name of democracy, are even more likely to use public speeches to obfuscate rather than to reveal the inner workings of the regime. Thus, here I will focus on the academic issue, the grey zone which contains several mixed regimes and the place of illiberal democracy in this terrain. These regimes have been termed variously: as semi-democracies, semi-dictatorships, “guided,” “sovereign” or “managed” democracies, delegative democracies, illiberal democracies, liberal autocracies, electoral authoritarianisms, competitive authoritarianisms and the like [4-7]. As early as 1986, O’Donnell and Schmitter already recognized the existence of some transitory regimes, such as democradúra and dictablanda, based on the Latin American experience [8]. It soon became clear that the defining democracy and dictatorship was not simply an “either-or” question, but a problem of “more or less.” Countries in the grey zone contain some elements of democracy and authoritarianism at the same time, albeit in different proportion. But even if it is a “more or less” issue, one has to be able to identify the Rubicon, a particular historical juncture or moment, which needs to be crossed at times of regime change. Even if it is true that dictatorships do not develop to democracies overnight, nor fall back to dictatorships with the same speed, still we have to able to find the borders between liberal democracies, hybrid regimes, and dictatorships. Even on the “more or less” axis, there are some turning points that separate the three different regimes from each other.

Hybrid regimes have the common feature that they all have competition, although the political elite in power deliberately rearranges state regulations and the political arena as to grant itself undue advantages. For all practical purposes, they are all beneficiaries of an “uneven playing field.” According to Levitsky and Way: “competitive authoritarian regimes are civilian regimes in which formal democratic institutions exist and are widely viewed as the primary means of gaining power, but in which incumbents’ abuse of the state places them at a significant advantage vis-à-vis their opponents. Such regimes are competitive in that opposition parties use democratic institutions to contest seriously for power, but they are not democratic because the playing field is heavily skewed in favor of incumbents. Competition is thus real but unfair.” [7] In recent years, somewhat surprisingly, the concept of “illiberal democracy”, once introduced by Fareed Zakaria [9] has enjoyed a spectacular renaissance. While Zakaria defined this concept negatively, considering it as valid description for countries lacking strong constitutional-liberal tradition, recently some authoritarian leaders have proclaimed proudly that illiberal democracy was a positive notion. It was presented as an “anti-core” voice of the periphery against the supposedly elitist, bureaucratic-technocratic, liberal democracy which favored the upper classes of Western countries.  Illiberal democracy was presented as majoritarian, bottom-up, re-politicized democratic alternative to democratic elitism in which working people regain power from the politically correct (but socially less sensitive) elites. However, in reality, it did not lead to higher popular participation, or popular sovereignty; rather it resulted in social apathy and the nearly unlimited power of the sovereign leader. Theoretically, some promoters of illiberal democracy return to Max Weber’s notion of “leader democracy” (Führerdemokratie), while forgetting that Weber understood the salience of leaders within the realm of liberal democracy [10]. Others offer a right-wing, nationalist interpretation of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony [11], as they believe that political discourse should be dominated by relentless propaganda. Some others refer to Carl Schmitt’s theory of “the political”, which states that the major constitutive element of politics is the conflict between friend and foe [12]. They also like to reinterpret Ernesto Laclau’s and Chantal Mouffe’s understanding of radical politics [13] to highlight the importance of return to real politics of “real people”. This approach to politics favors virtue, community and the articulation of conflicts vis-a-vis the dominant neutralizing, legal and moral discourse of the liberal elites. For them, a large dose of populism is vital to reinvigorate politics, and the rise of populist democracies [14] should be considered as healthy reaction to Western democracies which reveal citizens as alienated consumers (and not spirited participants) of democratic politics.



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