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“The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (late 1997)

Fareed Zakaria

Illiberal democracy—in which tyrannical or bigoted groups take power through democratic
means and then ignore constitutional limits—is a growing problem.
Liberal democracy entails free and fair elections, constitutional limits on government powers,
separation of powers, and protection of personal liberties.
Constitutional liberalism and democracy are two separate things that arose during the same time.
While 118/193 countries are democratic, political abuses are commonplace in Third World
democracies. Presidents often override legislatures and use military and police forces to settle
problems.
Political and civil liberties are separate. It is possible for a country to respect political liberties by
allowing elections, but to disrespect civil liberties. Such is an illiberal democracy.
There are signs that illiberal democracy is not just a transition phase between dictatorship and
liberal democracy: Many countries seem to be settling into illiberal democracies of varying
degrees just as the balance between capitalism and socialism comfortably varies across the
world.
Democracy does not equate with good, effective government or with a set of civil and economic
rights beyond perhaps free speech, assembly (needed for free and fair elections) and universal
suffrage. Sweden’s economic system curtails individual property rights and England has a state
religion.
Constitutional liberalism refers to the goals of government and centers around protecting
individual rights and comforts.
Liberal emphasizes the Greek concept of Liberty.
Constitutional emphasizes the Roman concept of Rule of Law.
While liberal democracy emerged in Western Europe, until the 20th century, most of that region
was under liberal autocracy. During the 19th century, monarchs exercised most of the power,
legislatures were very weak, and miniscule percentages of the populations could vote. Yet they
respected individual rights (including property rights) and slowly evolved into democratic
systems. Universal suffrage completed the transformation by the 1940’s.
The recent history of East Asia follows the same pattern. After WWII, some countries tried to
jump the gun and form liberal democracies, but they failed and instead went to essentially
autocratic systems (dictators, one-party states, pointless elections) with a fair degree of liberalism
that steadily increased with time. Economic prosperity in East Asia has now created wealth, a
middle class, and capitalism, which are the best preconditions for liberal democracy.
While constitutional liberalism eventually leads to democracy, the opposite does not appear to be
true. During the same postwar period, Latin America, Central Asia and Africa embraced
democracy, with negative effects on government respect for human rights. Multiparty elections
have proven no guarantee of good government. And many of these countries have democratic
systems in which most of the power is centralized with the Presidency.
In Muslim countries, democracy has given Islamic fundamentalists a voice in government, which
has proven destructive to whatever preexisting traditions of secularism and tolerance there may
have been.
In Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and the Gulf States, democratic elections would result in illiberal
groups displacing the more liberal autocracies presently reigning.
Eastern Europe, however, has moved successfully to liberal democracy because they had long
existed in the liberalizing nondemocracy phase.
The British empire was autocratically liberal and emphasized the rule of law, which left behind
strong traditions in many ex colonies. The French, by contrast, typically favored one indigenous
group over others as an administrative class.
Liberal nondemocracy is not always a bad thing. Hong Kong, which was ruled by the British
until 1997 and which only allowed token elections, was excellently administered and provided
extensive constitutional protections and a complex legal system to its citizens.
Pure democracy can lead to a tyranny of the majority, which opposes liberalism’s constitutional
protections.
Democratically elected leaders in troubled countries like Peru and Belarus also have the
tendency to aggregate power through extraconstitutional means, sometimes with or without the
support of the people. They often claim that the fact that they were popularly chosen itself
justifies their actions, even if they only won a plurality of the popular vote.
Salvador Allende was elected Chile’s president with only 36% of the vote.
Power-hungry presidents tend to staff all high positions with cronies and to bypass the legislature
whenever disagreements arise and instead appeal directly to the people.
One of Latin America’s problems is that the countries are set up to have strong presidents and
legislatures divided by parties and coalitions.
Zakaria believes that a legitimate government that deals with opposition will make slow yet
honest progress while a centralized state will make fast progress yet run larger risks. A president
who usurps power in a popular move to fight corruption or to reform the economy may later
refuse to surrender the power and use it for evil.
The transition from liberal autocracy to liberal democracy occurred smoothly in England and
Sweden, where local governments and councils leftover from the Medieval age helped
accommodate the growing demands of new politically active groups granted suffrage. But in
France and Prussia, where monarchies had centralized power, the transition was poor. In the
U.S., strong local governments helped to accommodate the suffrage expansions of the early 19th
century (religious minorities, landless white men, later black men).
Illiberal means are incompatible with liberal ends in the long run, except in the case of war.
Liberal democracy grows out of government protection and enforcement of property rights and a
capitalist economy.
While dictatorship can hold diverse countries together, a sudden transition to democracy without
liberal constitutional guarantees to all groups can lead to war between groups, as was observed in
the former Yugoslavia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Liberal democracies with strong traditions of
tolerance can peacefully accommodate opposing groups, however.
In countries without histories of tolerance, political parties based on ethnic, religious or racial
lines usually form. Democratic elections can result in the most numerous group taking power and
then abusing their control of government to disenfranchise other groups. This scenario has
occurred many times in Africa. Democracy may simply not be viable in areas with intense
demographic divisions and intolerance.
The maxim that two democracies have never warred with each other invites some scrutiny:
-Does the American Civil War count?
-Might this be explained by MAD owing to nuclear weapons?
-Democracy is relatively new. Might this situation just be a coincidence?
-Democracies in fact fight more frequently and with greater intensity than other types of states.
-Kant’s writings are often taken to say the democracies are averse to war because cautious
citizens control decision making in such societies. In fact, Kant attributed the dearth of war
between democracies to liberal values: respect and tolerance for the views of others, and
organization of the government so that widescale consensus need be achieved to wage war.
Democracy alone had been associated with war.
Most of the democracies that wage war are illiberal democracies. Leaders of new democracies
full of implacable, competing groups realize that the only way they can maintain stability is
through hypernationalism and aggression, which lead to wars.
While Americans view their political system as unwieldy, the checks and balances and the strong
legislature help tremendously in restraining the President. Such aspects of the American system
would be useful to emerging democracies. This makes America’s advocacy of foreign elections
and plebiscitary rule so odd since they bypass liberal principles.
The American model of government is based on the idea that people are inherently untrustworthy
with power.
In foreign policy, America must realize that liberalization is equally important as
democratization, and that both need long periods to take root. Elections alone are not enough.
The promotion of free markets, civil society, and independent judiciaries will build the
foundations for liberal democracy.
A lack of elections alone does not denote a tyrannical regime. The U.S. should always look at
conditions in other spheres of a society before branding it a dictatorship.
The U.S. should insist that developing countries develop good constitutions and ways to enforce
them.
Zakaia agrees with Fukuyama that democracy has proven itself the world’s winning political
system. The problems of the future will therefore be within and between different types of
democracies, and dealing with these problems will be difficult since popular rule itself confers a
façade of legitimacy.
Illiberal democracy’s failures will threaten the credibility of liberal democracy.

[Ask Schick if he knows anything about why peace reigns in the Balkans. Have constitutional
protections been expanded?]