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The Fourth Wave? Illiberal Democracies and What They Mean for the World

On July 26th, 2014, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban declared his intention to create an illiberal democracy in Hungary. Orban cited liberal democracy’s failure to adequately answer the economic questions created by the 2008 recession. In his speech, he praised Russia and Turkey as examples of successful illiberal democracies and models which Hungary should emulate. Ever since The Enlightenment, liberalism and democracy have been intrinsically combined, and the idea that a democracy could exist without protecting property, political, or minority rights was a foreign concept to many. Despite the novel idea, the numbers of illiberal democracies actually expanded as the Philippines and Poland recently elected to join the ranks of such nations. What does the rise of illiberal democracy mean for the world?

Liberalism advocates for protecting property, political, and minority rights while preventing a tyranny of the majority. Illiberal democracy, however, holds no restrictions on the majority’s powers and allows a country’s elected leadership to become, in effect, a popular autocracy. The nations are marked by popularly elected leaders who hold powers that violate civil liberties and hold powers beyond traditional limitations for protecting minorities and other political goods. Hungary, Poland, and the Philippines show the global rise of illiberal democracies and its impact on the various nations. Viktor Orban’s Hungary is a relatively older illiberal democracy. In 2010, the leader was brought to power in a landslide electoral victory that gave his coalition a supermajority in the Hungarian parliament. This supermajority allowed Orban to pass constitutional amendments that curbed freedom of speech, the constitutional court’s judicial review power, and other civil liberties. Recently, Orban launched a massive crackdown on immigration that his European neighbors consider draconian and has led some to believe that he has violated international law. Despite his drastic approach to policy, Orban remains popular and current polling for the next parliamentary elections predict his Fidesz party maintaining a twenty-two-point lead over the next closest party.



Hungary’s central European neighbor, Poland, has also experienced a rise in illiberalism. The trend began when the Law and Justice Party secured a majority in both houses of the Polish parliament. Similar to Hungary’s Fidsez party, the Law and Justice Party has unusual legal methods to secure its illiberal objectives. In order to keep the party’s legislation safe from the court’s scrutiny, the lawmakers made controversial additions to the high constitutional court. It has also introduced measures that would politicize the national bureaucracy and control the media. Much like Hungary, these repressive measures have not deflated the Law and Justice Party’s approval ratings, as they remain the most popular party in parliament.

Illiberal democracies’ rise are not limited to Eastern Europe; the Philippines have also trended towards this political system in recent years. Perhaps illiberal democracy’ grimmest result, the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte saw a massive upsurge in legal and extrajudicial executions since his election in mid-2016. Duterte’s presidency has focused on the war on drugs, and he has mercilessly utilized all methods to wage this war. In a six-month period after his election, 2,206 drug-related criminals were executed and 44,070 arrested. However, what is most concerning is the 4,049 extrajudicial, vigilante-style executions that took place, reportedly with the police’s complicity or active involvement. To the dismay of human rights groups in the region, Duterte remains immensely popular with a 78% approval rating.

Overall, illiberal democracies’ hallmark is a profound disregard for the classic liberties protected by liberalism, such as freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial. Illiberal democracies also have employed reactionary measures against social and cultural change. Both the Fidesz and the Law and Justice parties’ popularity is in part derived by keeping their countries culturally homogenous and opposing immigration from Muslim countries.  Duterte, meanwhile, can lay claim to protecting society from criminals and purging social “undesirables” from the Philippines. The leadership in each of these nations receives support for their actions and maintain popular and democratic support. They are popular for showing strength in uncertain times and by protecting the country from those who they deem might undermine its unity. Ultimately, the potential global effects of the transition to illiberal democracies must be considered. They are still democracies, and their rise represents the breakdown of liberalism as separated from democracy. Their arrival will have a large impact on human rights and globalism’s centrality on the international stage. In a unique twist, these illiberal democracies also tend to reject their predecessors’ foreign policy. Both Hungary and Poland have become increasingly Eurosceptic and opposed to Brussel’s policies. Duterte’s Philippines has also taken a deviant path as he has sought to develop closer ties with China. At the same time, he is distancing his country from the United States, a traditional ally to the Philippines, due to the US’s criticism concerning his human rights violations.


Illiberal democracies’ rise will lead to shifting alliances and partnerships in an already chaotic international scene. Western Europe and North America will now have to defend liberalism and its merits in a way they have not had to since the fall of communism in 1989. As the Cold War came to a close, the world watched in awe as communist regimes fell across the globe and welcomed, with open arms, democracy’s third wave. Now, however, the West and the world may have to brace for democracy’s fourth wave: illiberal democracy.

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