The Rise of Illiberal Democracies
By Cade Shore, UNA-NCA Legislative Assistant
In March 2020, on the banks of the Danube River, Hungarian politicians gathered inside the country’s Parliament building to cast a historic vote. The chamber fell silent as Prime Minister Viktor Orbán made final remarks about the proposed legislation, which would give him emergency powers to rule the country by decree in order to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Votes were tallied, and the politicians shook hands. In one fell swoop, the Parliament had granted one man the ability to draft policy without consulting lawmakers. Orbán, a democratically-elected politician, exited the building as Hungary’s newest dictator. Anyone who publicly criticized this policy could be jailed for up to five years.
A few months later, north of the Central European flatlands, protesters flooded the streets of Minsk. Wielding homemade signs and chanting rallying cries, young Belarusians hoped to prevent Alexander Lukashenko from beginning his sixth presidential term. Lukashenko had rigged the 2020 election in his favor, claiming to have won 80% of the people’s vote. But the people knew the truth. Lukashenko sent armed forces to silence the protesters. The candidate who ran against him, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was forced to flee the country shortly after the election results came out. Her husband, a popular anti-Lukashenko blogger, is still in jail for allegedly assaulting a police officer.
A few hundred miles to the west, Polish nationalists and far-right extremists signed off of their online forums and took to the streets on the nation’s Independence Day, waving red-and-white flags and repeatedly shouting “God, Honor, Homeland.” These young men condemned left-leaning Poles for their political views. They also threatened minorities, whom they considered to be enemies of the state. To make matters worse, far-right politicians within the ruling coalition, the Law and Justice Party, encouraged these nationalists to band together in public. As the night went on, it became clear that the government’s support for far-right ideology was more widespread than previously imagined.
These three countries, separated by thousands of miles, are linked by a common thread: they each have fallen victim to illiberal governance.
Democracy is an Illusion
Illiberal democracies are hybrid political regimes that exhibit certain sets of characteristics that set them apart from fully liberal and fully authoritarian governments. These qualities include infrequent power transitions, populist leadership, far-right nationalism, and fixed elections. To put it simply, these are regimes that claim to uphold the rule of law, but their political norms indicate otherwise.
Over the past three decades, Central and Eastern European nations have witnessed a gradual rise in illiberalism, which has systematically eroded the strength of European democracy. Furthermore, the EU and NATO have failed to draft concrete policies to stop these regimes from expanding their overreach. The United States government has been silent on the issue, though President Trump praised Orbán for doing a “tremendous job” in leading Hungary and congratulated Poland’s Andrzej Duda for a “historic” re-election campaign.
The consequences of illiberalism must not be underestimated. At its core, these governments prevent the populace from engaging in legitimate political activity, resulting in a greater chance that government leadership will commit human rights abuses, suppress protests, and fix elections behind closed doors. Many of these countries, including Hungary and Poland, are members of the EU, an institution that emphasizes its commitment to representative democracy. Indeed, all are member states of the United Nations. However, despite partnering with international institutions, illiberal leaders do not appear to value civil liberties.
What is even more alarming is the rate at which these regimes are forming. Like a virus, illiberalism has rapidly infected Central and Eastern European countries since the 1990s. Some chalk it up to institutional weakness after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Others say the region’s ethnic heterogeneity naturally leads to political disagreement. Regardless of the reason, the world now faces a challenge to liberalism unlike any other. Looking forward, here’s what the United Nations and its agencies must do to curb the growth of illiberal practices within its own member states.
First and foremost, the United Nations must craft a coherent plan of action to address illiberalism. It is not enough to simply put out written statements reprimanding countries for corruption. Instead, the UN must use its Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs (DPPA) to create a taskforce or working group that is responsible for building programs that structurally reform political systems from the inside-out. And if nations continue to exhibit illiberal tendences, the UN Security Council (UNSC) must also consider employing sanctions or secondary-sanctions.
Next, the DPPA or the UNSC must work with partner institutions to build a multilateral coalition against illiberalism. By strengthening its relationships with NATO and the EU, these agencies have the opportunity to bring a degree of stability back to European politics. Indeed, this leadership structure will foster greater oversight and accountability over illiberal leaders, and ultimately reaffirm the institutions’ collective goal of promoting freedom and individual liberty. To achieve a stronger partnership, leaders from the EU, NATO, and UN must create new information-sharing channels among their workforces, participate in annual meetings to discuss European illiberalism, and hire experts on illiberalism to serve in advisory roles.
Furthermore, the United Nations must follow the lead of NGOs and local-level organizations that have already succeeded in fighting illiberalism. For instance, one of the greatest threats to this kind of leadership is a well-informed public. As a result, the UN should partner with the Transparency International or Freedom House to promote open and democratic digital spaces — each of these groups already has programs in place to increase election transparency and uplift the role of the media. In other words, by arming the populace with accurate political information, these organizations ensure that citizens can identify where norms have been broken and respond accordingly. In addition, access to information also curbs the spread of nationalist ideology. By exposing oneself to different viewpoints and cultures through the Internet, a populace is more resilient to hateful or xenophobic rhetoric.
Aside from promoting open digital spaces, the UN could also partner with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) or the Center for Democracy & Technology, both of which specialize in election security and fairness. By developing a sustainable and robust election observation methodology alongside these groups, the United Nations will be better equipped to ensure illiberal leaders stay out of office.
Taken all together, the rise of illiberalism has hurt Central and Eastern Europe in unprecedented ways. These regimes not only set a dangerous precedent for leaders looking to consolidate power in the future, but they also increase the likelihood of a full-scale devolution into authoritarianism. As a result, agencies like the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs and the UN Security Council must collaborate to prevent illiberalism from spreading any further. By strengthening partnerships with international institutions and NGOs, ensuring the public has access to information, and constructing a forward-thinking plan of action, the United Nations and its allies will succeed in preventing illiberal democracies from gaining any more foothold in European politics.