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The Problem With “Illiberal Democracy”

PRINCETON – Poland’s turn toward authoritarian rule has set off alarm bells across the European Union and within NATO. Since coming to power in October, Jarosław Kaczyński’s Law and Justice party (PiS) has attacked the country’s Constitutional Court, politicized the judiciary and the civil service, and launched an assault on media pluralism.

Critics of the PiS government, which is led by Prime Minister Beata Szydło (with Kaczyński, ruling from behind the scenes as he holds no official post), have described its actions as a blitz to install “illiberal democracy,” similar to what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has done in his country over the past six years. But to call what is being constructed in Poland illiberal democracy is deeply misleading – and in a way that undermines efforts to rein in would-be autocrats like Kaczyński and Orbán. After all, it is not just liberalism that is under attack, but democracy itself.

The concept of “illiberal democracy,” attributable to a 1997 essay by the American foreign-policy thinker Fareed Zakaria, was an effort to describe regimes that held elections, but did not observe the rule of law and regularly overrode their political systems’ constitutional checks and balances. It was an idea born of disillusion. In the heady days after the fall of communism, a kind of democratic ecstasy prevailed (at least in the West). The “end of history” had been achieved, and elections, representative institutions, and the rule of law would, it seemed, always go neatly together.

Soon, however, newly empowered electorates were voting in majorities that used their power to oppress minorities and violate fundamental rights. The implication was clear: Democracy on its own was not enough. Liberalism – the protection of minorities and individual civil liberties – had to be strengthened.