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What's Illiberal Democracy?

What's Illiberal Democracy?

Prime Minister Orban in 2014 said that he wants to build an “illiberal state” and that “a democracy is not necessarily liberal.” Can a democracy be illiberal?

Here is one way to think about it: liberalism, in the political sense, is a philosophy that stresses the protection of individual rights and the rule of law, no matter who is in power. It involves checks and balances for government, and certain safeguards for civil society and the media. (This is different than economic liberalism which espouses free markets, or social liberalism which advocates progressivism.)

Meanwhile democracy, in this context, is just a way of putting people in power and holding them to account. The people freely choose their leaders by majority or plurality vote, and they can freely boot them out if they like.

The thorny bit is this: democracies can elect leaders who can, perfectly legally and democratically, erode the protections of liberalism. Even if elections are regularly held, they lose their primary function of being a tool for accountability.

That’s what’s happening in Hungary today.


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