Modern Authoritarianism: Illiberal Democracies | Freedom House

Chapter 5: Illiberal Democracy

The Rise of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

There is a race underway to find the method of community organization, the state, which is most capable of making a nation and a community internationally competitive.… [T]he most popular topic in thinking today is trying to understand how systems that are not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, and perhaps not even democracies, can nevertheless make their nations successful.

– Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary

If we want to organize our national state to replace the liberal state, it is very important that we make it clear that we are not opposing nongovernmental organizations here, and it is not nongovernmental organizations who are moving against us, but paid political activists who are attempting to enforce foreign interests here in Hungary.

– Viktor Orbán

In July 2014, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán gave what has come to be known as his “illiberal democracy” speech before an ethnic Hungarian audience in Băile Tuşnad, Romania.1 Several points in his remarks are worth noting:

  • Orbán urged his listeners to no longer regard the 1989 triumph over communism as the reference point for developments in Hungary. Instead of measuring progress from the transition from dictatorship and foreign domination to elections, civil liberties, and sovereignty, Orbán said Hungary should adopt a new point of departure, the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, which also marked the European Union’s greatest setback.
  • He cited U.S. president Barack Obama and various unnamed sources on the West’s weakness, including an “internationally recognized analyst” who wrote that liberal values today “embody corruption, sex, and violence.”
  • He suggested that in the future it would be systems that were “not Western, not liberal, not liberal democracies, and perhaps not even democracies” that would create successful and competitive societies. He asserted that “the stars of the international analysts today are Singapore, China, India, Russia, and Turkey.”
  • In a passage devoted to the obstacles facing his own political party, Fidesz, as it seeks to build an alternative to liberalism, Orbán singled out civil society and the nongovernmental sector. Civil society critics, he insisted, “are not nongovernmental organizations” but “paid political activists who are attempting to enforce foreign interests here in Hungary.” (In a separate speech in early 2016, he referred to “hordes of implacable human rights warriors” who “feel an unquenchable desire to lecture and accuse us.”2)

In this relatively short address, Orbán neatly summarized most of the key factors that distinguish a fully democratic “Western” system based on liberal values and accountability from what he calls an “Eastern” approach based on a strong state, a weak opposition, and emaciated checks and balances.

First, his exhortation to no longer regard the events of 1989 as a seminal, even sacred, juncture in Hungarian history is noteworthy given Orbán’s biography. While he often cites his own role in the anticommunist struggle and describes himself as a freedom fighter, he now regards 1989—so redolent of liberal values, ideas about individual freedom, and democratic solidarity—as an intellectual impediment to his plans for a Hungary that is skeptical of such ideals and of European integration.

Second, Orbán included full-blown dictatorships (Russia and China) in the roster of governments he admires, along with quasi-democratic illiberal states (Turkey and Singapore) and one genuine, if inconsistent, democracy (India).

Third, he signaled his support for majoritarianism, with its disdain for checks and balances and civil society, as opposed to the values of pluralism that are enshrined in liberal democratic practice.

The message here is important. For many, illiberalism’s defining feature is intolerance toward minority groups: the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, Roma, Muslims, refugees and migrants of all sorts. But in Hungary and elsewhere, illiberal government signifies something much more comprehensive than the prime minister asserting that “every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk,”3 and that refugees bring “gangs hunting down our women and daughters”4—two of Orbán’s more incendiary declarations.

The Hungarian leader is instead telling us that illiberalism involves a wholesale rejection of liberal values and democratic norms, with all that this implies for politics and governance. Fidesz’s “reform” efforts have been less concerned with the repression of unpopular minorities than with the creation of a system in which the institutions of pluralism are hollowed out and the ruling party’s dominance is assured over the long term.

Having come to office with a two-thirds parliamentary majority in 2010, Orbán was able to rewrite the constitution without the consent of the opposition. He rushed through a series of constitutional changes, cardinal laws (requiring a two-thirds vote to change or remove), and regular laws that had the effect of turning the Hungarian political system upside down.

Among the steps taken by Fidesz after its 2010 triumph:

  • The Constitutional Court was overhauled so that Fidesz appointees became a majority and its jurisdiction was narrowed.5
  • The government eliminated the independent Fiscal Council, responsible for overseeing budgetary policy, then replaced it with a new council under Fidesz control.
  • A new election law created gerrymandered legislative districts that were favorable to Fidesz.6
  • Orbán gave voting rights to ethnic Hungarians in neighboring countries, who were likely to support Fidesz.7
  • The government created a new press authority whose chair and members were Fidesz loyalists. The authority was given wide-ranging powers to fine media outlets.8

While the measures listed above were some of the most notorious of the Fidesz initiatives, in some cases drawing critical attention from European oversight bodies, they represent only part of the campaign that has transformed Hungary into a full-fledged illiberal democracy.

Perhaps the more far-reaching measures introduced under Orban have been in the economic sphere. Since 2010, Hungary has evolved into a crony capitalist state par excellence. But unlike in outright kleptocracies such as Russia, where the regime itself is organized around the plunder of public wealth by the ruling clique, Orbán has used state laws and procurement contracts to create a wealthy Fidesz-affiliated business constituency that can finance political campaigns, reward party supporters, and operate friendly media outlets. The enrichment of cronies is less an objective in itself than a means of fortifying the dominant political party against any future challenge from the opposition.9

While Orbán is highly unpopular in European liberal circles, he has gained a following among conservatives in both Europe and the United States. At a 2015 congressional subcommittee hearing in Washington, one Republican legislator after another defended the Fidesz government, often in ways that demonstrated blatant ignorance of political conditions in Budapest.10 Conservatives praise Orbán for his commitment to traditional values and decisive leadership, but they ignore the course he has set for the economy.

Since taking power in 2010, the prime minister has violated practically every principle of the free market and prudent economic stewardship. Were Hungary a developing state in Latin America or Africa, donor governments would likely have imposed special conditions on foreign assistance given the overt acts of corruption and cronyism that Fidesz has embraced as a matter of public policy. This includes a pattern of awarding government contracts to businesses with Fidesz ties, the adoption of special laws to benefit Fidesz supporters in the business community, the use of punitive taxation against foreign-owned corporations, tax concessions for corporations controlled by Fidesz loyalists, and the granting of control over nationalized sectors of the economy to Fidesz supporters.

In its relentless drive to hand economic power to its allies, Fidesz resembles the old-style political machines, with their vast patronage networks, that presided over American cities a half-century ago. Fidesz is apparently seeking to ensure that rival parties will never have access to the funds or influence necessary to unseat the incumbent government.

Is Orbán a Central European version of Putin?

Orbán’s domestic critics have often compared his governing style to that of Russian president Vladimir Putin. On the surface, the comparison seems unfair. Hungary is still rated Free by Freedom House. It still has genuine opposition parties, however weak, in parliament, a relatively unfettered civil society sector, freedom of assembly, and other civil liberties. Hungary has also been spared the routine violence that marks Russian politics.11

But Orbán also began his current tenure in an environment very different from the Russia inherited by Putin. Hungary had been a successful, if flawed, democracy for two decades before Orbán took office in 2010. It was a member of the European Union (EU) and subject to that bloc’s norms and regulations. It was also a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For Hungarians, the events of 1989 led to democratic liberties and freedom from foreign domination. For Russia, 1989 and 1991 meant the loss of a vast empire and the beginning of a decade of political and economic upheaval.

Given their different contexts, the striking feature in a Putin-Orbán comparison is the similarities. The following are some of the more obvious:

  • Both have repeatedly expressed disdain for “Western” liberal values.
  • Both have employed a combination of control over state broadcasters and crony ownership of the private press to dominate the mainstream media, though Hungary’s environment remains notably more free than Russia’s.
  • Both have hollowed out the institutions that provide oversight and transparency regarding actions by the executive branch.
  • Both have made clear their dislike for civil society organizations that pursue reformist or human rights missions. While Orbán has yet to enact Russian-style laws to declare such groups “foreign agents” or ban them as “undesirable,” Fidesz has announced the intention to introduce parliamentary legislation designed to harass NGOs and curb their funding.12
  • Both have seized political opportunities offered by the presence of ethnic compatriots in surrounding countries. Putin has exploited supposed discrimination against ethnic Russians and certain other minorities in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and the Baltic states as justification for military intervention or hostile propaganda. Orbán has brought nearby Hungarian minorities into his political coalition by giving them the right to vote in Hungarian national elections and making it even easier for them to cast ballots than it is for Hungarian citizens who are temporarily working in Europe or elsewhere.13
  • As a matter of high priority, both Orbán and Putin have secured domination over the judiciary with the goal of removing its role as a check on their power.

‘Law and Justice’ in Poland

Like Hungary, Poland was until recently regarded as one of the chief success stories from the wave of democratization that accompanied the end of the Cold War. Poland’s democratic institutions were imperfect, and the economic gains that were made possible by a rapid changeover to free-market policies were spread unevenly among the Polish people. But the achievements seemed to outweigh the deficiencies. The country’s rate of growth was impressive by European standards; it was one of the few EU member states to emerge relatively unscathed from the financial crisis of 2008. Its leaders exercised influence within the EU and NATO, and enjoyed global respect.

According to the leaders of the archconservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, however, Poland was a deeply troubled society whose system of government was in need of a top-to-bottom overhaul.

Ahead of the 2015 elections, PiS appropriated a vocabulary similar to that of Fidesz in its 2010 campaign. It depicted the center-right government as the architect of a failed economy. It denounced mainstream leaders as more comfortable with the cosmopolitan liberal values of Brussels and Berlin than with the traditional Christian morality of rural Poland. And PiS suggested that the liberal establishment that had governed for most of the postcommunist period had “stolen” the democratic revolution from the Polish people by failing to carry out a proper purge of communists and their collaborators.14 PiS even initiated a campaign to sully the reputation of Lech Walesa, leader of the anticommunist Solidarity movement in the 1980s, by accusing him of working as a communist agent.15

Since coming to power with a parliamentary majority in October 2015, PiS has embarked on a course of change that places it solidly in the illiberal camp, with many of the initiatives mirroring those enacted by Fidesz in Hungary.

As in Hungary, an initial focus for the new government was securing control of the Constitutional Tribunal. PiS has moved to pack the court with its own appointees, using tactics that are blatantly illegal according to Polish law and which have drawn criticism both from the EU and the United States.16 However, party leader Jarosław Kaczyński, who holds a seat in the parliament but no formal government position, has much greater ambitions to refashion Poland along culturally conservative and politically illiberal lines.

The media are a major target. The government quickly asserted control over public broadcasters and purged them of journalists whom it regarded as loyal to the opposition.17 PiS officials have also spoken of the need to “restore balance” to the private media by, among other things, taking measures to reduce foreign ownership of key outlets. Already, the new government has used its power over the allocation of state advertising to reward friendly media and punish its critics.18

The new government has involved itself in a debate over history. It proposed a law that would punish those who use the phrase “Polish death camps” to refer to sites established by Nazi Germany in Poland during World War II.19 PiS leaders have demonized scholars, such as the eminent historian Jan Gross, who have published research on the participation of Poles in the persecution of Jews during the war. Gross was questioned by a prosecutor on his research, and there was talk of rescinding an award he had received.20 The government threatened to withdraw support from the Museum of the Second World War, a project that was near completion in Gdansk and enjoyed strong support from such highly regarded scholars as Timothy Snyder and Norman Davies. PiS complained that the museum focused on all victims of the conflict rather than on specifically Polish suffering.21

Perhaps the most unsettling measure enacted under the PiS government is an ambitious law that, in the name of counterterrorism, gives the security services sweeping powers over telecommunications and personal information. With this legislation, Poland became one of the first countries in the democratic world to embrace the use of telecommunications shutdowns in a particular area, a measure that smacks of digital repression.22

The law gives Poland’s domestic intelligence agency unrestricted access to personal data without approval from a court or any other body. Tax reports, vehicle information, insurance information, financial statements, and other records are all now available to the intelligence service of a government that has made a point of naming party loyalists to key security positions. The legislation also grants the domestic security agency the ability to shut down websites. The action can be reviewed by a court within five days, but this is far from reassuring in light of the government’s efforts to exert political control over the judiciary.

The legislation is ostensibly needed to counter acts of terrorism. But Poland has not experienced a terrorist act since 1939, and has one of the smallest populations of Muslim immigrants—often perceived as a risk factor for terrorism—in Europe. Furthermore, the law is written in vague terms that give the government great latitude to decide what is and is not an act of terrorism.23 Given the PiS leadership’s penchant for smearing its political adversaries as traitors to the Polish nation,24 it is not inconceivable that such a law could one day be used against the opposition.

Illiberalism’s preconditions

The triumph of illiberal governments in countries like Hungary and Poland raises the question of whether the phenomenon will spread further. Might illiberalism come to dominate a society with much deeper democratic roots—Austria, France, or even the United States?

From a practical standpoint, illiberal forces are unlikely to transform countries where the political divide is relatively equal and the established parties have strong, loyal followings.

It is only when the mainstream parties suffer catastrophic electoral setbacks that illiberal challengers can rush into the breach.

The Socialist Party had governed Hungary for much of the period since 1989, but it rapidly lost credibility due to economic mismanagement and political dishonesty. It was devastated by the 2010 election results, and has failed to reemerge as a viable opposition entity. In Poland, the center-right Civic Platform had been the dominant force until the 2015 PiS victory. It achieved economic success and gained respect in Brussels, but lost the support of the working class, the provinces, and all those who felt bypassed by globalization. Similarly, the elitist secular parties that had ruled Turkey for most of the 20th century were swept aside by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, which appealed to a rising Islamist middle class. And in Venezuela, it took only a few years in power for Hugo Chávez to win over the country’s poor and marginalize the conservative mainstream parties that had led the country for decades.

A second precondition for the emergence of illiberal regimes is a fundamental weakness in democratic institutions beyond the political sphere, including the media, civil society, anticorruption agencies, and the judiciary. In many newer democracies, these checks and balances remain fragile: It is widely assumed that whoever controls the parliament will also come to dominate the judiciary and the security services, and the media are vulnerable to intimidation or partisan capture.

Illiberalism seems less likely to gain traction in the United States because the courts, for example, are proudly independent, and freedom of the press is firmly protected by statute and constitutional jurisprudence. But if illiberal forces have sufficient political will and the defenders of democratic institutions lack conviction and public support, anything is possible. Polls have shown that popular faith in Congress and the Supreme Court are at historic lows. A growing number of Americans question the effectiveness of representative democracy and ask whether it would be better to let the president make decisions unencumbered by the legislative branch. An astonishing one in six Americans believe it would be acceptable to have the army rule. And with each passing generation, a smaller share of U.S. citizens believe that living under a democracy is important.25


1 “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Speech at the 25th Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp,” Website of the Hungarian Government, July 26, 2014,

2 “Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on 15 March,” Website of the Hungarian Government, March 16, 2016,

3 Cynthia Kroet, “Viktor Orbán: Migrants Are ‘a Poison,’" Politico, July 27, 2016,

4 “Speech by Prime Minister Viktor Orbán on 15 March,” Website of the Hungarian Government, March 16, 2016,

5 See for example “Hungary,” in Freedom in the World 2011 (New York: Freedom House, 2011),

6 “Hungary,” in Freedom in the World 2015 (New York: Freedom House, 2015),

7 Ibid.

8 “Hungary,” in Freedom of the Press 2012 (New York: Freedom House, 2012),

9 “Bálint Magyar’s Latest Book: Post-Communist Mafia State: The Case of Hungary,” Hungarian Spectrum, February 19, 2016,

10 “Kim Lane Scheppele: Hungary and the State of American Democracy,” Hungarian Spectrum, May 21, 2015,

11 “Hungary,” in Freedom in the World 2016 (New York: Freedom House, 2016),

12 Pablo Gorondi, “Hungary Lawmakers Debate Bill Seen Meant to Intimidate NGOs,” Associated Press, April 19, 2017,

13 Mitchell A. Orenstein, Péter Krekó, and Attila Juhász. “The Hungarian Putin?” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2015,

14 “Poland: An Inconvenient Truth,” Financial Times, May 1, 2016,

15 Dalibor Rohac, “’Illiberal Democracy’ Spreads to Poland,” Wall Street Journal, June 9, 2016,

16 Noah Feldman, “Poland's New Leaders Take Aim at Democracy,” Bloomberg View, December 31, 2015,

17 Alison Smale and Joanna Berendt, “Poland’s Conservative Government Puts Curbs on State TV News,” New York Times, July 3, 2016,

18 Jan Cienski, “Polish Media Veers Back to Pre-1989,” Politico, July 11, 2016,

19 “Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Party Is Rewriting the History of Poland,” Financial Times, March 11, 2016,

20 Ibid.

21 Vanessa Gera, “Polish Leaders Threaten Fate of Nearly Finished WWII Museum,” Washington Times, April 24, 2016,

22 Jan Rydzak, “Now Poland’s Government Is Coming After the Internet,” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2016,

23 Ibid.

24 Henry Foy, “Poland’s New Majoritarians,” American Interest, June 7, 2016,

25 Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, “Across the Globe, a Growing Disillusionment with Democracy,” New York Times, September 15, 2015,