The western political system is a fusion of constitutional liberalism, established over many centuries, and modern mass democracy. But an increasing number of countries are choosing electoral democracy without liberalismby Fareed Zakaria / December 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
“Suppose the election is declared free and fair,” said Richard Holbrooke on the eve of the 1996 elections in Bosnia, and those elected are “racists or fascists, publicly opposed to peace. That is the dilemma.” Indeed it is-not just in the former Yugoslavia, but around the world. Democratically elected regimes routinely ignore constitutional limits on their powers and deprive their citizens of basic rights. From Peru to the Palestinian Authority, from Sierra Leone to Slovakia, from Pakistan to the Philippines comes the rise of a disturbing phenomenon in international life-illiberal democracy.
It has been difficult to recognise this problem. For almost a century in the west, democracy has meant liberal democracy: a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, the separation of powers, the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property. In fact this latter bundle of freedoms-what might be called constitutional liberalism-is historically distinct from democracy. Today the two strands of liberal democracy, interwoven in the western political fabric, are coming apart in the rest of the world. Democracy is flourishing; constitutional liberalism is not.
Today, 118 of the world’s 193 countries are democratic, encompassing 54.8 per cent of the world’s people, a remarkable increase from even a decade ago. We might have expected this to be a cause of celebration; instead there is growing unease at the spread of multiparty elections across south-central Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America-because of what happens after the elections. Popular leaders such as Russia’s Boris Yeltsin and Argentina’s Carlos Menem bypass their parliaments and rule by decree. (Menem has passed almost 300 presidential decrees in eight years, three times as many as all previous Argentinian presidents combined.) The Iranian parliament, elected more freely than most in the middle east, imposes harsh restrictions on speech, assembly, even on dress, diminishing Iran’s already meagre stock of liberty. Ethiopia’s elected government turns its security forces against journalists and political opponents.
There is a spectrum of illiberal democracy ranging from modest offenders such as Argentina to near-tyrannies such as Kazakhstan and Belarus, with countries such as Romania and Bangladesh in between. Along much of the spectrum, elections are rarely as free and fair as in the west, but they do reflect popular participation in politics and support for those elected. Examples are not isolated or atypical. Freedom in the World, Freedom House’s…