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An illiberal democracy also called a pseudo democracy, partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, hybrid regime or delegative democracy[1] is a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties. It is not an 'open society'. This may be because a constitution limiting government powers exists, but its liberties are ignored, or to the simple absence of an adequate legal constitutional framework of liberties. The term illiberal democracy was used by Fareed Zakaria in a regularly cited 1997 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.[2]

Illiberal democratic governments may believe they have a mandate to act in any way they see fit as long as they hold regular elections. Lack of liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly make opposition extremely difficult. The rulers may centralize powers between branches of the central government and local government (having no separation of powers). Media is often controlled by the state and strongly support the regime. Non-governmental organizations may face onerous regulations or simply be prohibited. The regime may use red tape, economic pressure, or violence against critics.

There is a spectrum of illiberal democracies: from those who are nearly liberal democracies to those that are almost openly dictatorships. One proposed method of determining whether a regime is an illiberal democracy is by determining whether "it has regular, free, fair, and competitive elections to fill the principal positions of power in the country, but it does not qualify as Free in Freedom House's annual ratings of civil liberties and political rights."[3]


Terminological controversy

Other writers reject the concept of an illiberal democracy, saying it only "muddies the waters", on the basis that it if a country does not have opposition parties and an independent media, it is not democratic.[4] Scholars such as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way argue that terms like "illiberal democracy" were inappropriate for some of these states, because the term implies that these regimes are, at their heart, democracies that have gone wrong. Levitsky and Way argued that some of these states, such as Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic, Zimbabwe, and post-Soviet Russia, were never truly democratic and not developing toward democracy, but were rather tending further toward authoritarian behaviour, despite having elections (which were sometimes sharply contested).

Thus, Levitsky and Way coined a new term to remove the positive connotation of democracy from these states and distinguish them from flawed or developing democracies: competitive authoritarianism.[5]

Tentative illustration

In contrast to these disputed examples, a classic example of an illiberal democracy is the Republic of Singapore.[6] Conversely, liberal autocracies are regimes with no elections and that are ruled autocratically but have some liberties. Here, a good example is the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Both Hong Kong and Singapore are ethnic Chinese majority city-states and former British colonies. However, their political evolution has taken different paths, with Hong Kong residents enjoying the liberal freedoms of the United Kingdom, but, as a colony, without the power to choose its leaders.[7] This contradictory state of affairs was inherited by the People's Republic of China when it resumed control of the territory in 1997. In contrast, Singapore acquired full independence, first from Britain and then from Malaysia in the 1960s. At that time, it was structured as a relatively liberal democracy, albeit with some internal security laws that allowed for detention without trial. Over time, as Singapore's People's Action Party government consolidated power in the 1960s and 1970s, it enacted a number of laws and policies that curtailed constitutional freedoms (such as the right to assemble or form associations), and extended its influence over the media, unions, NGOs and academia. Consequently, although technically free and fair multi-party elections are regularly conducted, the political realities in Singapore (including fear and self-censorship) make participation in opposition politics extremely difficult, leaving the dominant ruling party as the only credible option at the polls.[6] Russia had also moved towards a period of democracy in the early 1990s, but whilst elections remain in place, state control of media is increasing and opposition is difficult.[8]

See also


  1. ^ Juan Carlos Calleros, Calleros-Alarcó,The Unifinished Transition to Democracy in Latin America, Routledge, 2009, p1
  2. ^ The Rise of Illiberal Democracy, Foreign Affairs, November/December 1997.
  3. ^ Diamond, Larry & Morlino Leonardo. Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, p. xli
  4. ^ Halperin, M. H., Siegle, J. T. & Weinstein, M. M. The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace. Routledge, 2005. pp. 10. ISBN 978-0415950527.
  5. ^ Levitsky, Steven & Lucan Way. Assessing the Quality of Democracy, Journal of Democracy, April 2002, vol. 13.2, pp. 51-65
  6. ^ a b Mutalib , H. Illiberal democracy and the future of opposition in Singapore. Third World Quarterly, 2000. 21(2), pp. 313-342.
  7. ^ Ma, Ngok. Political Development in Hong Kong: State, Political Society, and Civil Society. Hong Kong University Press, 2007. ISBN 978-9622098107.
  8. ^ Whatever happened to glasnost?, BBC News, February 7, 2009.

Further reading

  • Bell, Daniel, Brown, David & Jayasuriya, Kanishka (1995) Towards Illiberal Democracy in Pacific Asia, St. Martin's Press, ISBN 978-0333613993.
  • Thomas, Nick & Thomas, Nicholas. (1999) Democracy Denied: Identity, Civil Society, and Illiberal Democracy in Hong Kong, Ashgate, ISBN 978-1840147605.
  • Zakaria, Fareed. (2007) The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad, W. W. Norton & Company, ISBN 978-0393331523.

External links



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