Democracy & Justice

What Is an Illiberal Democracy? How Is It Created?

The terms democratic backsliding and illiberal democracy are thrown around in the media. But what does this terminology mean in our current political landscape? In our latest educational article, we explain its meaning using European examples.

by Una Glatz
Knowledge is power.

A Liberal Democracy Typically Comprises the Following Ingredients:

1. Inclusive suffrage

In a liberal democracy, all citizens should be able to participate in the democratic decision-making process by voting in elections. In the past women or other minority groups were excluded, however, political shifts such as the suffragette movement and other political developments over time, have helped expand voting rights (suffrage) to include all eligible members of society. In cases where not everyone is equally included in the election process, the decisions made through those votes or by their elected leaders won’t represent that society’s will adequately.

2. Free, fair and frequent elections

The quality of a democratic process being free, fair and frequent are the conditions that should be met for an election result to be legitimate. When these standards are met, citizens can make an informed decision free from manipulation and coercion. Not only must the information surrounding the elections be easily understood and accurate, but voting offices and other voting methods should be accessible to everyone.

3. Freedom of speech & assembly

In a liberal democracy, the people must be allowed to protest peacefully against political decisions without repression. This allows political opinions to be openly discussed and even more importantly, creates an environment that holds its political representatives accountable.

4. Elected representatives

There need to be two or more options - either political groups or candidates - to choose from when voting in a liberal representative democracy, to create a range of options that reflect the variety of opinions in a diverse nation. An alternative to this format of liberal democracy would be a direct democracy, which you can learn more about here.

5. Freedom of media & information

Access to information must be unbiased. This means that political actors are not allowed to meddle in independent media outlets, which are a critical source of information for voters in their decision-making process.

Since all of these conditions are necessary to achieve a free democracy, the term ‘illiberal democracy’ seems to be a contradiction, (which is why it is highly debated whether it can even be called a democracy at all).

Illiberal democracies are a modern phenomenon which emerged in the 21st Century in a wave of anti-democratic political sentiment. However, unlike direct violence, which often happened in the past, these attacks on democracy are more subtle. Modern challengers to democracy are more careful and employ destabilising tactics through officially elected politicians. Using this method, they dismantle democratic structures discretely from the inside. To understand how this works in practise, here are some modern examples.

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Illiberal Democracies in Europe: A Few Examples


  • In Hungary, Victor Orbán’s Fidesz Party created the ‘ideal’ form of illiberal democracy, paving the way for political copycats around the world. Orbán held a famous speech in which he argued that an illiberal democracy is ‘just’ a new form of democracy. Since coming into power in 2010, his party has subtly but effectively eroded freedom of the press and the rule of law through constitutional changes and altering voting rights.


  • Slovakia recently re-elected their illiberal president Robert Fico for the fourth time. He effectively uses polarisation in the media and nationalism to split the country’s voters into opinion camps. As a result, his illiberal party remains the most popular option for anyone opposing the ‘liberal’ norm. However, political opposition is growing and aspires to restore diverse political representation to Slovakia’s democracy.


  • Serbia has also struggled to consolidate its democracy and has been disrupted by Aleksander Vucic’s far-right party, which uses ultra-nationalism in the fragile former Yugoslav country to remain in power. By undermining independent media, strong polarization and potential voter fraud, Serbia’s democracy is compromised at the moment.

Czech Republic

  • The Czech Republic's media landscape is corrupted by a high concentration of media ownership. This has set the stage for an all-time low public trust in the media in 2023. There have also been multiple smear campaigns against investigative journalists, as we reported on in our annual Media Freedom Report, as well as the recent abolishment of the government’s special office for disinformation, with no plans to restore it. This will likely cause an already fragile situation to deteriorate.


  • In Greece, a similar pattern of control over the courts as witnessed in Poland is emerging. The judiciary has been politicised despite being an independent institution, meaning that politically motivated people are taking important positions in the courts. This is creating a lack of transparency, especially when it comes to the highly controversial human rights violations stemming from the border pushbacks of refugees.

Democratic Backsliding: The Authoritarian's Playbook

Once an illiberal politician is elected, there are many strategies they can use to dismantle the pillars of their nation’s democracy. This process of dismantling is often referred to as ‘democratic backsliding or democratic erosion’:

1) Polarisation

In the early stages, even as early as the campaigning process, it is an effective strategy to create purposeful polarisation on controversial topics. These can include reproductive, LGBTQI+ rights or migration.

2) Attacking Independent Media

In order to control the public narrative, authoritarian politicians gradually discredit independent media, for example, by filing frivolous lawsuits called SLAPPs against journalists or media outlets, scaring them into self-censorship. Even more damage is done when independent outlets and public service media are captured by the ruling party, because biased reporting causes public trust in the media to tank. As we reported in our Media Freedom Report of 2024, this is happening most severely in Hungary but also gradually in countries such as the Netherlands, Croatia and France.

3) Taking Control of the Judiciary

Another important step is controlling the courts and dismantling the rule of law, since the justice system is the institution with the most power to hold illiberal politicians accountable for their actions. This can be done by replacing judges in crucial positions or even attacking the constitution. In Poland, we saw the appointment of biased judges, which meant the country’s judiciary was continuously ‘commercialised’. It will require a lot work to reverse the damages done to the rule of law in Poland now that PiS has been ousted. We will keep a close eye on this process in our annual rule of law reports.

4) Repression of Political Opposition

In the likely case that protests erupt in response to the new anti-democratic policies, it is an effective strategy to replace crucial positions within the executive power, such as the police force. When politicians face major demonstrations, law enforcement represses protestors and silence campaigns through arrests, protest bans and police brutality.

5) Scapegoating Civil Society

Another tactic illiberal politicians use to consolidate their power is controlling civil society. This includes illegitimately limiting civil liberties like the right to privacy and free speech. Civil society organisations could face legal restrictions and even smear campaigns, as we are witnessing in Georgia right now. Illiberal governments will often intimidate regular citizens through digital surveillance tools such as Pegasus or Predator. To avoid criticism, surveillance is usually done in the name of ‘national security measures’, so watch out for this type of wording.

Many more complex detailed steps contribute to the erosion of democracy, but this list highlights the most common strategies to look out for to detect authoritarian behaviour early.

Why Are Illiberal Democracies Dangerous?

The main goal of the leadership of an illiberal democracy is to stay in power at all costs - the antithesis of democratic values. Now that we have named some of the steps that illiberal politicians will take to cement their grip on power, it's also important to understand how this erosion is harmful.

Who is most at risk in an illiberal democracy?

Minority groups are most at risk in an illiberal democracy. An illiberal government halts and even reverses any progress made to protect minority groups against discrimination. This strategy often targets the LGBTQI+ community by diminishing their rights and making their everyday life even harder. In Poland and the U.S. we witnessed the erosion of female reproductive rights, which sparked outrage and promoted polarisation, while racism has become institutionalised in Sweden. Such discriminatory politics go hand in hand with extreme nationalism and can increase xenophobia across the country, making it seem more acceptable than before.

How can we prevent democratic backsliding?

It is difficult to present a standardised recipe against democratic erosion because any example that has successfully stopped an illiberal democracy from forming is very individual to its national context. However, some core tactics do exist.

Stopping democratic backsliding should happen preventatively. When a political party or candidate campaigning for office shows alarming signs of anti-democratic ideology, this is the time to act. For example, parties who don’t normally work together could form an alliance, a tactic that was successfully used in France to prevent Marine le Pen’s National Rally from forming a government.

Such an alliance should distance themselves from any form of illiberalism promoted by the other side, without delegitimising the illiberal party as a whole, since this gives them too much fruitful ground for victimising themselves to the public. Since anti-democratic radical parties commonly rise in popularity in crisis-driven times, the alliance bloc must address the public’s grievances. This way the problems are addressed openly and the illiberal party is no longer the only option to solve these issues.

If this strategy is unsuccessful, another effective tool to stop illiberal leaders is through widespread peaceful protests. If they are large enough to disrupt everyday life, political leaders are forced to pay attention. This was the case in Poland, where the opposition was able to rally against the governing PiS as they were eroding democracy and endangering minority rights, specifically access to abortion. The protests lasted for months and eventually garnered enough support for the opposing coalition to win the parliamentary election in 2024.

Further reading:

What Is the Rule of Law: Definition, History, Examples, Importance, Reports

Governments Shrug Off Democratic Oversight: EU Rule of Law 2024 Report By 37 NGOs

Liberties’ Media Freedom Report 2024: Freedom of the Press Reaching Breaking Point

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