On Sunday, Hungary’s right-wing prime minister, Viktor Orban, is up for re-election, possibly on track to his fourth term in office. Mr. Orban has spent the past several years weakening his country’s democratic checks and balances; he has attacked independent civil society, and he has brought the media under the control of oligarchs close to his government. While doing so, he has advertised his approach as a distinctive form of democracy, one fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century. It is, he says, “illiberal democracy.”
Plenty of critics have adopted this term as a description not just of Hungary, but of redesigned political systems in countries as different as Poland and Turkey. Yet “illiberal democracy” fails to capture what is wrong with these regimes. It also gives leaders like Mr. Orban a major rhetorical advantage: He is still left with the designation “democrat,” even as it is democracy itself — and not just liberalism — that is under attack in his country.
In the mid-1990s, observers started to notice that something was going wrong after the great wave of democratization that had started to roll across the globe in the 1980s. Elections were duly held, but their winners proceeded to oppress minorities or attack independent judges and journalists in the name of “the people.” Fareed Zakaria, the influential foreign affairs commentator, was among the first to draw a fundamental distinction between liberalism and democracy: the former referred to the rule of law, the latter to the rule of the majority. Leaders with majority backing were creating “illiberal democracies,” in which neither political losers nor unpopular minorities could feel safe.
This picture is misleading when applied to today’s populists like Mr. Orban. In Hungary, it is not just the rule of law that has been under threat. Rights essential for democracy itself — especially rights to free speech, free assembly and free association — have been systematically attacked. As media pluralism disappears, citizens cannot get critical information to make up their minds about their government’s record. Unless one wants to say that a democracy remains a democracy as long as the government does not stuff the ballot boxes on Election Day, it is crucial to insist that democracy itself is being damaged.
Unless this point is understood, Mr. Orban will continue the perfidious game he likes to play with international critics in particular: He does not mind being called “illiberal”; he relishes it. For liberalism is supposedly just a matter of subjective value choices: Liberals, he and his defenders will say, simply do not like his conservative family policies, his defense of strong nation-states inside the European Union and, most of all, his complete rejection of immigration. Of course, one can legitimately disagree about these issues in a democracy. But by focusing all attention on them, Mr. Orban has remade what should be a debate about democratic institutions into yet another culture war. (This is a strategy Trumpists are also discovering.) Once the conflict has been declared a matter of subjective values, it becomes easy to accuse the liberals of being the real illiberals. Even though they are supposed to be the defenders of diversity, they cannot tolerate an ethnic nationalist like Mr. Orban, who seeks to deviate from a supposed Western mainstream of multiculturalism.
A number of observers are even willing to concede that “illiberal democracy” might be a somewhat legitimate reaction to undemocratic liberalism. The European Union appears as an obvious instance of a liberal technocracy against which “the will of the people” needs to be asserted. But the European Union prescribes neither a uniform legislative stance on controversial questions like same-sex marriage nor a single model of democracy. Its members just have to be democratic enough.
When European Union leaders have criticized Hungary and, more recently, Poland, those countries’ governments have countered that they are defending national sovereignty against liberal diktats from Brussels. The Union has played into their hands by suggesting that it is only concerned about the liberal rule of law. The European Union thus gives the impression that democracy will always be taken care of by the nation-state; and the technocratic liberal repair crew from Brussels only makes a call in a European capital, if there is a malfunction with the rule of law (hence the undermining of political rights and independent institutions appears like a technical glitch, not as the conscious authoritarian project it actually is.)
The notion of “illiberal democracy” has also made it easier for European elites to claim that the people themselves have unfortunately turned out to be illiberal and brought these authoritarian governments on themselves. Eastern Europeans, we are often told, are culturally different — code for thinking that they lag behind Western liberal enlightenment. But the citizens who brought Mr. Orban and the current Polish government to power actually did exactly what democratic theory would have counseled them to do: In two-party systems, they threw out the one major party that had a poor record and instead voted for politicians who, in both cases, presented themselves as moderate mainstream conservatives. The latter never revealed — or won an electoral mandate for — their real agenda, of perpetuating themselves in power by attacking the institutions that underpin democracy.
Is all this just a matter of words? Thinkers like George Orwell and Hannah Arendt never tired of warning that the political catastrophes of the 20th century began with euphemisms and imprecise language. A democracy can have illiberal policies, but it cannot do without basic political liberties and protections. We are doing Mr. Orban a great favor by accepting him as any kind of democrat. The designation “democracy” still remains the most coveted political prize around the world. In what can only be called an unforced error, we are giving that prize to leaders who not only devalue it, but are also busy destroying the thing itself.
This election is probably the last before Hungary shifts from what is already a deeply damaged democracy to what political scientists would call a full-blown electoral autocracy. Elections would still be held in the future, but a real turnover of power would be impossible. Thus the weekend’s ballot is also a test as to whether there can be an autocracy inside the European Union, a self-declared club of democracies.
Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton University and the author of Contesting Democracy: Political Ideas in Twentieth-Century Europe, among other books.