Liberal democracy is not dead

Liberal democracy is under pressure, and illiberalism remains a threat across the globe. Cas Mudde argues that key events in 2021 should be a wake-up call to those who think illiberalism is the inevitable future, and emphasizes the crucial need for consistent, genuine, and inspiring liberal democratic politics.

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The 21st century has not been kind to liberal democracy. Leaving aside the rise of often violent Islamism, illiberalism has been the greatest challenge to liberal democracies around the globe. Not just nascent liberal democracies like Russia, but even seemingly consolidated ones like Hungary and Venezuela, descended into competitive authoritarian regimes. And even well-established liberal democracies are at risk, as we can see in the United Kingdom and the United States, among others.

 

The demise of Trump: curbing illiberalism

Like the previous “crises” before it – i.e. the terrorist attacks of 9/11 (2001), the Great Recession (2007-8), and the so-called “refugee crisis” (2015-6) – the COVID-19 pandemic seemed at first to worsen the situation even further. Across the globe, states responded with often severe repressive measures, from closing borders to states of emergency, and various illiberal leaders used the opportunity to increase executive powers and suppress domestic opposition. But there might be light at the end of the tunnel. While 2021 did not bring an end to the pandemic, it did, at the very least, slow down the ascent of illiberalism. And 2022 might bring more of the same.

The most important political event of last year was, without a shadow of a doubt, the end of the Trump presidency in the US. For four years, Donald Trump had dominated global politics as president of the most powerful state in the world. Moreover, as the elected leader of the most significant democracy, he was an example and inspiration for (aspiring) illiberal leaders everywhere. Although he never invested in building an “Illiberal International”, as many overexcited pundits claimed, illiberals like Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Hungarian Premier Viktor Orbán felt protected and supported by having Trump in the White House.

His successor, Joe Biden, had campaigned as the anti-Trump, promising to re-build the liberal international order, so detested by illiberals around the world, and fight illiberalism inside and outside of the US. Like many other campaign promises though, he is yet to deliver upon these as president. While Biden has taken a much stronger tone towards illiberal strongmen like Hungary’s Orbán, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Russia's Vladimir Putin, and Turkey's Recep Erdogan, he has embraced other illiberal leaders like India’s Narendra Modi, including him at his much-touted Summit for Democracy.

 

From Kurz to Kast: political losses for the radical right

But there were important developments in other parts of the world too, most notably in Central Europe and South America. In the former, two politicians that played a key role in the rise of illiberalism lost power in 2021. In the Czech Republic, Andrej Babiš, (narrowly) lost the legislative elections and the premiership. Although Babiš had been less strident than other illiberal leaders in the region, he had recently radicalized, under increased electoral pressure, and even campaigned with Orbán, to no avail. His most important domestic supporter, the illiberal but very ill president of the country, Miloš Zeman, tried to keep Babiš in power, but could not prevent his replacement in December. 

Perhaps even more significant, in Austria, former Wunderkind Sebastian Kurz finally paid the political price for his corrupt and anti-democratic behavior and, first, stepped down as Chancellor and, later, decided to leave politics altogether. Kurz was in many ways the personification of the mainstreaming of the populist radical right and of the illiberalism of the mainstream in Europe. Having made his meteoric political career within the traditional conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), he made the “people’s party” into his personal political vehicle, adopting the politics of the populist radical right and the behavior of illiberal strongmen like Orbán. Given his young age and remarkable success, Kurz quickly became an example for ambitious right-wing politicians across Europe, who saw him and his strategy as the future of conservatism in the 21st century.

In Latin America, the much-anticipated presidential elections in Chile brought the run-off that most people had expected, but a much clearer victory for Gabriel Boric than many had feared. Sure, the 45 percent of votes for populist radical right candidate José Antonio Kast are disturbing, as is the fact that he has become the unofficial leader of the Chilean right, but Boric’ comprehensive victory is a major set-back for the illiberal and reactionary right in Chile and beyond. Within South America, it will keep Bolsonaro an exception rather than the rule, at least for now.

 

Illiberalism on the retreat? Time (and elections) will tell

The coming year will have to show whether these were just isolated and temporary setbacks or whether illiberalism is truly on the retreat. There are some crucial elections in different parts of the world that will give us a better insight into global trends, if there are any. Perhaps most important are the elections in Brazil, where Bolsonaro is facing an uphill battle for re-election. With Luiz Ignácio Lula da Silva back in the game, and the right-wing coalition crumbled by conflict and scandals, Bolsonaro seems destined to become a one-term president. Moreover, after joining another of the many right-wing parties for hire (the Liberal Party), because his own party Alliance for Brazil was an utter failure, he will leave behind no institutional legacy should he lose office. In Europe, two major illiberal leaders are facing significant electoral challenges in 2022, Orbán in Hungary and his mini-me, Janez Janša, in Slovenia. While both remain the most popular politicians in their respective countries, they face more unified oppositions this time. Janša is most likely to face the same fate as Babiś, being ousted as prime minister by a broad but determined opposition. As Orbán remains in complete control of the media, and the electoral system, his fate is more difficult to predict. Confronted with a still heterogeneous, but now strategically collaborating, opposition, the real question is whether they will be able to overcome the many hurdles that the Orbán government has created to prevent free and fair elections.

In this regard, the European Union (EU) plays a major role. When international observers ruled previous elections to be not fair, the EU accepted the results anyway. But since then, Orbán has become more politically isolated in Europe, no longer part of the powerful European People's Party (EPP) Group, and without the tacit protection of the Great Appeaser, Angela Merkel, who is no longer in office in Berlin. With Olaf Scholz as the new German Chancellor, and Emmanuel Macron most likely re-elected, Orbán will face a staunchly anti-illiberal French-German leadership. Moreover, with Babiš, Kurz, and probably Janša out of office, he will only have the illiberal Polish government on his side within the EU.

 

A need for genuine liberal democratic politics

This is not to say that illiberalism is on its death bed. Even if Bolsonaro, Janša and Orbán lose their elections, and are willing to give up power (sadly no longer a given in many countries), illiberal leaders remain in control in important countries like India, Russia, Turkey, and Venezuela. Moreover, in the US, the increasingly illiberal, and even undemocratic, Republican Party is set for a crushing victory in the Midterm elections, winning back the Senate and possibly the House on a pure Trumpian agenda. Similarly, in Italy, two far right parties, Matteo Salvini’s League and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, are set to form the next coalition government, whenever next elections will be scheduled, battling each other mainly for the prime minister position. But, at the very least, these results should be a wake-up call to defeatist journalists, politicians, and pundits, that democracy is not dead and illiberalism is not the (inevitable) future.

The first two decades of the 21st century have been dominated by the rise of illiberalism, often in the form of populism, particularly within the (nominally) liberal democratic world. The double defeat of Brexit and Trump in 2016, in particular, led to a collective depression of liberal democratic journalists, politicians, and pundits. Books that proclaim the end of democracy and the rise of fascism are topping the bestseller lists, while illiberal discourses and policies have been mainstreamed and normalized as “common sense” or “inevitable”. Though there is no doubt that liberal democracy is under pressure, and illiberalism remains a major threat across the globe, it is time to stop this self-defeating fatalism.

Liberal democracy remains extremely popular, but many people are looking for leaders who not only talk the talk, but also walk the walk. Many people have voted for illiberal leaders like Bolsonaro and Trump out of protest rather than support. They are neither part of a “cult of personality”, nor “tricked” by a charismatic leader. Rather, they are, often rightly, disappointed by corrupt, inconsistent, uninspiring, or simply weak mainstream parties and politicians, who have not lived up to their promises or have simply taken their power for granted. The best way to win these people back is not by illiberalism light, but by consistent, genuine, and inspiring liberal democratic politics. Let’s hope 2022 will continue to show the way.

By Cas Mudde
Published Jan. 11, 2022 2:31 PM - Last modified Jan. 11, 2022 2:31 PM
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