A recent flood of books and political authors have warned about the risk democratic systems run as a result of booming populism. The overwhelming conclusion seems to be that, though we are seeing an increase in authoritarian governments that put an end to the rule of law and the separation of powers, they came to power as a result of free elections rather than as products of violence. To name just a few of these books: On Tyranny, by Timothy Snyder; How Democracies Die, by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblat; and The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk.
Those in the political world are familiar with the concept of “illiberal democracy,” which implies the differentiation of two kinds of democracies: those that are liberal, and those that are not.
In 1997, Fareed Zakaria introduced the idea of “illiberal democracy,” which relied on a distinction between “democracy” and “constitutional liberalism.” The latter concept requires a set of liberties that are not necessarily linked with democracy, nor with its theory or history. According to Zakaria, the term “democracy” describes governments that have come to power through free elections. Within that category, there are some nations—but not all—in which elections come as part of a constitutional liberalism, including the presence of rule of law, separation of powers, and guarantees of respect for citizens’ rights.
I disagree with the premise that there are two distinct types of democracy.
When evaluating what qualifies as a democracy, we find that democracies must be liberal in order to meet standard indicators. These indicators of democracy include citizens’ exercise of their civil rights; elections in which the popular will in broad terms is manifested, and citizens have equal opportunity to participate; civilian control of the nation’s military; and a public power whose exercise is constitutionally limited in duration, subject to checks and balances, and absolutely tolerant and open to criticism. If a government holds elections without meeting these conditions, they necessarily fall short of being free and fair elections.
Meeting the demands of a free election presupposes complete liberty of thought, speech, assembly, political pluralism, open availability of information, equal access to participation, and the existence of an election authority that is impartial and whose decisions will be respected.
There cannot be free elections if there is no separation of powers to keep one branch of government from undue control of political life and the election process. This lack of balance makes a clean election impossible.
The necessity of liberalism in democracy is illustrated in Venezuela’s recent electoral history.
Hugo Chávez came to power through free elections in 1998. However, from then on, all the electoral processes have had flaws, some more serious than others. Initially, high oil prices and social programs allowed for an artificial popularity of Chávez. During this time, fraud was less evident but still existent. As the failure of the “Bolivarian Revolution” became more clear and oil prices dropped, the fraud reached the point where the outcome did not represent the will of the people.
The elections that took place in Venezuela on May 20, 2018, are the best example of a dead democracy. They had all the characteristics of a fraud:
- The National Electoral Council was not impartial;
- The participation of the main candidates of the opposition was prohibited;
- The political parties opposed to the regime were outlawed, and many of their leaders were imprisoned or exiled;
- There was no freedom of expression, and media were subject to censorship;
- There was undue pressure on the voters;
- Public money was used to finance the campaign of the ruling party; and
- Qualified international electoral observation was not allowed.
What happened in Venezuela can no longer be described as “the people expressing themselves against liberal democracy.” It is simply a dictatorship, widely rejected by the majority, that falsifies election results in order to proclaim its own victory.
In the end, we must conclude that democracies that are not liberal do not exist or at best have an ephemeral existence. The “illiberal democracy” falls into what the political scientist Terry Lynn Karl has called “the fallacy of electoralism” and finds itself as nothing more than an oxymoron.
Gustavo Tarre is a senior associate of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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