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An illiberal democracy is a country in which the leaders and lawmakers are elected by the people, but individual freedoms such as those protected in the United States Bill of Rights or the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen do not exist. The idea is that just as there are different variations of capitalism now practiced around the globe, in recent years, a different variation of democracy has emerged.
Illiberal democratic countries are found primarily outside of The West, in newly democratizing countries. They are distinct from Western liberal democracies – which have come to be known simply as democracies – in that popularly elected regimes do not adhere to constitutional limits that have usually evolved with popular election. In illiberal democracies, after multi-party elections are held, the ruling party or leader behaves in a manner that violates the individual freedoms and constitutional liberties of the general population.
There is a spectrum of illiberal democracies – from those whose transgressions are modestly illiberal to those countries that are almost tyrannies . Examples can be found across south-central Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. On the more modest end of the spectrum is Argentina, with Romania and Bangladesh less modest and Kazakstan and Belarus as near-tyrannies. The mid-to-late nineties was a period marked by a growing emergence of illiberal democracies.
The tension between how a government is selected and how that government behaves, centers on guaranteeing individual liberty from the church, state, and society. Illiberal democratic governments believe they have absolute sovereignty and centralize powers both between branches of the national government and between different levels of government and private associations. The former is more noticeable, the latter more common.
The argument in an illiberal democracy is that power is needed by the national government to move society forward and express the will of the people. According to liberalism however, this confuses a powerful government and a legitimate one. Liberal democracy argues there is an intrinsic link between the way a government operates and the way it is selected. If there is no individual freedom and constitutional liberty, then the government could not have been openly and fairly elected, and ultimately cannot express the will of the people. Under liberalism the threat to liberty comes more from centralized states than disorder.
The prevalence of illiberal democracy has to do with the imposition of electoral democracy on societies or states that do not have a history of pluralism. Without the tradition of other ideas co-existing, electoral democracy may not lead to constitutional liberalism at first. The existence of illiberal democracies would imply that democratization efforts should be focused on preserving individual freedoms and constitutional liberties in order to advance open and free elections, not vice versa.
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