Illiberal Democracy in Hungary and Turkey


Comparative politics scholars have developed numerous theories to understand the timing and success of transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy. In recent years, however, there has been a reverse trend of democratic backsliding. In some countries, populist leaders have gained power and undermined the norms of liberal democracy that were long taken-for-granted. In other countries, democracies have given way to hybrid regimes that combine features of authoritarian rule with elements of democracy. What accounts for these authoritarian reversals? Are some regimes more vulnerable to democratic backsliding than others? This paper examines these questions through a comparison of Turkey and Hungary. It argues that today in Hungary and Turkey one can observe the process of establishment of the so called illiberal democracy, although with different roots and manifestations – with economic predominance in Hungary and political one in Turkey.

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Literature Review

Many scholars today note that in the period described as the “decade of decline” for liberal democracy (2006-2016), the liberal foundations of democracy look more precarious than ever. In 2015, Turkey dropped to last place among electoral democracies in the Freedom House index (Freedom House as cited in Li, 2016). The defense of democracy is becoming a problem also in Europe. Deep disappointment in democracy swept the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. These processes are called “illiberal democracy,” which has become entrenched today in both journalism and scientific publications.

The term “illiberal democracy” was suggested by American political scientist Fareed Zakaria (2005). According to Zakaria, democracy without developed public institutions and mechanisms for protecting the constitution leads to the formation of authoritarian regimes. Zakaria emphasizes that elections alone do not guarantee democracy. “Elections without a choice,” without threatening the power of autocrats, allow the latter to claim the legitimacy of their own power both domestically and abroad.

According to the Freedom House rating, which takes into account not only the formal, but also the real state of affairs in the field of civil rights and political freedoms, a number of states recognized as democratic today should be classified as “partially free” (Freedom House as cited in Li, 2016). In most of these countries, a one-party system operates de jure or de facto, the executive branch has virtually unlimited powers, the economy is controlled by the state or oligarchs, freedom of the press is restricted, an independent judiciary is absent, and the opinions of opposition groups are consistently ignored.

The basis of illiberal democracy is either populism (as in Hungary) or tight control over political life (as in Turkey) (Moffitt 2015). Both this and the other are possible due to the lack of a secured and independent “middle class”; often, therefore, illiberal democracy becomes the result of premature democratization (Diamond and Plattner 2015), which is quite true in the case of Hungary.

The American political analyst Przeworski calls democracy a system of ordered unlimitedness or organized uncertainty (Przeworski 2019). This uncertainty is also a threat that can be decisive in determining the fate of democracy. With authoritarianism, and especially with a totalitarian system, people understand everything: who exercises power, from whom to expect certain bounties. In conditions of uncertainty, to which people cannot immediately adapt, there is a temptation to return to a simple and familiar scheme: leader – party – people. The system is simple and straightforward, and this is the main danger to democracy in countries embarking on a new path of development.

Hungary: A System Threat

In 2015, at the height of the migration crisis, Viktor Orban became famous for the construction of the first “anti-migrant fence” on the southern border of Hungary. The measure was effective and brought him a lot of political points (Zerofsky 2019). Before the current election, Orban and his supporters managed to unite the fear of a significant part of society towards migrants, conspiracy theories against the American billionaire, a native of Hungary, George Soros, and propaganda portraying the opposition parties as Soros’s puppets and traitors to national interests. In addition to propaganda and political manipulation, among the reasons for the next success of Orban supporters, there are rather generous social policies of the government and a certain, though not too impressive, economic recovery.

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“Link between populism and crisis,” and “how the performance of crisis allows populist actors to pit the people against a dangerous other,” as pointed out by Moffitt (2015), is clearly traced here. Moreover, it is clear that the uncertainty that Przeworski (2019) speaks of and which Orban constantly exaggerates in his populist statements about the potential danger of migrants to Hungary’s national security has also contributed to the accumulation of Orban’s “political capital.” Having obtained two-thirds of the seats in parliament, which allows changing the Constitution at the discretion of the ruling party, Fidesz managed to change the law in such a way that “appropriate people” appeared at the head of the institutions that were designed to serve as checks and balances in a democracy. This is the president of the republic, members of the Constitutional Court, heads of the prosecutor’s office, the Council on Mass Media, etc. This can be considered the birth of the regime of illiberal democracy.

Immediately after receiving a constitutional majority, the party began actively reshaping the existing electoral rules, and many of these changes, according to research by political analyst Matthijs Bogaards, were borrowed from post-Soviet authoritarian countries (Bogaards 2018). For example, the passage barrier for party lists in elections has been substantially raised. This seemongly was supposed to prevent the excessive fragmentation of parliament. However, the reform gave a big advantage to the large monopolist parties in the political arena. Formally, this is democracy, but democracy with disturbed equilibrium mechanisms, in which the dictatorship of the majority has been established. Orban himself unequivocally expressed his position on liberalism: “Democracy does not have to be liberal. Even without being liberal, democracy can remain a democracy” (Beauchamp 2019). It is significant at the same time that, as Bermeo rightly notes, “All these changes were made by democratically elected officials with a strong popular mandate to rule” (2016, 11), just as in Germany in 1933, with the coming to power of the National Socialists in led by Hitler and the subsequent replacement of the democratic system with a dictatorship.

Many political scientists are wondering why almost thirty years of the transition to democracy led to an authoritarian and increasingly ethno-nationalist regime in Hungary. The answer to this question makes us turn to the unique nature of the 1989 revolutions, as a result of which the states of Eastern Europe overcame their dependence on the Soviet Union. Previously, a utopian idea was the driving force of revolutionary outbursts, but the 1989 revolutions were connected with the idea of the norm ‑ with the desire to achieve a lifestyle that has already become commonplace for the inhabitants of Western Europe. It is easy to see that the collapse of totalitarian systems that went down in history under the name “socialism” was associated with their economic crisis. Today in Hungary, according to polls, the number of adherents of the capitalist system has dropped to 46 percent. More than 70 percent of respondents are sure that their economic situation has become worse than under the socialist system (Fehérvári 2017). It is quite obvious that, under such conditions, a radical change of course seems to be very attractive to the majority of the population (let us recall Hitler’s promises about the restoration of the German economy and the return of “great Germany”).

The End of Turkish Democracy

Serious changes have occurred in the political system of Turkey over the past few years. As a result of a referendum held in 2017, the state became a presidential republic. Amendments to the Constitution presented for voting on referendum noticeably expand the range of president’s powers — now they are almost unlimited.

The arguments of President Erdogan that the new supercentralized presidential system will more effectively deal with external and internal enemies, respond to regional challenges, end decades of social instability and periodic military coups, will contribute to the development of the economy and, in general, allow Turkey to become the leading power of the region, were convincing enough for more than 21 million Turks, or 51.4% of those who voted (Cinar, Kursat. 2019). Thus, even before the last presidential election, Turkey actually turned into an authoritarian state. It is logical that Erdogan won the election by gaining 52.5% of the vote (Yilmaz and Turner 2019), while his ruling party in alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party won the majority of seats in parliament.

With these elections, Turkey, in fact, breaks its ties with the West. Erdogan has long been openly demonstrating that his goal is not secular, but Islamic Turkey. The elections clearly showed that a turning point in national identity is taking place in the country. An attempted coup in 2016 is presented to the Turkish and world public as the main reason for such a sharp turnaround, which is consistent with the theory of crisis and populism link suggested by Moffitt (2015). However, it is clear that the real causes lie much deeper. One of the factors that ensured the victory of Erdogan is a keen sense of patriotism among the Turkish population and pride in their country.

Dreams of a strong leader go hand in hand with nationalism — a leader must personify a nation. The goal is to regain rightful place in history when the country was a superpower or empire (Cinar, 2019). The history of the Republic of Turkey is quite far from democratic values, starting from its creation in 1923 in the first days of the sole rule of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, not to mention the older history of Turkey since Suleiman the Magnificent (let us recall that in June 2014 ISIS forces proclaimed themselves world-wide Caliphate, “playing” on the same feelings of belonging to a great power).

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For a long time in foreign policy, Ankara has consistently adhered to a pro-Western vector. Since 1952, Turkey has been a member of NATO, and at the end of the 20th century, it made a decisive application to join the European Union. At the beginning of the new millennium, pro-Western politics began to enter an increasingly obvious impasse (Osman 2016). An attempt to play an active foreign policy role in the region ultimately led to Turkey’s almost complete international isolation. In such circumstances, after the collapse of the democratic achievements of the Arab Spring, the historical heritage naturally contributed to the country’s turn towards related Middle Eastern regimes.

Illiberal Democracies of Hungary and Turkey: Common Reasons, Similarities and Differences

In 1991, when the West was celebrating the victory in the Cold War and spreading democracy around the globe, political analyst Samuel Huntington wrote that there was no reason for excessive optimism. He pointed out that the previous waves of democracy in the 1820-1920s and 1945-1960s were followed by “backward waves” during which democratic systems were replaced by historically new forms of authoritarianism (Huntington 1991, 12-34). Next wave can also be expected, which will rise if the new authoritarian superpowers demonstrate the viability of undemocratic rule or if people in different parts of the world begin to perceive the USA, the long-standing and main vehicle of democracy, as a decrepit power under the yoke of political stagnation, an inefficient economy and social chaos (Huntington 1991, 15-17), which has been observed in the last decade. Indeed, authoritarian powers like Saudi Arabia are showing marked economic growth and improved standard of citizens’ living as part of the reforms that are quite large-scale and detailed, but firmly limited by a strict adherence to Islamic values. At the same time, the USA is experiencing an acute social crisis and internal contradictions. The country experiences aggravation of racial contradictions and dissatisfaction with President Trump’s policies, up to real prospect of impeachment.

The value of Huntington’s research lies in the fact that he described the causes of the waves of democratization, their conditions and consequences, and also determined their periodization. In his opinion, the factors and waves of democratization are the level and nature of the economic, social, cultural and religious development of the state, the position of the ruling elite, the international situation and others. Among the reasons for the rollback from democratization, he calls the weakness of democratic values in the elites and society; economic recession and crises leading to social conflicts and the growing popularity of the ideas of authoritarian rule; social and economic polarization of society; external influence, etc. (Huntington 1991). All of this is observed in Hungary and Turkey, representing common causes for the emergence and strengthening of illiberal democracies in these countries. However, the composition of these causes varies. If in Hungary, as was shown above, the main reasons are economic and social, in Turkey the determining factors are related to foreign policy and history.

Of course, the external environment caused by the migration and cultural crisis is a serious challenge for society and the governments of all democratic countries. Dissatisfaction with the ruling regime is also observed in a number of Western European countries. For example, tax increases, labor law reforms, and social tensions due to migrants in France are causing widespread public protests. However, centuries-old democratic traditions and the status of the country that proposed to the world the Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights represent a powerful deterrent preventing the country from sliding into illiberal democracy or authoritarianism. In Hungary and Turkey, such constraints do not exist. On the contrary, there are a number of factors that can potentially catalyze the rollback of democracy in the presence of an enabling environment. At the same time, if in Hungary a certain limiting factor is EU membership and the corresponding need to follow its legislation and policies, in Turkey there are practically no any external inhibitors.


The example of Hungary and Turkey shows that, speaking of an increase in the number of illiberal democracies, there is a whole range of such democracies, starting with countries with moderate violations, like Hungary, and ending with the likeness of frank authoritarianism, like Turkey. It can be said that many countries, not passing at all an intermediate or transitional stage of development, over time have become a form of government that combines a significant degree of democracy with the same degree of illiberalism. Just as various nations around the world were able to adapt to various forms of capitalism, they were able to accept and support various forms of democracy. However, the “leap” from neo-feudalism and, at best, liberal autocracies to Western-style liberal democracy led to the same effect as the leap of Russia in the early 20th century from the socio-economic formation of the initial stage of capitalism to socialism ‑ crisis and a rollback. The example of Hungary and Turkey also shows that the foreign policy situation (in the case of Turkey) and socio-economic problems (in the case of Hungary) are catalysts for such a rollback.


Beauchamp, Zack. 2019. “It happened there: how democracy died in Hungary.” Vox, Web.

Bermeo, Nancy. 2016. “On Democratic Backsliding.” Journal of Democracy 27 (1): 5-19.

Bogaards, Matthijs. 2018. “De-democratization in Hungary: Diffusely Defective Democracy.” Democratization 25 (8): 1481-1499.

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Fehérvári, Aniko. 2017. “Management of Social Inequalities in Hungarian Education Policy.” Italian Journal of Sociology of Education 9 (2): 25-54.

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Osman, Tarek. 2016. Islamism: What it Means for the Middle East and the World. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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Yilmaz, Zafer, and Bryan S. Turner. 2019. “Turkey’s Deepening Authoritarianism and the Fall of Electoral Democracy.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 46 (5): 691-698.

Zerofsky, Elizabeth. 2019. “Viktor Orban’s Far Right Vision for Europe.” The New Yorker, Web.

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