The rise of illiberal democracies

“The time has come for a state based on more traditionalist values: the liberal state must give way to the rise of an illiberal state.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán

For most of our history, the Bahama Islands have enjoyed a democratic form of government.

The residents of these islands have experienced uninterrupted parliamentary rule since September 29, 1729, representing one of the oldest elected Parliaments in the Western Hemisphere.

Our Parliament predates the United States’ (US) experiment with democracy that emerged as a republic from the American Revolution of 1776.

Some Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown, dubbed Loyalists, fled the US during and after the American Revolution and settled in the Bahama Islands, a British Colony at that time.

Many Loyalists brought their slaves, their customs, their Protestant religion, and their affinity to Great Britain with them.

Prominent Loyalists became a white oligarchy in The Bahamas, by ascending to the upper echelons of society as merchants, professionals, politicians, clergymen, and “leading lights” of the community.

For decades, they, along with the colonists they met when they arrived from America, established a Bahamian system of apartheid, albeit more benign than the South African variant.

Until January 10, 1967, we were governed as a British Colony that structurally favored minority rule of the white oligarchy, along with our local strain of apartheid.

The change in that structure was triggered by the general election of January 10, 1967, which ushered in Majority Rule.

For the first time in our history, we witnessed the election of a government that looked like Black Bahamians who were – and are – the majority of the population.

Majority Rule was quickly followed by political independence from Great Britain on July 10, 1973, when the Commonwealth of The Bahamas joined the community of nations as a sovereign state.

Most Bahamians alive today have become accustomed to a form of liberal democracy that has served us well. Around the world, however, we have witnessed the rapid emergence of illiberal democracies.

Therefore, this week, we will consider this — What are the differences between liberal and illiberal democracies? And what has accounted for the rapid rise of illiberal democracies, and should we be concerned about its emergence in The Bahamas?

Liberal democracies

The form of government that we enjoy in The Bahamas, referred to as a liberal democracy, is characterized by freedom of association and expression, the right to vote, the right to run for public office, the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes, free and fair elections, the freedom of alternative sources of information, a vibrant and free press and the right to control government policy through votes and other expressions of preference.

Liberal democracies conduct frequent elections featuring different political parties, observe a separation of powers into other branches of government, are governed by the rule of law, are often referred to as an open society, and establish a market economy with private property rights. Liberal democracies also establish equal protection of human rights, civil rights, civil liberties, and political freedoms for all citizens.

Liberal democracies are usually characterized by universal suffrage, granting all adult citizens the right to vote, regardless of age, race, ethnicity, sex, gender, sexuality, income, property ownership, social status or religion. 

Liberal democracies recognize the ultimate authority of a constitution, either codified, such as in the US and The Bahamas, or uncodified, such as in the United Kingdom, to delineate the powers of government and enshrine the social contract.

A liberal democracy can take various forms, either as a constitutional monarchy or as a republic. Liberal democracies could have a semi-presidential system, a parliamentary system, or a presidential system.

A semi-presidential system includes a president who exists alongside a prime minister and a Cabinet. In this system, the Cabinet, although named by the president, responds to the legislature, which may force the Cabinet to resign through a motion of no confidence.

The parliamentary system is responsible to the legislature and differs from a parliamentary republic in which a popularly elected head of state is more than a ceremonial figurehead.

In a presidential system, it is the people who choose their leaders. In the US, the three co-equal branches of government, executive, legislative and judicial, are linked by an intricate 235-year-old system of checks and balances.

Illiberal democracies

Fareed Zakaria, scholar, author, and host of the CNN weekly show, “The Global Public Square”, has defined illiberal democracies as “democratically elected regimes often re-elected or reinforced by referendums that ignore the constitutional limits of their power and deprive their citizens of basic rights and liberties”.

Illiberal democracies are systems of governance in which, although elections take place, citizens are deprived of the knowledge about the activities of those who exercise power and often ignore or minimize civil liberties.

Hence, illiberal democracies are effectively closed societies. The leaders of illiberal democracies often ignore or circumvent the constitutional limits on their power, ignore the will of the minority, promote centralized regimes, and facilitate the erosion of liberty, ethnic competition, and conflict.

Illiberal democracies are characterized by a general lack of liberties, including freedom of speech, which creates an environment where opposition to the regime is extremely difficult.

The rulers in illiberal democracies normally centralize powers between branches of the government, effectively eliminating the separation of powers. The state often controls the media and strongly influences its content and the flow of information.

Illiberal democracies are not new, although there has been a rapid increase in their growth. Singapore is an excellent example of illiberal democracy, especially during the leadership of its first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, who held that post from 1959 to 1990.

Lee Kuan Yew was an authoritarian who used his power as prime minister to elevate Singapore from an underdeveloped country to one of the most successful Asian states. Critics have accused him of curtailing press freedoms, imposing limits on public protests, restricting labor movements from industrial actions and strikes, and initiating defamation lawsuits against prominent political opponents.

Others have argued that Lee Kuan Yew’s actions were required for Singapore’s rapid development to first-world status. Although he was the father of Singapore as an illiberal democracy, he was a benevolent leader, undoubtedly unique among the community of nations.

Other illiberal democracies have not fared so well.

In contrast to the Singaporean experience, leaders of illiberal democracies who have recently emerged include Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, and recently retired Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Each of these leaders has demonstrated the depravity of illiberal democracies.

The European variant of illiberal democracy

Illiberal democracy is also gaining ground in Central Europe, alongside the far right. Hungary, Poland and Slovakia seem to be headed down this road and have begged the question: Is democracy still relevant in Europe, or is Central Europe pioneering a new model?

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has become the modern poster child for illiberal democracy in Europe. He said, “The time has come for a state based on more traditionalist values: the liberal state must give way to the rise of an illiberal state.”

In both Hungary and Poland, two main events highlight the decline of the rule of law. Firstly, several attacks against democratic institutions, notably the judicial branch, have called into question the political neutrality of the administration. The United Nations has reprimanded Orbán for weakening democracy by changing voting laws.

Along with Poland, two other European Union (EU) members — Croatia and Slovakia — are governed by political parties with nationalist and authoritarian tendencies.

Poland’s government has taken direct control over state media, through which it has attacked renowned and historic Polish democratic figures, including Lech Walesa to Donald Tusk.

An increased stranglehold over the media and measures against public institutions underline the decline of democracy in Croatia.

Why is illiberal democracy becoming popular?

Orbán insists that Hungary’s values are different from the ones behind the creation of the EU. He maintains that Western values, founded on human rights, respect for minorities, the rule of law, and free trade, are now obsolete. He argues that European Christian democracy has been led astray by liberalism.

Orbán has turned his back on Berlin, Brussels and Paris to place Hungary under the authoritarian model used by Russia or Turkey. Meanwhile, Russia is actively capitalizing on this mindset, seeking to spread its influence by promoting an alternative social and political framework.

Furthermore, Orbán and others have rejected their societies’ ethnic, religious, and cultural heterogeneity. They have adopted a profound hostility toward immigrants and view multiculturalism as a failed model.

What is the impact?

The result is that Hungary’s competitiveness in the world has suffered because rising levels of state intervention and centralization are counterproductive.

Consequently, Hungary’s international competitiveness has declined. While the Annual Global Competitiveness Report ranked the country 28th in 2011, this year’s ranking places Hungary in the 60th place, behind most of the region.

Orbán has strengthened state intervention in the private sector to solve this problem, but this has not curtailed Hungary’s economic slowdown.

Viewing liberal democracies as a failed system, illiberal democracies reject the EU’s founding values.

This populist disease in Europe has translated into a deep crisis in European identity that must be addressed. The rise of illiberalism has critical economic impacts that cannot be ignored.

If Central Europe establishes illiberal democracies as the new governance paradigm, it will face the consequences of diminished competitiveness and increased isolationism.

Relevance to The Bahamas

In the US, the Republican Party has justifiably faced criticism that it is becoming increasingly illiberal under the continuing leadership of former President Donald Trump.

The Republican Party has become more illiberal and populist in the last two decades, driven in considerable measure by Trump’s leadership.

Trump’s populist style of governance is considered by many to be a dangerous risk to the heart of liberal democracy, including an indifference toward the traditional institutions and democratic allies and praising other “strongman rulers” in the world like Putin, Erdoğan, and Bolsonaro.

The critical question we should ask is whether The Bahamas will adopt any of the characteristics of illiberal democracies.

Fortunately, to date, it does not appear to be our trajectory, despite our inclination to import the values and behaviors of things foreign. We have not demonstrated the propensity to adopt the callous bankrupt ethos of illiberal democracies.


The Bahamas is a peaceful nation that has long enjoyed tranquility baked into the sea and sand by our radiant sunshine.

Since the first Parliament in 1729, we have consistently and uninterruptedly enjoyed a peaceful transition of power from one government to the next. That delicate political stability culminated in a quiet revolution on January 10, 1967 that shattered our homegrown form of apartheid and forever transformed us into a country governed by the majority of the people who live on these islands.

Even though some nations will persist in practicing the insolvency of illiberalism, we must continue to uncompromisingly safeguard the values, conventions and traditions of the liberal democracy we have embraced.

Such vigilance will ensure that we can continue to relish the bounteous benefits and rich rewards that will sustain and support Bahamians for many generations to come.

•Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Bahamas, Advisors and Chartered Accountants. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to pgalanis@gmail.com.

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