The death of liberal democracy has been announced prematurely. But without efforts to counter populism and pessimism, it could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
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The death of liberal democracy has been announced prematurely. There is a global crisis of democracy, something understood traditionally (and fairly, in my view) to be a combination of political self-government and strong protection of civil rights and guarantees, such as judicial independence and effective checks on the executive and legislative branches. The crisis is visible worldwide; from the US to Hungary, from the Philippines to Turkey, and from Venezuela to Poland. But I like to think that it is the sort of a crisis which, rather than being fatal, will trigger renovation of liberal democracy.
For this to happen, we liberal democrats need to resist two twin temptations: self-flagellation and self-indulgence. The former is the temptation to masochistically blame ourselves for paving the way to populist autocracies which, it is sometimes said, are democratic illiberal responses to non-democratic liberalism. But there is nothing democratic about dismantling the rule of law and separation of powers. The latter temptation is to interminably display our suffering and grief, and rest in assurance that we liberal democrats had committed no errors but instead were innocent victims of a hostile takeover of our democratic states.
Neither attitude makes sense. Instead, we need to do two things.
Firstly, we need to realize that the onslaught of populism was a reaction to deficits rather than excesses of liberal democracy. The latter ideal carries with it certain promises; those of genuine equality of opportunity, of equal political access to political decision-making and of a truly secular state, to mention just three. Have we been faithful to the ideal and consistent in fulfilling those promises? A sincere introspection must bring an answer which is, at best, ambiguous.
Secondly, we need to carry out a “democratic audit” in order to consider what democratic resources are available to liberal democrats in the countries currently ruled by populists. Let’s consider Poland. Yes, the Law and Justice party (PiS) and its leader Jarosław Kaczyński have a firm stranglehold on almost all centres of power, and can almost single-handedly take all the important decisions, despite social protests and constitutional constraints on power.
But, as one commercial advertisement once said, “almost” makes a big difference. Consider this: opposition parties which have just succeeded in creating a coalition; an independent and courageous Ombudsman Dr Adam Bodnar; vibrant and truly independent commercial media, both broadcast and printed; diverse NGOs struggling, to be sure, with diminishing financial sources but still independent and activist; local governments often controlled by non-PiS or even anti-PiS leaders. And, most importantly of all, a large number of independent judges (‘common’ judges, to distinguish them from constitutional judges) who refuse to run a party line in their judgments, despite pressure from the government.
These are not negligible assets. When considered together, they offer good sources of optimism in the run-up to a series of forthcoming elections: to the European Parliament in May, the Polish parliament in October, and the office of President next year. And one has to add to it another powerful asset: the intervention by the European institutions, such as the European Council, European Commission and the Court of Justice, which have a non-negligible approach in dealing with backsliding in a member state.
Europe will not repair Polish democracy but it may provide powerful assistance to pro-democratic and pro-rule of law forces inside Poland. And while Europe is often being blamed for not being quick and decisive enough, it should be remembered that the EU had been founded on a presumption that all its member states respect the rule of law and democratic principles so the advent of aberrations, such as current regimes in Poland and Hungary, is a novelty to which the EU had not been structurally prepared. But it is getting there. A series of judgments by the Court of Justice demanding that Poland restores the rule of law in its judiciary, as well as an ongoing Article 7 procedure pursued mainly by the Council indicate that the EU institutions are adjusting to these new and unhappy developments.
These are the sources of moderate optimism, as I argue in my new book Poland's Constitutional Breakdown. Similar democratic audits can be conducted (though differing in detail and intensity) in every European state currently ruled by populists: Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy (Greece is a special case because Syriza, while considered “populist” under some definitions, is compelled to run distinctly non-populist policies).
Each of these countries - where the triumph of illiberal populism over liberal democracy has been staged - may yet be places of liberal democratic rebirth. Populists are strong by appealing to societal fears and stereotypes, but weak by not having mechanisms for extracting the best from the people. A politics of hatred may give electoral victory but will not yield a rational policy. In this sense, anti-democratic forces carry the seeds of their own destruction.
But the destruction may come earlier or later (in Hungary, it will probably come later, while in Slovakia, as demonstrated by the recent presidential victory of Zuzana Čaputova, it will probably occur earlier), and be more or less costly. But for it to happen, liberal democrats should be aware of democratic resources at our disposal and of the errors which we had committed when our leaders were in power.
Most importantly, liberal democratic forces should form broad-based coalitions, despite their programmatic differences. The fragmentation of anti-populist opposition explains the persistent political strength of populists in Hungary, Italy and the Czech Republic. Can Socialists and Jobbik in Hungary or the Democratic Party and Berlusconi in Italy, or even Vaclav Klaus’s ODS and “Pirates” in Czech Republic unite against the ruling populists? The question is not whether they can but whether they should if there is to be an end to illiberal populist rule.
And, last but not least, we should not surrender to thoughtless pessimism. If we do, the feared death of liberal democracy” will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Wojciech Sadurski is Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney School of Law, Professor of the Centre for Europe at the University of Warsaw, and currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at Fordham Law School in New York