Are Free Elections All We Need for Democracy? What Is Illiberal Democracy?

On April 16, Turkish voters gave Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, greatly increased powers. Observers believe Erdogan, already attacking dissent and the free press, will act to further erode civil rights in his country, even becoming something of a modern day sultan.

Turkey is a democracy, a Muslim majority nation located where the Middle East meets Europe. It is a member of NATO and thus allied militarily with the United States and other western nations.

The election in Turkey is the latest in a series of democracies moving to limit civil liberties, including Russia and Hungary.

Two decades ago, Fareed Zakaria wrote “The Rise of Illiberal Democracy” (Foreign Affairs, Nov/Dec 1997). At the time, U.S. embassies in the Middle East, where I was serving, championed free elections as an answer to many of the problems there.

Zakaria sounded a warning about the consequences of free elections without other safeguards. “It has been difficult to recognize this problem,” Zakaria wrote, “because for almost a century in the West, democracy has meant liberal democracy—a political system marked not only by free and fair elections, but also by the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion, and property.”

Free elections alone, Zakaria pointed out, may produce dominance of one ethnic group, or the election of leaders from a single family corrupted by crime, or the suppression of free speech and religion.

Along with free elections, Zakaria said, we must include other measures such as a constitution granting protection to all, regardless of ethnic identity, religious preference, or other identifiers. A judiciary unconstrained by the need to be reelected every few years in partisan contests is also necessary.

Is the recent election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency a move toward illiberal democracy and the protection of favored groups? Or is it a correction, instead, toward a government that includes those left out of a changing economy and culture? Both?

Trump was the first Western leader to congratulate Erdogan. Most other western democracies were more restrained. Russia, however, also congratulated the Turkish leader.

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