The anatomy of illiberal states

Assessing and responding to democratic decline in Turkey and Central Europe

People walk on the Margaret bridge as they attend Hungarian march at a pro-Orban rally during Hungary's National Day celebrations, which also commemorates the 1848 Hungarian Revolution against the Habsburg monarchy, in Budapest, Hungary March 15, 2018. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo - RC1873B30490
Editor's note:

This Brookings report examines the emergence and diffusion of the illiberal toolkit from Turkey to Central Europe. It assesses how illiberal political actors have eroded checks and balances in several countries within the European Union and NATO and proposes concrete policy options for responding to democratic decline. The report is the culmination of a year-long project that included workshops in Washington and Prague.

executive summary

After decades of expansion, democracy—its consolidation, promotion, and global appeal—is entering a period of retrenchment. Liberal principles—political ideas that espouse the importance of individual liberties, minority rights, and the separation of power across levers of government—and democratic institutions—processes that translate popular will into public policy through legitimate elections—are being pulled apart.

The emergence of illiberal states within the European Union and NATO presents a challenge to Western collective action in an era of great power competition. This report analyzes the illiberal toolkit—a set of tools, tactics, and practices used by forces in power to roll back checks and balances. In particular, illiberal leaders and political parties are threatening democracy by targeting judicial oversight, pluralistic and fair political systems, independent media, and open civil society.

The report features case studies on Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, as their democratic rеcession has drawn the most attention and concern. It also considers Slovakia and the Czech Republic, two states that are exhibiting warning signs. The report offers recommendations for policymakers and other actors in Europe and the United States to secure and re-energize democratic institutions and norms in the trans-Atlantic space. The report argues that NATO must make adherence to democratic principles a core strategic priority as it marks its 70th anniversary in 2019, that the EU should adopt rule of law conditionality for structural funds for member states, that the U.S. Congress should hold regular hearings on the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and Turkey, and that the U.S. government should increase support for civil society and independent investigative media in countries of concern.