An illiberal democracy, also called a partial democracy, low intensity democracy, empty democracy, or hybrid regime, is a governing system in which, although elections take place, citizens are cut off from knowledge about the activities of those who exercise real power because of the lack of civil liberties. It is not an "open society". There are many countries "that are categorized as neither 'free' nor 'not free', but as 'probably free', falling somewhere between democratic and nondemocratic regimes". This may be because a constitution limiting government powers exists, but its liberties are ignored, or because an adequate legal constitutional framework of liberties does not exist.
The term illiberal democracy was used by Fareed Zakaria in a regularly cited 1997 article in the journal Foreign Affairs.
Writers such as Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way reject the concept of an illiberal democracy, saying it only "muddies the waters" on the basis that if a country does not have opposition parties and an independent media, it is not democratic. They argue that terms like "illiberal democracy" are inappropriate for some of these states, because the term implies that these regimes are, at their heart, democracies that have gone wrong. Levitsky and Way argue that states such as Serbia and Yugoslavia under Slobodan Milošević, Zimbabwe, and post-Soviet Russia, were never truly democratic and not developing toward democracy, but were rather tending toward authoritarian behavior, despite having elections (which were sometimes sharply contested). Thus, Levitsky and Way coined a new term to remove the positive connotation of democracy from these states and distinguish them from flawed or developing democracies: competitive authoritarianism.
According to Zakaria, illiberal democracies are increasing around the world and are increasingly limiting the freedoms of the people they represent. Zakaria points out that in the West, electoral democracy and civil liberties (of speech, religion, etc.) go hand in hand. But around the world, the two concepts are coming apart. He argues that democracy without constitutional liberalism is producing centralized regimes, the erosion of liberty, ethnic competition, conflict, and war. He points out that Russia is democratic but because of Boris Yeltsin’s super presidency, illiberal. In order to solve this problem, Zakaria proposes that the international community and the United States must end their obsession with balloting and promote gradual liberalization of societies. Zakaria advances institutions like the World Trade Organization, the Federal Reserve System, and a check on power in the form of the judiciary to promote democracy and limit the power of people which can be destructive. Illiberal democratic governments may believe they have a mandate to act in any way they see fit as long as they hold regular elections. Lack of liberties such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly make opposition extremely difficult. The rulers may centralize powers between branches of the central government and local government (exhibiting no separation of powers). Media are often controlled by the state and strongly support the regime. Non-governmental organizations may face onerous regulations or simply be prohibited. The regime may use red tape, economic pressure, imprisonment or violence against its critics. Zakaria believes that constitutional liberalism can bring democracy, but not vice versa.
There is a spectrum of illiberal democracies: from those that are nearly liberal democracies to those that are almost openly dictatorships. One proposed method of determining whether a regime is an illiberal democracy is to determine whether "it has regular, free, fair, and competitive elections to fill the principal positions of power in the country, but it does not qualify as Free in Freedom House's annual ratings of civil liberties and political rights." A 2008 article by Rocha Menocal, Fritz and Rakner describes the emergence of illiberal democracies and discusses some of their shared characteristics.
In a 2014 speech Viktor Orbán, Prime Minister of Hungary described his views about the future of Hungary as an illiberal state. In his interpretation the illiberal state does not reject the values of the liberal democracy, but does not adopt it as a central element of state organisation.
The Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin has also been described as an illiberal democracy. Elections take place regularly, but many foreign observers (e.g. from the OSCE) do not consider them free or fair. The rate at which journalists have been murdered in Russia shows the limits of freedom of speech; most major television networks and newspapers are state-owned or influenced by the government and openly support parties that support the government during elections.
A classic example of an illiberal democracy is Singapore. Conversely, liberal autocracies are regimes with no elections and that are ruled autocratically but have some liberties. Here, a good example is Hong Kong. Both Hong Kong and Singapore are ethnic Chinese majority city-states and former British colonies. However, their political evolution has taken different paths, with Hong Kong residents enjoying the liberal freedoms of the United Kingdom but, as a colony, without the power to choose its leaders. This state of affairs was inherited by the People's Republic of China when it resumed control of the territory in 1997. In contrast, Singapore acquired full independence, first from Britain and then from Malaysia in the 1960s. At that time, it was structured as a relatively liberal democracy, albeit with some internal security laws that allowed for detention without trial. Over time, as Singapore's ruling People's Action Party government consolidated power in the 1960s and 1970s, it enacted a number of laws and policies that curtailed constitutional freedoms (such as the right to assemble or form associations, bearing in mind that there were race and religious riots at these times), and extended its influence over the media, unions, NGOs and academia. Consequently, although technically free and fair multi-party elections are regularly conducted, the political realities in Singapore (including fear and self-censorship) make participation in opposition politics extremely difficult, leaving the dominant ruling party as the only credible option at the polls. Russia had also moved towards a period of democracy in the early 1990s, but whilst elections remain in place, state control of media is increasing and opposition is difficult.
Research shows that multiparty autocratic elections predict significantly better outcomes on health, education, gender equality, and basic freedoms relative to non-electoral autocracy. Health and education outcomes are as strong as those of democracy.