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BIPR | Illiberal Democracy or Populist Authoritarianism? The Case Studies of Poland and Hungary
Illiberal Democracy or Populist Authoritarianism? The Case Studies of Poland and Hungary

March 18, 2021 - 18:30

Online Event

Wojciech Sadurski, University of Sydney; University of Warsaw, Poland

Event Recap

The event started with an introduction of Professor Sadurski by Professor Frosini, underlining his role as both a constitutional thinker and a constitutional actor. Wojciech Sadurski started his presentation by pointing to the latest V-Dem report, specially highlighting the global decline in liberal democracy to levels of the 1990s. He also mentioned that today, electoral autocracies are by far the most widespread type of regime in the world, and that this fact is consistent across reports like V-Dem or Freedom House. To delve into the specifics of the conversation, he noted that Poland and Hungary have both consistently been in the top ten of democratic decline over the last couple of years.

To start the parallel between the two countries, Professor Sadurski focused on the differences and described seven of them in detail. He mentioned the duration, the scale of social support, the strength of the opposition, the constitutional entrenchment, the relation with the church/religion, the media, and the oligarchy. With some being more prevalent in Hungary like duration, social support, control of the media, or the oligarchy. While others have a higher presence in the Poland case, like the strength of opposition, or the relation with religion. Sadurski focused particularly on constitutional entrenchment, with the case of Orban being able to change the Hungarian constitution whereas the Polish PiS has not been able to do so, and had to recur to unconstitutional alternatives.

Then the Professor focused specifically on Poland, looking at the 2019 and 2020 elections as a clear victory of the ruling party (PiS). These victories have been used by PiS' rhetoric: the sovereign had issued its unequivocal support, and hence, should not be contradicted. As a result, Sadurski argues, polarization has increased significantly, and he finds it has three characteristics: (1) it is highly correlated with class; (2) it is more inclined to hatred of the opposing group than to adherence to one's own group; and (3) it is highly moralized, meaning, each group sees the other as evil or stupid. In his opinion, the explanation is more related to politicians' supply than social demand for the anti-elite sentiment, xenophobia, and anti-modernism that comprise the ruling party's agenda. On the societal level, however, Prof. Sadurski does believe there was a demand for communal identity, and he believes this is related to the ideological turn of PiS towards religion, history, and values.

To conclude, Wojciech Sadurski drew some general lessons from these cases. First, that we are at the end of the linear transition towards democracy, meaning, liberal democracy. He rejects the concept of illiberal democracy, which he deems an oxymoron, and prefers the term populist authoritarianism. Second, that this authoritarian trend is almost imperceptible because it is done in an incremental manner and through democratic institutions, so it becomes harder to identify. Finally, he reminded the audience that the future is in our hands, and that the stakes are high. A section of Q&A followed where the rule of law, local politics, emerging alternative leaderships, and potential remedies were discussed.

Full Audio:

Illiberal Democracy or Populist Authoritarianism? The Case Studies of Poland and Hungary
Constitutionalism in Illiberal Democracies Series

Jointly organized with the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD)
hosted by Professor Justin O. Frosini

Wojciech Sadurski
University of Sydney; University of Warsaw, Poland

This lecture will address the problematic issue of characterizing newly emerging constitutional and political systems, as exemplified by Poland and Hungary. Can these systems best be characterized as "illiberal democracy", "populist authoritarianism" (the lecturer's preferred characterization), "deconsolidated democracy", "competitive authoritarianism" or simply "hybrid systems"? The main point of the lecture, however, will not be semantic but rather descriptive and analytical: there is a category of political systems in the modern world in which rulers derive their legitimacy from (reasonably) free and (reasonably) fair elections. Yet during their term of office these same rulers disfigure the system in such a way as to render the subsequent transition of power difficult or even impossible. A "physiognomy" of such models will be provided, and questions about prospects for their future electoral defeat (even with the support of EU institutions) considered.


Wojciech Sadurski is Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney Law School and Professor at the University of Warsaw, Centre for Europe.

His interests include jurisprudence, legal theory, philosophy of law, political philosophy, constitutional theory, and comparative constitutionalism.

His most recent books include Poland's Constitutional Breakdown (OUP 2019), Constitutionalism and the Enlargement of Europe (OUP 2012), Equality and Legitimacy (OUP 2008), and Rights before Courts (Springer 2005 and 2014). Currently he is working on a new monograph, Constitutional Public Reason.

From 1999-2009 Sadurski was Professor of Legal Theory at the European University Institute, and from 2003-2006 he was the Institute's Head of the Department of Law. He has taught at Yale Law School, New York University School of Law, Cardozo Law School, Fordham Law School, University of Toronto Law School, Cornell Law School, National University of Singapore, University of Parma and the University of Trento. Sadurski is Chairman of the Academic Advisory Board of the Community of Democracies and a member of the board of several think tanks and NGOs, including the Institute of Public Affairs (Poland) and the Helsinki Foundation of Human Rights (Polish branch).

For further information on the Center for Constitutional Studies and Democratic Development (CCSDD)'s activities on Constitutionalism in Illiberal Democracies see:
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