Skip to main content

Photo: “02/01/2019 Audiência com Viktor Orban, Primeiro Ministro da Hungria“, by Palácio do Planalto, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Hue modified from the original

Lührmann, Anna, Sebastian Hellmeier. “Populism, Nationalism and Illiberalism: A Challenge for Democracy and Civil Society.” A Companion to Democracy 2 (2020).


The global state of democracy has worsened markedly over the past few years. The 2019 annual reports of major democracy research institutes therefore carried rather bleak titles, such as “Democracy Facing Global Challenges” (Varieties of Democracy Institute, V-Dem), “Democracy in Retreat” (Freedom House) and “Polarization and Repression Increase” (Bertelsmann Transformation Index). These developments are part of a long-term global trend of declining democratic quality of political regimes. Freedom House reported that global freedom had declined for the 13th consecutive year.

Data compiled by the Sweden-based V-Dem Institute also confirm this trend and will be presented in greater detail in this paper. One-third of the world’s population lives in countries where the state of liberal-democratic institutions has worsened in the last ten years (Lührmann et al. 2019). The global trend of declining democratic quality amounts to a “third wave of autocratisation” (Lührmann & Lindberg 2019). Autocratisation refers to all processes that diminish the quality of democracy and is thus democratisation in reverse. It can affect not only democratic regimes but also regimes that are already autocratic, for example if repression is intensified. Despite these negative trends, more than half of the world’s population still lives in democracies and many countries (e.g. Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan) have made notable democratic progress in the past few years.

However, these achievements are threatened by political leaders who use aggressive rhetoric to mobilise their followers and practice an authoritarian style of rule. This includes Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, and Narendra Modi in India. Nationalism, racism, xenophobia and a populist, anti-elitist narrative are popular mobilisation strategies of such illiberal actors. As soon as they come to power, they take an aggressive stance against women, the LGBTQI community, indigenous groups, minorities, and other vulnerable groups. At the same time, they threaten the foundations of democracy by disregarding the decisions of other democratic institutions, such as courts and legislatures, and by not adhering to established democratic norms. Dissenting voices from the media, academia, and civil society are suppressed and drowned out by hateful rhetoric.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.