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Photo: “Budapest: Hungarian Parliament“, by Jorge Franganillo licensed under CC BY 2.0. Hue modified from the original

Steuer, Max. “Authoritarian Populism, Conceptions of Democracy, and the Hungarian Constitutional Court: The Case of Political Participation.” The International Journal of Human Rights, August 17, 2021.


Authoritarian populist actors rhetorically embrace a conception of democracy as unconstrained majority rule. The majoritarian conception of democracy challenges the role of independent constitutional courts as institutions safeguarding fundamental rights and the rule of law beyond majority rule. This article highlights how the tension between the countermajoritarian rationale of constitutional courts and them embracing a majoritarian conception of democracy provides an opening for the political success of authoritarian populists. The tension is particularly pertinent in decisions on petitions submitted by authoritarian populists, who themselves tend to invoke majoritarian democracy. Empirically, the article studies how the Hungarian Constitutional Court conceptualised democracy in the context of political participation leading up to the pivotal 2010 elections, which paved the way towards the rise of authoritarian populism in Hungary. Employing contextual analysis of decisions referring to democracy in relation to political participation, it shows that, even before the changes adopted by the post-2010 parliamentary majority, the Hungarian Court embraced a majoritarian conception of democracy in this segment of its decision making. Consequently, the Court’s conception of democracy fed into authoritarian populist rhetoric. The findings caution courts when interpreting the meaning(s) of democracy and emphasise the potential and limits of judicial responses to authoritarian populism.

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.