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

March 18, 2021


  • Wojciech Sadurski, Challis Professor of Jurisprudence at the University of Sydney Law School, and Professor at the University of Warsaw
  • Justin Frosini, Adjunct Professor of Constitutional Law, SAIS Europe 

Sadurski began the discussion by underlining his role as both a constitutional thinker and a constitutional actor. Sadurski then pointed to the latest V-Dem report, specially highlighting the global decline in liberal democracy to levels of the 1990s. He 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 discuss the parallel between Hungary and Poland, 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.
Sadurski then 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, 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, 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.