“The Rule of Law is in steep decline, and press freedom is in dire straits,” Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld said during a European Parliament debate on the state of the Rule of Law and media freedom in Greece. Social Democrats have cautioned against Greece turning into another Hungary, emphasizing marked tendencies toward ‘illiberal democracy’. This raises a pivotal question about the future of democracy: is the democratic status of a state confined to its staging free and fair elections? The European Union, the supreme guardian of liberal democracy, has long ago answered that question in the negative.

The concept of illiberal democracy is contemporary and stems in the main from Fareed Zakaria’s 1997 analysis of the hybrid nature of the regimes in Huntington’s “third wave of democratization.” Today, research centers such as the V-dem Institute and Freedom House keep track of “democratic backsliding” and categorize EU member states that differ the traditional liberal democratic framework, with Hungary and Poland being the primary examples. But what are the attributes of illiberal democracy? Can we identify tendencies that lead to it, so as to assess its presence in Greece?

If liberal democracy is broadly characterized by the supremacy of the Rule of Law, the separation of powers, freedom of the press and assembly, and the expression of popular sovereignty through universal elections, then illiberal democracy represents the negation of everything but elections. It is, essentially, a mutation of liberal democracy: while periodic and relatively competitive elections are preserved, the foundations of liberal democracy are systematically dismantled.

The institutional acts that seal the transformation to the illiberal model can be divided into five stages: First, blatant violations of the Rule of Law, the disregarding of constitutional provisions and the abolition of an independent judiciary. Second, the deactivation of parliamentarianism and changes in electoral law which benefit the ruling party. Third, attempts to control the media and the imposition of limits on their freedom. Fourth, pressure on the free functioning and activities of Civil Society organizations. And fifth, the concentration of powers (such as control of secret services) in the head of the executive branch, undermining the constitutionally guaranteed separation of powers.

Historically, most democratic upheavals have occurred in the midst of serious crises and military coups. However, since the early 21st century, the retreat of democracy has largely taken a different form: a gradual erosion, which often escapes sufficient scrutiny from citizens. Consequently, European illiberal democracy appears to signify a novel type of authoritarian governance: one established not through military coups or exclusively through crises, but gradually, methodically, and often subversively amidst citizen apathy.

These five stages of institutional transformation are common and can thus delineate the tendencies that culminate in illiberal democracy. The EU has not only to identify these tendencies in a member-state and publicly scrutinize them, it must engage institutionally to proactively reverse them. Liberal democratic values can be sustained and advanced through official warnings, frozen subsidies and—above all—political mobilization by the EU’s citizens. Though it will be one of the most challenging endeavors of our time, reversing democratic backsliding is an imperative for humanity’s progress in a rapidly evolving world.

*Angelos Karayannopoulos is Research Assistant at ELIAMEP and EU Youth Hub