February 28, 2023

Democracy under Threat

How the Personalization of Political Parties Undermines Democracy

Introduction

In 1998, Viktor Orbán was elected the prime minister of Hungary in free and fair elections. He was supported by the Fidesz party—a movement he founded in 1988 that became a political party in 1990. After losing reelection in 2002, Orbán returned to the prime ministership in 2010 having internalized the lesson that surviving in Hungarian politics “requires strong leadership and absolute control over the party.” From 2002 to 2010, Orbán increased his influence within Fidesz, including by changing the party constitution to give himself control of the selection of local party leaders, all parliamentary candidates, and the leader of the party’s parliamentary group. Orbán’s increasing influence within the party paved the way for his efforts over the next decade to remove checks on his power. His control over the party, along with Fidesz’s constitutional majority, enabled Orbán to change Hungary’s constitution in ways that weakened executive constraints, including from the Constitutional Court, the election commission, independent media, and civil society. Orbán’s disproportionate power within the political system allowed him to dismantle democracy in the years that followed, pushing Hungary into authoritarianism.

This pattern of democratic decay is not unique to Hungary. Freedom House reports that democracy has been in decline for the last 16 consecutive years, with much of the deterioration occurring in countries classified as democracies. In some instances these declines left democracy compromised but intact (as in Poland). In other cases, the declines gave way to the onset of authoritarianism (as in Serbia). Importantly, along with the decline in democracy, there has been a clear change in the way that democracies are breaking down. Before 2000, coups were the primary way that democracies failed. Since 2000, however, incumbent takeovers—or the ability of democratically elected leaders to dismantle democracy from within—have grown more prevalent. In the 2010s, 64 percent of the democracies that broke down did so due to incumbent power grabs, while only 36 percent of those that collapsed did so because of a coup. Simply put, the greatest threat to democracy now comes from democratically elected leaders.

Freedom House reports that democracy has been in decline for the last 16 consecutive years, with much of the deterioration occurring in countries classified as democracies.

While research has documented the growing threats to democracy from within, much less is known about the factors that enable such democratic decline. This report seeks to fill that gap. It summarizes new research by Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright (Oxford University Press, forthcoming) showing that the personalization of political parties is fueling democracy’s decline. All over the globe, leaders are increasingly coming to power backed by personalist parties—or those parties (often that the leader creates) that exist primarily to promote and further the leader’s personal political career rather than advance policy. Unique features of personalist parties make it difficult for party elites to push back against a leader’s grab for power, opening the door for democratic decline. Indeed, this has been a pattern across the globe. Despite the very different political and historical contexts in which democratic backsliding is occurring, there is one factor that many backsliding countries share: their elected leaders came to power with the backing of a personalist political party.

Unique features of personalist parties make it difficult for party elites to push back against a leader’s grab for power, opening the door for democratic decline. Indeed, this has been a pattern across the globe.

Using original data on personalism in ruling political parties in democracies from 1991 to 2020, this report summarizes research that documents the process linking party personalism with democratic decay. Personalist parties lack both the incentive and capacity to push back against a leader’s efforts to expand executive power. As such, leaders backed by personalist parties are more likely to be successful in their efforts to dismantle institutional constraints on the executive. Such attacks on state institutions, in turn, have effects that reverberate throughout society, deepening political polarization and weakening supporters’ commitment to democratic norms of behavior. In these ways, ruling party personalism erodes horizontal and vertical constraints on a leader, ultimately degrading democracy and raising the risk of democratic failure. The election of leaders supported by personalist political parties, therefore, is an easily observable warning sign that democracy is at risk of decline.

The report proceeds as follows. In the next section, the report defines personalism and documents its rise in democracies. It then explains how ruling party personalism harms democracy, offering evidence that it raises the risk of both sudden breaks from democracy and the slow democratic degradation that has become so common today. The report summarizes the pathways through which this occurs. Finally, the report concludes with recommendations to counter the trend.

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  1. Rudolf Metz and Reka Varnagy, “‘Mass,’ ‘Movement,’ ‘Personal,’ or ‘Cartel’ Party? Fidesz’s Hybrid Organisational Strategy,” Politics and Governance, 9 no. 4 (2021): 324.
  2. In its annual “Freedom in the World” report, Freedom House measures the level of democracy in 195 countries and 15 territories. In the past 16 years, measured levels of democracy have seen a steady decline. Freedom House evaluates the state of freedom by scoring countries with 0–4 points in several categories, including political rights and civil liberties. See this year’s report, “Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule” (Freedom House, 2022), https://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2022/global-expansion-authoritarian-rule.
  3. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “When Dictators Die,” Journal of Democracy, 27 no. 4 (October 2016): 159-71.
  4. Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, “How Democracies Fall Apart,” Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-12-05/how-democracies-fall-apart.
  5. This report summarizes research from the forthcoming book: Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor, and Joseph Wright, The Origins of Elected Strongmen: How Personalist Parties Destroy Democracy from Within (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).
  6. The book authors gathered original data that measures levels of party personalism based on several indicators of political parties of democratically elected leaders from 1991 to 2020. See Appendix A for details.

Authors

  • Erica Frantz

    Associate Professor, Michigan State

    Erica Frantz is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University. She studies authoritarian politics, with a focus on democratization, backsliding, con...

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor

    Senior Fellow and Director, Transatlantic Security Program

    Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She works on national security challenges facing the United States and Eur...

  • Joseph Wright

    Professor of Political Science, Pennsylvania State University

    Joseph Wright is a Professor of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University. He studies comparative political economy to examine how international factors influence aut...

  • Jia Li

    PhD candidate, Pennsylvania State University

    Jia Li is a PhD candidate in political science at Pennsylvania State University. He studies autocratic politics and democratization, with an interest in the politics of East A...

  • Carisa Nietsche

    Associate Fellow, Transatlantic Security Program

    Carisa Nietsche is an Associate Fellow for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. She specializes in Europe-China relations, transatlantic technology policy, and threats ...

  • Nicholas Lokker

    Research Associate, Transatlantic Security Program

    Nicholas Lokker is a Research Associate for the Transatlantic Security Program at CNAS. His work explores the development of the political and security order in Europe, focusi...

  • Nicolas Rice

    Analyst, Telemus Group

    Nicolas “Nikolai” Rice is an Analyst with Telemus Group, where he researches, designs, and executes experimental and analytical wargames for the Department of Defense. He is f...

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