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Interview with RSF Chairman Pierre Haski

The Specter of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

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The Specter of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

Source:Chieh-Ying Chiu

The chairman of Reporters without Borders (RSF), Pierre Haski, was in Taiwan recently to talk about “illiberal democracy.” In this interview with CommonWealth Magazine, he spoke about the rise of this phenomenon and what could be done to reverse the tide.

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The Specter of ‘Illiberal Democracy’

By Karen Wu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 638 )

In 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down, it constituted a major victory for liberal democracy against communism and authoritarianism. American political scientist Francis Fukuyama argued in 1992 in his seminal work “The End of History and the Last Man” that the triumph was the last ideological stage in the progression of human history, and liberal democracy was the final form of government.

As the following decades have shown, however, Fukuyama may have been too optimistic, because freedom around the world has been on the decline. In Freedom House’s most recent “Freedom in the World” survey issued in mid-2017, it reported that 2016 “marked the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom” as populist and nationalist forces made significant gains in democratic states.

Of the 195 countries its report assessed, 59 (30 percent) were rated only “Partly Free,” and 49 (25 percent) were rated “Not Free.”

The erosion of freedom reflects the changing nature of democracy in many countries, where it has merely become a formalistic ritual focused solely on elections to give political figures the veneer of legitimacy while cracking down on individual freedoms.

As the Freedom House survey suggested, these “illiberal democracies” have become more prominent, posing a perhaps existential threat to “liberal democracy” that the West has had trouble coping with.

Veteran French journalist Pierre Haski, who is now the chairman of Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF, Reporters without Borders), was recently invited to Taipei by the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation to give a speech on the rise of “illiberal democracy,” and CommonWealth Magazine caught up with him to get his opinions on the topic.

In a wide-ranging interview, Haski talks about the origins of the movement, both in his native France and other parts of  the world, how it is manifesting itself, and what can be done to try to reverse the tide.

The following are excerpts of the interview, which was conducted in English:


CommonWealth: Can you elaborate on why illiberal democracy is on the rise?

Pierre Haski: When after the fall of the Berlin Wall in ’89, there was all this talk about the end of history. There was this book by Fukuyama in the U.S. which was a kind of dominant idea that liberal democracy had won, that there was no other option on the table in the world than liberal democracy. The Communist world had collapsed except for China, but in Europe it had disappeared, the Soviet Union had been dissolved, and there was going to be a long unended period of the world coming together in the same values.

And that proved to be just an illusion in the sense that indeed there were a few years in which the United Nations became the place where you would solve conflicts. The U.N. had this agenda for developing the world, and so there was a kind of coming together of the world after the divide of the Cold War. What happened is that I think we missed a few steps on the road and particularly a new phase of the globalization process, and this has divided societies.

We moved from a time when the world was divided in camps -- you were either with the Soviets or you were with the Americans or you were with the Chinese.

Today the divide is within societies, and you can see that very clearly. And I think we started realizing [that] in a very clear way with Brexit last year. When the British voted for Brexit, there was this sudden split within the society. You had the optimistic, wealthy Londoners who were happy with globalization because they were in the financial world, and you had the outsiders who resented the foreigners.

Then you had Trump in the U.S. and the same divide. We had the same in France with Marine Le Pen, [who was] far right, anti-immigration, anti-Europe, anti-globalization, anti-trade deals like Trump.

If you look at the map of the French election results, you have two Frances. It's not mixed. It's really a clear-cut divide between those who are insiders of the globalization, of the globalized world, and those who are outsiders, the losers of that process, of regions that have lost their industries and who have no future. And this is something that you can see more or less worldwide. Globalization, the acceleration of globalization doubled with the digital revolution has created a big divide between the ins and the outs.

And where we have the backlash now with his illiberal wave is that the political elites in most countries, but I’m mostly talking here of the West because that's where we saw the phenomenon very clearly with a shock, the political elite didn't show that it cared about the people who lost in this globalization process, and that created a backlash. People said “if no one cares about me, I’ll vote for the worst guys and then you’ll get the message.” And that’s what happened. 

[They] play on identity politics, and identity politics has been the last field, the last refuge of people who didn't have anything else. And that's what has created this.

In Europe today the question of migrants has become really a key issue and especially in countries that have no migrants. You take Hungary, which is today one of those illiberal democracies. A lot of migrants have crossed Hungary but no one wants to stay in Hungary because they know they are not welcome. They want to go to Germany or England. And so the Hungarian voters voted on immigration grounds to stop immigration, not because there were too many immigrants but because they feared for their identity. That scare is far stronger than the reality. So we have this miracle solution offered by people who have a political agenda, which is strongman and strong identity politics – “we’re going to close the borders and we’re going to restore the happiness of the past.”

That’s what Marine Le Pen was trying to sell in France. She said we have such a beautiful country, we were so happy before, and all of a sudden we had these millions of migrants who came [and that] Brussels is imposing rules and trade deals. She said our jobs are going to China or to Hungary or to Poland and so we’ve got to close everything, and we’re going to restore the old happiness that we had in our villages.

I think a lot of people realized that this was hot air, that it was illusions, and particularly on the issue of the euro. Marine Le Pen, a core of her program, was to leave the euro. She failed to explain how we would deal with this issue. In the end, she lost the votes of people who had something to lose. She kept the votes of those who had nothing to lose. If you are 25 in a region that has no more industry, no job prospects, you vote for her because she is the only one who gives you a sense of revenge, of telling the powerful ones “go to hell.”

If you are even a small shopkeeper or you have a small business or you have anything, you have savings for your old age and what you’re being offered is an adventurous path to an unknown territory, then you say maybe not this time.

CW:  We went to Paris to interview entrepreneurs and startups, and they had lots of expectations of Macron.

Haski: It was interesting because both Macron and Marine Le Pen share one thing: they wanted to break the system as it existed. Macron wanted to break it from the inside and she wanted to break it from the outside. Being a former banker, a former advisor to the president, a former minister of the economy, but still very young, he had seen what was wrong with the system, the fact that the system was dividing the country. If you were in a privileged path, you were okay; if you were in an unprivileged path, there was no way you could re-enter.

The society, the welfare society, that we have built in Europe after the war was built on this idea that is contrary to the American dream. The American dream is that you are down and you can be up the next day. There is mobility, but if you lose, you’re left to yourself.

Europe is a different system, that the welfare state says maybe you cannot go as high as in the US but you cannot go completely down; you are not abandoned. What went wrong is that suddenly we abandoned people on the side of the road, and Macron is trying this gamble which for the moment is a winning gamble that will open the economy in an inclusive way – that means we are not continuing on the path where economic growth only benefits parts, the winning part of the country, and we forget about the others. The winning part of the country can only win if the whole country wins, and that's where he says he’s neither right nor left because he is taking the liberal approach from the right – liberal from the economic sense – and the protective side from the left and he’s trying to marry both.

CW: Do you think he will succeed?

Haski: He has one key asset for a politician – he’s lucky. He was lucky in his campaign because everyone died around him, and now he’s lucky because he has exploded the political system; he has no opposition at the moment. The whole political system is in disarray. It will take time and probably another year before things reorganize. For example, the socialist party five years ago had every single power in the country, but today they are forced to sell their building, their headquarters, because they are bankrupt. The right, the Republican Party, is voting tomorrow [the vote took place on Dec. 10] to elect its leader, and in a very divided atmosphere. The far right has suffered a lot from the defeat of Marine Le Pen and the far left has looked better but today they are not very convincing.

And so he is able to develop his program in a very systematic way, and he has created a lot of energy and especially he has changed completely the image of the country. At the time when the British are out – they are in a kind of nervous breakdown at the moment – the US are in total disarray with Trump; Germany just had elections, still no government or coalition, so there is a vacuum of leadership in the West.

Macron is filling that gap. He’s not becoming the leader of the free world as some people say. But he is the only one who has for example put on the table proposals to relaunch Europe, and that has a real impact on the French economy because suddenly investments are coming back inside the country.

It’s a very interesting moment in France and Europe at the moment, especially in the current reorganization of the world, because at the moment the U.S. is still the number one power, China is the rising star of the world but on its own terms, and then you have Putin, you have this illiberal wave that is threatening a little bit everywhere, and you have Europe, Western Europe particularly, which has been absent for 10 years.

Western Europe has been the sick man of the world. I think Europe was threatened with becoming irrelevant. It hasn't produced the technology giants that the U.S. or China have put in the past few years.

There’s no European Google or Baidu. It hasn't been able to deal in a coherent way with its own crises whether it’s the Greek crisis in the eurozone, whether it's the migrant crisis which splits Europe in several camps. The terrorism attacks that we've had have shown that there was a lack of coordination, a lack of common defense.

And so today Europe is at a crossroad. If it doesn't solve those problems, if it doesn't get leadership and new initiatives to reinforce its cohesion, it will slowly fade into obsolescence and become the tool of the big powers of the 21st century. If it gets its act together, which is what Macron is proposing, it has a chance of reviving a kind of European pillar of the world.

CW: So how do you think Europe will be affected by the rise of illiberal democracy?

Haski: The problem is that illiberal democracy is already within Europe. We have two dividing lines in Europe at the moment: one is east-west, the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe have more or less joined the illiberal camp, at least Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, [which has] just voted in a weird president who has been described as the Czech Trump. You have these illiberal temptations in this former communist side of Europe.

Then you have this dividing line I was mentioning within each society. You had that in Germany where, the third largest party in parliament now is the far right. In France, it came second in the presidential election. Italy is going to vote in a few weeks and might give a strong if not a winning vote for the populist party.

So you have these two divides, and there is a confrontation today between liberal and illiberal democracies and if people like Macron or Merkel fail in this new phase. 

It would be very difficult to prevent the continuous rise of illiberal democracy because people’s faith in the liberal approach – you know, what's the point of having a liberal approach if it doesn't produce the goods, that means reduce poverty, reduce unemployment, reduce the sense of being forgotten.

In France, we have an expression. There is a group of people who are called the voiceless people. They are not taken into account by the media, they are not taken into account by politicians, the unions don't care about them because they are not paid members of the unions because they don't have jobs anymore and they are in precarity.  These are millions of people, so if the system doesn't include them or at least give them the hope and particularly the younger ones, I think we're going to pay that in a very big way in the years to come.

The good thing is that people like Macron are conscious of that, and they know that very well. They know their historical responsibility, that if they fail the consequences are not just that they will lose power for another party, it’s that they might bring these illiberal forces to power. 

CW: So do you think it’s possible that there’s a weakness in liberal democracy that makes it hard to flourish or develop in certain situations?

Haski: I think liberal democracy still remains the basic safeguard for collective and individual freedom. We are dealing with two issues: collective and individual freedom. Illiberal democracy talks to groups and talks about collective identities and group identity, and liberal democracy talks about individual freedom. Can we reconcile both? That’s the big challenge. You have to deal with both group identity and individual aspirations, and liberal democracy has the institutions, the counter-powers to deal with that. And you can see that in the U.S., which has very strong institutions. Even someone like Trump fails to do whatever he wants because he has strong institutions as strong counter-powers. So that's very important.

The weakness, I think, has been in understanding what was going on, particularly I think with the speed of globalization. Politicians, elites, business have failed to understand the consequences of what was going on and particularly the social consequences of job destruction and so on.

We are faced today with a new challenge, which is artificial intelligence, robotization, automatization, which might have an impact on jobs in the very close future and that we don't know how to deal with it.

So we have all these issues for the past 20 years, and we haven't faced them properly and I think that's what gave people a sense of despair. Since the end of the 19th century in the industrialized world, you had this sense that you knew it was a kind of march towards progress. Each generation was going to be better than the previous one, and that stopped 20, 30 years ago.

And today when you make opinion polls in Europe, people will tell you our kids will not have a better life than their parents. How to recreate that? We have to make technology serve the human purpose and not shareholder purpose only. That’s a big issue for our time.

CW: So do you think there will be a resolution?

Haski: I’m moderately optimistic. The reason is that greed, money, and short-term visions have been dominant in the past 20 years. Huge amounts of money have been made in the short term. The financial world, for example has taken over, and you have that in every part of the world. You have economic empires that were built by entrepreneurs and they've been sidestepped by the financial world, and that's a big concern. To come back on the point of journalism, because that was one of the issues. Recently you had an extraordinary cooperation between investigative journalists around the world that produced the Paradise Papers and that deals with tax evasion -- how the rich and powerful of this world evade paying tax.

What is the purpose of taxation? Taxation is not a punishment for existing. It’s a contribution to a common life, to build roads, hospitals, schools. If you have systems that allow the powerful people to not pay tax, then there is no surprise that the states have lost the capacity to deal with their poor members and those who haven't been that successful or those who have lost their jobs because of transformations of the economy.

And so, for example, we have a lot of debate in Europe at the moment about GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) who have built systems where they don't pay tax, they pay very little tax. The European Commission has suddenly woken up to this issue and imposed a big fine to Apple, 13 billion dollars, because it had an arrangement with Ireland to avoid paying tax. And last week, Apple paid those 13 billion.

CW: Poland, Hungary, Russia and Turkey are the more obvious cases of illiberal democracies. Could you talk about the similarities and the differences among those countries?

Haski: There are many similarities. First of all, the strongman, Putin, Erdogan, Orban, Kaczynski, they are all very strong personalities who have built unconditional power within their ranks. We are not dealing with traditional political parties. We are dealing with people who don't accept any challenge within their own parties. It’s the so-called strongman syndrome.

The second common point is there is a revenge with history. These countries have a problem with their history. It’s obvious in the case of Russia. It used to be the Soviet Union, one of the two superpowers of the 20th century. It collapsed into a humiliating period under Yeltsin, the impoverishment of the people, the disappearance from the international scene, and what is from a Russian perspective another humiliation – the advancement of the West toward its borders, the enlargement of NATO and the fact that the Americans and Western Europeans treated Russia as a non-entity. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wants his revenge on that, and he has managed to do it in the sense that he has restored Russia's place through military means in Ukraine or in Syria.

People are voting for Putin and he is going to be re-elected – he just announced he was going to be a candidate in March -- and he is going to be re-elected in a big way because he has restored dignity, and he’s told them 'Russia’s back'.

The same goes for Turkey. Turkey was the Ottoman Empire, one of the largest empires in global history and it became a country that has been transformed into a modern society but was refused entry into Europe because Europeans were afraid of having a 60 million Muslim country within their ranks. And within Turkey you have this large divide between modern cities and a conservative countryside, and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has felt humiliated by Europe and is fighting for a revenge, a revenge on the past glory of the Ottoman Empire and a revenge on recent bruises in his relations with Europe.

Same goes for Hungary. Hungary used to be the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and one of the key things that [Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor] Orban has done in the past few years has been to give Hungarian citizenship to ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries who were split at the end of the first World War when the empire was dissolved. You have for example a big Hungarian minority living in Romania, in Ukraine, in neighboring countries, and it’s given more than a million Hungarian passports to ethnic Hungarians who live in other countries, who can, particularly those who are outside the European Union, can go travel everywhere and have free rights to settle in Hungary. So you have this ethnic identity group that has been put forward with a sense of revenge on a glorious past. The worst is that by glorifying the past, they have been also rehabilitating people who have been very negative in their history, like the rulers of Hungary during the war who were collaborating with the Nazis, and today they are considered national heroes.

Same goes with Poland. Poland is a country that has been very badly treated by history. It was in between the Soviet Union and Germany, it was split between the two. And the strange thing about Poland, and probably between the four, Poland is the very big mystery, is that Poland is an economic success story and that contradicts the idea that illiberal democracy comes with economic failure is that you can have a successful economy and still vote for people who tell you you are unhappy, you are miserable, you need to take a revenge. This is counterintuitive. But it is a country that has a revenge to take on its history.

You have also this collective identity of people who were not part of the initial group of the European Union and who have joined at the time when the rules were already set.

When you join the European Union today, you are being told here are the 23,000 laws that you have to adapt in your country, and when you’re finished you come back and you join. Because the European Union is a law-based union, that means everything is regulated, like the size of the cucumbers. And so these countries were not around the table when all these laws were set, and they were told -- which is normal you join a club you sign on the regulations – but these countries were just coming out of the Communist camp where they were imposed in another way, in a more brutal way, and they feel that Brussels is the new Moscow that is also imposing to them. So there is this kind of collective sense of not being free still.

The other common point is a strong sense of nationalism, ethnic-based as I said, and they are using scapegoats like migrants and globalization. Another point that is very important is that they all follow the same path. That means attacking counter powers, and they start always by the same thing -- the media and the judicial system. And what you see in Turkey at the moment since the coup attempt of July last year, Turkey has become the largest jail for journalists in the world, about 160 journalists. Only this week you had 70 journalists on trial in different cases, 70 in the same week. I was in Turkey three weeks ago to attend the trial of two very well-known journalists, and this was a farce. You could see that the judicial system is being used for political purposes.

These people are being sued for ludicrous charges, and the rights of defense are being ignored, and this is a real tragedy. And the judicial system has been under attack. 3,000 judges and magistrates have been fired from the judicial system in Turkey since the coup attempt. So those who remain know they are under threat if they don’t obey the political power.

So that's a common point. You arrive in power and, depending whether you have free hands like Putin or less free hands like Orban, but you attack the media, independence of justice, and civil society.

CW: So do you think China will be next?

Haski: China is in a different category. China doesn't pretend to be a democracy. China is so big that it has a system of its own. The problem with China is not so much what happens inside because in a way that hasn’t changed much. It’s even tighter now than it was, and China has defied theories that said that with economic development it would open up, that the rise of income, the rise of enterprise, the rise of the middle class, would bring more openness in China. Exactly, the opposite has happened because China is more closed today than it was 15 years ago.

What is worrying with China is the fact that it's becoming a model in the sense that it is exporting the image of a successful authoritarian capitalism, and that many countries in the developing world, particularly in Africa, are sensitive to this idea that authoritarian capitalism can work and that you don't have to waste time by building consensus and dealing with the conflicting demands and aspirations.

In the Middle East you have a return of authoritarianism. Iran has strong relations with China. There is this idea which was included for the first time in Xi Jinping’s speech in the 19th Congress that China could be a model, which was not present in the previous years.

But that’s a different issue because when you're talking about illiberal democracies, you’re still talking of democracies in the sense that rulers are elected. Putin is not Xi Jinping. Putin is going through the process of an election, an election that he knows he’s going to win because he controls everything. But he still goes through that process and he’s even respecting his Constitution. When he was not allowed to do more than two mandates, he gave the presidency to his prime minister and he became the prime minister and then he came back.

So there is this formalism and illiberal democracies respect the formalism of democracy. Authoritarian regimes like China don’t have to. They've set their own rules, and they have the power to do that.

CW:  As journalists, what can we do to help fight against illiberal democracy?

Haski: I think the only thing we can do is do our job and do it properly. That’s already a big thing. I think journalism in the past 20 years has been in trouble in the sense that the economy of journalism has been through a stormy period, and journalists, media companies are becoming entertainment companies more than journalism companies, and on top of that you had social networks and this new way of communicating and informing yourself that could have been a bonus for free information and better access to information and has become at the moment an element of greater confusion and probably a tool in the hands of illiberal democracy.

Let me explain. Ten years ago, when the web 2.0 started, the interactive phase of the internet, many people – I was among them – thought it was a great thing that everybody had access to not only receive information but emit. I started a news website in 2007. At that time we were very hopeful that these tools would be used to produce better information. [We felt] if journalists and citizens could produce together information then it’s good for everybody because the legitimacy of that information is better.

What happened is that social media became a warfield everywhere in the world. There is no country that has escaped that. In the end, it has created more confusion, and if you are in a society where you don't trust anything, then you're not a functioning democracy anymore because how can you make decisions in your daily life if you don't have a trusted source of information.

Today we've lost that, because journalism has suffered a lot of erosion of its credibility.

People don't trust journalists anymore all over the world and then you have this confusion on social media, so what do you do? [They need] a trusted source of information.

Journalists rediscovered a few years ago the fundamentals of their job through fact checking. Fact-checking is very important and is definitely a key to restoring credibility. But it’s not enough, and I think the example I was giving earlier about investigative journalists from all over the world working together for a huge investigation on tax evasion, for example, is a very good example of how useful journalism can be because this is working for the common good. It’s useful information. It’s dealing with a big issue that is involving some of the most powerful people in this world.

This can be dangerous. Only two months ago, there was a journalist in Malta – a member of the European Union – who died in a car bomb, and she was working on corruption cases in her own country based on the Panama Papers, which was a previous collective investigation by journalists.

These are the ways that journalists can restore their credibility, and that is very important for a functioning democracy, that people should have trust in their information system.

There's a very incredible quote by Hannah Arendt the philosopher. She said, “A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived, not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge, and with such a people you can then do what you please.”

That is exactly what is going on in the U.S. for example with Donald Trump when he called the New York Times fake news. The New York Times has flaws, they’ve been wrong many times, they believed Bush on the Iraq war, they’ve done a lot of mistakes. But if you believe when Trump says New York Times is fake news, then there's nothing in the information system that you can believe anymore. And as Hannah Arendt says, if you don’t believe anything, then how can you make a decision. That means you are in the hands of the Trumps and the people who talk about alternative facts. And that’s really the trap of today, so we need to fight as journalists to restore trust in our work.

There's an interesting evolution. Reporters without Borders was created over 30 years ago and historically it was mainly fighting to support journalists in authoritarian regimes who were being jailed and their newspapers closed and these kinds of things, kinds of traditional threats. Today it is still doing that because that's still very important, like Turkey at the moment, but it's also working on a project to find ways of fighting fake news. How do you deal with the platforms Facebook, Google and so on to fight fake news?

That’s a new mission for an organization like that because these are real threats for press freedom also. Press freedom is not only under threat from a dictator who puts journalists in prison. Press freedom is also under threat from the spread of fake news, the spread of so-called alternative facts, and that's a big challenge I think for us as journalists.

Transcription edited by Luke Sabatier

Edited by Shawn Chou


Additional Reading

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♦ What Two Speeches Tell Us about the Future of China and the US
The DPP’s True Rival: Xi Jinping
I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement

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