The tools of militant democracy are being used by illiberal powers to undermine the institutions they were created to protect.

In Central and Eastern Europe, authoritarian and populist forces are on the rise. This has led many to argue that, today, democracy is in crisis.

We are told to look no further than Poland and Hungary to observe the current political reality, which serves as examples of what happens when democracies backslide into authoritarianism: the curtailment of civil and political liberties; the exploitation of their authority to undermine constitutional constraints; the application of measures that restrict (or exclude) political oppositional forces.

We are told that democracy should be defended against such threats to its existence. That we cannot stand idly by as we backslide into authoritarianism. But what does it mean for a democratic state to defend itself? What is considered a threat, and what mechanism or process could be used to combat such threats?

No one will deny democratic states have the right to self-defense. But in the act of self-defense, we must know what we are targeting. The threat must be identified.

This is where consensus diverges into profound disagreement. And still, democratic states have institutionalised mechanisms for self-defense. They can constrain actors, they can forbid them from using their democratic rights, and they can remove them from the democratic playground. A state that preemptively restricts antidemocratic groups and parties in this way is called a militant democracy.

Could militant democracy be the answer to curbing the populist crisis of pluralist democracy against those who oppose the rule of law and democratic principles? Actions of the European Union seem to signal an affirmation as they uphold the use of militant measures domestically and even go as far as implementing a transnational militant democracy against countries who are backsliding into authoritarianism.

But what happens when the instruments of militant democracy are left in the hands of the same actors that we are attempting to defend ourselves against? Does this paradoxical situation signal a legitimate crisis for the use of militant democracy, namely, that it is prone to abuse? At the very least, it shows how institutions are only as strong as the principles that guide their use.

Legitimate concerns

We no longer live in an age where threats to democracy can be easily combatted by pointing to its extremist nature.

Political parties and groups who seek goals that are incompatible to democracy, and its underlying principles have grown smarter. They no longer seek to dismantle democracy entirely.

The German police investigated use of the Nazi salute during the Chemnitz Protest

In the past, militant measures could effectively combat political extremism by simply looking at a party’s actions and deem them a threat to the democracy. Germany is a paradigmatic example: it placed restrictions on the democratic rights of individual extremists by limiting speech and expression (it is illegal to display symbols of the Nazi era) and banning extremist political parties and associations (the 1952 ban of the Communist Party and 1956 ban of a neo-Nazi Socialist Reich Party).

Likewise, Spain, Israel, Turkey and Australia have had instances where parties and associations were banned effectively. Moreover, the Turkish Refah Partisi party ban was upheld by the ECHR in 2003.

However, the question remains as to whether the instruments of militant democracy can play a role in defending democracies today. Also, we have seen how democracies are proving incapable of combatting such threats, even though the legal-institutional means are available, for different reasons.

First, some democracies may have the capability to act against such threats but do not use them for reasons of political efficiency. Secondly, democratic states may find the means to combat such threats anti-democratic and therefore illegitimate.

What seems to be the underlying reason why such attempts have not been able to meet the challenge is simply that there are disagreements on what the problems are in the first place and whether these threats truly are imminent and require immediate action.

This is part of the central criticism that surrounds democratic self-defense: once a democratic state has the means to combat threats, this instrument can be used as an abuse of power rather than the protection of core democratic values and institutions.

The central criticism surrounding democratic self-defense has appeared in many academic debates, lodged between the theoretical and hypothetical, but could not point to real-world examples. Those days are gone.

Case studies

Central Europe has provided a laboratory for such theoretical concerns to be proven right. Illiberal democracies are using a similar militant logic against its political opponents: they oppress legitimate opposition through repressive laws on media, civil society actors and educational institutions. The notion of the rule of law (checks and balances, protection of political and civil liberties) has been thrown to the wayside.

Viktor Orbán and Jaroslaw Kaczyński

In these states, such as Poland and Hungary, the techniques of militant democracy have been turned on their head, leading to what one might call a militant illiberal democracy: cracking down on anti-government protestors, taking over opposition movement governing boards, limiting media and so on.

The weapons of militant democracy are in the hands of illiberal actors who have the legal means to target what threatens their vision of democracy. What democratic theorists warned against seems to be playing out from one Visegrad country to the next.

To uncover features of the illiberal turn in democratic self-defense, we turn to the laboratory of Central and Eastern Europe. In our project, we hover across the region and offer a detailed comparative perspective on what is considered the immediate threats to democratic institutions throughout Central and Eastern Europe. We also seek to discover how (and to what extent) actors have utilised a militant logic in democratic self-defense.

As a means to expedite the illiberal transformation in Poland and Hungary, a militant logic underlines their actions, offering the means to preemptively exclude political opposition in a legalistic manner. Daniel Hegedus rightfully points out how militant democracy is rather helpless in Hungary, seeing that illiberal actors are empowered by democratic mandates and act from a democratically legitimised position. In Poland, the same goes, but there is a recent attempt to take over the board of opposition groups as a means to preemptively restrict their actions into the democratic playground.

Martin Ehl highlights how the Czechs are generally resistant to any militarisation and prefer pragmatism, but even they ban Nazi propaganda. However, the tools necessary to defend democracy in Czechia might not be as advanced as in other countries of the region, which buffers them from being abused by undemocratic powers.

Of course, not all contexts remain the same. With regards to Romania, I offer an analysis of the failed use of militant democracy, more specifically, how lustration did not occur through party bans and still plagues Romanian democracy as its most threatening aspect. Finally, moving to the Bulgarian context, Spasimir Domaradski offers a glimpse as to what would happen if illiberal democracy completed its transformation. It is an analysis which extends beyond the backsliding dichotomy. He rightfully points out that liberal democracy never took shape in Bulgaria, so of course, no militancy is used.

Boyko Borisov, Bulgarian PM

Domaradski’s analysis offers a glimpse into how we, as political theorists, should respond to the criticism leveled against militant democracy. Namely, how principles should guide actors when utilising institutions to achieve their political goals.

As this series will show, the case for militant democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is a myriad of failed attempts, illiberal uses, and, in the Bulgarian context, the lack of an institutional architecture underpinned by liberal-democratic principles and values.

In conclusion, any attempt to utilise militant measures, first and foremost, requires a principled approach, where liberal-democratic values are uncontested and authoritative. Alas, the lack of consensus on this matter may make the debate now mute in Central and Eastern Europe.


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It is the beginning of a series on the militant democracy vs illiberalism.

A political theorist whose work examines the rise of political extremism and illiberal politics in Central and Eastern Europe. He has a Ph.D. from Central European University where he researched how democratic states respond to the current populist crisis of pluralist democracy.

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The Visegrad/Insight is the main platform of debate and analysis on Central Europe. This report has been developed in cooperation with the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

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