Zakaria's use of the term "illiberal democracy" is to reflect a fundamental challenge with the exporting of democracy to the rest of the world. In the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, Zakaria argues that liberal democracy can only operate in conditions and settings where it will be organically allowed to flourish. This includes ensuring that elections are "free and fair" and that legitimate political expression and individual rights are part of the liberal democratic calculations. An additional component of this is a true and authentic economic liberalization where the qualities of liberal thought are evident in political theory, economic reality, and social construction. Where Zakaria sees democracy as being "illiberal" is in states that have embraced the notion of democracy in name only. Zakaria points out to settings like Russia where elections are held, but the authentic exercise of choice is moot, as leaders use democratic institutions to validate their own power. Leaders like Yeltsin and Putin did not do much to show they cared for democracy. In his article for Foreign Affairs where the term first emerged, Zakaria used the example put forth by former American diplomat Richard Holbrooke in describing the political aftermath in Bosnia to illustrate the meaning of "illiberal democracy:"
The American diplomat Richard Holbrooke pondered a problem on the eve of the September 1996 elections in Bosnia, which were meant to restore civic life to that ravaged country. 'Suppose the election was declared free and fair,' he said, and those elected are "racists, fascists, separatists, who are publicly opposed to [peace and reintegration]. That is the dilemma."
If a government claims to be democratic and is elected to practice undemocratic policies, then it would be considered "illiberal." Indeed, Zakaria makes it clear that a democracy becomes illiberal when it uses the label of "democracy" to advocate centralized and consolidated control of one's own power without really paying much in way of attention to the tenets of democratic choice and expression. One need only recognize that Bashar al- Assad, the President of Syria, was "democratically" elected with "97.2% of the vote" and ran virtually unopposed, claiming to have "massive public support." Seeing what is happening with Syria right now, this could be considered an example of an "illiberal democracy."