AROUND HALF the world’s population, or some 4bn people, live in places that are holding elections this year (see chart 1). These polls will decide who governs over 70 countries. But together they also represent one of the biggest health assessments of democracy in history. For over a decade there have been fears that democracy as a political ideal is ailing, with governments betraying liberal values and authoritarianism becoming common. By February 14th, when Indonesia goes to the polls, we estimate countries with 770m people will have cast ballots (or prevented their citizens from doing so): or roughly 18.5% of the total for the year (see chart 2). That makes it possible to take an initial read on how the great 2024 democracy test is going so far. The short answer is: not particularly well.
In one respect democracy is being modernised: a technological revolution is taking place as short-form videos and group messaging transform political campaigning around the world (artificial intelligence, including “deepfakes”, are visible everywhere but are so far not decisive). Yet in another respect democracy is going backwards in time, from Pakistan, where chaos is still unfolding after a dubious poll a few days ago, to tiny El Salvador. An alarming number of elections are being interfered with or even suspended. It is still far too early to say that the real victor of the 2024 election bonanza is strongman rule: countries with another 3.6bn people have yet to vote. But at the very least you should worry.
What do we know so far? Nine countries have held, or suspended, elections. Finns were electing their new president as this article was published. Last week minnows Azerbaijan and El Salvador held polls, as did weighty Pakistan. Next is populous Indonesia. The votes will keep on coming. March will feature Russia’s presidential poll (Vladimir Putin will romp to victory in an oh-so-surprising outcome). After that there will probably be votes in vast India in April and then in the European Parliament in June, among others.
Amid democratic difficulties, the example America sets in its election in November matters more than ever. Indeed, the contest in America is of supreme importance: whether this is a year of democratic backsliding depends disproportionately on this one vote and the events surrounding it. All eyes will be glued to a probable rematch between Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
The election results fall into three camps so far: free-and-fair; fiascos-and-farces and indeterminate. Start with the first category. Taiwan’s vote on January 13th saw William Lai Ching-te triumph, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). China dislikes the DPP because it rejects China’s claims to sovereignty over Taiwan, but despite Chinese subversion and threats, the electorate was not intimidated. At his victory rally Mr Lai declared “Taiwan is telling the whole world that between democracy and authoritarianism, we choose to stand on the side of democracy.” The other squeaky-clean election has been in Finland, with results out on February 11th. As we published this story the front-runner in the polls for the presidential race was a pro-NATO liberal, Alexander Stubb.
The second category involves fiascos and farces. Top of the list is Pakistan, with its population of over 230m and history of political meddling by the armed forces. The election on February 8th was probably the country’s least clean since the 1980s. The most popular politician, Imran Khan, whose own democratic credentials are questionable, was given three prison sentences in quick succession in January on bogus charges; the poll was marred by violence. The results are now contested; Mr Khan’s supporters appear to have achieved a surprise lead. The likeliest outcome now is that the army uses legal manoeuvres to ensure that its preferred candidate, Nawaz Sharif, takes power. In another Asian giant, Bangladesh, a poll on January 7th saw Sheikh Hasina, in power continuously for 15 years, win after many of the opposition spent election day in prison. Her party won 222 of the 299 seats being contested; the main opposition boycotted the election. The country is now in effect a one-party state.
In several smaller countries, a similar erosion of democracy has taken place. On February 5th Senegal, long viewed as a pillar of constitutional rule in Africa, suspended its election, with its president Macky Sall, once viewed as a defender of liberal values, sliding towards dictatorship. The country has company in the Sahel. Mali was originally due to hold an election on February 4th, which was then suspended last year; the date has passed without the poll being rescheduled. Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger have all had recent coups. On the other side of the Atlantic, on February 4th the “world’s coolest dictator”, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele, won his second term. After a crackdown on gang violence he is popular but he wriggled around constitutional term limits to stand. Azerbaijan’s rigged election on February 7th saw its long-time dictator Ilham Aliyev win over 90% of the votes. He received congratulations from both Mr Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping.
The third category involves indeterminate polls. We put Indonesia in this bucket: the vote is expected to be clean but the circumstances around the election suggest the country’s democratic character is strained. The outgoing president, Joko Widodo, is attempting to exert dynastic control after bending the constitution to make his son the running-mate of the likely victor, Prabowo Subianto. Mr Prabowo has been implicated in crimes against humanity and war crimes for the actions of his troops when he was a general under Suharto, a dictator who was ousted in 1998. He has denied all wrongdoing. There are complaints of state intimidation and other forms of interference during the campaign. Indonesia risks taking a backwards step from the spirit of reformasi that took hold after Suharto’s rule ended. Given these circumstances, if Mr Prabowo fails to win the first round outright on February 14th, it would actually be a sign of democratic health.
Video, I see
The idea that democracy is under pressure around the world is hardly new. Our sister organisation, EIU, releases a detailed annual democracy index: it has slipped over the past decade. Using a longer-term index by V-Dem, a research body, the share of countries judged to be electoral democracies soared in the 1990s but has declined slightly in recent years to stand at about 50%. Certain opinion polls show a cohort of people who are sceptical about democracy globally, especially among the young.
What might explain the further slippage seen so far in 2024? One possibility is technology. A striking feature of most campaigns has been the role of newer tech platforms: TikTok, the Chinese-controlled short-form video app, has about a billion users world-wide and is crucial. Mr Prabowo has rehabilitated his image with “cute” videos of his dreadful dad-dancing, the most popular of which have been viewed over 20m times. In India, where TikTok is banned, YouTube has been displacing Facebook as the platform of choice, while WhatsApp’s voice-note feature allows illiterate people to receive propaganda. Everywhere political discussion has moved onto opaque private messaging groups where the degree of misinformation and orchestration is difficult to ascertain.
It is possible that these shifts favour strongmen and authoritarians, by allowing them to communicate without scrutiny. They also have the resources to manipulate private messaging groups by using armies of proxies and bots to spread fake information. Not all the signals so far in 2024 point that way, however. In both Senegal and Pakistan the authorities suspended the internet and telecoms services before scheduled polls, suggesting they were concerned about losing control of online speech. In Pakistan Mr Khan has used an AI-generated digital twin of himself to communicate with his supporters while in jail. Technology can cut both ways.
Meanwhile a lot of the coercion involves more prosaic tactics. In the past authoritarians eschewed elections, or stuffed ballot boxes. Today they maintain a charade of constitutional democracy and use “lawfare” instead, for example through courts disqualifying opposition candidates. In Bangladesh, Pakistan, Senegal and elsewhere rival politicians have been disbarred by courts in the name of the rule of law. After squashing Senegal’s election plans, Mr Sall declared the country needed a “national dialogue” to create the “conditions for a free, transparent and inclusive election”.
Alongside technology and the rise of lawfare, a final possible explanation for democratic slippage is a more permissive global environment for autocrats as the post-1989 world order comes under strain. With wars raging, the United Nations rendered ineffective by superpower splits and the West focused on trying to restrain China, Iran and Russia, upholding democracy has taken a back seat. In 2021 President Biden held a global democracy summit calling the defence of democracy “the defining challenge of our times”. Today realpolitik rules. America is negotiating a potential defence treaty with Saudi Arabia and its autocratic de facto ruler, Muhammad bin Salman. His time in the wilderness after the dismemberment in 2018 of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is long forgotten.
The bumpy road ahead
What lies in store for the rest of 2024? There still are another 50-odd elections to come, in countries with 3.6bn people. Some of these will be charades, such as those in Belarus and Russia in the coming weeks. Venezuela’s dictator, Nicolás Maduro, recently promised America he would hold free elections in order to get relief from American sanctions—and promptly used lawfare to bar his main opponent. Iran’s poll in March will hardly be democratic: prominent reformist candidates have been banned. But the vote to select the 88-strong Assembly of Experts will be crucial because that body will appoint the successor to Ali Khamenei, the ailing 84-year old supreme leader.
In contrast to these events, some big elections will be free and fair, including for the European Parliament in June. The main concern there is not that the process of democracy is impaired but that hard-right parties, which are already in government or polling above 20% in several European countries, may have a break-through success. Mexico holds polls in June. Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the outgoing president, is intent on making the path to victory as easy as possible for his preferred successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, with unaffordable pre-election handouts to voters. She is likely to win. But so far, Mexico’s constitution is holding up to the populist threat that has been continuously posed by Mr López Obrador during his time in office.
Two huge elections will be acid tests of the state of democracy. In India, the most populous democracy of all, Narendra Modi is on track for a third term as prime minister. He is a popular politician who oversees a fast-growing economy. But the campaign has seen the rule of law stretched: journalists have been hounded, Muslims harassed and opposition politicians subject to corruption probes and arrest. After the result in May the world may discover how much further he plans to erode India’s democratic norms and institutions.
The other country to watch, inevitably, is America which has been a beacon of liberty and at times actively promoted democracy globally. While there probably will not be a repeat of the storming of the Capitol on January 6th 2021, parts of the constitution will come under strain, not least the courts, as a multitude of cases against Mr Trump are litigated amid a fierce campaign. If he wins, attention will turn to whether America’s institutions are strong enough to resist a second bout of his rule and whether he will give succour to autocrats abroad, accelerating the reversal of the democratic wave after the cold war. Democracy’s defenders, meanwhile, will have to revitalise their case for the freedoms it enshrines. This year is critical for democracy, and so far developments are concerning. Next year could be an even greater ordeal. ■