2024 is the biggest election year in history. That may be bad for democracy.
2024 will be the biggest election year in history. Some 4.2 billion people, or more than half of humanity, live in the 76 countries that are scheduled to hold national voting.
Can democracy survive it?
That question may sound cynical. Much of the world has been taught to equate elections with democracy, and to think of voting as a civic sacrament.
“The vote is a trust more delicate than any other,” wrote the 19th-century poet José Martí, a martyr of Cuban independence, “for it involves not just the interests of the voter, but his life, honor and future as well.”
In the 21st century, such romantic ideas of democracy are dying. The latest global reports show democracy contracting across every region of the world. For six straight years, more countries have experienced net declines in democratic processes than net improvements. Polling shows widespread disillusionment in democracy among the planet’s young people.
In this context, elections rarely serve to renew faith in democracy. They produce too little positive change, thus inspiring frustration. They can be used by authoritarian rulers to consolidate power. And they can be so bitterly contested that they divide societies or inspire violence.
Elections can also make democracies vulnerable to outside attack. That’s perhaps most apparent in Taiwan, site of the second of the national elections planned for 2024, on January 13.
When I visited Taiwan this past December, Vincent Chao, a top official of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), told me that the election itself was a form of national security against China, which has pledged to return the island nation to its control—by force if necessary. “Democracy is our best defense,” Chao said. In other words, Taiwan must be democratic enough to deserve to be protected from Chinese attack by the U.S. and its allies.
But democracy also makes Taiwan vulnerable. The Chinese government and its proxies exploit the island’s open politics to spread misinformation, funnel money to friendly politicians and institutions, and raise doubts about democracy itself. Chinese influence operations reach every neighborhood; many of Taiwan’s borough wardens—essentially, elected neighborhood presidents—have received Chinese financial support, mostly via free trips to the mainland.
Despite this, Taiwan’s election is freer and fairer than most. The first election of 2024, in Bangladesh on January 7, will merely cement existing rule; the main opposition party, citing threats to its members, is refusing to contest the election. Pakistan’s February 8 election is likely only to add to the conflict involving the country’s most popular politician, former premier Imran Khan, who has been in prison since last year, when he was removed from office by political opponents and the powerful military. And in Iran, the ruling mullahs are in the process of disqualifying thousands of candidates in March 1 elections for the 290-seat parliament.
On February 14, Indonesia will host the world’s largest single-day election, with more than 250,000 candidates competing for 20,000 offices across the national, provincial, and district parliaments. The country’s two-term president, Joko Widodo, is barred from running for re-election in 2024. But the increasingly autocratic leader, after weakening local democracy and a national anti-corruption commission, is using state power to back a successor, Prabowo Subianto, who has a record of human rights abuses and supports Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine.
Indeed, it is in Russia where the vast chasm between elections and democracy may be most clearly demonstrated in 2024.
On March 17, both Russia and Ukraine are scheduled to hold elections. But it’s likely that only Russia’s unfree and unfair voting will go forward, with the dictator Putin seemingly guaranteed a fifth term as president. Ukraine’s democratic election, meanwhile, may be postponed to protect its voters from being killed by Russian missiles and bombs on their way to the polls.
In the spring, some crucial elections could reveal whether oppositions can reverse democratic decline—or whether they will deepen it. On April 10, South Korea holds legislative elections in which the political opposition seeks to check President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has reduced rights for women and freedoms of association and the press.
In May, South Africa’s opposition alliance can take power from the party that has ruled South Africa since apartheid’s end 30 years ago. But a change in power is full of risks. Would the opposition coalition improve democracy, end corruption, address some of the world’s worst inequality, and save faltering public services like electricity or water? Or would the opposition itself govern in a more authoritarian way?
Growing authoritarianism also provides the backdrop for the world’s largest election, India’s month-long voting in April and May. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, is a heavy favorite and is likely to be re-elected for a third five-year term. But he is also perhaps the biggest threat to democracy in India. His increasingly autocratic behavior includes limiting the power of regions, punishing critics and journalists, exploiting anti-Muslim bigotry, and a military and digital crackdown in Kashmir.
The world’s second biggest election will come in the European Union, where some 400 million voters across 27 countries will elect the European Parliament between June 6 and 9. There, fears are growing that far-right, anti-migrant parties that are hostile to democracy will make significant gains.
Across many countries holding elections this year, there are serious questions about the administration of polling. Nowhere are such questions bigger than in Mexico, where the outgoing president and his ruling party, Morena, stripped the independent national election institute, or INE, of much of the local staff and money necessary to organize balloting. Former INE officials tell me that the June 2 election, which includes votes on more than 20,000 public posts nationwide, is certain to see operational breakdowns that will raise questions about the vote’s legitimacy.
The electoral picture for the second half of the year is less certain, but no less full of danger. Venezuela’s presidential election is already violent and ugly, even though its date has not yet been set. It’s also unclear whether the United Kingdom, Canada, or Israel will end up calling elections in 2024; if they do, those contests promise to be divisive nationally and closely followed globally.
In the fall, two large countries where previous elections saw attacks on the seat of government will both head to the polls. Brazil holds two rounds of nationwide municipal elections in October, its first votes since President Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters sought to overturn his 2022 defeat.
November will bring me home to the U.S. Ours may be the most perilous election of 2024. Former President Donald Trump continues to claim falsely to have won the 2020 election, and brags about his 2021 insurrection aiming to prevent the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Nevertheless, he is leading in the polls, using violent and bigoted rhetoric, and publicly pledging to arrest journalists, prosecute opponents, and bring “dictatorship” if he regains the world’s most powerful presidency.
The prospect of a dictator leading what used to be called the “free world” may test whether there is still a God who, as Otto von Bismarck is said to have remarked, “protects idiots, drunkards, children, and the United States of America.”
By year’s end, those earthlings who have paid attention to all this may feel as though they’ve lived through one long global election. After seeing all the ugliness of electoral democracy, they may start wondering if there is a better way.
If they do, they might take a look at the growing global movement to establish governing assemblies of everyday people, chosen by lottery, as an alternative to bodies of elected officials.
They might also start rethinking the nation-state itself. Most people on this planet disapprove of their politicians, institutions, and their national governments. In our times, nation-states simultaneously seem too small to address planetary challenges like climate change, pandemics, and war, and too big and distant to meet the needs of local communities.
If the point of democracy is to solve our problems, then national elections—of the various types filling the 2024 calendar—may come to seem beside the point. And 2024 might serve as the beginning of a global search for new tools of democratic decision-making that give us more power to govern our local communities and our world.
This was originally published at Zócalo Public Square.