We might not see this number of elections matched until 2048, when the world’s political landscape could look considerably different. The “third wave” of democracy — the steady global expansion of democratic governments that surged through the end of the Cold War — has ebbed over the past decade. Elections are still staged, but the underlying political culture seems to be shifting worldwide.
In society after society, illiberal values and politicians who embrace them are gaining ground. Numerous elected governments seem bent on undermining core tenets of the democratic project, from the freedom of the press to the independence of institutions such as the judiciary to the ability of opposition parties to fairly compete against the ruling establishment.
According to Freedom House, a Washington think tank that monitors the health of democracies, global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year in 2023. The organization’s annual report cites a wave of coups that ousted elected leaders in Africa and increasing threats to the rights of journalists in dozens of countries. Separately, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a Sweden-based intergovernmental watchdog, said in its annual report that “across every region of the world, democracy has continued to contract” and that 2022 marked a sixth consecutive year in which more countries experienced net democratic declines than improvements, per its data. It projects that 2023 will be no better.
The news this year could be more drastic still. The outcomes of pivotal elections in the United States — the world’s oldest democracy — and India — the world’s largest — may underscore a deepening public appetite for norm-bending strongman rule. In their shadow, elections from Mexico to the European Union to Bangladesh may each offer their own showcase of the growing traction of nationalist, authoritarian politics. “We’re electing illiberal leaders democratically,” Maria Ressa, a prominent journalist and Nobel laureate from the Philippines, said during an address to the National Press Club in Washington in September. “We will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024.”
Here’s a brief, and hardly comprehensive, rundown of some of the elections to watch in the coming months.
The U.S. presidential cycle will justifiably command global attention. No matter his mounting legal headaches, former president Donald Trump appears poised to win the Republican presidential nomination at a canter. He would face President Biden in a presidential vote in November.
His party’s base is falling in lockstep, and many of his party’s lawmakers are either staunch Trump loyalists or too wary of harming their own political fortunes by defying him. A new joint Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that Republican voters are more sympathetic to those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, than they were almost three years ago, while more than a third of Americans say President Biden’s 2020 election win was illegitimate, no matter the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
“From a historical perspective, these results would be chilling to many analysts,” Michael J. Hanmer, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, told my colleagues.
Trump’s purveying the “big lie” of 2020 electoral fraud appears to be good politics — as does vowing to pursue immediate retribution if elected against a host of perceived enemies, from Democratic lawmakers to undocumented migrants. Opinion polls of potential Iowa caucuses voters found that the prospect of locking up Trump’s political opponents made close to a fifth of those surveyed more likely to vote for him. Parallel to this is heightened risk of political violence, with some Trump supporters openly voicing willingness to take up arms in his name, as they did in 2021.
The toxicity of the moment has spiraling effects for Americans. “Democratic deliberation, but also compromise and coalition-building have become more difficult,” Britain’s Chatham House think tank noted last month. “Efforts to reduce income inequality have so far failed, and data in the swing states suggests this is worse than ever, according to the Federal Reserve’s recent Survey of Consumer Finances. This is the context in which the 2024 elections are unfolding.”
A similar sense of crisis roils European politics. The far right’s steady capture of the political mainstream, fueled by public angst over migration and stagnating economies, may see its crowning moment in E.U. parliamentary elections in June.
“It is entirely possible that the various forces of the far right could emerge as the single biggest bloc,” John Kampfner wrote in Foreign Policy. “This might not lead to a change in the composition of the European Commission (the diminished mainstream groupings would still collectively hold a majority), but any such extremist upsurge will change the overall dynamics across Europe.”
Either in coalition or at the head of a ruling bloc, the far right also appears set to come to power in Portugal in March and Austria in June. In Germany, Europe’s economic engine, the surging far right could clinch unprecedented victories in a handful of state elections.
Britain’s floundering Conservatives, meanwhile, have made migrants a punching bag in a desperate bid to stave off what seems an imminent electoral defeat this year to the opposition Labour Party, led by Keir Starmer, a political moderate. The vote is not yet scheduled.
Away from the West, other major ballots show the perilous state of various democracies. Elections this weekend in Bangladesh will extend the mandate of long-ruling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who critics say has turned the country into a de facto one-party state.
Next door in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalists are likely to deepen their stranglehold on power in national elections, expected to be held in April and May, through its dominance in north and central India. A fresh five-year term for Modi will further drift the Indian republic away from the pluralist and secular ethos of its founding.
The long-entrenched African National Congress faces its toughest test yet from the opposition, in elections that have not yet been scheduled, amid broader voter disenchantment and frustrations with the country’s post-apartheid democracy. Nearly three-fourths of South Africans in a recent poll said they were willing to sacrifice their democracy if a leader could deliver jobs and reduce crime.
The stakes are different elsewhere: Elections in Indonesia in February and Mexico in June could see term-limited outgoing presidents extend their influence through friendly successors, much to the chagrin of rival political elites. And Pakistan, plunged in a rolling political crisis since the 2022 ouster (and later arrest) of populist Prime Minister Imran Khan, is trying to turn the page with elections in February, though Khan’s faction remains outraged over alleged attempts to stack the vote against them.
The regime of President Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela is expected to hold elections this year, after negotiations with the country’s beleaguered opposition. It’s unclear how free or fair they will be. In Ukraine, presidential elections are supposed to be held at the end of March, but the ongoing emergency imposed by Russia’s invasion may see President Volodymyr Zelensky postpone the vote.
In Taiwan, which holds elections this month, a victory for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is expected to inflate the possibility of Chinese military escalation over the straits — something that has been highlighted by the opposition Kuomintang, which is friendlier toward Beijing. Whatever the outcome, observed the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall, the vote “will provide a valuable demonstration of how highly democracy is still valued — when a determined people are allowed a real choice amid fierce external pressures.”
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