2024: Global Election Fest


By Asad Mirza

New Delhi, Jan 3: 2024 will be a historic election year, when democracy will undergo a major test with elections in approximately 70 countries including the US, India, Mexico and South Africa. More than 3.7 billion voters will head to the polls, and their results may have global impact and ramifications.

The current year will be the greatest year for democracy and democratic institutions worldwide.

The greatest power in the world (the US), the most-populous country (India), the biggest trading bloc (the European Union), the largest Muslim country (Indonesia), the largest Spanish-speaking country (Mexico) and the territory that is the most contentious one between the two superpowers of this century (Taiwan), all will hold elections in 2024.

A total of more than 3.7 billion inhabitants around 70 countries — or almost half of the global population — will head to cast their votes in either presidential or legislative elections in the coming year.

The verdict of these polls may have profound consequences on the lives of people and on a world that is going through a turbulent time, with on-going brutal wars in Ukraine and Gaza, as the West seems falling into decline, with no clear alternative.

On a geopolitical level, this electoral jamboree might have a major impact. Major disruptive results include the return of Donald Trump to the White House, a third consecutive victory in Taiwan by candidates that Beijing considers hostile, or a consolidation of the extreme right in the European Union, all of which could lead to far-reaching consequences.

In addition to these, other elections to watch out for include the potential presidential elections in Venezuela to those in Ukraine, from Indonesia to South Africa and Mexico, besides the UK — where a substantial change of course would not be expected regardless of the outcome.

Test for Democracy

However, what might be the worrisome aspect of these elections is the litmus test which democracy will undergo. Surveys by different international think tanks and institutes indicate dissatisfaction with the present-day working of democratic institutions — a sentiment common throughout the nations of the west — meaning, the US and Europe – even though they see themselves as democracy’s home ground. A recent Ipsos opinion poll in western countries found a widespread belief that current democratic systems favour the rich and powerful and ignore everyone else.

Freedom House, the independent, US-based watchdog concluded in its 2023 report that the Global Freedom Index declined for the 17th consecutive year. The principle of free speech, essential to a fully functioning democracy, is also under attack.

Paradoxically, this unprecedented vote-fest comes at a moment when classic forms of liberal democracy are under existential attack from authoritarians and dictators such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, far-right nationalist-populist parties such as in Austria, Hungary and Scandinavia, and military coup plotters and Islamists from Venezuela to Chad.

Yet the report said while 35 countries experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties, 34 saw overall gains. Autocrats were neither infallible nor unbeatable.

The geopolitical and economic impacts of so many ballot box battles, occurring more or less at once, may combine to further destabilise an unstable world — for good or bad.

Rise of the Far Right

The European continent will see elections in Austria, Belgium, Croatia and Finland, as well as for the European Parliament in June.

The pervasive fear is that they may accelerate advances by nationalist-populist, anti-migrant, xenophobic parties of the far right, matching those seen recently in Italy, the Netherlands and Slovakia. The results will shape the new chamber, with possible new legislative majorities that will influence the leadership of the EU. One wonders how high the far-right wave may rise.

The average of polls compiled by Politico magazine indicates a rise of the two far-right blocs and a decline in support of the traditional European conservatives, social democrats, liberals and greens. Even so, the latter groups might retain a comfortable majority. The crux of the question is to see if an eventual coalition between populist and far-right groups could form an alternative majority. At the beginning of December, in the seat projection put out by Politico, the distance between extremists and moderates was only about 20 seats, out of a total of 720.

India and Its Neighbours

For India, which itself will be holding the general elections, in which the incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to score a hat trick, will watch closely elections in its neighbourhood i.e. in Pakistan and Bangladesh which may have a major regional and strategic impact.

Pakistan is plagued by a serious economic crisis and high political tensions, including arrests and attempted assassinations of political leaders. Following the dissolution of Parliament back in August, elections should have been held within 90 days, but have been postponed twice. They are now scheduled for February.

The country — with some 240 million inhabitants — has enormous strategic depth, not only due to its nuclear arsenal, but also due to its close relationship with China. The Beijing-Islamabad axis is New Delhi’s biggest concern.

The first election of 2024 could be one of the most contentious. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League have dominated Bangladeshi politics for the past fifteen years. Over that time, they have increasingly eroded Bangladesh’s democracy. As Freedom House puts it, the AL “has consolidated political power through sustained harassment of the opposition and those perceived to be allied with it, as well as of critical media and voices in civil society.”

The US has been pressing Sheikh Hasina for months to hold free-and-fair elections, that pressure has yet to pay off.

Major Elections

At the global level the US elections and those of the EU may have a major bearing on India’s foreign and defence policies, with some overlap on its internal politics, too.

The US presidential elections next November have immense disruptive potential. The possibility that Trump will be the Republican candidate and return to the White House is still not ruled out. A Trump-return to the White House would represent a major shake-up with associated risks. It would be a step towards American isolationism at a time when rival powers are questioning the world order that Washington has created.

Trump would embody a break with ‘America for the world’ scenario, his “America first” doctrine means limiting efforts and expenses in distant horizons. It’s doubtful whether he would commit to supporting Taiwan if it comes under attack, or whether he would maintain financing and security guarantees made to Ukraine and NATO. New trade wars would be likely, as would a withdrawal of commitments against climate change.

In addition, the elections in 2024 will further highlight the manner in which our lives have become slaves to the social media and this will have an impact on the election processes too. As Kay Spencer, program director of elections at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI) puts it, the year 2024 is a big year for social media platforms and it will be important to monitor how they will manage all the elections that are coming up.

Indeed 2024 might prove to be a year, which consolidates the liberal democratic principles and institutions, or lead to their further erosion.

(Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator.)