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2024 The Year of Elections: Change and Uncertainty

By Reuben Bye 


2024 is the biggest year for voting, ever - and it will be a year of uncertainty. 76 countries with a combined population of 4.2 billion (that’s about half of all people on the planet) are holding elections. Of these, roughly 2 billion are adults eligible to vote. The vast array of elections is a diverse list, ranging from the USA to Mali to Indonesia to the European Parliament. With so many to watch, it’s worthwhile to note some key details and trends. 

 

Just because a state holds elections does not make it a democracy. Democracy is a much higher bar that requires rights (such as the right to free speech, political participation, etc.) and protections, especially the guarantees that elections are free and fair. When classifying the democratic status of countries, three groups are usually drawn.  

 

Voting in autocracies? 

The first is the true autocracies, the dictatorships and one party states. In these, people have few - if any - political rights, but elections may still happen. This year Russia is holding a presidential election, but (since we know that there can only be one outcome) why bother? The process of elections is not always about choice and change, it can also be a tool wielded by autocrats to legitimise their rule (at home and abroad) and justify their decisions. For Putin, a fifth term would mean even greater control over the Russian state and could pave the way to further mobilisation after heavy casualties in Ukraine. Even more draconian, North Korea won’t be letting citizens choose who gets to rubber-stamp policy this year. Voting is mandatory, and there is one candidate. But for the Kim dynasty, making the people vote is worth it to build an illusion of a party state to have people to blame and to track the movements of the voters. 

 

Second are the hybrid or transitional regimes which fuse democratic and autocratic systems. In these, citizens may even be allowed to participate but repression remains a fact of everyday life. Here, elections can affect policy and change governments, but the institutions to uphold results are flimsy at best. As weak or emerging democracies, they are vulnerable to coups and crackdowns, and opposition candidates face an uneven playing field. For countries like Tunisia, Georgia or Mauritania, elections have the power to nurture a truly democratic future and to enable a populist party or opportunistic president to degrade its institutions. The largest of these to go to the polls this year is Mexico which has witnessed a weakening of anti-corruption and judicial institutions under leftwing populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in pursuit of his progressive agenda. His party’s candidate, Claudia Sheinbaum, is widely believed to want to continue his changes to judicial appointments.  

 

Voting in Democracies 

The third and final category are the democracies where rights and protections are upheld. In these cases, elections regularly result in governments with a new set of policy priorities and perspectives on geopolitical issues. Elections across Europe are likely to expand the power of rightwing parties as the issue of immigration returns to the foreground of political discourse. Populism remains a threat to even the most entrenched democratic states as polarised public discourse and prioritising certain controversial policies over rule of law threaten to undermine institutions. 

 

Of particular note are the ‘flawed democracies’ where elections can be genuinely free and fair, but where institutions and civil society have been strained by populist and illiberal governance and rhetoric. In 2024 these account for some of the largest states in the world such as Indonesia, India and the USA, and these results will certainly be felt globally.  

 

Twenty five years after the overthrow of authoritarian President Sukarno, Indonesia now holds free elections. It has prospered under the steady governance of outgoing President Joko Widodo for the last ten years, even though he has been criticised for sidelining democracy in the pursuit of national development. Prabowo Subianto, the current frontrunner who is positioning himself as Widodo’s successor, has raised concerns from his links to the Sukarno junta, human rights violations in East Timor and his choice of Widodo’s eldest son as his vice-presidential running mate (raising fears about a political dynasty). 

 

The world’s largest democracy, India, is expected to hold elections in late spring against the backdrop of growing concerns surrounding Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu-nationalist BJP party’s attitude towards human rights, rule of law and pluralist tolerance. India is an established electoral democracy but it has been increasingly described as an ‘illiberal democracy’ in recent years. Fragmented opposition parties have attempted to build a Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA) coalition to oust the BJP, but Modi is predicted to win a third term against this diverse ideological jigsaw of a group.  

 

As the foremost military, economic and diplomatic power, the US elections in November will be carefully watched by diplomats and policymakers around the world. American foreign policy is largely the responsibility of the president, so the winner’s administration will have powers over sanctions, aid, trade, military, involvement in international organisations and more. And this could all be subject to the will of Donald Trump, again. His last tenure saw him courted by autocrats and embrace more isolationist and transactional diplomacy. This could have profound consequences for Ukraine, NATO and Taiwan on which he has been sceptical and inconsistent in the past.  

 

Thinking ahead 

With so many elections coinciding this year, including in many major powers, 2024 will require policymakers to be flexible. In the more democratic states, free and fair elections that result in a new government can result in substantial changes to policy that will require others to adapt in response. In the states where elections are neither free nor fair, where they are no more than an attempt to legitimise an autocratic regime, they may be used to justify questionable actions. This will pose a challenge for diplomats who must navigate a year of changing dynamics and more turbulence will complicate an already tense world already struggling with war, inflation and climate pressures. 


 

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