We may not see this number of elections matched until 2048, when the global political landscape may look very different. The “third wave” of democracy – the steady global expansion of democratic governments that surged during the end of the Cold War – has receded over the past decade. Elections are still taking place, but the basic political culture seems to be changing around the world.
In society after society, illiberal values and the politicians who espouse them are gaining ground. Many elected governments appear intent on undermining the basic principles of the democratic project, from freedom of the press to the independence of institutions such as the judiciary to the ability of opposition parties to compete fairly against the ruling establishment.
According to Freedom House, a Washington think tank that monitors the health of democracies, global freedom declined for the 17th straight year in 2023. The organization's annual report cites a wave of coups that have toppled elected leaders in Africa and growing threats to the rights of journalists. In dozens of countries. Separately, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental watchdog based in Sweden, said in its annual report that “in every region of the world, democracy has continued to shrink” and that 2022 marks the sixth consecutive year in which more countries have seen declines. A net Democrat compared to the improvements, according to her data. She expects that 2023 will not be better.
The news this year could be even more drastic. The results of pivotal elections in the United States – the world's oldest democracy – and India – the world's largest – may highlight a growing public appetite for strongman rule that flouts norms. Under it, every election from Mexico to the European Union to Bangladesh may offer its own showcase for the growing appeal of authoritarian nationalist politics. “We democratically elect illiberal leaders,” Maria Ressa, a prominent journalist and Nobel laureate from the Philippines, said during a speech to the National Press Club in Washington in September. “We will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024.”
Here is a brief, but not exhaustive, summary of some of the elections to watch in the coming months.
The US presidential cycle will receive justifiable global attention. Regardless of his mounting legal troubles, former President Donald Trump appears poised to win the Republican presidential nomination. He will face President Biden in the presidential election in November.
His party's base is declining at a rapid pace, and many of his lawmakers are either staunch Trump loyalists or are deeply concerned about hurting their political fortunes by challenging him. A new joint poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland finds that Republican voters are more sympathetic to those who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, than they were nearly three years ago, while more than a third of Americans say President Biden's 2020 election was won in The election is illegitimate, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
“From a historical perspective, these results will be shocking to many analysts,” Michael Hanmer, director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement at the University of Maryland, told my colleagues.
Trump's promotion of the “big lie” that the 2020 election was rigged appears to be good politics — as does his pledge to pursue immediate retaliation if elected against a range of supposed enemies, from Democratic lawmakers to illegal immigrants. Polls of likely voters in the Iowa caucuses found that the prospect of imprisonment for Trump's political opponents made nearly a fifth of those surveyed more likely to vote for him. In parallel, there is a growing risk of political violence, with some Trump supporters publicly expressing their willingness to take up arms in his name, as they did in 2021.
The toxicity of the moment is having growing implications for Americans. Last month, British think tank Chatham House noted that “democratic deliberation, but also compromise and coalition building, have become more difficult.” “Efforts to reduce income inequality have failed so far, and data in battleground states suggests the situation is worse than ever, according to the Fed’s latest survey of consumer finances. This is the context in which the 2024 election is taking place.”
A similar sense of crisis is roiling European politics. The far-right's continued control of the political mainstream, fueled by public anxiety over immigration and economic stagnation, may see its crowning moment in the European Union parliamentary elections in June.
“It is entirely possible that the various forces of the far right will emerge as one larger bloc,” John Kampfner wrote in Foreign Policy. “This may not lead to a change in the composition of the European Commission (the dwindling main groupings will still hold a majority collectively), but any such extreme escalation would change the overall dynamics across Europe.”
It appears that the far right, whether in a coalition or at the head of the ruling bloc, will come to power in Portugal in March And Austria in June. In Germany, Europe's economic engine, the rising far right could achieve unprecedented victories in a handful of state elections.
Meanwhile, Britain's faltering Conservatives have made migrants a punching bag in a desperate attempt to avert what appears to be an imminent electoral defeat this year for the opposition Labor Party, led by Keir Starmer, a moderate politician. No date has been set for voting yet.
Away from the West, other major opinion polls show the parlous state of various democracies. This weekend's election in Bangladesh will extend the term of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the country's long-time ruler, who critics say has turned the country into a de facto one-party state.
In neighboring India, Hindu nationalists led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi are likely to deepen their grip on power in national elections, expected in April and May, by seizing control of northern and central India. Modi's new five-year term would further move the Indian republic away from the pluralistic and secular ethos on which it was founded.
The long-entrenched African National Congress faces its toughest test yet from the opposition, in elections yet to be scheduled, amid widespread disillusionment and frustration with the country's post-apartheid democracy. Nearly three-quarters of South Africans said in a recent poll they were willing to sacrifice their democracy if the leader could create jobs and reduce crime.
Elsewhere, the risks are different: elections in Indonesia in February and Mexico in June could see outgoing presidents expand their influence through friendly successors, much to the dismay of rival political elites. Pakistan, which has been plunged into an ongoing political crisis since the ouster (and subsequent arrest) of populist Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2022, is trying to turn the page by holding elections in February, although Khan's faction remains angry over alleged attempts to stack votes against them. .
President Nicolas Maduro's regime in Venezuela is expected to hold elections this year, after negotiations with the country's beleaguered opposition. It is not clear how free or fair they are. In Ukraine, presidential elections are supposed to be held at the end of March, but the ongoing state of emergency imposed by the Russian invasion may lead to President Volodymyr Zelensky postponing the vote.
In Taiwan, which holds elections this month, a victory for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party is expected to amplify the potential for Chinese military escalation over the Strait – something that the opposition Kuomintang party, which is friendlier to Beijing, has highlighted. Whatever the outcome, as Simon Teasdale of The Guardian notes, the vote “will provide valuable evidence of how much democracy is valued – when a determined people are allowed real choice amidst fierce external pressure.”