The Year of Elections: A Watershed Moment for Democracy

2024 is the year of elections. Over forty countries will hold elections, including eight out of the ten most populous countries in the world. Two billion adults will have the opportunity to cast ballots.

Everyone will rightly be fixated on the US presidential election. With an increasingly likely rerun of the 2020 election between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, the stakes could not be higher for America or the world. Trump’s statements that he will act like a “dictator for a day”  and invoking Hitler by referring to his political opponents as “vermin” should send shivers down the spine of anybody who believes in liberal democracy. His singular mission of retribution threatens the foundations of America’s democratic institutions. Yet the possibility of a second Trump term is far from the only election outcome that will have a profound impact on the institutions we hold sacred.

Across the pond, the elections to the European Parliament will be held in June. The results will determine who occupies the most important offices in the EU and the general policy direction of the union. Current opinion polls show that Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy comfortably lead, Marine Le Pen’s Nation Rally is 10 points ahead of Macron’s party, and the Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) consistently poll over 20%. In other words, the far-right ECR and ID groups in the European Parliament are expected to be the big winners in the election.

With the EU preparing for the next round of enlargement and accession talks opening with Ukraine and Moldova, fundamental institutional changes are necessary. The far-right parties present the biggest challenge, as many of them had close links to Russia before the invasion and are Eurosceptic in nature. For instance, Le Pen took out a loan from a Russian bank, and her EU strategy has been labelled “Frexit in all but name”. Simultaneously, in response to the far-right surge, the centre-right EPP group has shifted to the right, further undermining the broad centrist consensus that typically characterises the European Parliament.

The very institutions and principles that make such contests viable are on the ballot across the globe.

In April or May, India is expected to hold elections. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist party BJP are heavily favoured to win a third consecutive term with their own majority. The main opposition Congress party that dominated the political scene after independence seems incapable of mounting a serious challenge. Modi, the world’s most popular leader, has targeted political opponents, undermined the freedom of the press, and has consistently stoked anti-Muslim sentiments throughout his career.

The Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi was convicted of defamation and sentenced to two years in prison after insulting Modi during a rally in 2023 before the Supreme Court suspended the decision. Last year, the government banned a BBC documentary that shed light on Modi’s actions during the sectarian violence during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. As a governor of the state, Modi has been accused of complicity in the violence against Muslims, a track record he has continued as prime minister.

This year marks the 30-year celebration since the end of apartheid, but the situation in South Africa is bleak. The country suffers from regular blackouts and the highest unemployment rate in the world. The late Nelson Mandela’s former party, the ANC, is mired in corruption, even including the sitting president Cyril Ramaphosa. An independent panel suggested that Ramaphosa had committed misconduct after millions of dollars were stolen from his farm without it being reported in a scandal known as Farmgate.

The ANC enjoyed its own majority since the end of apartheid until the 2021 elections and their support is expected to shrink even more this time. They might be forced to join forces with the Marxist-Leninist EFF, which has long advocated for land expropriation against white farmers. The second-biggest party Democratic Alliance has called for the opposition to unite to unseat the ANC.

The Mexican presidential election in June stands out as two female candidates are expected to duke it out. The popular incumbent Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election. Instead, his protégée former Mexico City mayor Claudia Sheinbaum is the candidate for the governing Morena Party. The opposition parties have united under the banner Broad Front for Mexico in the hope of defeating Sheinbaum, with former senator Xochitl Gálvez as their candidate.

It is up for debate to what extent Sheinbaum is expected to follow AMLO’s undemocratic policies. AMLO attempted to defund the country’s independent election watchdog, loosen limits on how public officials campaign, and transfer control of the National Guard (a federal police force) from civilians to the military. The Supreme Court has ruled each move unconstitutional, with AMLO calling the judges “rotten”.

A dynasty is in the making in Indonesia in the February presidential elections. The incumbent president Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is barred by the constitution from seeking a new term. However, the Minister of Defence, Prabowo Subianto, is the current frontrunner and his running mate is none other than Jokowi’s eldest son Gibran Rakabuming Raka. Indonesia’s highest court gave Raka an exception to a minimum 40-year age requirement to be allowed to run for office. It may have been helpful that Jokowi’s brother-in-law is the chief justice.

Two billion adults will have the opportunity to cast ballots.

What is even more problematic is Subianto’s past. He had strong ties to Indonesia’s former military dictator Suharto, being formerly married to his daughter. Under the dictatorship, Subianto led the army’s special forces, and his troops conducted massacres in East Timor. Following the collapse of Suharto’s regime, Subianto was dishonourably discharged. His main opponents, the governor of Central Java Ganjar Pranowo and the governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan, have no such dark track records.

This year most elections are not just about competing policy visions for what the future of a country should look like. The very institutions and principles that make such contests viable are on the ballot across the globe. 2024 will prove to be a watershed moment for democracy, not just in America.

Image credit: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Italian Prime Minister Ms. Giorgia Meloni (cropped) by Government of India, licensed under GODL, cropped from original.

Image description: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hands with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.