15.01 Review

Supercycle Stress: In 2024, elections will take place in 70 countries, but their results may be bad for democracy

In 2024, elections are scheduled in 70 countries as well as elections for the European Parliament. This means that around 2 billion people, almost half of the world's adult population, will participate in these elections globally. However, this mass 'going to the ballot box' is likely to be the next stage in a 'democratic recession'. The rise of far-right and anti-liberal populists continues, according to experts. In some places, the elections will only strengthen autocrats in power (as in Russia) and reward corrupt populists, while elsewhere, democratically elected leaders may embark on their anti-democratic and anti-liberal campaigns. Breakthroughs towards democratisation and a turn towards more liberal politics are possible, for example, in Venezuela and the UK. But, in most cases, it is, at best, a question of maintaining the status quo. The year’s electoral results will demonstrate how strong the anti-liberal trend and the global crisis of democratic values are. 

The year 2024 will be a unique political year for the world, with 'major' elections in 70 countries, including Taiwan, Russia, Ghana, the United Kingdom, the United States, South Africa, Mexico, India and others, as well as in the European Union, where a new European Parliament will be elected. Thus, almost half of the world's adult population — around 2 billion people — will participate in national elections worldwide.

The Financial Times notes that while this coincidence is unique in itself, what is even more important is that this universal 'approach' to the ballot box coincides with a period of 'democratic recession', and the widespread triumph of suffrage is unlikely to be an instrument for democratisation and the expansion of civil rights and freedoms. On the contrary, Zanni Minton Beddoes, editor-in-chief of The Economist, warns that 'many elections will strengthen illiberal leaders, others will reward the corrupt and incompetent.' This paradox is likely to be the main political event of 2024.

Although further democratic retreat is highly likely at the end of the electoral year, its total defeat is by no means predetermined. Financial Times columnist Alex Russell writes that this year we should pay special attention not so much to the elections in the 'tyrannical group' (closed autocracies like Belarus, Russia, Rwanda) and 'performative democracies' (or electoral authoritarianisms like Tunisia or Bangladesh), but to the voting in the countries of the other two important groups.

The first group consists of democracies experiencing erosion: leaders in these counties come to power in genuinely free and fair elections, but pursue an anti-liberal course. A typical example is Hungary under Viktor Orban. In 2024, elections will take place in India, Indonesia, Ghana, Senegal, and Mexico, where millions of people will be able to vote freely, but, as Russell writes, 'the spirit of democracy in these countries and the institutions that support it are under pressure’.

The other group comprises stable democracies where the centrist establishment is threatened by the growing electoral successes of far right-wing (and less frequently far left-wing) populists. By the end of 2023, xenophobia and Euroscepticism in the Netherlands and Slovakia had already manifested themselves in this way. In 2024, important elections in this group will be held in the United States, where Donald Trump may make a triumphant return; in Austria, where the far right has a high chance of success; in Moldova, where pro-European President Maia Sandu may not be able to withstand the pressure from the pro-Russian opposition; and in the European Union, where the centre-right bloc of the European Parliament may yield to the pressure from the far-right.

According to Bloomberg, elections in 12 countries may be considered the most important and attention-worthy. Of these, in the Western world, besides the presidential elections in the United States, historically significant elections are expected in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party has substantial chances of returning to government for the first time in 14 years and may partially mend the country's rift with the European Union. The publication also includes Austria in this group, as do the FT observers, due to the threat of an extreme right-wing offensive, as well as Lithuania, whose leadership is actively promoting a pan-European position in relations with Moscow. 

In Mexico, for the first time in the country's history, the new president is likely to be a woman — candidates from both the ruling and the largest opposition parties are competing in the election. However, the outcome will determine the country's future course — either a more democratic orientation and closer ties with the United States or a partial restoration of authoritarian practices, reliance on the poor and an increased public role for the army. The presidential election in Venezuela, where Nicolas Maduro, in exchange for the partial political liberalisation, easing repression, and allowing opposition candidates to participate in elections, has taken steps to lift some US sanctions. Bloomberg rates the chances of opposition politician Maria Corina Machado fairly high.

In Africa, according to Bloomberg, the most interesting elections are expected in the continent's democratic countries: Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa. In the latter, the African National Congress, which came to power in 1994 under the leadership of Nelson Mandela, risks losing to a broad coalition of opposition parties expressing voters' demands for substantial changes in both the country's politics and economy. In the presidential elections in Ghana — one of Africa's most stable electoral democracies where power has systematically changed through competitive elections since the early 1990s — the main intrigue lies not so much in who will win, but whether the winner can address the country's economic challenges without veering into an illiberal agenda. In Senegal, the outcome of the presidential election is significant for the global economy: the country is set to start producing oil and gas (the start of gas production at a BP Plc-owned site with reserves worth $4.8 billion is expected in early 2024). Senegal is a much less stable democracy than Ghana, so the resource shift of its economy, on the one hand, may make the country richer but, on the other hand, may create incentives for attempts to monopolise power and resource rents.

The world's most populous democracy, India, is facing parliamentary elections that are highly likely to allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to retain power. The issue with Modi's dominance and his party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in Indian politics is that against the backdrop of economic growth and a gradual reduction in poverty in the country, the ruling elite is pursuing discriminatory policies towards non-Hindu minorities (primarily Muslims) and restricting media freedom.

Significant elections have already taken place in Taiwan this past Saturday. The victory went to the candidate from the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, Lai Ching-te, who de facto leans towards a firm stance on the island's independence from mainland China. However, at the same time, he has promised not to declare Taiwanese sovereignty as long as he is in power. This centrist scenario will likely elicit a negative reaction from Beijing. Important elections are also forthcoming in the largest economy in Southeast Asia, Indonesia. The winner will influence the balancing of American and Chinese interests in the country and its economic trajectory.

The trend towards a significant strengthening of the far-right and Eurosceptics, noticeable in the Netherlands, Slovakia, Italy, France, Austria, Hungary and Germany, appears to be the most significant factor and the main intrigue of the European Parliament elections in the summer of 2024. The complex foreign policy issues facing supranational European politics include the future relationship with Moscow, positions in the Middle East conflict, relations with China, loss of influence in Africa, NATO and US relations in the context of the potential return of Trump, not to mention internal challenges such as aligning the economies of European countries, dealing with the influx of migrants and refugees, and developing a strategy for the integration and assistance to Ukraine.

The European Union, as Re: Russia has previously written, is on the verge of a significant domestic political reform that will accompany the process of Ukraine's integration. It is also facing the need to fundamentally rethink its security and foreign policy strategy as the North Atlantic Alliance, which has existed for more than 75 years, no longer looks as reliable as it once did. All this will be part of the agenda of the new European Parliament, where the influence of the far-right may increase. According to The Economist, the centre-right coalition is expected to hold on after these elections, but both it and the European bureaucracy will have to take into greater account the views of the more radical right of the European electorate. 

'2024 will be a stressful year for those concerned about the fate of liberal democracy', the magazine summarises the political expectations of this electoral supercycle.