2024: The Year that Saves Democracy?

2024 will be the largest election cycle the world has ever seen. Over 80 countries, representing half the world’s population, are scheduled to hold elections in which all voters have the chance to cast a ballot. These include eight of the ten most populous countries in the world—Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, and the United States1. Moreover, 2024 represents the largest election cycle the world will see for a generation to come, not expected to be exceeded until 2048, when the world’s population will have increased by 1.6 billion.

The variance of countries holding elections is vast, and includes both some of the richest and poorest nations (including Ireland and Mozambique, with respectively GDPs per capita of US$112,000 to US$647 p.a.)2 those considered the freest and least free, (Finland and South Sudan, ranked first and last globally on the 2022 Freedom in the World Index) and most stable states and failed ones (Iceland and Somalia, ranked second last and first on the Fragile States Index). The stakes are high for 2024, and the results of this year’s elections will prove consequential for years to come, playing a crucial role in shaping the future trajectory not just of the diverse countries holding elections but collectively of the world. The four- to five-year electoral cycle common to most national elections means that the winners of this year’s races will be the ones making key decisions for humanity in what promises to be both a period of heightened risk as well as a potentially pivotal point in history.

At the beginning of the year, the risk outlook for the world remains predominantly negative both over the next two years3, with extreme weather, misinformation, political polarization, interstate conflict and cyberattacks representing the largest perceived threats4, and worsening further over the next decade with additional concerns around critical change to earth systems, biodiversity loss and natural resources shortages. The next half decade will also determine whether the world can meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, or whether the 1.5oC, or the even the 2.0oC climate target of the Paris Agreement can be met. At the same time, the world is facing rapid technological change, creating an increasingly urgent need for areas like artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and Internet governance. With so many geopolitical, economic, and security issues at stake, the outcomes of this year’s elections will have a potential significant impact on global stability and order.

 

Elections, The Critical Ingredient for Global Democracy

While some observers may be tempted to celebrate the current record election year as a triumph of liberal democracy, the erosion of democratic norms across the world – termed democratic backsliding – has also reached new heights. The advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been reversed, with the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 down to 1986 levels, before the collapse of the Soviet Union and communist allies. And for the first time in more than two decades, the world has more closed autocracies than liberal democracies and 72% of the world’s population – 5.7 billion people – live in autocracies5.

Moreover, the outlook for democracy remains negative, out of 202 countries and regions, 42 have been found to be autocratizing, degrading free and fair elections, weakening the rule of law, curtailing freedoms of speech or the press and decreasing government accountability. At the same time, only 14 countries have been found to be democratizing by improving on these metrics6.

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As a corollary to democracy, global freedom in the world has also been declining, for the 17th consecutive year:7 Freedom of expression is deteriorating in 35 countries, government censorship is increasing in 47 countries, and the repression of civil society organizations is worsening in 37 countries. And this backsliding is not just a developing world phenomenon, impacting nascent or fragile democracies in the Global South but a global one, with nearly one in five democracies experiencing a steady decline in its quality of democracy over the past ten years across core democratic institutions8.

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Among these core institutions, free and fair elections are particularly critical in the current year, and the quality of elections is declining across 30 countries. Many of the elections taking place this year will not be fully free and fair, and some not at all. Of the 71 countries holding elections in 2024 covered by the EIU’s Democracy Index, 43 will enjoy fully free and fair votes (2/3 of which are EU members), while the remaining 28 do not meet the essential conditions required to conduct a democratic vote.

The deterioration of democracy has not come as a surprise. A majority of citizens surveyed across a range of Western democracies report that democracy has gotten worse rather than better in the last five years. Across all these countries a large majority perceive their views are not represented by their national government, and many believe radical change is needed to improve the current political system9.

These sentiments and fears have made governance and democratic reform election issues in many countries, and voters’ decisions in this round of elections will have potentially significant implications on the future state of their countries’ democracies, and by extension on the world at large, too. The elections of 2024 will not only be a test of the resilience of democratic institutions, but in many cases also a referendum on their continued appeal.

 

Key Themes Challenging Free and Fair Global Elections

Two key themes will be critical in determining the elections’ impact on the health of global democracy: the execution of free and fair elections, particularly in the face of attempted election interference and misinformation, and the electoral success of national populist parties around the world, which are most often characterized by the deployment of election interference and misinformation. These themes are critical given that disinformation, polarization (fed by national populists), and autocratisation have been found to reinforce each other10. Considering each in turn:

Key Theme I: Election Interference and Misinformation Undermining Free and Fair Elections.

  • Misinformation is the most common and the potentially most harmful form of election interference. Most of forms of illegal interference in electoral processes, such as voter fraud or physical intimidation of voters, despite widespread media coverage, have been exceedingly rare in Western democracies, (with the incidence rate of impersonation fraud in US elections having been estimated at between 0.0003% and 0.0025%)11. Targeted misinformation campaigns on the other hand have been a feature of every major election in Western democracies for nearly a decade though12.

  • The types of mis- and disinformation vary widely, as do the goals that drive their deployment. Most targeted election interference campaigns today rely on digital platforms like social media, and increasingly on data collection and analysis to create and spread misinformation to further a variety of goals, including influencing voter decisions in favour of one candidate or another, undermining trust in the electoral process to reduce voter turnout, questioning the legitimacy of the election results to sow discord and conflict, and perhaps the most damaging, reducing trust in the integrity of the information environment.

  • Both actual and alleged ‘fake news’ contaminate the information ecosystem with misinformation. While directed misinformation intentionally misleads recipients to shape their views and actions, the label ‘fake news’ is increasingly being used to discredit accurate information and credible news sources, too, creating a “liar’s dividend” for liars employing the term, allowing such agents to refute damaging evidence13. These trends leave voters doubly exposed: at risk of both falling for outright lies and of refusing to believe important truths.

  • The proliferation of powerful, publicly available generative AI tools will turbocharge misinformation campaigns The widespread adoption and increasing sophistication of generative AI models is enabling the creation of more and more convincing ‘deep-fake’ texts, images, and audio/video clips. Recent examples include a digitally altered message created to sound like President Biden urging New Hampshire residents not to vote in the January primary and an AI-manipulated audio recording circulated on the eve of Slovakia’s parliamentary elections in which the leader of the liberal progressive party discussed how to rig the election. While misinformation and propaganda have always been a feature of elections, AI-generated content could soon account for 99% or more of all information on the internet before the end of the decade14, creating a step change in volume of misinformation being generated.

  • A growing number of state and state-sponsored actors are driving electoral disinformation. A significant portion of misinformation aiming to influence elections is foreign is nature. Russian actors in particular have been implicated in election interference campaigns in over a dozen North American and European elections since 2014, employing a variety of methods including tailored disinformation, hack and leak operations, false online personas, paid advertising, and amplification of conspiracy narratives, among other things.15 And while Russia has traditionally been the most active disruptor, both Iran and China have advanced cyber capabilities and are widely expected to interfere across [several] elections this year.16 Distorting electoral politics increasingly appears to be becoming be a low-cost, high-reward way for autocracies to undermine democratic geopolitical opponents.

  • Media platforms and technology companies’ attempts to counter misinformation have been inadequate. Recent efforts by major tech companies like Alphabet, Meta and Twitter/X have focused on identifying and countering ‘deep-fakes’, while their capabilities in content moderation and fact checking, needed to counter traditional forms misinformation, have been negatively impacted by mass lay-offs of staff in these areas as well as by targeted rollbacks of policies impacting content integrity.17 While regulators in democracies are increasingly seeking to compel platforms to act, such the EU with the 2022 Digital Services Act, many authoritarian governments appear to be more focused on using the platforms to amplify their own messaging and suppressing criticism.

The existence and risk of misinformation and potential for electoral harm is widely recognised. 87% of respondents across 16 countries with elections taking place in 2024 are concerned about disinformation and fake news affecting the results, with social media cited as the leading source of disinformation, followed by messaging apps.18

Key Theme II: (National) Populism Undermining Democracy

  • Populism rising amid unaddressed inequalities across liberal democracies. Despite the overall success of the rules based international order in driving global wealth leading up to recent years, globalization has created outsized winners and a growing number of losers across countries and rising income inequality. The inability of traditional parties to address the concerns of large segments of the population has eroded trust in the political establishment, leaving large segments of the population feeling disenfranchised by the political system and creating room for populists. Key populist messages include the idea of ‘elites’ working against the interests of the people, and of populist leaders being the true voice, who will fight these elites with any means necessary.

  • Fusion of nationalism and populism threatening political pluralism and liberalism. In many cases populism is being increasingly fused with nationalism, immigration, isolationism, and ‘sovereignty’. Taken together, national populism undermines political and social pluralism, creating a culture of ‘us versus them’, with ‘them’ including everything from people with different views to alleged conspiracies including the military-industrial complex, the mainstream media, the Deep State, and lately in the US the pop musician Taylor Swift and the US National Football League.19

  • Social media is critical for national populism, allowing direct access to the electorate while creating echo chambers that amplify political messaging. Social media and digital platforms are critical to national populist strategies, allowing direct access to supporters and potential voters without the intermediation of traditional media institutions. This direct access significantly cuts the cost of running election campaigns and allows national populist candidates to compete with much better funded traditional parties and establishment candidates.

  • The undermining of traditional news, information mediators and institutions negatively impacts accountability and transparency. National populists’ direct connection to electorates also undercuts traditional news, information mediators and their role as a 4th estate in creating accountability and transparency. Hungary’s [authoritarian] leader Victor Orban, for example, has been president since 2010, but has not held a press conference in years. Similarly, Donald Trump has declined to join debates leading up to the Republican candidate nomination in this year’s presidential elections.

  • National populists in office pose an acute danger to democratic institutions. Research has demonstrated that populism, both right- and left-wing, is a driver of democratic backsliding. Ten out of 28 populist governments, or over 35% of the total, assessed in one study brought about significant democratic backsliding during their time in office.20 Moreover, their impact on backsliding is broad-based, affecting a range of democratic norms and institutions. The same study found that the populist governments assessed were associated with a 7% decline in freedom of the press, an 8% decline in civil liberties, and a 13% decline in political rights, as measured by the world’s most comprehensive database measuring global democracy.21

  • National populists further exacerbate democratic backsliding by reducing checks and balances on the executive and by clinging to power. Further, populist leaders are inclined to stay in power at any cost to others, often damaging democratic institutions to do so. Half of populist leaders of the past 30 years globally have either rewritten or amended their country’s constitution while in power, frequently with the aim of eliminating presidential term limits and reducing checks and balances on executive power, resulting in a vicious cycle: populists undermine democratic norms and institutions to stay in power longer, and the longer they stay in power the more damage they do to these institutions, be they the constitution, independent judiciaries or a free press.

  • While fighting corruption is a popular slogan for national populists, corruption typically increases when they are in power. Populists commonly run election campaigns based on anti-corruption platforms, building on voters’ distrust of government and high levels of perceived corruption. It is therefore somewhat ironic that 40% of populist heads of government are ultimately indicted for corruption themselves, (a number that may well be artificially low given that many populists are able to prevent independent investigations of their malfeasance). Jair Bolsonaro was elected in Brazil on an anti-corruption ticket, only to terminate the country’s biggest-ever corruption probe one year after taking office as there is “no more corruption in the government”.22 And Donald Trump famously promised to ‘drain the swamp’ in the 2016 US presidential election, before becoming the third president in history to be impeached for what has varyingly been described as extortion, bribery and corruption.23 Labels aside, data show that populist governments have led their countries to drop by an average of five places on the Corruption Perceptions Index.24

Indeed, the risks of populism and election interference are often mutually reinforcing as the US presidential elections of 2016 and 2020 have demonstrated. In 2016, the Trump campaign used targeted misinformation campaigns to deter Democratic voter turnout,25 while also deploying a strategy their strategist described as “flooding the zone with shit”,26 to undermine traditional media opposed to his candidacy, contributing to the election of a National Populist administration. And Donald Trump as a populist president in 2020 influenced the public’s view of free and fair elections by repeatedly predicting systemic voter fraud ahead of the election and seeking to overturn the election results with over sixty failed lawsuits, further weakening trust in US electoral integrity with three in ten Americans believing that Joe Biden’s win that year was illegitimate.27

If 2024 is to be the year that redeems democracy, it will need to deliver both free and fair elections and victories for candidates that play by them and promise to shore up other democratic institutions too. The likelihood of this happening varies from election to election, as do their circumstances.

 

The Major Elections of 2024, The Three That Determine Global Democracy

Four years ago, the Sign of the Times considered the prospects for global democracy in the face of an authoritarian China rising to great power status and with America’s international standing at an all-time low, questioning whether democratic values could prevail across trade, business, and human rights under these circumstances.28

With the global rules of engagement being set by the most powerful players, four global blocs today have the economic, military, political, social, and technological resources to potentially shape the future: America, its rising competitor China, the European Union, and a rapidly emerging India. The analysis four years ago concluded that the choices of the three democratic blocs – the US, the EU and India - of where to compete “Democracy’s biggest threat is not international authoritarian competition, but domestic national populism that undermines democratic institutions and promote isolationism over global democratic values.” and where to collaborate could well determine who shapes the values of the next world order, and whether democracy would ultimately prevail over more authoritarian forms of governance.

Today, in the face of ongoing democratic backsliding across the world the threat to democracy comes not only from international authoritarian competition, but more dangerously from within with domestic national populist contenders determined to undermine democratic institutions at home for personal power, promoting isolationism over global democratic values. Each of the three democratic blocs are holding critical elections this year. The outcomes of these elections will not only impact each country’s future adherence and commitment to democratic norms, but on account of being held by the world’s largest democracy, its largest economy, and its largest single market, exert significant influence on other elections around the world, many of them taking place in countries with more fragile democratic institutions.

The challenges and key issues facing each of the major blocs in their respective election are very different, but each faces a potential fork in the road for strengthening or weakening the rule of democracy in their respective region. While evidence from experts shows that each bloc has already experienced varying degrees of democratic backsliding in the past decade, 2024 provides an opportunity to begin to recover these losses, but also bears the risk of further decline.

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In each case, the elections can have a positive or a negative impact for the bloc’s and indeed for global democracy, depending on how each of these elections are run, how the voters choose and, and how the winners ultimately decide to govern. A summary of the potential paths that each election could take is provided below, laying out the respective best- and worst-case outcomes for each bloc.

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The US Presidential Election

What’s at Stake: American democracy is in crisis. While the United States continues to have the world’s most powerful military force and its strongest economy, it is unclear whether it will be able to manage free and fair elections and a peaceful transfer of power following this year’s presidential election. The basis of these concerns was established in the 2020 election, with its unproven allegations of widespread voter fraud, "A Massive Fraud of this type and magnitude allows for the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution. Our great 'Founders' did not want, and would not condone, False & Fraudulent Elections!" Donald Trump the January 6th Capitol attack seeking to prevent the counting of electoral college votes, and importantly the diverging narratives and facts regarding these events among the American electorate. Every one of the [50] lawsuits alleging voter fraud having been dismissed by, in many cases, Republican judges has not stopped nearly one third of Americans believing that Biden fraudulently stole the election,29 thanks to Trump and his allies having spent years undercutting the election's legitimacy. And nearly one quarter of Americans say it is “probably” or “definitely” true that the FBI instigated the attack on the Capitol, a conspiracy promoted by right-wing media.30 With Donald Trump currently sailing into the nomination as the Republican candidate against Joe Biden, 2024 is gearing up to be a potentially turbocharged rematch of the 2020 elections, in all respects.

While the 2020 election was certainly damaging for American democracy and the 2024 election will undoubtedly be too, the bigger risk for democracy is the prospect of a Trump victory and the constitutional juncture to which it might lead. Trump’s rhetoric if anything has become even more blistering that it was in 2016 or 2020, and he has repeatedly made statements about planned actions as president that violate democratic and constitutional norms, including accusing the head of the military of treason and suggestion his execution,31 threatening to lock up political opponents,32 and purging the Justice Department.33 He has even spoken of terminating the US Constitution.34 Importantly, former Trump officials and right wing think tanks have already published a policy manifesto for his potential re-election, Project 2025, which would boost executive power and allow Trump to dismantle the administrative state, while increasing the number of political appointees in the federal civil service five-fold.35

While such populist measures might be moderated by polls and ratings, these actions represent a growing belief among the right that the state is the enemy and needs to be dismantled. What is alarming though is the "The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous, and grave than the threat from within… [we need to] root out all the communists, Marxists, fascists and radical left-wing thugs that live like vermin in the confines of our country.” Donald Trump rising level of popular support for strongmen like Trump for breaking the law. Polling numbers on this issue suggest a third of Republicans - and four in 10 voters who have a favourable view of Trump - agree with the statement that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”36 Further, 19% of 502 likely GOP caucus attendees in Iowa said Trump’s statement that he might have “no choice” but to lock up his political opponents made them more inclined to vote for him.37 And while only 14% of attendees said that Trump’s threat to terminate parts of the Constitution made them more likely to vote for him, a further 36% said they didn’t care one way or the other, indicating the many of his planned actions would be well received by his base, open the door to their execution.

In addition, President Trump will almost certainly take actions to remain in power if he wins the contest, and based on his past actions is likely to abuse his power to this end; seeking to influence FBI investigations, undermining the 2020 election, seeking to overturn the legitimate results, and inciting an insurrection.38 “I need loyalty. I expect loyalty”.
Donald Trump to FBI Director James Comey "You’ll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.” Donald Trump addressing Jan 6th Capitol rioters
There is no reason to believe that a Trump 2.0 would behave differently, particularly with the legal immunity that comes with the presidency shielding him from the 37-count federal indictment he is currently facing for actions taken since leaving office.

And so, while a Trump victory in November clearly carries risks for American democracy, a Biden win will also be a crisis of sorts, given that Trump has already started leaning into the same voter fraud playbook that ultimately drove a mob to storm the US Capitol.39 Regardless of its outcome, the 2024 presidential election will strain the country’s ability to host free and fair elections, execute a peaceful continuation or transfer of power, and deepen the country's political division.

A Roadmap for Potential Improvements: Constitutional Reform. In the short term, a decisive electoral defeat of Donald Trump in a free and fair election recognized by major Republican politicians is of course a pre-condition for the US to reverse the democratic regression it has suffered during the past decade. Over the longer term however, it will require more fundamental changes to how the country manages elections. Much of the observed decline in American democracy has been attributed to the strategic manipulation of elections, including gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and the creation of barriers to voting, as well as to the influence of money in politics.40

Making the necessary changes will likely require addressing a taboo in American politics, reforming the constitution. The US Constitution is the oldest in-use constitution in the world, and among the least revised, having been amended on only 16 occasions in 235 years, most recently over 30 years ago, leaving it an 18th century document in a 21st century world.

Given the societal, political, and economic changes the country has seen since its adoption, many of the institutions and rules laid out by the constitution are deeply democratically unrepresentative, even by the standards of 1787. One example is the allocation of seats to the US Senate: the state of California has nearly sixty times the population as Wyoming, yet both return the same number of senators with critical legislative powers, which would not make sense unless the vote was intended for land and its farm animals rather than its people. Another is the Electoral College, which fundamentally distorts the value of an individual’s vote based on their location. Among the 160 million registered American voters in America, only 28 million are in the seven swing states (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, North Carolina, Arizona, and Michigan) whose electoral college votes are expected to determine the next president,41 with perhaps as few as 400,000 voters in the state electoral districts that will decide the outcome. Given this distortion, although Joe Biden won the popular vote in the 2020 election by more than seven million votes, 45,000 votes across three states could have changed the outcome of that race.42

While Thomas Jefferson himself suggested that each generation should revise the Constitution to fit current circumstances, changing the Constitution has always been difficult, and even more so in today’s polarized environment. However, the continued health of America’s democracy may well depend on it.

The European Union: EU Parliament and Multiple National Elections

What’s at Stake: There are eight national parliamentary elections scheduled in the European Union in 2024. While currently only three of these (Portugal, Austria, And Lithuania) are projected to result in a change in government and/or policy direction,43 all elections carry the risks of further advances by national-populist, “The European Union is robbing us of our national identities, our nation states.” 2023 Dutch Election Winner Geert Wilders anti-migrant, xenophobic parties of the far right (and in exceptions, the far left), matching those seen recently in Italy, the Netherlands, and Slovakia. The trend across Europe as a whole is a worrying one. A record 32% of voters cast their ballots for anti-establishment, populist and far right or left parties in 2022, compared with 20% in the early 2000s and 12% in the early 1990s.44 And the response to this trend by many established parties has been the adoption of populist policies espoused by the more extreme parties in a bid to maintain their hold on voters.

With regards to upcoming national elections in the EU, Austria’s right-wing populist Freedom Party has consistently led national polling since early 2023, placing it on track to enter the federal government as the largest party.45 And in Portugal, the far-right nationalist Chega party is rising in the polls as the third strongest party, making it the potential kingmaker for a right-wing coalition government.46

To date, the majority of democratic backsliding on the continent has been confined to Central and Eastern “The main threat to the future of Europe is not those who want to come here to live but our own political, economic, and intellectual elites bent on transforming Europe against the clear will of the European people.” Hungarian President Victor Orban Europe, led by Hungary and Poland in particular, with Slovakia and the Czech Republic also experiencing steady erosion. In many of these cases ruling parties have undermined democratic institutions such as press freedom and an independent judiciary and abused political power to their own end. While these developments are clearly at the expense of the respective countries’ citizens, they also have EU-wide consequences. The European Council, which consists of the bloc’s 27 national leaders, has seen its decision-making repeatedly undermined by Hungary’s Orban in the past year, who has blocked sanctions against Russia, held up Sweden’s accession to NATO, and most recently vetoed a EUR50 billion aid package to Ukraine.47 More populists in member-state governments will likely translate to more roadblocks for EU policy and action, particularly on critical issues like migration and climate change.

However, the biggest electoral threat to the EU in 2024 comes not from member states but from its own parliament, which is facing elections in June, when 400 million people across the union will be eligible to vote the 720 representatives in Brussels. A significant swing to the right in this election risks changing the nature of the Union itself, which is fundamentally a social-liberal one, built on the principles of political liberalism, and pursuing a socioeconomic model that combines free-market capitalism, regulated fair competition and the maintenance of a welfare state, implicitly embedding the ideas of greater cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism across the union.

Previously deeply anti-EU, many of today’s far right parties like Marine Le Pen’s Republique National in France or the Fdi in Italy are no longer calling for the dismantlement of the union, or for their own countries’ exit from it, at least not while in opposition. Instead, they are seeking to influence EU policy making, promoting their national populist agendas at the European level. A significant gain by such parties in June’s elections will see them being able to influence important decisions on matters like immigration, potential EU expansion and foreign policy, and global trade and governance. It will also enable them to threaten core European values like the rule of the law and human rights, not just abroad but within the union itself.

The next five years will be critical in determining the world’s ability to address a wide range of global challenges ranging from meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals, limiting the impacts of climate change, regulating artificial intelligence, and preventing biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse. The EU “The European Union has become the prison of peoples. Each of the 28 countries that constitute it has slowly lost its democratic prerogatives to commissions and councils with no popular mandate.” Front National Party Chair Marine Le Pen currently the global leader in seeking to address nearly all these challenges. A hard swing to the right for the Union will test and possibly break this leadership.

Recent polling suggests that the right-wing political party groups will make significant gains in the upcoming election. The centre right EPP grouping is expected to remain the strongest of seven total party groups, without gaining seats. The projected gains on the right are by the farther-right national-conservatives (ECR) which are projected to overtake the centrists as the fourth largest faction, as well as by the far-right populists (ID) which are projected to leapfrog from currently sixth to third place. Current projections show the combined shares of these three parties approaching the 361 seats needed for a majority in the parliament. And while it is not clear that the centre-right would form a governing coalition with the far-right fringe, this would still leave the farther right national conservatives – which include Poland’s Law and Justice party – as kingmakers with an outsized voice in European affairs.

The Outlook for Potential Improvements: Firewalls and Moderation. While recent polling has shown the national conservative and far right factions picking up a further 5% or even up to 8% of votes in the upcoming elections, there are signs of hope for the European centre holding due to three factors working in concert.

Firstly, the potential for poll reversals. Recent national elections in Poland and Spain saw centre-left and social-democratic parties beat out national populists, in Poland’s case beating the long-standing incumbent. Secondly, pragmatism prevails. Several recently elected populists, including Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, have turned out to more pro-European than originally feared. Despite having raged against Europe during the Italian election, Meloni has reigned in her coalition since taking office in October 2022, and has worked with rather than at cross-purposes with European leaders on security, foreign policy and financial issues, including the EU budget and support for Ukraine, largely limiting populist policy making to culture war topics like same-sex marriage. Thirdly, coalition firewalls remain strong. Finally, national populist and far right parties’ ability to influence or even decide policy remain predicated on their participation in governing coalitions, given that they are still far away from winning electoral majorities. In Germany the far-right AfD is polling at 20% but faces a ‘firewall’ by the country’s mainstream parties which have collectively vowed not to engage with it at the national, regional, and even local level, refusing to enter coalitions or even discuss individual legislation, effectively locking out the country’s second strongest party. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, which finished first in the recent elections in the Netherlands is facing a similar challenge in forming a government coalition there.

Of course, the above does not add up to a strategy, consisting of only one proactive action and two ‘let’s hope for the best’ outcomes beyond the control of current European leaders. However, it represents the best chance Europe has for the EU in its current form to prevail for another five years, during which it will need to address the long-neglected root causes of the surge of national populism the region has seen if it is to survive the onslaughts ahead.

India’s General Election

What’s at Stake: India’s general election will be the biggest in history, with nearly one billion people eligible to vote for the country’s 18th parliament, and for its next prime minister. Narendra Modi is almost universally48 expected to win re-election, leading his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its centre-right to right-wing political alliance the NDA to an even greater electoral majority than the 2019 election, which left the BJP in control of India’s central government and about half of its 28 states.

While the 2019 election was contested against a fragmented opposition, this year the party faces a more concerted challenge from a recently convened large coalition of 26 opposition parties, named the India National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (the INDIA coalition). Despite its size, this coalition will struggle to compete with the electoral campaign machine that the BJP, the world’s largest political party, has built, mobilizing a tightly controlled network of millions of volunteers. One critical factor deciding the election will clearly be leadership: while the INDIA coalition remains largely leaderless, the BJP can draw upon the undeniable star power of Mr Modi himself, whose approval rating has hovered near 80% for several years,49 the highest of any major global leaders.50

The winner of this election will lead India during a time of rapid economic development, which many credit P.M. Modi for having enabled. During the next presidential term India is poised to remain the fastest growing major economy in the world, and overtaking Japan as the third largest. But India’s next prime minister will also oversee India’s continued emergence as the fourth major global power bloc alongside the US, China, and the EU. During the past five years, Mr Modi has raised India’s profile as a major global power, with the country transitioning from being a junior partner in multi-lateral engagements to being a leading one in its own right. India’s courting of the Global South during its G20 presidency,, strengthened with the inclusion of the African Union, and the offering of its ground-breaking mass financial inclusion technologies (the India Stack), has strengthened its leadership position among the two-thirds of the world living in developing countries.51 During the next five years India will increasingly be courted by powers great and small as a partner to reshape the global order.

But both its ability to lead internationally and to develop its economy depends on continued peace and stability at home. The past ten years have witnessed an extraordinary consolidation of power of the BJP and its nationalist allies but have also seen increasing concerns raised by political opponents and minorities regarding democratic regression and political liberalism.

During the past decade the country’s performance has dropped across a number of key democracy indicators, due also to concerns over declining academic freedom,52 the failure of and handling of political opposition,53 and the erosion of judicial independence, leading to the world’s foremost assessor of democracy, Freedom House, to downgrade India’s rating on its Freedom in the World Index for the first time in almost fifty years.54 A resounding victory for the BJP at the polls this year will present an opportunity to rise above this but may also embolden the nationalist base in the party by seeming to validate the electoral attractiveness of policies that have contributed to the country’s democratic downgrading, and potentially opening the door to further declines.

These prospects should worry India’s leadership, given that over the long-term democracies have consistently outcompeted autocracies militarily, politically, and economically since the time of Ancient Greece.55

A Roadmap for Potential Improvements: Resisting the Pressures of Victory. Mr Modi himself has stated his commitment to pluralism as the leader of a country that he has termed the ‘mother of democracy.’ And while Mr Modi has played to his party’s nationalist base, most recently leading a religious ceremony to dedicate a Hindu temple that has been the cause of significant sectarian violence in the past, he has also clearly stated that India’s success is a function of the ‘trinity’ of demography, democracy, and diversity.

For the country to live up to this promise Mr Modi’s administration will need to successful resist the pressures that a potential landslide electoral victory will bring, while continuing to transform the country through sustained economic development. This will require pushing back on playing to the majority and “Democracy, demography and diversity have the potential to realise all the dreams of the country.” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi resisting the further centralization of executive power, however appealing both may seem in the short-term.

Based on current polling56 the BJP and its NDA alliance look to be on track to win additional seats this year, strengthening the party’s mandate. Resisting the temptation to play to the base of Hindus will require conscious effort on P.M. Modi’s part given the strong grassroots support it will likely enjoy. This will particularly matter in a country as diverse as India whose south for example is expected to give almost no seats to the BJP, and where an estimated 20% of its 1.4 billion citizens are non-Hindus. The unity and stability of the country has always called for a balanced approach that valued this diversity. Following decades of coalition governments in which the prime minister’s power was relatively weak, Mr Modi has reasserted executive power, exerting significant control over coalition partners, his party, and his cabinet, and this has made for strong government, which foreign investors had found and valued in China but not in India.

If P.M. Modi can achieve the above, the resulting increased domestic stability will underpin further rapid economic development and India’s rising geopolitical importance. The choice it seems is Modi’s own to make, as pressure to strengthen democratic institutions is unlikely to come from abroad. The West will embrace India as a rising economic power and as a geostrategic ally to contain China even if India’s democracy were to decline further. Nor will pressure come from home, given that 78% of the population approves of Mr Modi and his policies, allowing him to effectively ignore the demands of a dwindling minority if he so chooses. The prize of doubling the GDP from its current c.US$3 trillion to US$6 trillion in the next term is a big prize and requires leveraging the full strength of the country with all its diversity, and not being diverted by divisions and factional conflicts.

 

Other Elections (and Non-elections)

In addition to these three critical elections there are of course dozens of others taking place this year. While many of these are nationally and even regionally significant, none are likely to have an impact on democracy globally. The virtually guaranteed victories for authoritarians in Russia and Belarus in those countries’ flawed elections are unlikely to trigger democratic regressions in other places. With Russia ranking 146 out of 165 countries in terms of democratic governance,57 164th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom,58 and 177th out of 210 territories in terms of political freedom and civil liberties, the world is clear on the contours of a Putin-led government. Any threat to democratic institutions abroad will come from the Russian government’s continued interference in foreign elections and media, rather than from undemocratic actions at home.

On the other hand, many other countries with populist candidates in genuinely competitive elections, like South Africa and Mexico, while being regionally important lack the geopolitical and economic clout to impact global governance no matter what the outcome of their respective elections.

Several elections have of course already taken place this year, and provide an indication of the breadth of outcomes that the elections outlined above might result in. Taiwan delivered a free and fair election in January in the face of massive election inference by the People’s Republic of China, returning the ruling centre-left DPP to power59 Indonesians on the other hand has used their own free and fair elections to make populist strongman the country’s next president60, following his reinvention from authoritarian general accused of human rights abuses to cuddly dancing uncle.61 And Pakistan has delivered an inconclusive election despite massive and heavy-handed election interference by government officials,62 leaving the two establishment parties unable to agree on a power sharing formula for a minority coalition government. The breadth of

 

Conclusion: Why Democracy Matters

Democratic regression clearly impacts the people in the countries where it is taking place, but why should the rest of the world care? Democracy matters globally because political liberalism sits alongside internationalism and multilateralism as one of the keystones of the rules based international order that has underwritten global security and prosperity for generations. While this order has managed to incorporate and engage with (however awkwardly at times) a range of authoritarian countries, its leaders have always been democracies and committed to democratic principles.

Throughout its history this order has sought to constrain authoritarian governments, be it outright through international institutions like the International Court of Justice or indirectly through mechanisms like membership requirements to institutions or by coupling governance requirements to economic and security support. This remains the expected norms and values of democracies, notwithstanding the history of the US supporting authoritarian regimes during the Cold War and the recent case at the ICJ accusing Israel of genocide against the Palestinian people, while the US has supported Israel with weapons and finance and at the UN with vetoes in the face of overwhelming opposition from other countries, both democracies and autocracies.

2023 and early 2024 have seen regimes across the world divided on major global issues such as the war in Ukraine and the war in Gaza. This comes on top of the battle against democracy from the outside in the form of authoritarian regimes such as China’s under Xi Jinping strengthening their grip on their own countries while spreading influence across the world particularly the Global South through investment and aid, , and on the other hand National Populists such as Donald Trump, defining America’s interests in way that precludes losing elections at home, threatening to withdraw US support for allies abroad stepping away from international obligations to institutions such as NATO.

Critically however, the long-term survival of the rules based international order depends not just on the actions of its leading members, but on its ability to build the support and participation of a rising Global South in the face of increasing competition. With rising middle powers such as Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Brazil, and Turkey, countries representing over 60% of the global population are increasing picking and choosing between the competitive bids on offer by existing (Western-led) institutions and Chinese alternatives for global governance on a case-by-case basis, based on their own national interests. The fact that most of the Global South has failed to join sanctions against Russia following its invasion is a case in point. And for these countries, the US failing to vote at the UN for a ceasefire in Gaza is evidence of the intransigence and growing lack of moral leadership of the West.

To be clear, the survival of the international order does not depend on the aggressive promotion of democracy by its leaders. Indeed, national populists and neoliberals alike during the past decade have taken away any moral high ground the West might have held on to human rights and for some the value of democracy. And if the US opposition feels they were electorally cheated and large swathes of its population agree, the country likely also lacks the strength to preach democratic values to others. What the international order does require though is a sufficient mass of members adopting liberal democratic principles, and their intertwined principles namely, open markets, international institutions, cooperative security, collective problem solving, shared sovereignty, and the rule of law, principles which any order delivering prosperity and security to all its participants will likely need to incorporate.

Ultimately, democracy in the world can only prevail if it actually works. And the past two decades have clearly demonstrated that neoconservative democracy promotion, imposed as regime change, does not work. For democracy to be demanded and implemented from the bottom up however, it needs be seen to drive greater stability, prosperity, and security than any other form of government potentially on offer. While the sole superpower, the US, undermines its own democracy, the spread of it is likely to continue to falter and regress.

For the world’s major democracies to advance democracy, they will need to demonstrate to the world that they can consistently run free and fair elections (even in the face of foreign interference attempts and misinformation campaigns). They will need to deliver electoral outcomes that return political leaders devoted to liberal democracy, rather than the authoritarians and populists that have abused democratic institutions. And most importantly they will need to successfully address the key challenges that has given rise to populism in the first place.

Today is another time when voters are increasingly being driven to populist messaging in the face of concerns that are likely regressive for democracy and human rights. Populism has been fed by issues such as rising income inequality, damaging inflation, structural changes in labour markets, concerns (real and imagined) over immigration, and a decline in trust of government, among other things. While improved education can be part of the solution, given that less educated voters disproportionately support populist parties, these underlying issues themselves will ultimately need to be solved. Liberal democracies have yet to demonstrate that they are up to these challenges, none of which have simple solutions.

2024 may well be remembered as the year in which democracy failed or rallied. Whether democracy prevails however is a matter that will play out over a much longer time frame. The 20th century was a triumph for political democracy. In 1900 there was not a single country that would qualify as a democracy by today’s standards. By 2000 there were 120 that did, representing 63% of the world’s sovereign states.64 The first two decades of the 21st century on the other hand have been challenging for democracy given a rising number of both internal and external threats in major democracies. If democracy is to survive this century, it will not only need to address these threats head-on, but it will also need to successfully address the long-term economic, environmental, technological and social disruptions that are shaping the future, a process that will likely see democracy itself transformed to adapt to that future.

 

The Leader: Endnotes

  1. Source: Foreign Affairs

  2. Source: IMF

  3. Source: Zurich Financial Services Global Risks Report 2024

  4. Source: WEF Global Risk Report 2024

  5. Source V Dem Index

  6. Source: V Dem Index

  7. Source: Freedom in the World Index

  8. Source: Bertelsmann Stiftung Transformation Index

  9. Source: IPSOS

  10. Source: Berlin Social Science Center, Boese, V; Lundstedt, M (2022), State of the world 2021: autocratization changing its nature?, Democratization Volume 29, 2022

  11. Source: Brennan Center for Justice

  12. Source: IDEA International, The Information Environment Around Elections

  13. Source: Schiff, K, Schiff, D, Bueno, N (2022) The Liar’s Dividend: Can Politicians Use Deepfakes and Fake News to Evade Accountability?

  14. Source: Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies (CIFS)

  15. Source: Rand Corporation, From Consensus to Conflict, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia Ramps up Global Elections Interference: Lessons for the United States

  16. Source: Microsoft Threat Analysis Center report

  17. Source: Free Press

  18. Source: Ipsos

  19. Source: Politico

  20. Source: Mounk, Y.; Kyle, J; (2018) “What Populists Do to Democracies”, summary results published in The Atlantic, December 26, 2018

  21. Source: The V-Dem Project

  22. Source: Al Jazeera e

  23. Source: Politico https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/09/21/trump-bribe-ukraine-228151/

  24. Source: Transparency International; Mounk, Y.; Kyle, J.

  25. Source: First reported by Channel 4 News in the United Kingdom

  26. Source: Steve Bannon, reported by CNN et al.

  27. Source: Monmouth University Poll

  28. Source: See the December 2020 Sign of the Times “The Quadrilateral Power Blocs Shaping the World: Will Democracy Prevail?”

  29. Source: Monmouth University Poll

  30. Source: Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

  31. Source: CNBC

  32. Source: The Hill

  33. Source: Reuters

  34. Source: Associated Press

  35. Source: Politico

  36. Source: Time

  37. Source: Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa Poll

  38. Source: CNN

  39. Source: Associated Press

  40. Sources: Freedom House, Brookings

  41. Source: Kaiser Foundation, Census Bureau, Pew Research Center

  42. Source: The Washington Post

  43. Source: EIU

  44. Source: Party classification from The PopuList 3.0, Vote share data from ParlGov and World Bank

  45. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_next_Austrian_legislative_election

  46. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2024_Portuguese_legislative_election

  47. Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2024/feb/01/as-eu-leaders-grow-visibly-irritated-has-viktor-orban-overplayed-his-hand

  48. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2024_Indian_general_election

  49. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_on_the_Narendra_Modi_premiership

  50. Source: Morning Consult

  51. Sources: The Guardian, Force for Good

  52. Source: The Academic Freedom Index

  53. Sources: BBC

  54. Source: Freedom House

  55. Source: https://www.amazon.com/Return-Great-Power-Rivalry-Democracy/dp/0190080248

  56. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opinion_polling_for_the_2024_Indian_general_election

  57. Source: EIU 2023 Global Democracy Index

  58. Source: 2023 World Press Freedom Index

  59. Sources: United States Institute for Peace, The Hill, German Marshall Fund

  60. Sources: Center for Strategic and International Studies

  61. Sources: Financial Times, BBC

  62. Sources: The Guardian, Al Jazeera

  63. Source: Noordzij, K; de Koster, W; van der Waal, J A revolt of the deplored? The role of perceived cultural distance in the educational gradient in anti‐establishment politics, British Journal of Sociology, 2021 Dec

  64. Source: Freedom House