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This year will see more elections than any other on record

In World
February 20, 2024

LONDON — This year, more than any in recent memory, global democracy rests on the edge of a knife: Never before will so many people around the world have the opportunity to vote, but rarely have democracy’s core tenets been so fundamentally threatened.

In 2024, around half the world will go to the polls — some 4 billion people in 76 nations — the most of any year on record. Some of these elections will be widely considered fair, such as those already held in Taiwan and Finland; others are likely to have a thumb on the scale, with leaders shackling opponents and the media, as in Rwanda. And the so-called votes in Russia, North Korea and elsewhere will be an outright sham.

The pivotal centerpiece, even for many outside the United States, will be the anticipated contest between President Joe Biden and his presumed opponent, former President Donald Trump. Still baselessly rejecting his loss in 2020 and vowing to crack down on his opponents if he wins this year, Trump is a man many see as a threat to democracy, not only in America but also around the world.

“This is a big stress test for democracy globally,” said Kelley E. Currie, who has held senior State Department roles, including under Trump, for whom she was the U.S. ambassador for global women’s issues. “The autocracies are linked up and working together,” she said, adding that “2024 will be an important inflection point for us.”

Charles Parton, a British diplomat whose 40-year career has included postings in China, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Libya, agrees. “Democracy is suffering from a virus; it is not well at present,” he said.

This is not an overnight crisis but rather part of a yearslong process.

Democracy has been on the slide since 2016, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, a London research group whose yearly ranking system has become a gold standard. Advances “made over the last 35 years have been wiped out” and democracy is now at its lowest ebb since 1986, a report last year by Sweden’s University of Gothenburg agreed.

Of the 76 elections in 2024, just 43 will be free and fair, it said in a briefing last year.

“There is a lot of reason to think that the net outcome of 2024 is going to be that we see fewer democratic practices and weaker democratic institutions in many parts of the world,” said Sarah Yi-Yun Shair-Rosenfield, a politics professor at England’s University of York.

Arguably, the most pivotal race will come in the U.S.

Era-defining threat?

America’s democratic backsliding is not new. Since 2010, executive power overreach, gerrymandering and toxic polarization have all worsened, according to the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

But Trump’s return presents a perhaps era-defining threat, according to experts and advocates.

Trump continues to baselessly claim he won the 2020 election, and his campaign is embroiled in legal cases over the extent of his culpability for the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. He has vowed to root out opponents like “vermin,” saying they should be “crushed.” And he’s suggested he could use the Justice Department and the FBI to pursue political rivals.

Trump Supporters Hold

Trump Supporters Hold

Meanwhile, Trump has heaped praise on autocrats and admitted he would act like a dictator, albeit only on “Day One” of his presidency. He rejects these criticisms, defending his norm-busting approach as an attempt to “reclaim our democracy from Washington corruption.”

The anxiety is palpable across the Atlantic.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, one of the European Union’s presidents, warned lawmakers last month that Trump’s possible return meant “a year where our democracies and liberties will be put to the test.”

And former American diplomats of all stripes have repeatedly warned that Trump’s rhetoric and falsehoods have done irreparable damage to Washington’s ability to preach democratic values abroad.

His victory “would have a ripple effect that would embolden autocrats across the whole world,” said Nic Cheeseman, one of Europe’s leading experts on authoritarianism and co-author of the 2018 book “How to Rig an Election,” which analyzes the methods used by despots to stay in power. Cheeseman, a professor at England’s University of Birmingham, said this would undermine “America’s commitment to democracy abroad.”

In Europe, nationalists and the far right could gain a quarter of the seats in June’s European Parliament elections, according to polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, and others.

Paris: Gabriel Attal s government statement of general policy (Jeanne Accorsini / SIPA via AP)

Paris: Gabriel Attal s government statement of general policy (Jeanne Accorsini / SIPA via AP)

The main players are France’s National Rally, led by Marine Le Pen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy, and the Alternative for Germany, or AfD, whose youth wing is classified as an “extremist” right-wing group by the country’s own intelligence agencies.

Hungary has already shown how being aligned with the hard right can mean more than just anti-immigration policies. Since 2010, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has pushed through constitutional changes giving him control over the judiciary and other institutions, according to the Washington watchdog Freedom House.

If other countries do “head in that direction,” then it will be harder for other lawmakers “to hold the line against the continued erosion of democracy, rule of law, and civil liberties,” the European Council on Foreign Relations said in a report last month.

Meanwhile, Russia, China and others will likely continue the election meddling that Western intelligence agencies now routinely expect, but which Beijing and Moscow deny. This year’s Global Risk Report, by the World Economic Forum, said misinformation and disinformation were the top risks of the next two years — more so than war or climate change.

Democracy needs defending

If some leaders seek to subvert democracy, young people seem increasingly willing to welcome them doing so.

In a poll of 36,000 people across 30 countries last year, 35% of people ages 18-35 said they were “sympathetic to the idea of a strong leader who does away with parliaments and elections,” according to the study by the Open Society Foundations, a pro-democracy group funded by the billionaire philanthropist George Soros.

In Britain, a 2022 survey of 8,000 adults by the center-right think tank Onward found 61% of this age group said such a strongman was a good way to run a country — up from 25% in 1999.

That’s effectively already happened in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin will face little competition when he runs for a fifth term in March, having stamped out the free press and silenced opponents.

Chief among them was Alexei Navalny, sent to an Arctic penal colony where he died Saturday. North Korea doesn’t even bother with such pretense, listing only one candidate in each district for its April parliamentary elections. In Rwanda’s elections in June, President Paul Kagame is expecting a repeat of his 98.63% victory of 2017.

Putin Critic And Russia Activist Dies In Prison (Contributor / Getty Images)

Putin Critic And Russia Activist Dies In Prison (Contributor / Getty Images)

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has overseen a democratic backslide since 2016, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House and others. Modi is accused of cracking down on opponents, restricting press freedom and persecuting the country’s Muslim minority.

And some observers also worry about the direction of travel in Mexico, where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has tried to push constitutional reforms that “undermine electoral authorities’ independence, putting free, fair elections at risk,” according to Human Rights Watch.

A month and a half into 2024, elections held so far do not augur well.

Pakistan’s election earlier this month was notable for the absence of the popular former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan, jailed on what his supporters say are politically motivated charges. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele — who describes himself as “the world’s coolest dictator” — claimed victory even before the results were announced. And Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto won his country’s presidency last week, worrying human rights defenders who accuse him of kidnapping and torturing protesters in the 1990s. He denies the allegations.

Though concerned, none of the dozen or so former diplomats and scholars interviewed by NBC News suggested that this grim picture was a reason to question democratic values.

And alongside the quashing and the rigging, dozens of elections provide scope for healthy, robust contests in which people can make their voices heard.

Taiwan and Finland have already held free and fair votes. A December ballot in Ghana appears likely to be a close contest. Britain looks set to overturn 13 years of Conservative rule and deliver a landslide for the center-left Labour Party. And South African voters could for the first time oust the African National Congress, the former anti-apartheid movement that Nelson Mandela led to power in 1994.

But most say the reality should not be sugar-coated.

“We face challenges around the world as some democracies slide toward autocracy,” said William Eacho, a former U.S. ambassador to Austria and now board chair of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. “We should hear the alarm bells loud and clear: Democracy needs defending.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com

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