Election year 2024: Will the polls save or destroy democracy?

An Indian election officer marks the finger of a voter at a polling station in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar PradeshAFP

The year 2024 is being dubbed as the election year. Almost half the people of the world are a part of this voting process. Elections are being held in over 70 countries. Never before have elections been held in so many countries in one single year. Four months of this 'historic' year have already passed. Elections have even been already been held in some of the countries. 

These elections are taking place at a time when the quality of democracy the world over has taken a plunge. 

According to Sweden's International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance's observations in 2023, democracy has been deteriorating in half the countries of the world for the last six years. 

Global politics is in a state of unrest too. Many regions are seeing war, conflict, violence and agitation. There prevail configurations of conflict and friendship at an international and regional level. Geopolitical equations have become extremely complex. The impact of the elections and election outcomes of certain countries is no longer restricted to the respective countries or even the equations of global democracy. These significantly influence neighbouring countries and regions as well as international geopolitics. These can even change the direction and trends of the World Order.

Overall, these elections of 2024 have a strong link to the future of global democracy and well as world peace and security.

Bangladesh is one of the countries that have held their elections within the first four months of the year. In fact, it can be said that this election kicked off the series of elections worldwide. Elections have also been held in Russia, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran, Cambodia, Taiwan, Belarus, Azerbaijan, Senegal, El Salvador, Croatia, Finland, Portugal, Maldives, Bhutan and several other countries. And elections are on at present in India, the world’s ‘biggest democracy’ in terms of population.

There are varying standards of democracy in the countries where the elections have been held and are about to be held throughout the rest of the year. Among these 70, autocrats have firmly established themselves in some of the countries (termed as ‘not free’ in the 2023 Freedom House Index).

Then again, there are some countries (‘partly free’) which may not be entirely autocratic, but where there is a significant slump in the democratic framework. The elections results in both these types of countries are more or less pre-determined and can be foreseen in advance.

Other than that, there are countries where conservative trends in politics are gaining over liberal political ideologies. Then again, there are uncertainties concerning poll results due to economic crises, corruption, weak systems of government and other reasons.

There are also some countries where the elections will be held in normal democratic environment. Outside of that, there are countries under military rule or facing internal conflict where the rulers have committed to hold elections this year. It is difficult to discern the possible consequences of these elections or whether they will eventually take place at all. Elections were supposed to be held in May in the African country Mali, but the military government there had already suspended it.

In some of these countries the elections were one-sided, in some countries there were controlled, and in some effective opposition parties were kept out of the fray and the opposition was under constant repression and suppression. And in some cases, it was all of the above.

The question is how were the elections that have taken place? Or, how will the elections that lie ahead be? A particularly pertinent question is, what is the role of elections in countries where autocrats have firmly established themselves or where democratic structure and values have disintegrated? How far is democracy linked to the process? Will these elections drag democracy down further or will they usher in some form of hope?

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From a geopolitical angle, the important question is what role these elections will play in international politics. The most important, perhaps, is the US election to be held in November this year. The future course to be adopted by the US in international politics depends much upon this election.

Most citizens of the US also feel that the future of democracy in the US also depends on this election. That has been indicated by the Associated Press-NORC Centre for Public Affairs survey. Around 62 per cent of the voters feel that the result of the next election may pitch US democracy into danger. World democracy also depends on the results of the US election. Stanford University professor Larry Diamond feels that Trump’s return will not only shake the basic foundations of America’s democracy, but also encourage the autocratic rules that have taken root in various countries.

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The elections that have taken place over the past four months in Bangladesh, Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Cambodia, Belarus or Azerbaijan, hardly evoke hope for the future of democracy. In some of these countries the elections were one-sided, in some countries there were controlled, and in some effective opposition parties were kept out of the fray and the opposition was under constant repression and suppression. And in some cases, it was all of the above.

In India, only two of the election’s seven phases have been held. But the strategy adopted by the ruling party to spread religious hatred in the first phase of the election indicates a steady deterioration of India’s election process and democracy.

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Due to problems pertaining to economic instability and immigration issues, right wing and populist trends are gaining ground over the entire Europe. These signs do not bode well for democracy. The right has fared will so far in Finland and in Portugal. Similar signs were visible in the Netherlands’ election last November. Many observers also believe the right wingers will do well in the elections to be held this year in Austria, Belgium and Croatia. Similar apprehensions hang above the important European Parliament elections to be held in June.

With elections being held in 70 countries this year, this should have been a matter of rejoicing for upholders of democracy. But what has the experience been of the elections held over the past four months? Many elections have set quite a bad example for democracy. And can one drum up much hope for the elections to be held in the coming days?

As I mentioned before, the results of the elections are known in advance in countries (not free or partially free) where there are autocrats or semi-autocrats in power. This has been proven by the elections held over the past four months. It is difficult to believe that the opposite will occur in the elections to take place in the offing. There is risk of rigging and irregularities even in the countries where the elections are expected to be competitive.

Now if there is a rise of the right in the EU Parliament and in European countries where free and fair elections can be expected, and if the US election in November seals Trump’s victory, then the downfall of democracy in 2024 will be complete.

The year 2024 is certainly at tough test for world democracy. The anxiety and alarm all over the world concerning the disintegration of democracy can play a role in changing the prevailing situation of despair and despondency. Also, the preconceived election results sometimes can change. There are times when irregularities, rigging and one-sided election plays are ineffective. Democracy is going through hard times, no doubt, but if we take history into account, there are ample reasons to keep up hope. After all, democracy steadily takes the world ahead in the direction of greater democracy

* AKM Zakaria is deputy editor of Prothom Alo and can be reached at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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