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10 January 2024

The year of voting dangerously

Over two billion people in more than 60 countries will go to the polls in 2024, in elections that could reshape the world. Can democracy as we know it survive?

By Bruno Maçães

More than 60 countries will hold major elections in 2024, the biggest election year in history. With over two billion people eligible to cast votes in the next 12 months, you might be excused for thinking that democracy has never been healthier or more dominant, but the headline hides a much more troubling reality. Many of these elections will be far from free or fair. Some, such as Russia’s vote in March, barely deserve the name. In other cases, the stakes are so high that they might seem to resemble a scuba dive with great white sharks. Free but dangerous. Really dangerous.

Seven of the ten most populous countries in the world will vote this year. Bangladesh held a general election on 7 January – though most observers would call it a sham, with the result determined in advance, the main opposition parties boycotting the poll and many of their leaders jailed. Pakistan is due to vote on 8 February, followed by Indonesia on 14 February. Russia will, of course, re-elect Vladimir Putin in March. India votes in April or May, with the date still to be decided. Mexicans will elect a new president on 2 June. The grand finale will happen on 5 November in the US, the most important election of the year and, for some, the most important election in the nation’s history. These seven countries make up more than a third of the world’s population. Add the EU for another half billion people, with elections for the European Parliament happening in June. South Africa is due to vote around the same time. Britain seems certain to vote in 2024 after Rishi Sunak ruled out January 2025.

[See also: The West’s dominance is a dangerous delusion]

Although it takes place towards the end of the year, the US election will set the tone for the rest. The first major theme it illustrates is the central paradox of democracy: that democracies tend to give full and equal political rights to anti-democratic forces, which as a result can hope to win an election and then abolish democratic rule. Every European and American will have learned in school that Hitler acquired power by winning the November 1932 German federal election with 33 per cent of the vote. Many fear that the race for the White House this year could represent a similar moment in the US, even if the comparison to Weimar Germany is often overdrawn.

In a controversial essay published in the Washington Post in November, the political scholar Robert Kagan argued a “Trump dictatorship is increasingly inevitable” and that “we should stop pretending” this is not the case. For Kagan, a Donald Trump victory in November would be a defeat for the legal and constitutional order, an act of defiance against the judicial system trying to hold him accountable. At that point, little would stand in the way of a dictator Trump, least of all a government bureaucracy he will have refurbished with apparatchiks, people vetted for their loyalty. His goals are easy to predict: to exact revenge and to perpetuate his power, or the power of his appointed successor. His enemies will become targets of a politicised justice system, “a regime of political persecution”, as Kagan notes. Could the November ballot be the last free election in the history of American democracy? Kagan makes a convincing case, pointing out that Trump would wield his powers with fewer restraints than any president in history, having disregarded so many checks and balances. Would he even obey a ruling of the Supreme Court? What would stop him from running for a third term, perhaps arguing that the first two were not consecutive?

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What can be done to prevent such an outcome is much less clear. In December a Colorado court disqualified Trump from running for office in that state’s primaries on the grounds that his actions in connection with the 6 January storming of the Capitol amounted to insurrection. It seems very doubtful this strategy will prevent Trump from becoming the Republican nominee. If more states make similar moves, the Supreme Court will likely strike them down. It’s easy to understand why: should a determination of whether candidate Trump is a threat to democracy be reached by the courts? Or should it be left to the electorate? Even the former Obama adviser David Axelrod thinks that a court decision to remove Trump from the primary ballot “would rip the country apart”. The Trump loyalist Richard Grenell quickly compared the Colorado ruling to the case of Imran Khan, the former Pakistani prime minister whom the courts have disqualified from running in this year’s election.

In an interview with the New Statesman last year, Khan told me he thought there would only be elections in Pakistan after his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), had been “completely demolished”. He seems to have been correct in that assessment. In August Khan was jailed for three years on charges of corruption – a move he believes was meant to exclude him from the contest. On 30 December Pakistan’s election body rejected his nomination to enter the February parliamentary elections as a result. It also rejected the candidacies of all the PTI’s top leaders. Khan’s party has been reduced to using an AI-generated clone of his voice based on speech samples to give addresses at virtual rallies. 

Kagan would probably disown the comparison between the democratic troubles in Pakistan and in the US, but that comparison has one useful purpose. It helps us understand another major theme of 2024, the year of voting dangerously. Western democracies no longer stand on a pedestal of respectability and prestige. If a dictatorship in the US is increasingly inevitable, as Kagan argues, how can American democracy be presented as a model? Would you want the world to copy a democratic model that is marching towards its final dissolution? Kagan continues to defend the importance of American global leadership – arguing that it remains the lynchpin of a global order founded upon rules and the sacred value of freedom – while simultaneously believing that its democracy is doomed. The logical contradiction is obvious. Commentators often worry that a second Trump term could mean the return of American isolationism. But what if it meant the dawn of an era of autocratic and militaristic expansion? 

Europeans should avoid patting themselves on the back. The rise of the extreme right in Europe is happening more slowly than political changes across the Atlantic, but it may turn out to be more durable. The far right in Europe is ideological in a way that Trump is not. In the UK, a Conservative collapse in the next general election could result in a sharp turn to the right for the party, bringing it closer to the continental far right. “The worst thing would be for us to get hammered and for the hardest elements of the right to take the party over,” is how an anonymous senior Tory recently put it to CNN. The European Union chief diplomat Josep Borrell said in December that the surge in support for far-right parties across the bloc meant that “the European elections could be more dangerous than the American one”. It seems that democracy and danger go well together.

Illustration by Lisa Sheehan

This year the question of whether democracy can exist only in its Western, liberal version will be raised with renewed intensity. During the Cold War, speaking of different varieties of democracy was mostly an exercise in state propaganda. Would anyone in their right mind call the German Democratic Republic a democracy? Was the Somali Democratic Republic ruled by Mohamed Siad Barre a democracy?

Today the question has become much more serious and complicated. I would be reluctant to conclude that the Indian or Indonesian democracies are flawed simply because they differ from some immaculate Western version in which democratic processes are subject to impartial rules and the powers of the state severely constrained. These days, this Western version also involves the ghosts of Trump, dictatorship, political revenge and judicial disqualification. But this levelling is not necessarily unwelcome. It forces us to discuss what democracy truly means, rather than assuming that a specific country can, by its example, provide the definition.

The Indonesian president, Joko Widodo, is constitutionally barred from running for a third term in his country’s February election, but his son is the running mate of the defence minister and presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto. At 36, Gibran Rakabuming Raka does not meet the age requirement to become vice-president, but the constitutional court waived the requirement, raising questions about the rule of law in Indonesia and the prevalence of dynastic politics. One of the reasons Widodo remains extraordinarily popular is his image as an outsider, different from the country’s traditional political elite. But the outsider may now be thinking about creating his own dynasty, prompting talk of democratic backsliding. The chief justice of the constitutional court, Anwar Usman, happens to be married to the president’s sister.

In India, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party appears to have a clear edge over the opposition. Like Widodo in Indonesia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is demonstrably popular and benefits from a recent surge in infrastructure investment. In July more than two dozen parties announced the creation of a new opposition platform, but the alliance has so far failed to present a convincing alternative to Modi. Many opposition figures worry that a defeat this year could finally entrench the kind of personal rule Modi increasingly exemplifies. The commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently noted in the Indian Express that political dynamics in India now favour the worship of state power. The country is a “democracy attracted by power”, and thus dangerously flirting with its own negation.

[See also: Democracy in the era of deepfakes]

Compared to the high stakes of the Indian or Indonesian elections, the November presidential election in the impoverished and unrecognised country of Somaliland may seem of small importance. Yet it was a visit to the Horn of Africa nation a few years ago that helped me rethink some of my assumptions about democracy. Even though Somaliland often struggles to find the financial resources to run national elections, which have been delayed in recent years, its strong democratic culture stands out in the region. Being unrecognised by the international community helped Somaliland develop its own institutions, including a central role for its clans. Democracy has taken hold because it was not imported from the outside. Local traditions were not swept away in the vain search to emulate some imaginary Western model.

There is a lesson here for how Western commentators should look at democratic practice in countries such as India or Indonesia. The personalisation of supposedly neutral state institutions in Indonesia deserves criticism, but such concerns are being voiced amid the electoral process: Widodo’s own party has nominated a different candidate, Ganjar Pranowo, a former governor of Central Java. 

It is not clear, in any event, that democracy is incompatible with dynastic politics. Are political families necessarily worse for democratic politics than political parties? In Indonesia political families remain highly vulnerable to defeat. This vulnerability should matter more than their existence. The fall of old dynasties and the rise of new ones may provide a measure of openness, while building durable coalitions of interests and reducing social conflict. I remember sitting in the Guurti (the House of Elders) in Hargeisa, Somaliland, and realising that eliminating the political role of clans on the grounds that they are determined by birth rather than choice would have destroyed its young democracy. 

I once asked the Indian politician and writer Pavan Varma what in his mind distinguished the Western and Indian political civilisations. He answered: hierarchy. Indeed, hierarchy continues to be a value in India. In the West it no doubt survives but tends to be regarded as a defect. Many Western commentators might be inclined to say that democracy and hierarchy are incompatible, but to me it seems much more plausible to argue that they can be made compatible with the right institutional framework. In my visits to India, I am struck by the way the country’s politicians are followed by a retinue of courtiers, and how, on a later visit, one of these courtiers will have risen to a high rank themselves. Hierarchy can be democratic, but none of this implies one should accept the corrupt practices by which rulers may try to perpetuate their power. 

One thing is certain: democracy will more widely prosper outside the West when it stops being regarded as an import. This may well be the year when democracy becomes less Western. It may even be the year where the torch of democratic hope starts to change hands. It is striking that people in India or Somaliland now take such pride in their democracies that they enjoy tracing them to their own pasts. Modi likes to claim that ancient Hindu texts such as the Mahābhārata and the Vedas prove that non-hereditary rulers first existed in India. “India is indeed the mother of democracy,” he told the Democracy Summit convened by Joe Biden in March 2023. A nomadic version of democracy among the Northern Somali of the Horn of Africa goes back thousands of years, thus pre-dating the West’s founding Athenian model.

Democracy and danger exist together. They are political twins. We may wish to return to a time when democracy represented safety and stability, when its appeal was as an insurance policy against danger of all kinds. Looking at the world in 2024, I am convinced this golden age cannot be recovered. If a society is prosperous and stable, and the majority agrees on fundamental matters, democracy appears strong – but only because it is easy to make it work in those conditions. Today, in a world in turmoil, democracy has deepened. It must embrace the responsibility of deciding matters of existential importance. Will it survive the test?

One example of such challenges is found in Ukraine. Presidential elections are scheduled for 31 March. But they are unlikely to take place in current conditions, with millions of Ukrainians living abroad as refugees and one fifth of its territory under occupation. Critics of a postponement miss the crucial point: Ukraine is a democracy where different political opinions are freely expressed and the life of the nation is a daily plebiscite on what must be done to survive. And yet old doubts about the tension between democracy and war are real as well. Can democracy survive in dark times? How can a war be conducted while following all democratic forms?

Then there is Taiwan, which votes on 13 January, just after this issue goes to press. My most vivid impression from a recent visit to Taiwan was that it represents a unique democracy because, by necessity or choice, it has fully embraced danger as part of democratic rule. An election in Taiwan is never only about the best housing or education policy but also about what it means to be Taiwanese – a future where every possibility remains open – and the risks of war between the world’s superpowers. Although the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) is publicly cautious on the question of independence, no one doubts its electorate increasingly sees Taiwan as having a future separate from China. The party is ahead in the polls. It is difficult to predict how China will react if the DPP wins, but few in Taiwan seem to think that should influence their vote.

In a New Statesman interview in October, the country’s foreign minister, Joseph Wu, repeatedly told me that Taiwan understands its responsibilities and wants to assume them. It is tempting, in a dangerous world, to want to hide our fragile democracies inside a protective cocoon, shielded from the hardest decisions. Alas, that is not possible. This is the biggest election year in history not only because of the number and scale of the elections but also because so many of them raise fundamental questions about the nature of democracy itself. When grave decisions need to be made, it is better they be made by all.  

[See also: The new world disorder]

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This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously