The year of elections – Is 2024 democracy’s biggest test ever?

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It’s the year of the vote. Countries that are home to nearly half of the world’s population will pick their governments in elections in 2024 – something that has never happened in a single year before.

Starting with Bangladesh on January 7, the polls include seven out of the world’s 10 most populous nations: India, the United States, Indonesia, Pakistan, Russia and Mexico are the others.

Some are established democracies, others are fledgling ones, and still others are effectively autocracies with votes but few real options for the electorate to choose from.

Yet, amid growing concerns that democracies as a whole are backsliding – worries articulated by nonprofits like the Swedish V-Dem Institute and the US-based Freedom House – the elections in this mixed bag of nations represent a watershed year for the concept of democracy itself, according to cultural and political sociologist Andrew Perrin of Johns Hopkins University.

From increased ethnic violence to steps aimed at weakening judicial and other checks on the power of the executive, the threats to democracy are real, say experts. But Perrin noted that there are countervailing pressures too. The popularity of democracy as measured by public opinion remains high.

A survey of over 36, 000 respondents from across 30 countries conducted by Open Society Foundations in 2023 backs this up. More than 80 percent of survey respondents said they wanted to live in a democracy.

That appeal now faces its stiffest test in a single year. Here are 10 key elections in 2024 that could shape the world, and the future of democracy.

Bangladesh

Incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is seeking a fifth term in office after an intense crackdown on opposition parties and activists.

Hasina, who belongs to the Awami League, has been in power since 2009. The main opposition, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), has boycotted the elections, citing government interference. It had demanded that a caretaker government be allowed to conduct the election – the Awami League government rejected that demand. The BNP’s top leadership is either jailed or in exile.

Several political activists including BNP leaders have faced arrests and violence at the hands of police and ruling party supporters. In December 2023, Human Rights Watch reported that at least 10,000 opposition activists were arrested in the month following a planned rally by the BNP on October 28. Rights groups and countries such as the US have expressed concern about the violence and potential lack of fairness in the elections.

Additionally, there are concerns about corruption scandals and an economic downturn. While Bangladesh’s growing economy has traditionally been a stabilising force in the country’s politics, labour unrest and protests for higher wages, along with diminishing purchasing power, are adding strain.

“Bangladesh’s 2024 election can become the most consequential election in the history of the country,” said Ali Riaz, chair of the Department of Politics and Government at Illinois State University. “The country is standing at the crossroads of becoming a de facto one-party state and reversing its [democratic] course.”

Riaz explained that the lack of a viable opposition can lead to an autocracy. But if the West responds to what many are describing as a sham election by imposing sanctions on Bangladesh, it could hurt the country’s working classes the most.

“If any punitive measure is taken by the Western countries, the situation will have devastating impacts on the lives of the poor and middle class, who are already suffering”, he said.

Bangladesh has a population of 170 million people. More than 1,800 candidates will be contesting 300 seats in Bangladesh’s national parliament. A total of 27 political parties have registered.

Taiwan

Self-ruled Taiwan, which is claimed by Beijing, will elect its president on January 13. The president will replace incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen and navigate through a critical phase of Taiwan’s history.

Tsai of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) was elected in 2016. Ever since then, China has intensified its pressure on the island by conducting military activities around the island and encouraging Taipei’s few remaining formal diplomatic allies to switch recognition to Beijing.

The three candidates running for president are Lai Ching-te from the DPP who is known to be even more independence-leaning than Tsai, moderate Kuomintang leader Hou You-yi and former Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je from the Taiwan People’s Party.

The stakes are high as China has warned that there is a risk of war if the DPP continues to stay in power. While DPP’s Lai is the frontrunner, his opposition is arguing that the ruling party’s posture risks creating a security risk for Taiwan in the form of a possible war.

The US on the other hand, is a significant international ally of Taiwan and provides Taiwan with the means for self-defence. Hence, the Taiwanese elections have also become a theatre for the competing interests of the rival superpowers.

Pakistan

Pakistan — which votes for its national legislature on February 8 – has been facing a turbulent political landscape since its former Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was elected in July 2018, was removed in a no-confidence vote in April 2022.

An intense crackdown on his party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and political activists has sparked concerns about the credibility of the election, and the role of the country’s all-powerful military establishment in it.

The country is currently run by a caretaker government, led by interim Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar. It has a population of more than 241 million people, and 127 million registered voters, according to data released by the election commission in September 2023.

Political tensions escalated on May 9, 2023, when paramilitary security officials arrested Khan in an anticorruption case that he has denied and said was politically motivated. Following his removal, Khan had openly opposed Pakistan’s military apparatus which has been embedded in the country’s politics and economy since its inception.

In the month following May 9, about 5,000 supporters and aides of PTI were arrested, according to Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah. Several members also left the party amid this atmosphere. Last week, Khan’s nomination bid to contest the elections was also rejected.

“Never before in Pakistan’s history have we had such an impression of unfairness and the election process starting a month or two or before the actual elections,” said Rasul Bakhsh Rais, professor of political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

The crackdown from the Pakistani establishment has discouraged political participation and added to the impression that elections will be rigged in favour of one of the country’s major and dynastic political parties, Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), according to Rais.

“We may not see a spirited participation of the people,” said Rais, adding that he expects the voter turnout of the forthcoming elections to be the lowest in Pakistan’s history.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was in exile for several years following a spate of cases and convictions on corruption charges, has returned to Pakistan. Courts have overturned past convictions against him, and many analysts see him as the military’s favoured candidate to lead the country next.

Indonesia

Also in February, Indonesians will vote in the world’s largest single-day election to choose their president, vice president and nearly 20,000 representatives for district, provincial and national parliaments.

Although free and fair elections have been widely celebrated in Indonesia since its democratic transition in 1998, the democracy is still dominated by political, business and military figures who established their prominence during Soeharto’s authoritarian rule, writes Sana Jaffrey for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

She added that power has largely shifted among the Soeharto-era elites. Even though the current president, outsider Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has subverted this tradition by winning the highly competitive 2014 election through popular vote, he has learned that he needs to play by the rules of the elites.

Now that Jokowi has completed his maximum two terms, three candidates are vying to succeed him: Prabowo Subianto, Ganjar Pranowo and Anies Baswedan.

Defence Minister Prabowo, 72, is representing the nationalist right-wing Gerindra party. His running mate is Widodo’s son, the 36-year-old Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who is controversial due to allegations of inexperience and being a “nepo baby”. Besides this, Prabowo was allegedly involved in kidnappings of student activists in 1998 and is accused of other human rights abuses. Despite the controversy, Prabowo seems to be the frontrunner in the race.

Gibran was allowed to contest elections despite being under 40, the minimum age of running candidates, because he previously held public office as the current mayor of Surakarta. This caveat was introduced by Indonesia’s Constitutional Court in October.

Jokowi’s governing secular-nationalist Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) has selected Ganjar as its candidate. Meanwhile, Anies is favoured by conservative Muslims and Islamist groups. He chose Muhaimin Iskandar, the chairman of the Islamist National Awakening Party (PKB), as his running mate.

After the first presidential debate in December, Usman Hamid, the head of Amnesty Indonesia, noted that Ganjar and Anies talked more about freedom of expression, accountability for violence by security forces and resolution for past human rights abuses during the debate, while Prabowo – who has been in power – did not.

India

In the spring of 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s 14th prime minister. A decade later, he appears poised to win a third straight term in office in what will be history’s largest-ever democratic exercise: 900 million people voters will choose their next government.

Running against Modi’s Hindu majoritarian Bharatiya Janata Party is a coalition of 28 parties, called the Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA). INDIA is led by the main opposition, the Indian National Congress party spearheaded by Rahul Gandhi, whose father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all prime ministers.

Over the decade of the BJP government’s rule, the country has seen what the ruling party’s critics call an erosion of democracy. Academic and writer Apoorvanand told Al Jazeera that autonomous institutions including the election commission have lost their autonomy.

In December, an investigation revealed that the Indian government was likely surveilling high-profile journalists using the Pegasus spyware. Earlier in the same month, 141 opposition lawmakers were suspended from parliament.

The shrinking space for the opposition and attempts to coerce the media have emerged as prominent issues in these elections alongside a struggling economy, rising unemployment and attacks by Hindu nationalists on religious minority communities. Parts of the country, such as the northeast state of Manipur, have been on fire for months after ethnic clashes broke out in May. Meanwhile, the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological parent of the BJP – has increasingly been able to influence the nation’s textbooks, sparking concerns that the next generation of Indians could imbibe myth over science and history, and bigotry over secular values.

“These elections are very crucial because this is the only change to revive democracy in India,” Apoorvanand said.

Yet, Modi remains vastly popular in major parts of the country. The BJP steamrolled opposition parties to triumph in a series of state elections in December, signposting its political strength entering 2024. Despite challenges, the size of India’s economy has overtaken those of France and the United Kingdom. India also became the fourth country to have a successful moon landing and hosted the G20 summit.

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South Africa

Between May and August, South Africa is expected to hold its seventh national election since the end of apartheid in 1994. South Africa has a population of 60 million and about 27 million registered voters.

Since 1994, the African National Congress (ANC) has held uninterrupted power, but supporters fear the party’s votes will fall short of the 50 percent needed to win this year. Led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC’s support has dipped to 45 percent, according to an October 2023 poll by the Social Research Foundation.

Corruption scandals linked to government officials have become frequent while Ramaphosa also pardoned his predecessor Jacob Zuma who refused to testify about corruption and state capture during his tenure.

ANC’s primary opponent is the Democratic Alliance (DA) led by legislator John Steenhuisen. He has formed alliances with smaller parties to remove the ANC. However, the DA ranks lower than the ANC in polling, while many Black politicians have left in recent years, hurting its potential to be seen as an inclusive institution.

Mexico

Mexico is gearing up for its largest-ever election on June 2 that could see it elect a woman as its president for the first time. Mexico has a population of about 129 million and approximately 96 million registered voters.

For the first time, all 32 states in Mexico will be holding elections concurrently while 20,000 positions including the presidency, congressional seats, governorships and local offices will be filled by contesting candidates.

Better known by his initials – AMLO – Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the Morena party currently leads the nation but the country has a one-term limit.

Claudia Sheinbaum, a scientist and former Mexico City mayor, is the new face of Morena and also a frontrunner with a significant lead in polls. She has pledged to address challenges such as gang violence and to try and use nearshoring – a rising trend of the US relocating business operations to Mexico to cut costs – to help the country’s economy.

Xochitl Galvez, a senator with Indigenous roots who represents the National Action Party, has set out to challenge Morena’s dominance and is campaigning on the promise to combat violence.

AMLO’s term has been the bloodiest in Mexico’s history, with a record number of murders. The so-called “war on drugs”, which was initiated three presidential terms ago, has failed to reduce violence. The next government will be tested on whether it will continue with a militarised strategy or explore alternative, less punitive policies. Deep inequalities in access to quality healthcare and education persist.

European Union

Every five years, European Union (EU) citizens participate in elections to choose their representatives in the European Parliament (EP) – the only directly elected transnational assembly globally. These elections take place across all 27 EU member countries.

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) shape and decide new laws that govern various aspects of life in the EU from healthcare to employment. MEPs also elect the President of the European Commission – currently Ursula von der Leyen, the EU’s first female president.

The elections will take place from June 6 to June 9. Election days are divided between countries. For example, the Netherlands conducts elections on a Thursday, while France holds them on a Sunday.

A total of 720 MEPs will be elected while members of national political parties can also contest.

Some of the key issues in this cycle include climate policies, immigration laws, security and defence, especially amid the multiple conflicts plaguing the world, from the Middle East to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

The United States

On November 5, the US will vote for its president, all seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate.

The presidential race this year seems to be reminiscent of 2020, where Democrat Joe Biden, who is the current president, faced off against Republican Donald Trump, whom he defeated four years ago.

Trump has a massive lead over Republican rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley — despite multiple indictments against him and his absence from all the Republican debates so far.

Trump’s popularity among Republicans remains unshaken because he has reshaped the Republican Party. “One of the mistakes people make is thinking that the group of Americans out there in public who are Republicans has stayed the same,” said Perrin. Many traditional libertarians or relatively religious conservatives have left the party in the wake of the Trump 2016 victory.

At the same time, a segment of what gets called the white working class left the Democrats and joined the Republican Party, he explained. “The people who are now in the party are people who were drawn into it by the popularity of Donald Trump.”

Perrin does not think candidates besides Biden and Trump are likely to stand a chance unless a legal problem or health issue comes up, “They both hold really commanding leads within their electorates”.

Perrin believes that the outcomes of the election could serve as a bellwether for the rest of the world and a victory of the Republicans could mean American isolationism affecting other parts of the world. “Because when Trump says that we will take care of Americans, and we will act only in the interests of Americans globally, that’s also a signal to the rest of the world that they should behave in a sort of self-interested way.”

While it is clear that the outcome of US elections will influence the rest of the world, whether the outcomes of elections in the rest of the world will influence the US is a different story. “From a social science standpoint, I think Americans are not particularly good at observing the rest of the world,” said Perrin.

Ghana

Ghana will head to the polls on December 7 to elect the members of the country’s parliament as well as the successor to President Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP).

Akufo-Addo of the centre-right and liberal-conservative NPP was sworn in as president in 2017 after winning the 2016 elections. He won again in 2020 and was sworn in for his second term in 2021. In both of these elections, he narrowly defeated John Mahama of the social democratic National Democratic Congress (NDC).

After the 2020 elections, Mahama disputed the results and filed a petition in the Supreme Court, and begrudgingly accepted defeat when it was rejected in March 2021.

Mahama, who was the president of Ghana from 2012 up until 2017, is contesting again this year but not against Akufo-Addo since the constitution bars him from running for a third term. Instead, the NPP elected Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia after he won the primaries.

Bawumia will be the first northerner and Muslim to contest presidential elections under the NPP, a movement dominated by ethnic Akan, which analysts say will pose another challenge for Mahama, who is also from the north.

The West African gold and cocoa exporter currently grapples with the worst economic turmoil in years. Inflation hovers at a record 50.3 percent, the highest in 21 years. Government expenditure during the pandemic led to high public debt amounting to $48.9bn as of September. That represents 76 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). Whoever gets elected will face the challenge of pulling Ghana out of its economic turmoil.

The content above is provided by Al Jazeera news.

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