More than half the people on the planet live in countries that will hold nationwide elections in 2024, the first time this milestone has been reached. Based on recent patterns of voter turnout, close to 2bn people in more than 70 countries will head to the polls. Ballots will be cast from Britain to Bangladesh, from India to Indonesia. Yet what sounds like it should be a triumphant year for democracy will be the opposite.
Many elections will entrench illiberal rulers. Others will reward the corrupt and incompetent. By far the most important contest, America’s presidential election, will be so poisonous and polarising that it will cast a pall over global politics. Against a backdrop of conflict, from Ukraine to the Middle East, America’s future direction—and with it the world order American leadership has hitherto underwritten—will be on the line. It will be a nerve-racking and dangerous year.
Some elections will be obvious shams. In Belarus or Rwanda, for instance, the only question is how close to 100% the incumbent’s vote-share will be. Having illegally changed the constitution to remove term limits in 2020, Vladimir Putin will doubtless win a third consecutive term (and fifth overall) as Russia’s president.
Most ballots cast will be in Asia. Its biggest democracies—Bangladesh, India and Indonesia—will all go to the polls. Unfortunately, the danger is of growing illiberalism. Under Narendra Modi, India is enjoying remarkable economic and geopolitical success, even as the prime minister condones anti-Muslim chauvinism and a dismantling of institutional safeguards. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, seems focused on entrenching a political dynasty. Bangladesh has already taken an authoritarian turn, with opposition leaders jailed and no dissent brooked.
Africa will be the continent with the most elections, but its voters are increasingly disillusioned with how democracy works. Coups are becoming more common: nine regimes have seized power by force since 2020. Polls suggest that growing numbers of Africans might be willing to go along with a military government. South Africa’s election will be a reminder of serial disappointment. Three decades after the ANC swept to power in the first post-apartheid election, it will limp to power again in a country ground down by corruption, crime and unemployment.
The news is not all bad. Mexico will elect its first female president: both leading contenders are women, and less populist than the incumbent. British voters will (at last) have a choice between two competent candidates. After 14 years of Tory rule a Labour win is likely, but few outside Britain will notice much change.
Some elections will have a disproportionate impact beyond their country’s borders. Whether Taiwan’s 18m voters plump for the incumbent Democratic Progressive Party or the Kuomintang (KMT), the more China-friendly opposition, will affect relations across the Taiwan Strait and, as a result, the level of US-China tensions. In the short term a KMT victory might reduce the odds of conflict. But in the medium term Taiwanese complacency might later increase the risk of Chinese adventurism and, potentially, a great-power clash.
Nothing, however, will compare to America’s election, either for grim spectacle or potential consequences. It is hard to believe the most likely outcome is a rematch between two old men, both of whom the majority of voters wish were not candidates.
Donald Trump’s very candidacy undermines American democracy. That the Republican Party would nominate a man who tried to overturn the results of the previous presidential election dims America as a democratic beacon. A second Trump term would transform America into a loose cannon with isolationist tendencies at a time of grave geopolitical peril. His fondness for strongmen, particularly Mr Putin, suggests that his boast to end the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 24 hours would be at Ukraine’s expense.
Mr Trump may not become the nominee, and if he does, he may well lose. But the odds of a second Trump term are alarmingly high. The consequences could be catastrophic—for democracy and for the world. ■
Zanny Minton Beddoes, Editor-in-chief, The Economist