The year of the fake election

| January 31, 2024

Arguably, the most important and obvious fact of 2024 is that it is the year when democracy goes on trial worldwide. More people in the world will vote in an election than ever before in a single year, which many may regard as a triumph for democracy. But as Australian Outlook will reveal in its new series on elections this year, the votes that will be cast by over four billion people – over half the world’s population – in 76 countries will provide the biggest test democracy has ever undergone, and may lead us to the disturbing conclusion that it is in serious decline. 

It is no coincidence that the key challenge to democracy is likely to come with the most significant election – the battle for the presidency of the United States, which will culminate in November. Between now and then electoral battles large and small will take place in every part of the world, possibly serving as a guide to how the world is thinking about the way we are governed. Each month, Australian Outlook will analyse the progress of the power struggles in those countries where elections are taking place. Some will have no relevance to Australia and the Indo-Pacific region but, collectively, the results may tell us whether democracy can survive. 

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EUI), 76 countries are scheduled to hold elections in 2024. Of the 71 covered by the EIU’s Democracy Index, 43 will enjoy fully free and fair votes (27 of which are European Union members). The other 28 do not meet the essential conditions for a democratic vote.

Eight of the ten most populous countries in the world – Bangladesh, Brazil, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia and the United States – will hold elections that are considered neither free nor fair, and many other prerequisites of democracy, such as freedom of speech and association, are absent. Elections in Bangladesh, Mexico, Pakistan (all hybrid regimes which combine elements of democracy and authoritarianism), and Russia (an authoritarian state) are almost certain not to bring regime change. 

Many politicians participating in elections this year, particularly those contesting seats in small states or government-run institutions, are finding it increasingly difficult given the levels of abuse they receive on social media. One example is of Caroline James, a councillor of Elmbridge Borough Council in England, who gave up serving her local community because of the abusive messages she received on social media. This is despite the fact that James is not a member of any political party. “I am low-hanging fruit; people know where you live,” she said.

A new report from the Jo Cox Foundation said abuse to officials, both local and national, is pervasive and increasing. “If Caroline is giving up, she is not alone,” said Jacqui Smith, Chair of the Jo Cox Foundation and former Home Secretary. “Abuse and intimidation of elected politicians is a genuine threat to democracy in this country and now is the time to act if we want to prevent elected representatives from stepping down and ensure a diverse and talented future pipeline of politicians.”

TheJo Cox Civility Commission’s final report, launched in the British parliament on 24 January, considers the impact of abuse and intimidation on British democracy – identifying and categorising a wide range of recommendations to improve civility in public life. The Foundation was set up following the murder, in 2016, of Labour MP Jo Cox, and works to make meaningful change by nurturing stronger communities, championing respect in politics, and advocating for a fairer world. 

All this is good, solid stuff but I fear it is not going to get very far either in the British parliament or in the media. The abuse will continue, and politicians, the police, and journalists will have to deal with it as best they can, recognising it is a serious threat to democracy. 

Meanwhile, as the New York Times has recently pointed out, Donald Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary makes it urgent for Europeans to confront many questions: What if the former president wins the election in November? Can or should Europe make itself “Trump proof”? Does Europe even want to make the attempt? More to the point, is it serious about containing Russia’s aggression in Ukraine? 

Many of the dates of the upcoming elections are still to be determined, with the precise timing dependent on decisions by incumbent leaders or on other circumstances. However, some of the more important contests are set in stone. For example, municipal elections in Brazil, Latin America’s most important country, are in October. Elections for the European parliament are in June; India, the world’s largest democracy, goes to the polls in April with the increasingly assertive Narendra Modi widely expected to retain control. Indonesia, Asia’s largest democracy, votes next month, and, finally, the Russian Federation in March. 

No date has yet been set for the United Kingdom’s election, although, in the last month, the BBC’s political coverage suggested that  pressure from hard right elements of the Conservative Party to remove the current Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, from the leadership was increasing. One of Sunak’s closest former supporters, Sir Simon Clarke, is spearheading a campaign to get him out. Sunak, of course, is the fourth Conservative Party leader in as many years, following the falls from power of Teresa May, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss.  

Political watchers in Europe this week were focussed on Finland. Voters there cast their ballots on Sunday in elections that come as NATO’s newest member faces the threat of an antagonistic Russia. The candidates had each expressed strong opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and commitment to strengthen the long, malleable border which separates Russia and Finland. A runoff election will be held on 11 February between the top two finishers if none receive more than half of the vote in the first round. 

On 13 January, Taiwanese citizens went to the polls to vote for the president and 113-seat legislature. The run-up to the election drew global attention because of the growing tensions in the Taiwan Strait, reflecting deep concerns about China’s increased use of “grey zone” tactics and the rising possibility of actual hostilities. The victor, Democratic Progressive Party candidate William Lai, won over 40 percent of the vote but does not have an outright majority, and the DPP lost several seats in the Legislative Yuan elections and, with them, its majority. 

What China does now will be watched closely because of its commitment to “reclaim” Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic. That may be on the cards, but with Chinese economic growth falling, and the risk of a wider confrontation with the United States, the process may be delayed, giving William Lai time to work out a new relationship for his wealthy country with its neighbouring superpower.  

This article was published by the Australian Institute of International Affairs.