Why 2024 could be the ‘make-or-break’ year for democracy | Explained

An analysis of key electoral battles and looming questions over democracy as 60 countries head to the polls in 2024.

February 14, 2024 02:59 pm | Updated March 20, 2024 05:02 pm IST

A man walks past a wall with writing urging people to vote in Dhaka on January 6, 2024, on the eve of Bangladesh’s general elections. (Image for representation only)

A man walks past a wall with writing urging people to vote in Dhaka on January 6, 2024, on the eve of Bangladesh’s general elections. (Image for representation only) | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: A month into 2024 and three countries in India’s immediate and extended neighbourhood — Bangladesh, Bhutan and Taiwan — have wrapped up their national elections, while Pakistan went to the polls on February 8, setting the stage for a crucial year for global politics. Around 60 countries, home to almost half the world’s population, will hold presidential, parliamentary and local elections in 2024, putting the state of democracy under scrutiny against a backdrop of rising military conflicts, shifting alliances and economic uncertainties.

High-stakes battles

Apart from India, where the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is vying for a third consecutive term, the results in several other countries could have implications for the global economy, trade, and diplomacy. The electoral roster includes seven of the world’s most populous nations — India, the United States, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, and Indonesia — along with two of the smallest countries, Palau and Tuvalu.

The spotlight will be on the U.S and Taiwan, where election outcomes carry the potential to trigger significant shifts in the world order. In the U.S., President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump have framed the contest as a battle for the “future of democracy.” In Taiwan, Lai Ching-te of the Democratic Progressive Party has emerged victorious in the January 13 elections held under intense pressure from China, which considers the island a part of its territory. Lai Ching-te’s commitment to defend the island from “intimidation” from China has raised concerns about a possible military response, especially involving the U.S., which provides Taiwan with military hardware and technology under a security pact.

The Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te was elected the President of Taiwan on January 13, 2024.

The Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te was elected the President of Taiwan on January 13, 2024. | Photo Credit: Reuters

Russia’s presidential election in March is a foregone conclusion. President Vladimir Putin is certain to retain power until 2030 in the absence of a formidable challenge. Similar is the case with Bangladesh where Sheikh Hasina has secured her fourth straight term on the back of an election marred by an Opposition boycott. Traditional parties within the European Union (EU) will face a significant test against the rise of the far-right.

Meanwhile, South Africa will hold legislative elections between May and August. The African National Congress (ANC), which has been a dominant force since 1994, is grappling with economic crises, marked by an unemployment rate exceeding 30%.

The test for democracy

The first round in January has revealed that democracy is going to be challenged as leaders attempt to tighten their grip, retain control and stifle oppositionvoices. The U.S.-based International Foundation for Electoral Systems outlines that, “… with 44% of the world now governed by electoral autocracies, the story of democracy’s prospects this year cannot only be told by the record number of ballots that will be cast. Far more telling for the global democratic trajectory in 2024 will be how countries holding elections navigate well-documented trends of rising autocracy and democratic recession.”

The rising risk of disinformation and social media misuse is an added challenge. “Although disinformation has long been part of dictatorships’ propaganda machines, autocrats appear to have become more blatant in ‘spinning’ false narratives in attempts to secure their hold on power. Anti-pluralists and aspiring autocrats in democracies such as the United States, Brazil, Germany, and Sweden are also increasingly spreading ‘fake news’. Targeted campaigns by regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran are adding further stress to democracies,” Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) says in a paper. 

The Hindu takes a look at top upcoming presidential and parliamentary electoral battles, and the state of democracy in these countries. The Democracy Index is based on a 2022 evaluation by The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). It categorises 167 countries into full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrid regimes, and authoritarian regimes. Rankings are determined based on scores such as electoral processes, pluralism, government functionality, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties, with a maximum score of 10.

The United States of America

  • Population: 340 million
  • What: Presidential polls
  • When: November

Democracy Index: The U.S. slipped four places to 30th position in the EIU report, with an overall score of 7.85 out of 10. America was downgraded as a ‘flawed democracy’ shortly after the inauguration of Donald Trump in 2017. Mr. Trump’s rule saw misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic, attempts to overturn the 2020 election, attacks on the media and the Opposition, and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

What to expect:Key players in the U.S. presidential race are President Joe Biden, self-help author Marianne Williamson, Minnesota congressman Dean Phillips among the Democrats; and former President Donald Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, and ex-Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson from the Republican Party.

The likely match between former President Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden has huge implications for the U.S. and the world.

The likely match between former President Donald Trump and his successor Joe Biden has huge implications for the U.S. and the world. | Photo Credit: AP

The prospects of Mr. Trump returning as the U.S. President have raised concerns about the future of democracy in the country with a likely rematch between Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump. The incumbent President has portrayed himself as the sole alternative to protect democracy against Mr. Trump and his allies, who he said are out to “destroy” democratic institutions. “Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot,” Mr. Biden warned in a recent speech.

Mr. Trump, meanwhile, has called Mr. Biden “the destroyer of American democracy” and vowed “retribution” on his opponents, adding to fears that political hostilities could trigger political and civil unrest. Dr Leslie Vinjamuri writes in V-Dem, “The prospect remains that democracy in America, the rule of law, the sanctity of elections, human and especially women’s rights, judicial autonomy, respect for science and the integrity of information, and a basic sense of civility and decency could come under direct attack if Trump returns to the White House.”

The United Kingdom

  • Population: 67.9 million
  • What: General elections
  • When: Second half of 2024, PM Rishi Sunak has said. The election has to happen by January 28, 2025, before the end of the five-year term.

Democracy Index: Britain retained its 18th rank in 2022. Against the backdrop of political tumult that followed Brexit and the end of Boris Johnson’s turbulent term, the country scored low on political culture, which impacted its overall rating of 8.28.

What to expect: PM Rishi Sunak put an end to speculations over the impending general elections, indicating that the polls could take place in the second half of the year. “My working assumption is we’ll have a general election in the second half of this year and the meantime, I’ve got lots that I want to get on with,” said Mr. Sunak.

Invoking the parliamentary powers that allow a British PM to call a general election at a time of their choosing, Mr. Sunak has bought time for himself and the governing Conservative Party which is fighting internal conflicts, an immigration row and strong anti-incumbency sentiment, amid political and economic crises. The PM is hoping to turn the tide by focusing on the economy, cutting taxes and “clamping down” on immigration.

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer

Labour Party leader Keir Starmer | Photo Credit: AP

The opposition Labour Party believes that Mr. Sunak is “delaying” the inevitable. The centre-left party is optimistic about its return to power after 14 years, and its star campaigner, Keir Starmer, is the favourite to win. Most opinion polls give the Labour Party a comfortable lead over the Conservatives. Mr. Starmer, however, worries that not enough voter turnout in the decisive election could hamper their attempts to secure a majority.

Growing dissatisfaction among U.K. voters has been fuelled by infighting over Brexit, the removal of four Prime Ministers in six years, the COVID-19 pandemic, and economic upheavals. “I have to warn you all, they [the Conservatives] will leave no stone unturned this year. Every opportunity for division will be exploited for political potential,” Mr. Starmer told an audience recently.


  • Population: 240.5 million
  • What: General elections
  • When: February 8

Democracy Index: Pakistan scored 4.13 and ranked 107, witnessing a drop of three positions from its 2021 rankings. It scored below three in political culture and political participation.

What happened: National voting took place amid sporadic violence, a countrywide mobile phone shutdown, and allegations of rigging, followed by a long delay in vote count. The polls were held after a long delay following the dissolution of the National Assembly in August last year. Continued efforts were made to stall the elections amid allegations of pre-poll rigging and lack of transparency. Back from exile, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) had emerged as the frontrunner with former PM Imran Khan and the top leadership of his Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in jail.

Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan is facing numerous cases since the ouster of his party from power in April 2022.

Pakistan’s former PM Imran Khan is facing numerous cases since the ouster of his party from power in April 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

Mr. Khan, presently serving a three-year jail term for corruption, earlier wrote in The Economist that the election could be a “farce” after the Election Commission of Pakistan rejected his candidature along with his senior party colleagues.

Analysts also feared that the eventual outcome could be a shaky government. “After [Imran] Khan was ousted from power via a vote of no-confidence in April 2022, he directly confronted the military, which he blamed, along with the United States, for his ouster (the underlying reason was, in fact, a falling-out with the military). That unprecedented confrontation devolved into a zero-sum existential fight that, to little surprise, Pakistan’s military is winning. In the process, Pakistan’s democracy stands badly damaged; there is little hope that the next election will be free or fair, if it is held in February at all,” says Mahida Afzal, fellow at The BrookingsInstitution

European Union 

  • Population: 448 million
  • What: Parliamentary elections
  • When: June 6-9

Democracy Index: The majority of the EU fared well on the EIU’s 2022 list, with all countries scoring more than six out of 10. Sweden made it to the top tier of the rankings with a 9.39 score, while Romania scored the lowest (6.45) due to a ‘fall in citizens’ engagement with politics’.

What to expect: Nearly 450 million people across 27 countries of the European Union will elect 720 members of the European Parliament. As per an EU survey, democracy is the core value that citizens will look to defend as the bloc faces a potential surge of right-wing populism. Economic instability, mass migration, the Russia-Ukraine war and Euroscepticism present additional challenges.

In recent times, several countries in Europe have elected leaders with far-right views. In the Netherlands, the elections culminated in the shocking victory of Geert Wilders, also known as the ‘Dutch Donald Trump’, of the far-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. His party is anti-Islam, and anti-immigration, wants the Netherlands out of the EU, and has been against military support to Ukraine. Slovakia elected Robert Fico, known for his pro-Russia stance. Viktor Orban and his Fidesz Party won the Hungarian Presidential election. Italy elected a far-right government, with Giorgia Meloni of the Brothers of Italy as its Prime Minister. In France, the far-right’s loss was its victory, with Marine Le Pen securing over 40% of the vote in the presidential run-off. Ms. Pen’s National Rally party is expected to make big gains in the upcoming polls. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany has also declared ahead of polls that the current form of the European Union is a “failed project”.

Belgium PM Minister Alexander De Croo marked the start of his country’s EU presidency last week with a warning that all democracies and liberties will be put to test in 2024. “Not only with election for this house [European Parliament], but equally for the U.S. Congress and the American presidency,” Mr. De Croo said.

Political analysts also warn that what is currently happening in countries like the Netherlands could be an indication of what’s to come for the EU, with the centre shifting towards the right. The Renew Europe group, a pro-European political bloc, says EU could become “ungovernable” if the far-right performs well in the parliamentary elections. “With the rise of populists almost everywhere in Europe of the extreme right, we risk having an ungovernable Europe,” says group president Stéphane Séjourné.


  • Population: 277.5 million
  • What: Presidential, legislative polls
  • When: February 14

Democracy Index: Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy, fourth most populous nation and the largest economy in Southeast Asia. It received an average score on electoral processes and pluralism, but scored low on civil liberties and political culture. In 2022, its overall score was 6.71 with a rank of 54.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (right) and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of President Joko Widodo, wave at the media after registering their candidacy to run in the 2024 election, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto (right) and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, the eldest son of President Joko Widodo, wave at the media after registering their candidacy to run in the 2024 election, in Jakarta, Indonesia.

What to expect: The presidential election is taking place amid concerns of corruption, vote buying and lack of opposition representation in the parliament contributing to the decline of democracy under President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo.

Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, son-in-law of ex-President Suharto and a former special forces commander dismissed on charges of human rights abuses, is currently in the lead. He has the endorsement of the incumbent President who is serving his second and final term. Prabowo’s running mate is Mr. Jokowi’s son, Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who was allowed by an Indonesian court to run for the vice presidency despite not meeting the minimum age requirement.

The race for the second run-off spot is between two leaders with links to reformasi (reform). Former Central Java Governor Ganjar Pranowo is the candidate of the ruling Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle, while ex-Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan is an Independent.

Anies Baswedan has emerged as an alternative and pledged change to get the country back on track. In an interview with The Associated Press, Anies raised concerns about neutrality in the government and other institutions, saying that there has been a decline in trust and the quality of democracy.


  • Population: 128.5 million
  • What: Presidential elections
  • When: June 2

Democracy Index: Mexico saw negative changes in its score in 2022, ranking 89 with a score of 5.25. The EIU said the “democratic backsliding” was a result of President Obrador using his position to attack his opponents, including the electoral authorities, and the increasing role of the military in public affairs. Last year, the overhaul of an election body that played a crucial role in the shift from federal one-party rule to multi-party democracy sparked off protests, with critics terming it as an attempt to weaken democracy. 

What to expect: The country is certain to get its first female president this year, with both sides picking women candidates. President Manuel Andrés López Obrador’s protege Claudia Sheinbaum of the ruling Morena party maintains a lead over the joint opposition’s candidate Xochitl Gálvez. Ms. Sheinbaum had defeated the former Foreign Affairs Secretary Marcelo Ebrard in the race to the party’s nomination for the June polls, which led to allegations of improper polling and campaigning.

The elections are crucial for the neighbouring U.S. amid a rise in drug-related violence, a surge in migrant crossings and an increasingly influential military under Mr. Obrador’s leadership.

(with agency inputs)

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