Year of elections: The world chooses its fate

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Joined: Nov 2016

Meeting his Waterloo? Gifts wrapped in Christmas paper featuring the likeness of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump are on the stage during a rally hosted by the former president on 19 December in Waterloo, Iowa. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The world will vote this year. More than two billion people, representing more than half of the global population, will stand in election queues over the next 12 months. It’s an unprecedented moment in human history and a milestone in our love affair with democracy.

Not everybody is celebrating. Much of the liberal media worries out loud about democratic fairness, the onset of apathy and the rise of populists. 

Predictions range from sceptical to the bona fide apocalyptic. Sweeping judgments on this scale are difficult to substantiate but what isn’t in question is the impact and importance the next year will have on the trajectory of our globalised society.

The world’s worries revolve around the US — the self-proclaimed bastion of democracy and the would-be leader of the free world. By most accounts, Americans will probably once more be forced into the dilemma of selecting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump. 

Trump might always have been an unpopular figure to anyone outside his camp but now his opponents talk of his defeat as a spiritual battle. 

His refusal to accept defeat in 2020 brings the whole democratic apparatus into question and is a terrible look for a country which claims to want to spread it around the globe. From that perspective, his re-election would have liberals quoting Karl Marx: “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce.”

The Western world is desperate to vanquish him politically thanks to his threat to cut off support to Ukraine immediately. 

“America first” is a cornerstone of his pitch and he will probably redirect substantial focus inward. (Other Republican candidates have made similar promises.)

But the ostensibly isolationist rhetoric is unlikely to excite too many in the Global South either. 

Trump was the first major global leader to acknowledge Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, sparking fervid Palestinian unrest. He then facilitated the Abraham Accords — part of the Arab world’s previously unthinkable agreement to normalise relations with Israel. Those actions, as much as any other in recent memory, lit the fire that erupted the ongoing Hamas-Israel conflict.

Biden — sold as the antithesis of Trump — has arguably substituted himself seamlessly into the same strategy. Having also condoned Israel’s territorial creep, the condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine rings hypocritical to many.

With a predicted cataclysm unfolding in North America, the rest of the world might show little more than lukewarm interest in what’s happening across the pond in the UK. Locals, however, might well relish the chance of ending 14 years of Conservative government. In that time, the party has chewed through five Tory prime ministers — not a great self-endorsement of considered leadership.

By contrast, two other world leaders further east are widely expected to remain firmly in their posts. 

Vladimir Putin set up the possibility of a fifth term after he pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2020 allowing him to run. 

Russia’s upper house of parliament has also announced that residents of four Ukrainian oblasts annexed in 2022 — Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — will be eligible to vote. (Ukraine itself, incidentally, is due to hold elections this year but its martial law forbids the process from going ahead.)

Russian presidential elections have long suffered under scrutiny. In Putin’s last near-80% landslide win in 2018, videos showing blatant ballot-stuffing were the highlights of a stream of irregularities reported. 

Conversely, India’s democratic machinery is robust and caters for nearly one billion eligible voters. 

The internal and international concern hovering above the subcontinent relate to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rhetoric, increasingly gaining a reputation for Hindu nationalist overtones. 

Early polls will embolden Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; India’s rise as an integral global player with a promising economy will probably be rewarded. Although, with hundreds of millions of votes to account for, it is impossible to entirely remove the jeopardy from the occasion. 

Neighbour Bangladesh — whose 170 million people make it one of the most densely populated countries on Earth — is to hold elections this month. The recent announcement incited violence and street protests, with observers crying foul and opposition party’s facing crackdowns. 

The American threat last year to deny visas to any Bangladeshi perceived to be hindering democracy appears to have been brushed past.

Also on the gargantuan scale is Indonesia, which is scheduled to send 204 807 222 registered voters to make their mark next month. Pakistan has just over 120 million people who could stand in line to vote.

Yet, amid the mass of humanity that will march to the Asian polling stations this year, the biggest impact on global affairs might well come from tiny Taiwan.

The island nation has spent its entire existence in perpetual cold conflict with China. Now, according to CIA intelligence, Chinese President Xi Jinping has set a deadline of 2027 for a cross-strait invasion to take place. This month’s elections thus play out under the spectre of all-out war. 

The opposition Kuomintang has accused the incumbent government of antagonising the Chinese and has sworn itself to the “3Ds” strategy: deterrence, dialogue and de-escalation. The ruling Democratic Progressive Party says this is a wilful simplification of the voters’ choice to one between peace and war while, at the same time, it talks up its own efforts to foster global relationships.  

On the other end of the consequential scale is a country that measures last on any metric of democratic integrity … North Korea. State turnout statistics for the national elections, held every four or five years, are invariably 99% and comfortably entrench the Workers’ Party of Korea. 

The government’s unexpected decision last year to acknowledge small margins of dissent in its regional polls — probably to make them seem less of a sham — might be signs of a new strategy to watch out for.

At a continental scale, 400 million eligible EU voters will select 720 European Parliament members. The election has attracted more outside interest than usual after recent populist victories in the Netherlands, Italy and Finland.

Spare a thought for the Belgians, who will be asked to vote in the EU poll plus their federal, regional and local elections.

While some elections are notable for the foreign eyes watching eagerly, others will be characterised by the apathy of those taking part — or choosing not to. 

Pan-African research house Afrobarometer has notably measured attitudes to democracy over the past decade, producing findings that have caused plenty of grumbling. Its latest report finds that, while appetite for democracy remains strong, satisfaction with the way it is working has fallen from 50% to 43%. 

Nowhere is the feeling of disillusionment better epitomised than back home in South Africa. 

The mid-year polls will mark 30 years since the ANC took the helm of a new democracy. It entered leadership carrying the promise and dreams of a nation with an unconstrained, reconciled future. 

Now it risks losing majority power for the first time after fumbling those hopes. A coalition government is a distinct possibility as a conflicted country has its say.

Academic data has long suggested the problem is fed-up ANC supporters who stay at home rather than mutiny. Complex notions of loyalty to a party inseparable from the liberation movement play their part but just as impactful has been the failure of any opposition party to distinguish itself as a meaningful alternative. 

The result has been a consistently declining turnout figure. That number, as much as any result, could speak to the state of South African democracy in 2024.

Disinterest and dissatisfaction need not be permanent. Mexico, a country also known for its apathetic voters, is hoping for a turnaround in interest. The country will elect a new president in June — almost certainly its first woman leader. 

Claudia Sheinbaum and Xóchitl Gálvez lead the ruling and opposition coalitions, respectively. Polls suggest a combative few months lie ahead as they scrap to win the crosses of nearly 100 million possible voters.

Will the magnitude of humanity’s collective democratic moment be enough to sway the apathetic? Their decisions may well leave the world a different place.


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