Much is at stake as more than 4 billion people around the world hold elections that could strengthen democracy or succumb to the siren songs of autocratic strongmen campaigning on fear and division.
Or, as occurred in Brazil and Poland last year, surprises may emerge from the electorates if enough voters in the 60+ states holding elections this year take their responsibilities seriously and vote like their way of life depends on it.
Here are the countries, large and small, where stark choices confront voters struggling through economic difficulties and indifference to the political stakes when they fail to engage in decisions that will influence how and by whom they are governed.
Democrats and Republicans both face serious headwinds in their campaigns for the White House and Congress.
For Democrats, although the U.S. economy under President Joe Biden has seen the best recovery from pandemic setbacks in the developed world, Americans feel the pinch of inflated food and energy prices. Many voters seem vulnerable to the right’s apocalyptic warnings of disaster from an unprecedented influx of immigrants and portrayal of the government as recklessly spending the country into crushing debt.
On the Republican side, their presumptive nominee for the White House, former President Donald Trump, faces 91 criminal indictments and a slate of federal and state trials in the 10 months to the presidential election. He is running on a campaign vowing to gut the federal government, harness the military under executive power, retaliate against his political enemies and assume dictatorial authority to deport millions of immigrants and restore drilling and other fossil-fuel extractions restrained in the effort to address catastrophic climate change.
The GOP delegation to the Texas border on Wednesday included much of the pro-Putin “chaos caucus” in the House, a few handfuls of Trump loyalists trying to pave the way for his return to the presidency by casting the decades-old immigration conflict as an existential crisis threatening American security and prosperity.
The 2023 annual report by Freedom House on the state of democracy in the world adds sobering statistics to the anecdotal evidence of ascendant autocracy and backsliding on human rights and personal freedoms in countries with flagging commitment to social justice and the rule of law.
“Among the more significant challenges has been a widespread assault on the civil liberties that can be used to hold governments to account—most notably, freedom of expression,” said the December report by the nonpartisan Washington organization that monitors democracy at home and abroad.
“Over the last 17 years, the number of countries and territories that receive a score of 0 out of 4 on the report’s media freedom indicator has ballooned from 14 to 33. The year 2022 brought more of the same, with media freedom coming under pressure in at least 157 countries and territories.
The world’s most populous country is also its largest democracy, but rights-monitoring foundations warn India’s government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has invoked discriminatory policies and turned a blind eye to persecution of Muslims.
The constitution guarantees freedom of expression and of religion, but according to Freedom House the Modi government has tolerated the harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and used government institutions to target critics and political opponents.
Modi’s BJP swept three major state elections in December, encouraging him to predict that “this hat-trick has guaranteed the 2024 victory.” Political analysts in India agree his securing a third term as prime minister is the most likely outcome of the April and May voting calendar for the 543-seat Lok Sabha.
Modi is accused by opposition figures of unprecedented consolidation of power, restraints on media and undermining judicial independence.
The rebel Chinese island holds elections on Jan. 13 in which a victory for the ruling Democratic Progressive Party could further antagonize Beijing’s Communist leadership and escalate tensions over possible military intervention to forcibly reunite the island with the mainland.
The autonomous island’s election laws prohibit polling within 10 days of a vote but the latest surveys show Vice President Lai Ching-te, the DPP candidate, in pole position with 36% support versus 31% for Kuomintang presidential candidate Hou Yu-ih and 24% for Taiwan People’s Party hopeful Ko Wen-je. The two opposition parties agreed last year to align in hopes of defeating the incumbent pro-independence DPP and look set to command a majority in the 113-seat parliament.
Disagreement between Hou and Ko as to which party leader would run for president has aligned with hopes of Lai prevailing in the race to succeed President Tsai Ing-wen and continue her policies aimed at strengthening Taiwan’s democratic autonomy.
Far-right victories and advances throughout the Continent have undermined or replaced democracy in recent years in Hungary, Italy, Poland, Slovakia and the Netherlands. Even liberal Sweden now has the illiberal (and ill-named) Sweden Democrats as the second most-powerful force in parliament.
European Union parliamentary elections in June may see far-right parties amass a significant bloc, potentially the biggest collectively, but mainstream parties are expected to retain their majority coalition and influence in the European Parliament.
Far-right momentum on the Continent fueled by opposition to migration is likely, though, to bring those forces to power in Portugal in March elections and in Austria in June. Several German states also look to post gains for the illiberal factions in state elections this year.
The June 2 election will put a woman in the presidency for the first time in Mexican history as the two frontrunners are female and less populist than term-limited incumbent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Frontrunner Claudia Sheinbaum, 61, longtime ally of AMLO and his left-wing Morena coalition, is the former mayor of Mexico City. The daughter of European Jewish emigres, she holds a Ph.D. in energy engineering. She has been endorsed by Lopez Obrador, who remains popular among voters even as he says he plans to exit political life.
Opposition challenger Xochitl Galvez of the Broad Front for Mexico is the presidential nominee of the main opposition alliance uniting Mexico’s oldest political parties traditionally in competition with each other. She is a 60-year-old former street food vendor who became a tech entrepreneur and member of the Senate of the Republic, Mexico’s upper house. Galvez is the daughter of an indigenous father and mixed-race mother who served as the top official for indigenous affairs in the administration of former President Vincente Fox.
Sheinbaum leads Galvez 60% to 33% in December surveys rating voter support by age, gender, name recognition and party affiliation.
All seats are also up for grabs in the June election for the 500-seat Chamber of Deputies and the 128-member Senate. Both legislative houses are currently controlled by Morena in coalition with other factions.
Iranians vote on March 1 on parliamentary delegates, a formal exercise unlikely to deliver any resounding censure of the clerical regime whose anti-American rhetoric is little changed from the Islamic Revolution 45 years ago.
The biggest challenge in years to the clerical patriarchy ruling Iran has been young women demanding relaxation of Islamic dress restrictions, a wave of protest sparked by the death of a 22-year-old Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, who died in the custody of Iran’s morality police following her arrest for failure to cover her head sufficiently with the mandatory hijab. Women account for only about 5% of Iran’s Majles assembly delegates.
President Vladimir Putin has called an election for March 17 at which he is expected to win another six-year term in the absence or suppression of any realistic opposition. A few allies in the State Duma and Federation Council are poised to appear on the ballot to lend a veneer of legitimacy to the election.
But genuine opposition to Putin and his devastating war against Ukraine has been eliminated, most visibly with the imprisonment of opposition leader Alexei Navalny in a remote Arctic Circle labor camp to serve a 19-year sentence for alleged “extremism.” He has been imprisoned since his return to Russia three years ago after treatment in Germany for poisoning with a nerve agent he and his supporters blamed on Putin’s security agents.
Putin has already served 23 years as president or de facto Kremlin leader and is eligible to run for yet another six-year term to reign until 2036 due to constitutional changes his parliamentary loyalists enacted.
Despite staggering losses of Russian lives on Ukraine’s frozen battlefields—Western military intelligence puts the number of dead or permanently injured as high as 300,000—Putin’s control of Russian media and laws prohibiting even mention of the word “war” have masked the true costs of his misguided aggression in Ukraine. He will easily survive another campaign unblemished by his “special military operation” that has ostracized Russia from the community of nations upholding international law.
The African National Congress faces its biggest challenge in 30 years in a vote where poverty and crime are undermining support for the democracy built by the late freedom-fighting icon Nelson Mandela. A majority polled on questions of commitment to democracy say they would sacrifice democracy for leadership promising jobs and public safety. Most also shrug off the possibility of military intervention in political disputes if people were dissatisfied with the elected government’s work.
Coups have plagued Africa at an alarming rate in recent years. The entire Sahel—the spread of North-Central Africa between the Sahara Desert and savannahs spanning the girth of the continent—is under dictatorship in the wake of military putsches since 2020 in Guinea, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan and Gabon.
The world’s fifth-largest country by its 248 million population goes to the polls on Feb. 8, with jailed former Prime Minister Imran Khan accusing the election commission of bias against his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. The former cricket star is barred from running for office following a corruption conviction and accuses the caretaker government in place since his 2022 ouster of being under the influence of the country’s military and security forces.
Khan, 71, was charged on Jan. 3 with contempt of the electoral commission, which has greenlighted rival parties to contend the 16th National Assembly – the Pakistan Muslim League of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Pakistan Peoples’ Party led by former Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina was set to win a fifth term for the Awami League-led alliance in the country of 170 million with a long history of election corruption and violence. The main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party of ailing former prime minister Khaleda Zia boycotted Sunday’s vote after Hasina rejected their demand that she step down and let a caretaker government run the election. Credible accusations of voting fraud have plagued Bangladeshi politics since the country’s first vote in March 1973 after separating from Pakistan.
The world’s third-largest democracy will choose a new president on Feb. 14 to succeed Joko Widodo who steps down in October. The exiting leader appears to be positioning his eldest son, Solo mayor Gibran Rakaburning Raka, as the next vice president on the ticket with presidential contender Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto. Prabowo-Gibran lead the pack with 46.7% of the vote, according to Indikator Politik Indonesia. The government plans to move its capital from Jakarta to Nusantara in Borneo by 2045 to distribute economic activity across a broader swath of the country and reduce overcrowding and traffic congestion in the current capital. The mega project is expected to cost $30 billion.