Is 2024 Democracy’s “Super Bowl”?
Elections are no guarantee of democracy. That much we know from who holds them. Even full-blown tyrants crave the legitimacy that, in the modern era, can be provided only by the ballot box—margins of victory doubling as one more tool of intimidation.
But it’s also true that democracy does not exist without elections, which is why the year ahead carries such significance. In 2024, more than half the world’s population will go to polls—4.2 billion citizens across approximately 65 countries in what, from a distance, at least appears to be a stirring spectacle of self-government. At closer range, however, the picture is cloudier, and warning lights flash red from the murk.\
“2024 may be the make-or-break year for democracy in the world,” says Staffan Lindberg, the director of the Varieties of Democracy, or V-Dem, Institute, a Swedish think tank that analyzes the “complexity of the concept of democracy.”
Lindberg says that more than the sheer number of elections, or the fact that many of the countries holding them have global influence, the worry is that “so many have now empowered leaders or parties with antidemocratic leanings.”
Around the world, including in some of the biggest and most influential countries, experts have observed that the space for political competition and civil society is shrinking. At the same time, elected but illiberal leaders are cracking down on opponents and critics, eroding democratic institutions like the judiciary and the media that serve as a check on their power, and, finally, consolidating that power through changes in the constitution. When the leader next stands for office, it’s in an election that may ostensibly be free but is no longer fair.
The process is already well along in much of the world. Of the 43 countries expected to hold free and fair elections this electoral megacycle, 28 do not actually meet the essential conditions for a democratic vote, according to the Democracy Index from the Economist’s Intelligence Unit. And eight of the 10 most populous countries in the world, including India, Mexico, and the U.S.—all of which head to the polls this year—are grappling with the challenge of ensuring voter participation, free speech, and electoral independence while authoritarianism is on the rise.