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Democracy is in peril in the world’s bonanza year of elections

Democracy is in peril in the world’s bonanza year of elections

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Is 2024 the year when democracy hits a tipping point and slides toward autocracy?

It may seem like an odd question to ask at a time when countries representing nearly half the world’s population, or an estimated 3.8 billion people, are sending their voters to the polls in some form of election.

Indeed, from the United States to the U.K. and European Union, from India to Mexico, and from Taiwan to Indonesia, some of the world’s most strategically important countries will hold elections this year.

Yet even amid this bonanza of balloting and voting, experts warn that dēmokratía — the form of government pioneered by aristocrats in 6th-century B.C. Athens — is entering a danger zone.

Not only are dictators such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expected to try to exploit the trappings of democracy to prop up their own rule and stifle opposition, but democracy is also at risk in the West, they argue.

U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to weaponize democratic institutions against his political rivals if he wins re-elections next November. His potential re-election is already spreading panic in Europe that he will turn his back on Ukraine — and indeed on NATO — freeing Putin’s hand to rebuild Russia’s empire and influence networks in Central and Eastern Europe.

In Europe, the EU election in June looks set to signal that far-right parties — perhaps most significantly in France and Germany — are building genuine momentum and turning into potential national governments that would be hostile to EU institutions in Brussels and Europe’s Muslims, while also being more sympathetic to the Kremlin. The big question hanging over these parties is whether they would dismantle linchpins of European democracy — such as independent judiciaries and the free press — after using the ballot box to come to power.

“It’s absolutely legitimate to be very worried about the state of democracy in the world,” said Daniel Kelemen, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University and an expert in EU law. “Democracy is being challenged everywhere — not just in places that rank poorly on surveys of democratic values, but also in established democracies like the United States and the European Union.”

As 2023 shifts into 2024, the first high-stakes election on the horizon is Taiwan on January 13, which will turn into a test of whether Chinese President Xi Jinping will continue to tolerate a democracy on the island or will invade and precipitate a major security crisis in the South China Sea.

Europe’s political fragility has also been on full display over the last week of December. Dozens were detained in Serbia after protesters cried foul over what they say was a fraudulent election in Belgrade, where populist President Aleksandar Vučić is being criticized for abusing his influence over media and public employees. Russia has stepped in to play its traditional role stirring up trouble, accusing the West of seeking to foment a Ukrainian-style “Maidan” against Vučić, who has amicable relations with Putin.

A shrinking map

A quick glance at studies examining the prevalence of democracy today versus other forms of government reveals an alarming trend. According to the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden, democracy has been rapidly losing ground to autocracy for the past few decades.

Around the world, “the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen in 2022 is down to 1986 levels,” V-Dem’s researchers wrote in their 2023 report. “There are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies — for the first time in more than two decades.”

Freedom House pointed to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 as an example of democracy being under direct assault by autocratic regimes | Pool photo by Dmitry Astakhov via Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images

With startling declines recorded in the Asia-Pacific region, 72 percent of the world’s population, or 5.7 billion people, were living under autocratic rule as of 2022, wrote V-Dem’s researchers.

The latest report from Freedom House, another major tracker of democracy, is no more encouraging. “Global freedom,” wrote the Washington-based non-profit organization, “declined for the 17th consecutive year” in 2023, with freedom of expression being a primary victim of a global march toward autocracy.

Freedom House pointed to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, 2022, which had the aim of snuffing out Kyiv’s democratic aspirations and severing its ties with the EU, as an example of democracy being under direct assault by autocratic regimes.

Yet even amid this losing run, specialists who measure the health of democratic norms, as well as their subversion, argue that 2024 carries great risks for democracy. And nowhere is this more the case than in the US, which holds a presidential election in 2024.

Nearly three years after he urged crowds gathered in front of Capitol Hill to “fight like hell” to overturn the result of the 2020 election, triggering an insurrection, Trump is back and eyeing a return to the White House.

With polls showing him likely to both win his Republican Party’s nomination to run for president and possibly defeat incumbent Joe Biden, Trump’s return to power looks more likely than ever despite legal troubles that could yet scupper his ambitions.

Trump dictatorship?

And while Trump is playing the democracy game by campaigning for votes, his comments during mass rallies held around the country are fueling fears that, if reelected, the real estate mogul could turn the world’s most powerful nation into a “dictatorship.”

In all likelihood, a shift from democracy to dictatorship in the United States wouldn’t be announced as such, but rather take place gradually via the subversion of institutions and norms until nothing but the trappings and appearance of democracy remains.

A case in point is the independence of the judiciary. It’s a key marker of a functioning democracy. Yet Trump has repeatedly asserted that he would use the Department of Justice to go after political rivals if reelected, while vowing to stock the ranks of key institutions with loyalists.

“I am extremely worried about the United States, almost more than about any other country,” added Kelemen. “The basic problem is that for a democracy to function, you need at least two main parties committed to democratic norms and processes. And unfortunately in the United States, the Trump forces, the MAGA forces, have taken over the Republican Party.”

Trump has repeatedly asserted that he would use the Department of Justice to go after political rivals if reelected | Kamil Krzaczynski/AFP via Getty Images

In Europe, where hundreds of millions will vote in a pan-EU election in June, the danger of a wholesale switch to autocracy appears less acute. However, Kelemen warns that Europe’s tolerance for autocrats in its midst, namely Hungarian strongman leader Viktor Orbán, sets a dangerous precedent by encouraging others to follow in his path.

Indeed, many European countries are vulnerable to Orbán’s model of power exercised through crony networks and media control. Bulgaria is a flimsy democracy, where parties act as large patronage networks, particularly around elections, while organized crime and Russia play an outsize role. Greece is also increasingly in the spotlight because of government pressure on public institutions, with the government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis being accused of undermining the regulators probing the state’s wiretapping of politicians and journalists.

All of this matters to the functioning of the EU itself, which has had very limited success in policing its member countries over failings in rule of law and democratic backsliding, while those same countries have a free hand in thwarting the EU. Orbán perfectly illustrates this major weakness in the EU as one Kremlin-aligned leader can block progress on major decisions. For example, he prevented a vital financial lifeline for Ukraine in December.

Kelemen argues it was a grave mistake to keep pandering to the Hungarian leader by agreeing in December to give Budapest €10 billion in EU funds which had been frozen over rule-of-law concerns.

“There is a huge price to pay for giving up your leverage,” he said, referring to Brussels’ ability to force Orbán into making pro-democracy reforms. “The whole mechanism of suspending funds now won’t really have the same deterrent effect. Other regimes will take note.”

More broadly, confidence in the functioning of European democracy is on the wane in several large EU countries including France and Italy, according to an IPSOS survey published late last year.

Rise of the elected autocrat

As will Putin and his admirers among the European far right, who have a shared interest in undermining democracy in the EU, adds Kelemen.

Ahead of the EU election, in which hundreds of millions will participate, far-right parties are surging in France, the Netherlands, Germany and other big EU countries. While these parties won’t secure power, they can exert ever greater influence over EU policies if they score highly in the June 6-9 vote, forcing Brussels’ hand to overlook rule-of-law problems in EU countries and step back from defending values that underpin democratic society.

“This could be the year when we see the breakdown of the rules-based order,” said Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC business school in France. “It’s terra incognita.”

Whatever the outcome of the world’s “election Superbowl” in 2024, it’s unlikely that those who will do the most damage to democracy will cast themselves as wannabe dictators or autocrats.

To the contrary, the closer we get to a total eclipse, the more triumphant talk of “democracy in action” we will hear from so-called “elected autocrats” like Orbán who will rush to seize control of the media and crack down on their opponents. Which makes the task of protecting democracy all the more difficult, adds Kelemen.

“The current breed of elected autocrats all try to dress themselves up in the mantle of democracy,” he said. “It becomes confusing for a lot of people and it becomes a challenge to call out these regimes for what they really are: electoral autocracies, or one party-dominated systems.”

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