Leadership

Billions at the ballot box, and a possible lasting mark on democracy

The fight to preserve the health of democracy may matter more than ever.

The fight to preserve the health of democracy may matter more than ever. Image: World Economic Forum

John Letzing
Digital Editor, World Economic Forum
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Leadership

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The record number of people slated to vote for leaders and legislatures this year was the topic of a panel discussion at the 2024 Annual Meeting in Davos.
  • Trust and its role in the electoral process was a prominent theme.
  • The fight to preserve the health of democracy may matter more than ever.

Recent elections in Bhutan demonstrated that even some of the happiest people on Earth can grow impatient with their political leaders, and promptly replace them.

If they live in a democracy, that is – which has been the case in Bhutan, home of the Gross National Happiness Index, since 2008.

This may be good to keep in mind during a year when roughly half of humanity will be able to vote in elections for leaders and legislatures. 2024 promises a sprawling global experiment in civic participation, with potentially profound implications.

The risk that genuine efforts to put the world on a better footing will be overtaken by identity-based politics “does make 2024 a very, very dangerous year,” European Council on Foreign Relations Director Mark Leonard said during a Davos panel discussion about the ballot box blitz.

The unprecedented whirlwind began in Bangladesh, where an incumbent prime minister won her fourth straight term earlier this month as opposition parties boycotted. Next week, a vote in Tuvalu may turn on topics including ties to Australia (Tuvalu has an enviable “freedom score” of 93 out of 100 from Freedom House).

In Africa, 19 countries will have presidential or general elections this year. India's general elections slated for April promise to be closely watched, even though pundits seem sure of the outcome. Elections for the EU Parliament should follow in June. The UK, which doesn’t concern itself with EU elections anymore, may see its 19th election held during a recession since the year 1900.

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In the US, even if the economic numbers are still up in November, turnout for the presidential election that month may be down; enthusiasm for the two most likely candidates has dipped since their previous matchup. Concerns about disinformation have only increased.

More accessible artificial intelligence tools make it easier and cheaper now to circulate conspiracy theories tailored to biases; polling conducted a few months ago suggests that more than half of voters for the opposing party still don’t think the current US president’s election was legitimate in 2020 – a year when an estimated quarter of Americans were exposed to untrustworthy websites.

“We’re being disintermediated by algorithms for whom human beings are actually incidental,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer said during the panel discussion, “they’re products.”

Voters in Russia, the US’s geopolitical rival, don’t seem to share its hesitation about available options. A recent survey found that 66% of Russians are inclined to vote for an incumbent president facing token opposition in an election scheduled for March. Press freedom, an essential pillar of democracy, dramatically deteriorated in the country following its 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, of the 71 countries both expected to hold a major election in 2024 and included in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, only 43 will enjoy “fully free and fair votes.”

Still, we’ve come a long way in a relatively short time.

Hard-won gains for global democracy

Bremmer argued that democracy doesn’t come naturally. “We become civic individuals through nurture, not genetically,” he said. “We have institutions that shape us, that allow us to connect to people around us.”

Between 1922 and 2022, the portion of the global population living under some form of democracy where it was possible to choose their leaders in at least a reasonably free and fair way increased from 15% to nearly 51%.

It’s preserving those institutions cited by Bremmer that can be the tricky part.

Democracy scores have improved.
Democracy scores have improved. Image: World Economic Forum

The chart above depicts some of the advances and defeats of the past century. The electoral democracy index score for the US rises around the time legislation outlawed the disenfranchisement of Black Americans in the 1960s. A spike for Switzerland coincides with women gaining the right to vote in national elections in 1971. A more dramatic increase occurs later for Spain, after the demise of the Franco dictatorship. South Africa follows with an upturn when apartheid ends.

Having relatively free and fair elections doesn’t mean they’ll last.

The Nazi party had won more seats in the Reichstag than any other in a democratic election before Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, triggering a temporary cratering of German democracy – also captured in the chart.

At that point, fully free elections were still a relatively new thing. New Zealand had been the first country to introduce universal suffrage in 1893. Finland followed in 1906. In 1948, the concept of “universal and equal suffrage” was incorporated into the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The demise of colonialism in the post-World War II years boosted enfranchisement. The fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of the 1980s ushered in a last leg of the transition; democratic systems spread around the world.

It seems to be a given that a healthy democracy is worth fighting for, though some people may wonder exactly why. Maintaining trust, for one thing – that people will make the right decisions for themselves, and each other.

Rachel Botsman, an expert on trust participating in the panel, said technology is decentralizing things in a way that can polarize civic life. “The thing that frightens me is that this creates a vacuum of chaos,” she said. “It’s not like people stop trusting, they just start to flow in different directions.”

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The fundamental right to self-determination also makes democracy an imperative. It’s a hard-learned lesson. Ukraine’s electoral democracy index score increased by 37% between 1990 and the year Russia invaded. The country was choosing a path most people there seemed to want, instead of one imposed on it.

But suffrage isn’t a panacea. It comes with responsibility. The scheduling quirk giving us so many meaningful elections in a single year means a lot of things can go wrong nearly all at once.

Bremmer sounded a positive note, however. “There’s so many reasons why democracies are facing challenges,” he said, “but most of the elections as I see them this year aren’t particularly problematic.”

Still, voters need to know why their vote matters. Choosing leaders now who don’t care much about climate goals meant to be achieved by 2030, for example, means many may still be in office when that landmark year comes and goes.

More reading on 2024 elections and the health of democracy

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • There were good reasons why economic issues were front and center during recent elections in one of the world’s happiest countries, according to this report – the fact that Bhutan’s youth unemployment rate hit 29% in 2022 among them. (The Diplomat)
  • “The global elections expected in 2024 are crucial for climate action.” That’s according to an expert cited in this piece, and he means the election in one country in particular. (Eco-Business)
  • Decades of decline – according to this analysis, global voter turnout patterns show systematic and consistent decreases, and in a puzzling twist the dynamic seems to accelerate in relatively new democracies. (The Conversation)
  • “Africans still believe in the promise of democracy.” This analysis takes a hard look at governance in the region and issues a plea for close scrutiny of the many elections expected there this year. (ISS Africa)
  • The possibility that Donald Trump will win November’s US presidential election has already affected the country’s foreign policy, according to this analysis. (The Conversation)
  • The US is beset with what, in policy terms, can be described as “wicked problems,” according to this piece – potentially rendering the identity of anyone elected in that country “almost immaterial.” (LSE)
  • The outlook for 2024 elections in Latin America, according to this piece: anti-incumbent sentiment may have gripped voters of late, but the safer bet will be on establishment politicians. (United States Institute of Peace)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Civic Participation, Resilience, Economic Progrkess and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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