On January 1, Future Perfect published its predictions for 2024. The forecasts range from the number of poultry that will be culled because of bird flu this year to which film will win the Oscar for Best Picture. (Oppenheimer — take it to the bank.) But no single subject was covered by more predictions than who will win some of the most important elections around the world this year.
That’s because 2024 will be the biggest election year in history. More than 60 countries representing half the world’s population — 4 billion people — will go to the polls in 2024, voting in presidential, legislative, and local elections. Those elections will range from the massive — India’s multi-day legislative elections (the largest in the world) and Indonesia’s presidential poll, the world’s biggest single-day vote — to tiny North Macedonia’s presidential election.
2024’s elections will include polls that will be free and aboveboard, like Iceland’s presidential election, which will be held in the world’s third most democratic country, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit. Then there are the countries with somewhat less free elections, like North Korea. (North Koreans have a choice when they go to the polls in the same way that my son has a choice between “cereal” and “cereal” for breakfast.) In between will be most of the rest of 2024’s elections, including the US presidential election, where the winner of the popular vote actually lost the election two out of the last six campaigns.
The stakes for 2024’s democratic contests will be enormous — not just for the countries going to the polls, but for the world as a whole.
Democracy on the ballot
Will Taiwan, which goes to the polls on January 13, risk increasing the chance of war with China? Will the African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, finally lose power in post-apartheid South Africa? Will the European Parliament continue to see a surge in far-right parties? And, when Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off again in the US, as expected, will the results be any different from those in 2020?
If you groaned inwardly upon reading that sentence, let’s just say you’re not alone. But the US is far from the only country where it feels as though not just tax rates or foreign policy will be on the ballot in 2024, but democracy itself. 2024’s first election, parliamentary polls in Bangladesh on January 7, won’t even feature the main opposition party, which is boycotting the campaign over claims that the vote will be compromised. The year’s two biggest elections, in India and Indonesia, will both be overshadowed by democratically elected leaders in those countries who have grown increasingly autocratic in office. According to International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy report, half of all countries have seen declines in at least one indicator of democracy over the past five years.
Think of it as the democracy paradox: While more people in 2024 will be exercising the most fundamental act in a democracy — voting — democracy itself has rarely felt more vulnerable. As the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and investigative journalist Maria Ressa told Politico recently: “We will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024.”
But before we write democracy’s epitaph, it’s worth taking a moment to realize how extraordinary — and how recent — it is that billions of people around the world will have the opportunity to help choose their leaders.
Democracy is still in its infancy
The United States is, according to many sources, the world’s oldest continuous democracy, clocking in at more than 200 years. (That classification comes with an asterisk, though, as I’ll explain below.)
That age makes it an outlier. According to Our World in Data, just about half of the world’s countries are electoral democracies, meaning they hold meaningful, free and fair, multi-party elections. And of those countries, just 10 have been democracies for 91 or more years. Twice that many countries have been democracies for 18 years or less.
That means that many of the voters who will go to the polls in 2024 have spent at least some of their years under some form of autocracy, including nations like Indonesia, South Africa, and Mexico, where even young adults can remember a time before democracy. That’s how recent the experience of widespread democracy is; it wasn’t until the 1990s, according to Our World in Data, that more countries were democracies of some kind than autocracies.
Go back a bit further, and you realize how recent any form of democratic rule really is. As of 1800, there were zero true democracies, and fewer than 4 percent of countries counted as “electoral autocracies” — meaning elections existed but were restricted in ways we would now recognize as unfree. (Count the US among them. Though there have been elections since its founding, the American vote in 1800 was mostly restricted to white men with property, and it wouldn’t be until after the civil rights revolution of the 1960s that the US could be considered a truly free democracy.)
Life was nasty, brutish, and short throughout the bulk of human history, and humanity has spent most of its existence beneath the heel of an autocracy of some kind, whether an emperor, a king, or a dictator. (And given that about half the world’s countries are autocracies of some kind, that’s still the reality for billions of people.)
The idea that human beings have the right to choose their own leaders is a far newer one than many of us realize. That idea itself is far from perfect, just as democracies themselves often fall far short of the ideal — and given the amount of democratic backsliding occurring today, in both new democracies like Indonesia and older ones like the US, they risk falling even shorter in the future.
But for all the justified hand-wringing about the ultimate fate of democracy in this record-breaking year of elections, it’s worth taking a moment to appreciate just how far so much of the world has come. It took decades, even centuries of effort to achieve the level of democracy enjoyed by billions of people around the world. Now we have to keep it — if we can.
Correction, January 10, 5 pm ET: A previous version of this story conflated the population of the countries holding elections in 2024 with the number of potential voters.