At first glance, 2024 should be a significant commemoration of the concept of democracy, which was first introduced by the Greeks over two thousand years ago. In the coming months, elections will be held in countries that collectively represent over half of the world’s population, which is more than 4 billion people. These include some of the world’s most populous and influential nations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, India, and Pakistan.
However, history teaches us that simply sending people to the polls is not enough to guarantee the upholding of democratic principles. It is important to remember that not all elections this year are expected to be free and fair. Regarding this matter, it is sufficient to examine the ruling elites of the pillars of democracy, namely the USA and the UK, who implement their policies against the will of the majority of the population. To provide a recent example, President Joe Biden ordered military action against Yemen’s Houthis without informing Congress, which goes against the US Constitution. What can be said about American satellites, who view Washington as a role model. For instance, Israel has conducted a violent attack in the Gaza Strip, despite widespread global condemnation and repeated calls to cease by influential international organizations such as the UN and its Secretary General António Guterres.
Therefore, from a democratic perspective, one should embrace this wave of plebiscites. In several countries, elections are expected to be authentic and sincere efforts to solicit voters’ opinions on who they want to lead their nations. In other countries, voting is often a mere charade designed to give the illusion of popular support to dictatorships of various extremes, all for the sake of supposed legitimacy and alleged popular support. The quality of a democratic system is measured not only by what happens during elections but also in between them. Without a strong separation of powers, checks and balances, and an active civil society and free media, there is a democratic deficit during the post-election period. During this phase, elected representatives and the executive branch can accumulate excessive power that can be easily abused. In this case, it is not appropriate to refer to these countries as democratic, even if they have held legitimate elections.
Generally speaking, a fundamental principle of democracy is that the will of the people is the source of legitimacy in sovereign states. While there are many models of democracy, at the core of all of them are the values of critical participation, equality, and rights and freedoms for all. It is probable that not all elections held this year will be free and fair. In some cases, authoritarian forces may use fear and intimidation to prevent opponents from running for office and/or to disenfranchise voters. Elections are meant to celebrate the political will of the people and demonstrate respect for it. They also provide the public with a limited time frame to become familiar with policy alternatives and make an informed decision about whom to vote for.
At their best, elections should inspire hope in voters. When they make their choices at the ballot box, they can help ensure a safer and better quality of life for themselves and their families. However, in some new democracies, as well as some more established ones, elected politicians are often viewed as cynical and self-serving, rather than serving the interests of their constituents. The erosion of public confidence in the integrity of elections in certain countries undermines the legitimacy of those elected to govern, the institutions they control, and the principles that constitute a democratic system. In many cases, elections fail to achieve their democratic objectives not because they are rigged, which would be an obvious reason, but because the electorate lacks trust in their representatives. Studies in countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development have shown that less than half of the population trusts their governments. According to data from Edelman Trust Barometer, over half of the people in key economies worldwide actively distrust their government, while less than a third of citizens in these countries actively trust their government. It is ironic that elected politicians are one of the least trusted professions by the public.
Edelman reports a decline in trust in all aspects of government, including leadership competence, understanding citizens’ fears and concerns, visionary thinking, making decisions based on facts rather than politics, and many other qualities that today’s leaders are supposed to have. If elections are considered a job selection process, then based on this evidence, it appears to be a failed process. Voters are forced to choose between candidates who they believe are incapable of doing the job or, even worse, unreliable.
The list of 2024 polls commenced with Bangladeshi general election on January 7. As anticipated, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured her fourth consecutive victory. But it caused some issues: what is the purpose of holding elections, which the primary opposition refuses to participate in and regards the entire process as fraudulent? Due to the arrest of numerous Bangladesh Nationalist Party leaders and supporters, the voter turnout for the recent election was only 40 percent, a significant decrease from the 80 percent turnout in the previous 2018 election. The government has a large majority, but lacks credibility and legitimacy due to the low turnout and perceived harassment of the opposition.
In Pakistan, the scheduled February elections have been postponed due to prevailing security conditions and expected cold weather. Initially, the authorities planned to conduct elections for the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) and provincial legislatures in the country by February 8, 2024. On January 5, 2024, the Senate of Pakistan, the upper house of parliament, passed a resolution requesting the federal government to delay the voting date due to security concerns. The legislators’ proposal was prompted by a surge in terrorist attacks throughout Pakistan, particularly in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, which targeted candidates for the upcoming elections. However, the ultimate decision in this matter lies with the cabinet of the Islamic Republic.
Even the more established liberal democracies, such as the USA and the UK, which are holding crucial elections this year, are in deep crisis. They face such challenges as the rise of cheap populism, deep divisions within their societies, and the impact of external intervention through the use of social media and artificial intelligence. Consequently, there is less and less space for constructive debate that might lead to an outcome that best serves the country and its people. We can observe further divisions within societies and, in extreme cases, governments that prioritize their own self-interest. What should be done in this case? There is no universal answer. It depends on the level of civilization and maturity of the society. In extreme cases, the society can hold both the government and the members of parliament accountable by demanding a plebiscite on a particular issue. Quoting Alfred Nobel, the current world hegemon and its election can be characterized as follows: “Any democracy leads to the dictatorship of the scum.” You can’t put it better or more objectively regarding the modern USA.
Elections remain a crucial aspect of upholding democracy, but their organization and outcomes often fall short of expectations. This year, many elections are taking place, which could lead to significant changes in the politics of several states. These changes could have serious consequences not only for the countries involved but also for the global order, as they could contribute to the creation of a new multipolar world.
Viktor Mikhin, corresponding member of RANS exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.