Billions of citizens will cast their vote in 2024, some in democratic and others in autocratic elections. Some of these elections, writes Carl Henrik Knutsen, could solidify autocrats’ hold on power. Others might help dethrone them – and thus open up potential pathways to democratisation
Democracies are political regimes that select their leaders through regular elections in which multiple parties are allowed to compete freely and fairly. This, at least, is the conventional view. Hence, we can consider election day the pinnacle of democracy. Almost as important are the election campaign and the post-election period, where old governments step down and new ones form.
At first sight, 2024 could therefore seem a global high-water mark of democracy. According to different election metrics, it is an unprecedented year. About 65 countries which, taken together, contain more than four billion citizens, are holding elections.
At the same time, some academics and organisations measuring democracy warn that democracy is in global decline and that this trend has gone on for at least a decade. The extent of decline depends, crucially, on how we measure democracy. However, most democracy scholars seem to agree that global democracy levels have, at the very least, stagnated.
Most democracy scholars seem to agree that global democracy levels have, at the very least, stagnated
Are the two descriptions above reconcilable? The brief answer is: yes! So how can we understand this coincidence of the grand election year of 2024 and the bleak trend in global democracy?
One part of the answer is that democracy remains a very common regime type today, despite the decline of particular democracies in several countries. Many remaining democracies – including some very populous ones – happen to be holding elections in 2024. The exact number of democracies depends on which democracy measure we use, or on the cut-off placed on continuous democracy-autocracy scales, such as V-Dem’s Polyarchy index. Regardless, the fairly high number of democratic elections isn't particularly unusual, given that most democracies hold elections every fourth or fifth year.
The second part of the answer is that even relatively autocratic countries hold multi-party elections. Indeed, over the last few decades, this has been increasingly the case. Taken together, more than half the world's population lives in countries holding elections in 2024, notwithstanding their varying forms and quality.
The high number of elections is significant for several reasons. In democracies, elections determine which parties and leaders will be in power for the next few years. The governments and legislative majorities they form help determine everything from trade policy (including in some major economies) to security policy (including in premier military powers). The numerous democratic elections could therefore also be consequential for countries and citizens which aren't headed to the polls in 2024.
But even unfree or unfair multiparty elections in autocracies can be notable events with potentially large repercussions. Autocratic regimes manipulate elections in various ways, and – in practice – the winner is typically determined in advance. Still, studies on autocratic elections highlight other consequences, which may shape the countries in question and have spillover effects beyond their borders.
In particular, several scholars have noted how autocratic elections can partially legitimise autocratic regimes, mobilise regime supporters, and signal power to (and thus deter) the opposition. These regime-stabilising mechanisms work in the longer term. Hence, if autocratic regimes successfully manage the difficult task of staging manipulated elections and retaining power, elections held during 2024 could help solidify autocratic regimes such as those in Venezuela or Russia for years to come. They could even consolidate the increasingly authoritarian rule of the likes of Modi in India.
If autocrats manage to stage manipulated elections and retain power, 2024 elections could shore up autocratic regimes such as those in Venezuela or Russia
In general, (aspiring) autocrats are more vulnerable to being overthrown early in their tenure, before consolidating their grip on power. They do this, typically, by establishing loyalists in key positions throughout the state apparatus or by altering electoral and other rules to their advantage. Hence, if incumbent actors in autocratic – or even semi-democratic – regimes pull off election victories in 2024 and subsequently retain power, it could also strengthen autocratisation trends over the coming years.
However, autocratic elections may also have destabilising effects, especially in the immediate aftermath of election day. Sometimes, aspiring autocrats miscalculate and lose elections outright, despite manipulating them. They can then be pressured to step down, opening up possibilities for democratisation. Yet, this is not the main reason why elections pose (short-term) dangers to autocrats.
My research with Håvard Mokleiv Nygård and Tore Wig documents how autocratic regimes become more vulnerable to breakdown immediately after elections. Elections give opposition parties, civil society organisations, and critical citizens an opportunity to organise against the regime and to rally supporters in the streets. Credible evidence of election fraud is particularly encouraging to the opposition. Indeed, election tampering sparks grievances and creates 'focal points' that enable diverse actors to mobilise together rather than in isolation.
Election fraud sparks grievances and creates 'focal points' that enable diverse actors to mobilise together rather than in isolation
Sometimes, post-election protests spark full-blown revolutions, as during several Colour Revolutions in the former Soviet Union. At other times, mass protests cause splits within the incumbent elites, inducing pressures for change from within the regime. Post-election protests can even incite military coups, which occasionally (but far from always) open up pathways to democratisation.
Finally, 2024 brings added uncertainty for global democracy because Donald Trump may once again become president of the world’s most powerful democracy. Trump is a candidate with clear authoritarian inclinations and proven willingness to challenge American democracy. If so, even long-established and presumably quite resilient American institutions may come under pressure.
Reduced American attention and willingness to support democracy abroad is, in my view, also a likely consequence. Similarly, reduced American support for Ukraine could further embolden Russia in its war of aggression. More generally, it might bolster Russia's quest to spread autocracy beyond its borders. These developments would spell bad news for democracy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and beyond.
While the latter is one possible scenario, it is not the only one. And, especially given that autocratic elections can have both regime-stabilising and destabilising effects, it is simply too early to tell whether the overall effect of the big election year of 2024 will help or hurt democracy, globally.