Precise tallies vary, but there is general agreement amongst us commentators that 2024 will set a record for the largest number of votes ever cast in democratic elections in a single calendar year. One estimate has it that there are elections in 76 countries, inhabited by more than half the human race. In several of these elections, term-limited incumbents must stand down and make room for their successors. In others, a change of government through the ballot box is likely to bring new leadership. By the end of the year, we may see more people ruled by first-term governments than has ever previously been the case in world history.
Just taking Asia to begin with, voters in Bangladesh and Taiwan go to the polls in January; Pakistan and Indonesia follow in February, South Korea in April and India, the world’s largest democracy, in April and May. Moving west, the European Parliament is elected in early June, in the largest international democratic procedure on the planet, with national elections also due in a dozen European states, the biggest of which will be in the United Kingdom. Farther west again, Mexico also votes in June, but many are looking to its northern neighbour, which elects a third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives and the President of the United States in November. There is a run of elections in Africa too, the largest being South Africa in May and Ghana closing out the list in December.
And of course, an election’s importance is not only determined by the size of the electorate or the quality of the democratic process. Finland’s presidential election in January will set the tone for the first half of the year in Europe. South Sudan’s election, scheduled for the second half of the year, will hopefully draw a line under the troubled history that has caused them to slip from their originally scheduled date in 2015. And the March election of Iran’s parliament, heavily managed though it will certainly be, will illuminate the dynamic between that country’s rulers and its population.
To start at the beginning, Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister and leader of the ruling Awami League, won a comfortable fourth term in the elections held on 7 January. But the election process was marred by opposition boycotts, government harassment of opposition activists and the imprisonment of Bangladesh’s Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. The legitimacy of the election result will be judged not just by the votes cast, but by the number of votes not cast and by the conduct of the process. Sheikh Hasina is 76 and the longest serving woman prime minister in the world; a transition will come sooner or later. Will it be democratic?
Taiwan, too, re-elected the incumbent—Democratic Progressive Party—on 13 January, with Vice-President William Lai stepping up to the top spot. The election was notable for the strong signals sent by Beijing that Lai would be unacceptable, because the DPP is seen as taking a stronger line against reunification with the mainland than the opposition; given Lai’s victory, these signals may have been counterproductive. The DPP is outnumbered by the opposition in the Taiwanese legislature, but on issues of national security there is less distance between the parties than outsiders sometimes like to perceive, and Lai has moved swiftly to establish common ground across the political spectrum.
Finland is the first EU country to go to the polls in 2024, with a two-round election to choose the country’s next president over January and February. Finland has been one of the countries to see a populist surge in recent elections, but Jussi Halla-aho of the True Finns movement is trailing in third place at present, behind Pekka Haavisto of the Greens, who was the runner up to outgoing President Niinisto in the 2012 and 2018 elections, and the urbane and multilingual former Prime Minister Alexander Stubb from the centre-right. If the second round is between Stubb and Haavisto, it will be a signal that there are limits to the rise of the hard right.
Pakistan will finally elect a new parliament on 8 February, six months after the last National Assembly was dissolved. The country has been locked for years in a political struggle between the jailed former cricketer Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the establishment parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whose parents were prime minister and president of the country. Allegations of corruption and other criminality swirl around the political leadership on all sides. Khan’s PTI was the most popular political party before polls were banned last year; but it’s not clear whether either their victory or their defeat will help stability.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, with its more than 200 million voters, will elect a new president and parliament on 14 February. Although the election is competitive, two of the three front-runners are effectively continuity candidates, with Ganjar Promowo—the nominee of outgoing President Jokowi’s PDI-P party—currently trailing defence minister Prabowo Subianto, whose running-mate is President Jokowi’s son. Also in the race is the more left-wing candidate Anies Baswedan. Compared with some of the other elections this year, Indonesia’s election is much more about personalities than about policy choices; there is a broad economic consensus.
On 1 March, both chambers of the legislative assembly of Iran will be elected. The process is not an open one—candidates must be approved by the 12-member Council of Guardians, and there is a systematic bias in favour of the conservative leadership. But elections in Iran have sometimes had unexpected results, and in addition, this is another case where the votes that are not cast may tell an interesting story; the Iranian regime is under pressure from many different directions, including the growing strength of the voices of Iranian women.
There is little to be said about the Presidential election in Russia scheduled for 15-17 March. The only open question is the precise margin of victory that will be declared for the incumbent, Vladimir Putin.
Elections in India, the world’s largest democracy, take place over a period of weeks, and the parliamentary election in 2024 is likely to be held in April and May. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, running for a third five-year term, has the wind in his sails; but the opposition coalition led by Mallikarjun Kharge of the Indian National Congress is closer behind the governing Bharatiya Janata Party than was the case when Modi previously won in 2014 or 2019, and there are still several months to go.
The date has also not yet been set for the seventh post-apartheid election in South Africa, but it is likely to be in May. Here, polls offer the tantalising prospect that the governing African National Congress could fail to win a majority of the votes. But a divided opposition will find it very difficult to keep them from power, and President Ramaphosa— having started by serving out the brief remainder of former President Jacob Zuma’s term in 2018-19—is eligible for and likely to win a second full term.
In Mexico, where President López Obrador is term-limited, his appointed successor Claudia Sheinbaum is currently far ahead of her nearest rival, Xóchitl Gálvez, in polling for the 2 June election. It is still rare that both front-runners in such a race are women. López Obrador and Sheinbaum are nominally left-of-centre, and Gálvez is to the left of her right-wing party, so the policy differences are not huge. Sheinbaum, however, has a very strong profile on environmental issues and if she wins, we can expect Mexico to increase its (already considerable) activism on climate change.
Soon after, the new European Parliament will be elected by citizens of the 27 EU member states over the long weekend from 6 to 9 June, kicking off a prolonged political process of allocating the top jobs in the EU institutions and determining the future path of policy for the bloc. Indications are that the hard right will improve their position, and that green and more moderate parties will fall back. There is still likely to be a semi-permanent centrist coalition between mainstream political groups, and the consensus on the urgency of addressing climate change will survive, but the political process will become less predictable as smaller and more radical factions gain more influence. Elections in Belgium also take place on 9 June; months of coalition-building will follow, which are unlikely to result in Prime Minister De Croo keeping his job.
South Sudan became independent in 2011 and years of conflict and uncertainty have prevented any elections from taking place since. But all factions have now agreed to hold a vote for president and parliament in late 2024, under a 2020 peace deal that ended the internal conflict. It is likely that local leadership figures in the oil-rich country’s various regions will use the election to emphasise their legitimacy, and that President Salva Kiir Mayardit will win another term. Since independence, the factions have spent longer fighting each other than working with each other; the election is a chance to turn the page.
The poll that everyone will be watching in 2024 is the 5 November election in the United States of America. At present, it looks likely to be a repeat of the 2020 contest between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, with Biden currently behind in the polls. The entire House of Representatives and a third of the U.S. Senate are also up for election. We have the extraordinary situation that Donald Trump is facing criminal charges for interference with the 2020 election, which he lost; the potential for political and social instability is unprecedented since the Civil War of the 1860s.
Current reports are that the general election in the United Kingdom could take place the same week as the American vote, on 7 November, with the Conservative Party trying to defend their record since 2010. Prime Minster Rishi Sunak has languished in the polls, after taking over from the flamboyant Boris Johnson and the short-lived Liz Truss in 2021. At the time of writing, it looks likely that the Labour Party, under Sir Keir Starmer, will return to power after 14 years. He is doing his best to reassure business that he is less dangerous than the incumbents.
Probably the last election of the year, but one of the most interesting, is in the West African state of Ghana, whose population is over 30 million. Since the retirement of former strongman Jerry Rawlings in 2000, Ghana has had a succession of close contests with alternation of power. This year, President Nana Akufo-Addo of the New Patriotic Party (NPP) is term-limited, but Vice President Mahamudu Bawumia will run against former President John Mahama, who beat Akufo-Addo in 2012 but lost to him in 2016 and 2020. Alan Kyerematen, a former NPP minister, is also running from the left as a third-party candidate. West Africa is a fascinating region of the world, where many cultural, political and economic currents compete; and Ghana is right in the middle of it.
Political change is inevitable. A century ago, many of the vulnerable new states emerging from the first world war were lurching towards authoritarianism, and sometimes worse. Fifty years ago, the dynamics of the Cold War were often reflected in the internal politics of the states caught within or between the major power blocs. Today, the ballot box is just one of the channels by which citizens seek to determine their own future, and the growth of democracy is just one aspect of instrumentalising the popular will to change society.