2024 will be the biggest election year in history, with an estimated 60 countries holding national-level elections and dozens more holding subnational polls. Countries electing national leaders include some of the largest by population – including India, Indonesia, the European Union, and the United States—as well as some smaller nations whose political outcomes might have outsized geopolitical significance (for example, Taiwan and Bangladesh). Collectively, these countries account for nearly half the global population. However, with 44% of the world now governed by electoral autocracies, the story of democracy’s prospects this year cannot only be told by the record number of ballots that will be cast. Far more telling for the global democratic trajectory in 2024 will be how countries holding elections navigate well-documented trends of rising autocracy and democratic recession.
Elections are critically important to ensuring elected leaders and institutions are accountable to the people they serve. However, elections also play a much bigger role in the entire system, producing episodes of heightened political competition and collective choice that can stress test democratic resilience – the ability to maintain democratic governance functions and principles despite the attempts of illiberal actors to damage or diminish key accountability structures. Elections can move a country closer to democratic breakdown or catalyze a “bounce back” to a democratic trajectory.
Despite many questions about the best approach to avoiding democratic erosion or breakdown, we have a clear imperative as a community of democracies. We must meet an increasingly muscular community of autocrats with much larger and more coordinated investments on three fronts: supporting democratic institutions and actors in countries in a range of democratic contexts, from those experiencing extreme backsliding to countries thought to have “graduated” from democracy support; helping democracy’s champions innovate apace with autocracy’s quick learners; and taking hold of the narrative to prove that democracy delivers and autocracy withers.
The democracy support community has historically coalesced around the idea that countries that successfully transition power among political parties through multiple, consecutive elections have “consolidated” their democratic norms and thus “graduated” from electoral assistance. Admissions of new hardship and struggle from these “established” democracies were uncommon and largely considered to be internal political matters to resolve. As exemplified by the first two global Summits for Democracy, a shift in thinking is underway. Democratic leaders and champions today acknowledge an increasingly complex threat landscape, the non-linear path of democratic progress, and the value of interdependency in the act of democracy protection. Lessons learned in a young democracy’s elections – in such diverse areas as fighting cyber attacks or safeguarding the political autonomy of electoral oversight institutions – may prove highly relevant to preparations underway in older, “established” democracies facing similar headwinds. As such, each election in 2024 deserves our close attention for the unique insights it might contribute to this evolved understanding.
The modern-day autocrats’ approach is also adjusting with the times and at an ever-quickening pace. The trappings of democracy are a useful veneer for an autocrat’s hold on power; democracy’s accountability features much less so. Democratic systems are made pliant by illiberal actors dismantling or seriously degrading the system’s accountability architecture. These actors are also supported in their efforts by formal and informal collaboration with other powerful autocracies, forming a community of autocracy with robust benefits for its members.
Each country holding elections in 2024 will need to navigate a shifting threat landscape, but there are five trending weaknesses in democratic accountability that we consider particularly concerning. Continued investment in innovations to counter each provide room for optimism despite these challenges.
Attacks on Election Management Bodies
In the past few years, we have observed how some governments undermine the autonomy and capacity of election management bodies (EMBs): appointing loyal commissioners, passing laws to limit the mandates of truly independent EMBs, or depriving election officials of the resources they need to administer credible elections. In response, we have advocated for fairer appointment processes and stronger legal protections for EMB institutional mandates, filled operational and capacity gaps that could be leveraged by malign actors to undermine the legitimacy of election results, and fostered interinstitutional collaboration to boost EMB reputations. Cyber attacks on the data management systems used by EMBs are of particular concern. While technology has helped optimize and make many electoral activities more accessible, it has also opened new vulnerabilities to exploitation. Successful hacks of election data can shake public confidence in the electoral process and can give an aura of credibility to mis- and disinformation questioning the professionalism of election officials. Connecting domestic and international cyber security professionals, tech industry partners, and election administrators overseeing IT, we are now more vigilant towards cybersecurity vulnerabilities embedded in different aspects of elections and of the tactics employed by malign actors.
A Chaotic Information Environment
A key lesson of modern elections is that it may not always be necessary for autocrats to tamper with the electoral process itself to shift the outcomes in their favor; tampering with perception and trust can be just as effective. Voters increasingly find themselves in a noisy information environment, polluted by mis- and disinformation campaigns from both domestic and foreign sources. Democracies are slowly grappling with how to address manipulated information even as developments in artificial intelligence offer powerful new tools to increase the problem’s sophistication and scale. EMBs, in particular, are beginning to work proactively to build or maintain their institutional reputations. These efforts have included more careful monitoring of online narratives, creative outreach to different audiences (including through social media influencers, religious leaders, and academics), and international cooperation among EMBs.
Judiciaries Under Fire
Judges play a critical role in defense of democracy, especially during the election process. This past year, we have witnessed attempts by governments to undermine the guarantee of judicial independence by amending appointment processes, removing immunity provisions, and implementing politically motivated budget cuts, applying pressure to dismiss judges or force them into retirement. During election periods, judges, like EMB officials in a number of places, face attacks on their integrity, including fake allegations of corruption and bias, as well as direct threats of violence. How judges handle election disputes – ideally fairly, impartially, and effectively – will be critical to maintaining public trust in election outcomes in 2024. Peer-to-peer judicial engagement – like through the Europe/Eurasia Electoral Jurisprudence Network and the Africa Electoral Jurisprudence Network – is particularly important to provide judges with support as their independence is threatened.
Corruption and Money in Politics
Corruption in elections is often the gateway to more pervasive political corruption, which decreases satisfaction with democracy and fuels foreign malign influence and the entrenchment of autocrats. Lesser-documented but deeply damaging tactics include laundering of illicit funds to the campaigns of politicians supportive of criminal groups, corrupt subversion of political and electoral systems by foreign actors through political financing or rewards to politicians, and funding of online disinformation campaigns and political advertising by malicious actors. More than 70 countries still do not have bans on foreign donations to candidates, while 54 countries allow foreign donations to political parties. While the problem may seem complex and often hidden, new technologies hold significant potential for rapidly identifying these complex transnational networks and ensuring corrupt actors can be held accountable. Continued support to oversight bodies (e.g., supreme audit institutions and EMBs) and investigators, promoting learning and information sharing on emerging challenges around money in politics, will also help to detect and penalize abuse and malign financing in elections in the months to come.
Autocracy Gaining Some Traction with Young People
For governments to be responsive to their constituents, people of all backgrounds must be involved in political processes like elections. Recent multi-national democracy trend surveys have found weakening engagement of young people in formal democratic processes, less satisfaction with the performance of democracy than older generations, and a higher propensity than other age groups — though still a minority of the young people polled — to prefer more autocratic models of governance over democracy. Importantly, IFES survey findings recognize that young people are still civically engaged, highly supportive of human rights, and are active in exercising their voice through non-formal mechanisms, such as volunteerism, public protests, and social media advocacy. The challenge facing democracy defenders, and likely a key topic of the third Summit for Democracy planned for 2024 in Seoul, is identifying opportunities to transform young people’s informal engagement into formal participation to strengthen democratic responsiveness and resilience. At the same time, approaches to civic education need to shift towards engaging young people as partners in the development and implementation, with a new focus on engaging children and young people below the age of enfranchisement to instill democratic ideals earlier in life.
Each of these trends creates pitfalls for democracy – and, by extension, people’s faith that democracy delivers for them. Today’s autocracies are primed to make the case that democracy does not: they have deep pockets, abundant experience manipulating their own publics, and reserves of public discontent to tap. Democracy’s champions must rise to the occasion offered by the 2024 election landscape to invest creatively in democracy’s accountability architecture and write a new narrative that emphasizes its fundamental appeal.