By Dr. Santosh Kumar Mohapatra*
When the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha delivered his New Year message back in 1967, he pulled the cord marked “truth bomb”. “This year will be harder than last year,” he declared. “It will, however, be easier than next year.” Above statement is applicable to world especially for Indians if they do not exercise their verdict properly to check fascist, reactionary and communal forces.
The thing is that 2024 is not just an election year. It’s perhaps the election year. Globally, more voters than ever in history will head to the polls as at least 64 countries including India (plus the European Union)—representing a combined population of about 49% of the people in the world—are meant to hold national elections, the results of which, for many, will prove consequential for years to come.
From Russia to South Africa, India to the US, the coming year’s contests could embolden dictators or revitalise democracies. Some of the weakest (South Sudan), Russia, Iran and the most stressed (Taiwan, Ukraine). Unpredictable, volatile Pakistan and Bangladesh both go to the polls in 2024.
Of course, simply holding an election does not mean the process will be free or fair. Some elections will be open, free and fair, many less so. Some will not be free at all. Wars and conflict demonstrably hamper ability to conduct and maintain democratic governance. Paradoxically, this unprecedented vote-fest comes at a moment when classic forms of liberal democracy are under existential attack from authoritarians and dictators, far-right nationalist-populist parties.
Around the world, threats to liberal democracy, open societies, and the rule of law have raised alarm bells such threats may well be particularly severe in an intensely polarized US, especially as Donald Trump prepares to challenge Biden in the 2024 presidential election. But democratic deterioration is just one dimension of the “polycrisis” that the world now faces.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) Democracy Index study for this year is one such attempt to assign a score to nations based on how closely they live up to democratic principles. The annual survey, which ranks the state of democracy in 167 countries based on five criteria – electoral processes and pluralism, government functioning, political participation, democratic political culture, and civil liberties — discovers that more than a third of the world’s population is subject to authoritarian rule, while only 6.4% enjoy full democracy.
An alarming new report from the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden states that by the end of 2022, 72% of the world’s population (570 crore people) lived in autocracies, out of which 28% (220 crore people) lived in “closed autocracies”.
The report titled Defiance in the Face of Autocratization has further asserted that “advances in global levels of democracy made over the last 35 years have been wiped out.” The findings of this report should be a cause of global concern for politicians and policy-makers alike. The report indicates that today there are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies and only 13% of the world’s humans (approximately one hundred crore people) live in liberal democracies.
Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year, Freedom House, the independent, US-based watchdog, concluded in its 2023 report. Yet the report said while 35 countries experienced declines in political rights and civil liberties, 34 saw overall gains. Autocrats were neither infallible nor unbeatable.
Around seven in 10 Americans said the state of democracy had declined in recent years, while 73% in France agreed. More than six in 10 people in the UK believed democracy was working less well than five years ago, according to the poll. Respondents in all but one of the countries surveyed, which also included Croatia, Italy, Poland and Sweden, agreed “radical change” was needed.
The fifth edition of International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy report shows that virtually half the countries in their dataset have suffered a notable decline in at least one factor of democratic performance over the last five years. What may be worse is that this is the sixth consecutive year in which countries with net declines outnumbers those with net advances, the longest such pattern in our dataset.
After many years of democratic growth, the world has experienced a democratic recession for at least the past six years. Declines have occurred in the very foundations of democracy, revealing weaknesses in the credibility of electoral processes, the ability of legislatures to act as checks on executive overreach and in people’s equal access to the institutions of justice.
This institutional weakness is compounded by continuing declines in core democratic rights, including freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly and freedom of the press. Such deterioration has touched every region of the world and a broad array of countries with varying levels of democratic performance.
The ability of democracies throughout the world to provide critical public goods to their citizens and narrow the gap between societal expectations and institutional performance is under threat. These difficult problems existed even before democracies were forced to face the grotesque imbalances within and between nations exposed by the epidemic, as well as the subsequent inflation, shortages, and risks of a worldwide economic crisis.
Democracy appears to be evolving in a way that does not reflect rapidly changing needs and objectives. Even in democracies that are operating at a medium or high level, there is minimal improvement. The globe is far behind in developing democratic societies.
The principle of free speech, essential to fully functioning democracy, is also under attack, rights campaigner Jacob Mchangama argued in Foreign Policy magazine. “Even open democracies have imposed restrictive measures to combat a range of threats including hate speech, disinformation, extremism and public disturbances,” he wrote, citing increased EU online regulation and curbs on pro-Palestinian protests ( The Guardian, December 17, 2023).
The outcomes, taken separately and together, will help determine who controls and directs the 21st-century world. Not to mention, the elephant in the room; the U.S. presidential race culminating in November has the potential to unleash what the Economist recently described as “the biggest danger to the world” of 2024: former President Donald Trump securing a second term.
A Trump victory – and the ensuing chaotic Jacobean-style revenge tragedy it will inevitably trigger –could permanently overturn the international order, tipping the balance towards authoritarianism and dictatorship. If the US, “the city upon a hill”, ceases to fight for it, democracy will surely wither and die. However, President Joe Biden divides the world crudely into rival democratic and autocratic camps.
The pervasive fear is that elections in Europe, Austria, Belgium, Croatia and Finland, as well as for the European parliament in June will produce more advances by nationalist-populist, anti-migrant, xenophobic parties of the far right, matching those seen recently in Italy, the Netherlands and Slovakia.
In the UK, the problem is slightly different. Despite priding itself on a long democratic tradition, Britain has endured two unelected Conservative prime ministers in little more than a year. Bizarrely, it’s not certain the next UK general election will be held in 2024 at all.
India with population of 1.44 crore will under one of the world’s biggest electoral exercises to elect its representative to Lok Sabha (House of the People) in April – May. India having Freedom and Fairness Score of 0.53 sounds premonition that election is not going to free and fair. India was dubbed as flawed democracy by global democracy index. “Freedom and fairness score” ranges from zero (least free and fair) to one (most free and fair) which is based on expert assessments by the Swedish think-tank V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy).
In 2021, the V-Dem institute classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, while in the same year, Freedom House listed India as “partly free”. Also in 2021, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified India as a backsliding democracy and a “major decliner” in its Global State of Democracy (GSoD) report.
Therefore, it is unsurprising that the 2023 V-Dem report refers to India as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years” in a blurb on page 10 and places India in the bottom 40-50% on its Liberal Democracy Index at rank 97.
Now India has been ranked at the 108th spot globally for electoral democracy, far behind nations like Tanzania, Bolivia, Mexico, Singapore, and even Nigeria. India’s standing on the Liberal Democracy Index (LDI) is once more appallingly low, and it even has the sad distinction of falling from 100th place in 2022 to 108th this year. India also ranks 108 on the Electoral Democracy Index and 123 on the Egalitarian Component Index.
According to an article published in The Guardian, Simon Tisdall, 17 Dec 2023, Prime minister Narendra Modi’s hopes of a third term could be frustrated by a new, 28-party opposition coalition called INDIA – Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party dominates in north and central India, while Modi himself is viewed as an electoral superstar, unlike Rahul Gandhi, leader of the opposition Congress party. Yet his unattractive, autocratic tendencies, reflected in curbs on independent journalism, mystery deaths of opponents abroad and the brutal army crackdown in Kashmir, will raise doubts about the poll’s fairness. A surprise Modi defeat could have strategic ramifications, hurting US attempts to woo India as an ally and counterweight to China.
The experience of India — which, given that it has the most voters, is also the world’s largest lab for election malpractice. The more scrupulous fact-checkers are, the easier they can be stunned with a flood of fake news.
Already temple politics have started to polarise society. One should not forget that obsession for power makes one insensitive, arrogant, vindictive and greedy. We don’t want to dampen anybody’s spirit but times of crisis can entail upon us to move in right direction. In the face of uncertainty, what is most important becomes excruciatingly clear.
No effort is wasted effort but rather an antidote to the helplessness of progressive people we feel in the face of grim news. We can’t control what 2024 will visit upon us, but we can try to make sure we are ready to survive it. Yes, the year ahead might be packed with dismays as yet unimaginable. By preparing for future, we can still live in our hope that our actions – however small – might help make it better.
There’s a reason that fortitude has had a revival in recent years. The lesson from the stoics isn’t to abandon hope, but not to be wrecked by failure. Those who want to make a change in the world need to be ready to always try again. Even so, the V-Dem report states that democracies can bounce back from autocratisation when a certain set of criteria are satisfied. These include mass mobilisation against an incumbent, a unified opposition working with civil society, the judiciary reversing an executive takeover, critical elections, and international democracy support.
The author is an Odisha-based eminent columnist/economist and social thinker. He can be reached through e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.