Issued by Siyakudumisa Zicina, on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 10/05/2024



Is 2024 the ultimate year of elections? Viewed as the ‘biggest election year in history’, 2024 will witness a major test for liberal democracy. About 3 billion voters around the globe are gearing up for national elections, or have already begun holding them. This means that half of the world’s population in more than 70 countries (from the most populated (e.g. India), most developed (e.g. the United States) to the most fragile (e.g. Chad)) will have the opportunity to choose their representatives. 

Certainly, the world that we live in is striving for peace and democratic empowerment through elections. Yet, the world is also becoming more authoritarian, than democratic. Some measures even suggest that 2022 saw a greater number of countries becoming more authoritarian than in any year since the early 1990s. Indeed, Freedom House has noted that the world has been facing a consecutive 16–year decline in global freedom. If this decline continues at its present pace, observers argue that less than 5% of the world’s population will live in full democracies by 2026. 

These trends indicate that democracy is in trouble. Or even worse, “the world we’ve been living in, where democratic, capitalistic states dominates, is a historical aberration”, says a world-renowned economist, Dambisa Moyo. Will the rise in authoritarianism have an impact on global elections? This piece intends to interrogate these burning questions. 


Authoritarianism and Democratic Backsliding: A Backgrounder

If the 20th century was the story of slow, uneven progress towards the victory of liberal democracy, then the 21st century, is by far, a story of the reverse, says Anne Applebaum. While liberal democracy is witnessing its global decline, authoritarianism has been making advancement since the early 2000s. Authoritarianism describes a system where power is vested in the hands of a single leader or small elite group. 

Stretching as far back as ancient Greece, authoritarianism seems to be progressing in every corner of the world. Whilst authoritarianism has been making a gradual rise, observers claim that the 2020 pandemic perpetuated some leaders to indulge in dictatorial tendencies without attracting much attention from their constituencies, media and pro-democratic institutions. For instance, more than 40 countries around the world have become more restrictive within the press industry since the 2020 pandemic. Such trends have been in parallel with the erosion of democratic ideals and institutions, especially in countries like Turkey, Venezuela, the Philippines and Poland, among others. 

Observers even noted that the United States experienced a democratic decline during the final year of Trump’s presidency. Certainly, the world is witnessing a decline in liberal democracy, while more than 3,5 billion people in the world live under autocratic regimes. If the rise of authoritarianism continues at its present pace, then we should ask ourselves what do these trends mean for democracy, elections and voter turnout? 


Proliferating Authoritarianism: Questioning its Impact on Global Elections

Upholders of liberal democracy have been optimistic about the 2024 national elections, claiming that they will result in global efforts aimed at democratic empowerment. Yet, observers argue that 2024 elections will face several threats, from lack of transparency over electoral processes to disinformation. There may be several national elections set to happen this year, but not all will be free, fair and peaceful.

Most early contesters have indicated that 2024 elections will be marred by problems, among those are Belarus, Pakistan and Russia. February saw polls being opened in Pakistan, but they were accompanied by problems and allegations of electoral irregularities. While Belarus’ elections were labelled as being a ‘farce’ by several opposition parties who were banned from the ballot papers, Russia confirmed that Putin won the presidential elections with more than 85% of votes with his opponent scoring a mere 3 – 4% of votes. 

Various observers have criticised such a ‘victory’, stating that it lacks democratic legitimacy, not to mention fairness. With successfully winning elections during wartime against Ukraine, observers argue that there is a high possibility that Putin will strive for a war-regime until 2030s, eroding Moscow’s existing democratic channels along the way. 

As we approach the fifth month of 2024, a year that was supposed to have been  triumphant for elections and liberal democracy, reality has it as the worst nightmare for liberal democracy. Global Elections in 2024 are becoming more complex and complicated due to the proliferating impact of authoritarianism around the globe.  Even the oldest democracies are signalling that there is a democratic decline within their electoral processes, hinting a greater appetite for autocracy. In the United States, for example, Donald Trump asserted that he would only become a dictator on ‘day one’ should he be granted a second term. 

Such authoritarian rhetoric will have a negative impact on global elections. Even worse, the integrity of elections is declining globally. Figure 1 demonstrates that the world has been witnessing a decline in the quality of global elections since the early 2010s, from Europe to Asia and from America to Africa. 


Figure 1: Elections Integrity Since 2012 – 2022

Source: James & Garnett (2024)


Countries that share the green colour-coding enjoy fair and democratic electoral processes, but the reality indicates that the world is becoming more orange and red than green, signalling a decline in fair and free elections. 

If anything, these trends will have a negative impact on the ongoing global elections, as early contesters in 2024 have shown. We hope that South Africa’s upcoming elections, set to happen on 29 May 2024, will allow Pretoria to emerge as a global norm champion for peaceful, fairer and democratic elections, setting standards that others will follow.


Conclusion: A World Waltzing Towards Autocracy?

One narrative that emerges from these trends is that 2024 is the year in which  we witness increasing democratic backsliding. The reality is that we are facing proliferating effects of global autocracy accompanied by the global democratic recession’ from the Americas to Africa and from Europe to Asia. 

Certainly, the rise of authoritarianism across the globe is crippling the 2024 elections and liberal democracy. If these patterns are to continue, then our future will certainly emulate aspects of authoritarianism. 

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