2024, the year when half of the planet goes to the polls

More than 3.7 billion people will be able to vote in elections in 70 countries next year. From the U.S. to the EU, from Taiwan to India, there are some results that will have global impacts

Política 2024
Sr. García
Andrea Rizzi

The greatest power in the world (the United States), the most-populous country (India), the biggest trading bloc (the European Union), the largest Muslim country (Indonesia), the largest Spanish-speaking country (Mexico) and the territory that embodies the greatest risk of confrontation between the two superpowers of this century (Taiwan) will all hold elections in 2024.

Around 70 countries — with a total of more than 3.7 billion inhabitants, or almost half of the global population — plan to hold presidential or legislative elections in the coming year. The verdict of the polls will have profound consequences on the lives of people and on a world that is going through a turbulent time, with brutal wars being waged against Ukraine and Gaza, as the West falls into decline (without a clear replacement).

On a geopolitical level, this electoral cycle can have a major impact. A return of Donald Trump to the White House, a third consecutive victory in Taiwan by candidates that Beijing considers hostile, or a strong rise of the extreme right in the European Union could all have far-reaching consequences.

In addition to these cases, there are many other relevant upcoming elections. These range from the legislative elections of Pakistan — an unstable nuclear power — to those of Iran; from the potential presidential elections in Venezuela to those in Ukraine. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s mandate expires in March 2024, but given the Russian invasion, it’s unclear when the elections will actually be held.

The situation of major elections in 2024 will be an important testing ground for democracy in the world. Studies concur in pointing out a global deterioration in democratic quality, with numerous extreme setbacks — such as coups d’état in several African countries — or moderate setbacks, with issues that are causing many societies to slide from healthy democratic environments to more fragile ones.

Leaving aside pure electoral farces such as the one in Russia, it will be essential to see what will happen in the United States, where Trump tried to subvert his defeat in 2020, or in India, where opponents to the Modi administration and international observers report worrying setbacks.

The U.S. presidential elections next November have immense disruptive potential. The possibility that Trump will be the Republican candidate and return to the White House is strong. The conservative establishment didn’t know how to turn the page after the 2020 defeat and the tycoon’s embarrassing reaction… and four years later, there are no candidates with enough strength to cut him off. At the same time, on the Democratic side, Joe Biden seems determined to seek re-election. According to all surveys, his appeal is weak, perhaps due to signs of his advanced age, or because of the damage caused by the highest inflation in four decades.

A return of Trump to the White House would represent a shake-up with risks. It would be a step towards American isolationism at a time when rival powers are questioning — in a more or less subversive way — the world order that Washington has created. Biden has sought to revive the traditional network of U.S. alliances: he has pushed for strong support for Ukraine, has promised to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack more explicitly than any previous president, and has reassured his European and Asian allies of the United States’ commitment to security and trade ties.

Trump would embody a break with that scenario. His “America first” doctrine means limiting efforts and expenses in distant horizons. It’s doubtful whether he would commit to supporting Taiwan if it comes under attack, or whether he would maintain financing and security guarantees made to Ukraine and NATO. New trade wars would be likely, as would a withdrawal of commitments against climate change. It’s worth thinking about what conclusions China or Russia would draw from an American presidency less willing to assume the costs of an international project.

On this note: Taiwan is in the eye of Beijing. Despite not having the largest population or economy, the island is extremely geopolitically relevant. It has a complex political system full of nuances regarding its relationship with Beijing. But there’s a fairly clear dilemma: a victory for the Kuomintang (KMT) — in favor of seeking better relations with Beijing — would probably de-escalate the situation. It remains to be seen what consequences a policy of betting less on strengthening defensive capabilities would have in the medium and long-term. On the other hand, a third consecutive victory by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) — the bearer of a more assertive Taiwanese identity, in favor of deepening relations with the United States and strengthening defense — would be read in Beijing as proof that the citizens of the island are moving away from the KMT’s conciliatory stance. No one knows how this result would be introduced into the strategic calculations of the Chinese Communist Party.

President Xi Jinping has clearly signaled that he considers reunification to be an essential part of his political project. He has given orders to his armed forces to reach a new level of operational capacity by 2027. Still, there’s no doubt that Beijing would prefer to avoid a conflict with potentially damaging effects. Even if the administration were to achieve reunification militarily with relative ease, serious economic consequences would likely complicate its path to prosperity. This is key, as unimpeded growth is a fundamental element of the Chinese Communist Party’s tacit pact of giving up freedoms in exchange for economic progress. But would Xi truly give up his goal of reunification? And would a Trump presidency and a DPP presidency be the best window of opportunity for Beijing to strike?

DPP's presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te
Lai Ching-te — the current vice president of Taiwan and the DPP’s presidential candidate — in Taipei, on December 3, 2023. Annabelle Chih (Getty Images)

In June 2024, the European Parliament will hold elections across all 27 member states. The results will shape the new chamber, with possible new legislative majorities that will influence the leadership of the EU. One wonders how high the far-right wave will go.

The average of polls compiled by Politico indicates a rise of the two far-right blocs and a decline in support among the traditional European conservatives, social democrats, liberals and greens. Even so, the latter groups will likely retain a comfortable majority. The crux of the question is to see if an eventual coalition between populist and far-right groups could form an alternative majority. At the beginning of December, in the seat projection put out by Politico, the distance between extremists and moderates was only about 20 seats (out of 720).

An absolute majority of the right within the European Parliament isn’t likely. But even if it’s not achieved, an increase in the influence of the hard-right blocs would have major consequences. In the current legislature, convergences have already been noted. In certain matters — for example, in the fight against climate change — the right has influential force. With more extremist deputies, there’s the possibility of a scenario in which the center-right assumes a tougher discourse against environmental regulations. And, with a bigger far-right bloc, it’s unclear if the EU would be able to move forward on admitting the dozen countries that are candidates for membership, or continuing to support Ukraine.

Speaking of Ukraine, both the invaded country and the invader — Russia — are required to hold elections in March. In the case of Ukraine — given the war and martial law — it’s likely that the vote will be postponed. However, the debate about whether they should be held has been lively in recent months. There are relevant voices in the United States — a country that is fundamental for the government in Kyiv — who advocate holding them. In the Russian case, meanwhile, nothing can be expected other than a victory for Putin. While Zelenskiy and Putin remain leaders, the political circumstances are still delicate. In such a complex conflict, any political agitation is relevant.

Turning to the Global South, in Pakistan and India, nationalism and tensions are rife. India — the most-populous country in the world, the fifth-largest economy on the planet and a partner of the United States — will see Prime Minister Narendra Modi attempt to win a third term. His leadership is extremely controversial. In recent years, India has achieved considerable economic growth and improved its geopolitical influence… but his push for Hindu nationalism creates enormous fears about the safety of minorities, especially around 200 million Muslims and 200 million Dalits (those who belong to the lower-stratum of the Hindu caste system). Modi’s style of government is considered highly corrosive to democracy, by both his domestic opponents and international human rights organizations. A third term for Modi — who has governed since 2014 — could represent another step that moves India away from the secular and inclusive logic of its Constitution and sharpens its geopolitical activism on a global scale.

Also scheduled to hold legislative elections is India’s turbulent neighbor, Pakistan — a nuclear power plagued by a serious economic crisis and high political tensions, including arrests and attempted assassinations of political leaders. Following the dissolution of Parliament back in August, elections should have been held within 90 days, but have been postponed twice. They are now scheduled for February. The country — with some 240 million inhabitants — has enormous strategic depth, not only due to its nuclear arsenal, but also due to its close relationship with China. The Beijing-Islamabad axis is New Delhi’s biggest concern.

From Indonesia to South Africa, there will be many other high-interest elections in 2024. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s mandate will end: it’s unclear whether his ally Claudia Sheinbaum — the former head of the government of Mexico City — will be able to continue the actions of the leftist leader, or if another party will take power. In Indonesia, Joko Widodo — a very popular president — will conclude his second term. An uncertain competition is looming. Widodo has not made an explicit endorsement, but the fact that his eldest son is the vice presidential candidate on Minister of Defense Prabowo Subianto’s ticket indicates his preference. Subuanto competed and lost in the previous presidential elections without accepting defeat, but was later courted by Widodo and given a ministerial assignment.

Elections are also likely to be held in the United Kingdom next year, as the deadline falls in January 2025. The incumbent Conservative Party — languishing in the polls — will face a Labor Party led by Keir Starmer. The difference in economic policy is considerable and there are contrasts in how each party views the U.K.-EU relationship, but a substantial change of course would not be expected regardless of the outcome.

In South Africa — the second-largest economy on the continent — will also hold elections. The African National Congress (ANC) is suffering serious wear-and-tear, having been in power uninterruptedly since 1994. Still, despite serious episodes of corruption, it’s more than possible that Mandela’s party will continue to govern. And in Iran, legislative elections will be held. While power mainly resides with the supreme leader — rather than the president — the polls will be a test for a regime that suffers from popular discontent.

Many other nations will go to the ballot box next year. And they will all be carefully observed from Beijing by Xi Jinping, the leader of a country that doesn’t bother to hold elections, neither real nor farcical ones. The rise of the Asian giant and its relationship with Washington will define our century. For this reason, the elections in the United States and Taiwan are probably the most relevant within the great cycle of elections scheduled for 2024.

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