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Distrust in elections spreads in democracies around the world

A survey conducted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance shows that, in 11 of 19 countries analyzed, less than half of voters think that the last elections were free and fair

Dos votantes en las presidenciales de Senegal, en un colegio electoral de Dakar
Two voters cast ballots in the presidential elections in Senegal, at a polling station in the capital of Dakar, on March 24, 2024.Anadolu (Anadolu via Getty Images)
Sara Velert

Distrust in the cleanliness of electoral processes, dissatisfaction with government management and a negative view of judicial systems: these are just some of the perceptions that citizens have about how democracy functions. The findings come from the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), which conducted a survey of voters in 19 countries on five continents between July of 2023 and January of this year.

In a statement, Kevin Casas-Zamora — the secretary general of International IDEA — emphasizes that the report is “a wake-up call for democracies.” He points out that governments “must respond to the skepticism of their [electorates]” and improve public administration by combating a “growing culture of misinformation that has fostered false accusations against credible elections.”

The survey was carried out in the three largest democracies in the world — Brazil, India and the United States — as well as in countries such as Denmark, Lithuania, Iraq, Colombia, Chile, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Taiwan. In total, the countries analyzed represent around a third of the world’s population. This was the first time that the organization focused on perceptions of democracy.

According to data from the study, in 11 of the 19 countries, less than half of those surveyed felt that the last elections were “free and fair.” That is, more than half express doubts about the cleanliness of the electoral process. This was the case in countries such as the United States, Romania, Taiwan, or Colombia. “This particular survey cannot tell us with certainty what the reasons are… but we know from our other [research projects] that there are many things that contribute to diminishing faith in elections,” explains Seema Shah, the head of International IDEA’s Democracy Assessment (DA) Unit, in a telephone conversation with EL PAÍS from Stockholm. She mentions that doubts about the independence of electoral authorities, or irregularities in the voting stations are some of the concerns that voters expressed.

The political scientist emphasizes that certain problems — such as campaign financing, or “fair coverage of the electoral landscape by the media” — “haven’t been sufficiently addressed for decades.” This affects voters’ perceptions of the democratic process. She adds that “there are high-level political leaders who spread disinformation about elections.” An example is Donald Trump’s campaign regarding the alleged theft of the elections that he lost against Joe Biden in 2020. Among many Americans (47%), “there’s general distrust in the elections because — even without evidence — there’s a leader who pushes these types of false statements.” Shah highlights that “misinformation has always been present. The problem now is that it’s much easier to spread it to a large number of people and to do it quickly. And I think that definitely has an impact.”

The report by International IDEA also points out the differences in the responses regarding how clean elections are, depending on whether the respondent’s party or candidate won. This divergence stands out in countries such as Brazil (a spread of 37 points) or the United States (47 points). In these cases, the stark level of partisan influence is related to the political discourse of Trump and former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.

The countries where voters are most confident in their electoral systems are Denmark and Tanzania, with more than 70% of those surveyed offering positive responses. Pakistan is at the bottom, with less than 20%. When it comes to the opinion of minorities — also analyzed in the report — they tend to distrust elections more than majority groups. However, in countries such as Brazil, Gambia and Italy, minority groups actually tend to have greater faith in these processes.

In conclusion, Shah highlights that “people want to participate more in political processes around the world. They want more mechanisms to be able to participate and give their opinions.”

The survey also evaluates the perception of judicial systems. In 18 of the 19 countries, less than half of people surveyed (about 1,500 per country) believe that courts “always” or “often” provide access to justice. Only in Denmark does a positive perception predominate. Lithuania comes “a distant second, with only 34% of respondents believing that courts ‘always’ or ‘often’ provide access to justice.” However, “countries as different as Italy, Lebanon, the United States and the Solomon Islands have similar levels of trust,” while Colombians have a “notably [negative outlook]” in this regard, with only 7.5% having faith in the judicial system.

Differences surrounding freedom of expression

Freedom of expression obtained better marks on Perceptions of Democracy: A Survey about How People Assess Democracy around the World. A slight majority of respondents believe that they can speak freely in almost all the countries analyzed, albeit with a perception equal to or below 50% in the United States, Brazil, Romania, Colombia, Senegal and Pakistan. The perception among minorities “differs significantly” – sometimes for the better, sometimes for worse – “from that of majority populations.”

In this section, attention is drawn to the negative evaluation of these minority groups (14-point difference from the majority) in Denmark and Chile, as well as the somewhat less negative perception in Lithuania and Taiwan. IDEA highlights that “it should be noted that the minorities who feel more limited [when it comes to expressing themselves] in relation to the majority population are found in some of the countries with the best [overall] results.”

In relation to gender, differences in freedom of expression on sensitive topics are “clearly observable between men and women” and “in almost all countries, women feel less able to speak freely in public than men.” This disparity is “especially marked” in Iraq, Senegal and the Solomon Islands.

Another chapter of the report focuses on asking respondents whether or not they’re receptive to the idea of a “strong leader” who wants to act beyond legislatures and electoral results. IDEA points out that the responses “make it clear that living in a strong democracy doesn’t guarantee the rejection of non-democratic leaders.” For instance, in Denmark, a quarter of respondents have some degree of favorable sentiment towards the notion of a strongman.

Only in six countries (Denmark, Colombia, Italy, South Korea, Taiwan and the United States) a majority declares “unfavorable feelings” about the idea. However, no country has a majority that is “extremely unfavorable” to undemocratic leaders. In the case of Gambia or Iraq, there are more respondents with a positive rather than negative view of a “strong leader.” The report clarifies that, in the case of Iraq, this isn’t so much because of a nostalgic memory of the Saddam Hussein era (1979-2003) – rather, it’s because of the current instability within the country.

“For some people, it’s attractive to have a leader who can just get things done quickly, without having to bother with institutions. And that’s actually one of the ways that democracy is really threatened, because if you work with democratic institutions, it takes a lot longer to get consensus to get something going, whereas if you don’t you have to deal with agreement and consensus, you can do whatever you want. The most important point is that we have to remember that democracy — or democratic institutions and leaders — aren’t an obvious good for everyone,” Shah admits.

Given the results regarding institutions and fundamental rights in democracy, “it’s perhaps not surprising that citizens are more dissatisfied than satisfied” with their national governments in the majority of the countries analyzed. In 17 of the 19 countries, less than half of the population is happy with their government. Only in India — where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has high approval ratings — and Tanzania do a majority of those surveyed approve of the federal government, while in Romania and Lebanon, satisfaction is only around 9%. Similarly, in countries such as Colombia or Italy, satisfaction doesn’t reach even 20%.

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