In 2024, more than 70 elections will be held in countries with about 4.2 billion people – more than half of the world’s population, which is a record. But even though there is more voting than ever, there is not necessarily more democracy: many elections are neither free nor fair.
Political stability and political progress are under pressure. Political fragmentation will remain a significant trend in Europe as well. Governments will find it increasingly difficult to form stable, functioning majorities, and coalition-ruled countries will likely have to rely on larger multi-party agreements. Decision-making continues to be constrained by the challenges of a minority government (France), instability and internal battles (Germany, Austria), a recent coalition collapse (Netherlands) or a government dependent on the support of several small groups (Spain).
Voters’ dissatisfaction is channelled in elections
Growing dissatisfaction with the political system increases the likelihood that traditional centre-right and centre-left parties will tend to choose some of the more radical policies advocated by the far-right and far-left for their political programs. This trend affects both decision-making and election results. In addition to making the legislative process more complex, political polarisation makes it more difficult to form governments and creates larger multi-party coalitions that can be unstable.
The elections in Belgium in June are one example of this. The far-right is also likely to succeed especially in Austria, where it is expected to enter the government after the September 2024 elections. Polls also show that far-right parties are on track to make significant gains in the June 2024 European Parliament elections. This is likely to affect the EU’s political positions in areas such as immigration, climate change and EU enlargement.
The political frustration of the voters is further increased by the challenging economic situation. High energy prices and the cost of living continue to cause concern, even if real incomes return to growth. Dissatisfaction with the provision of public services persists, even as many governments struggle to improve health care in the aftermath of the pandemic. There is also much disagreement about how to tackle growing illegal immigration and how to speed up the green transition. Some countries see considerable public opposition to green policies. Internally, political parties are also increasingly divided – not least because there is no clear consensus on foreign policy issues such as the Israel-Hamas war, de-risking China and long-term plans for Ukraine.
The most important elections in Europe are in Great Britain, where anti-incumbency sentiment is strong. In theory, the government could postpone the elections until January 2025, but by far the most likely date is the last quarter of 2024. The Conservative Party has been in power for almost 14 years, but the opposition Labor Party leads polls on voting intentions by a margin of almost 20 percentage points. Although this lead is likely to shrink during 2024 as the economy stabilises and inflation slows, Labor is still likely to get a functioning majority.
Outside of Europe, the greatest international interest certainly goes to the United States with its presidential elections. Presidential elections will also be held in Russia in March, but there is already not much doubt about the outcome. As far as Ukraine is concerned, there is still no plan on when the presidential election will be held.
Mozambique’s election cycle began in October
A good example of the challenges of electoral democracy is Mozambique, where the country’s sixth municipal elections were held in October 2023. A total of 22 actors (11 political parties, 8 lists of independent candidates, 3 coalitions) nominated candidates, but only the three largest parties (Frelimo, Renamo, MDM) were believed to have realistic chances of becoming elected. The ruling party Frelimo was declared to have won the elections overwhelmingly, as according to initial information it won in 64 municipalities and MDM in one. The second largest party in the parliament, Renamo, did not get a majority in any municipality based on the initial data. Previously, Renamo had a majority in eight of the then 53 municipalities.
The elections have been followed by demonstrations and petitions and demands to revise the election result, as election fraud is believed to have occurred widely. The Constitutional Court has indeed corrected the results, as a result of which, at the time of writing this blog, Renamo has obtained a majority in four municipalities. In addition, re-elections have been ordered in one other municipality and partial re-elections in three, which may still bring more election victories to Renamo. However, Renamo has expressed its dissatisfaction and says it won in still more municipalities.
The municipal elections started Mozambique’s election cycle that continues in 2024, during which a new president, representatives of the provincial assemblies and members of parliament will be elected. Instead, local elections have continued to be postponed due to ambiguities related to their mandate and budgeting. They were supposed to choose local councils, the creation of which has been a requirement of the opposition party Renamo. It was hoped that the local councils would bring diversity to the country’s governing bodies, which are dominated by Frelimo.
Disinformation may impact elections
In connection with the publication of the action plan of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization UNESCO this fall, the research company IPSOS conducted an opinion poll for UNESCO, in which more than 8,000 respondents participated in 16 countries where elections will be held in 2024. The results of the poll show that 85 percent of citizens are concerned about the effects of online disinformation at a time when social media platforms have become the primary source of information for the vast majority of them.
The same survey shows that 87 percent of citizens believe that this disinformation has already had a major impact on their country’s political life and fear that it will affect the election results next year. As a result, 88 percent of respondents call on governments and authorities to quickly solve this problem by regulating social media.
Access to reliable information is essential for democracy, because without it, citizens cannot make informed choices when voting in elections. The constantly developing artificial intelligence can also bring new rounds to election-related disinformation. Very realistic image, video or audio manipulations are increasingly difficult to identify and can erode trust even further. The super year of elections 2024 will show how well the authorities, social media platforms and traditional media succeed in combating electoral interference and disinformation. Citizens, whose media literacy is key in assessing the reliability of information, also have a role to play.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Demo Finland.