While we could be forgiven for thinking 2024 will be all about American democracy, this year is in fact a big one for democracies across the world, writes Dr Emma Shortis.
When US President Joe Biden said that this year, “democracy is on the ballot”, he was more on the money than he possibly knew. But while we could be forgiven for thinking 2024 will be all about American democracy, this year is in fact a big one for democracies across the world. Depending on how you do the maths, somewhere between two and four billion people will head to the polls.
So according to Vox, 2024 will be “the biggest election year in history”; according to Time Magazine, it’s “a make-or-break year for democracy worldwide”; and according to the Economist, it will be “a nerve-wracking and dangerous year.” You get the picture!
From Algeria to Venezuela, democratic and not-so democratic countries are holding elections. Many of them will have critical implications for Australia, our allies, and our region.
Viewed from Australia, these are the ones to watch.
For a little while, the Biden administration took to describing the US-India relationship as a friendship between the world’s “oldest” and the world’s “biggest” democracies. Since 2020, both the Albanese government and the Biden administration have pursued deeper security relationships with India, both bilaterally and through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the Quad). According to the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, “India and Australia have never been closer.” Twelve Australian Ministers visited India in 2023 (including the PM).
For the West, this pursuit of deeper and broader ties with India is motivated by an increasingly hawkish view of China and the need to “counter” its rise. On the surface, India does seem to fit into Biden’s framing of the world as engaged in a “battle between democracy and autocracy”. In both the United States and Australia, deepening ties with India have consistently been framed as the coming together of “like-minded countries” which are together “anchored by democratic values”.
But are they? As experts are pointing out, as it moves into an election year, Indian democracy is under significant pressure.
According to one expert, in India, “The hallmarks of fascism are everywhere.” India today is marked by increasing violence, oppression of the free press, and discrimination. The writer Arundhati Roy has described elections in India as “a season of murder, lynching and dog-whistling – the most dangerous time for India’s minorities, Muslims and Christians in particular.”
Modi’s allies, including the United States and Australia, have turned a blind eye to what Roy describes as the “dismantling of democracy in India”. Worse, their courtship of Modi has boosted his credibility. The flattening of security discourse into a simplistic binary of “autocracies versus democracies” has simultaneously excused and encouraged rising authoritarian populism in India. To again quote Roy: “the world’s powers choose to give Modi all the oxygen he needs to destroy the social fabric and burn India down.”
While both the Biden administration and the Albanese government have gone a little quiet on India, the “quiet diplomacy” approach they have favoured – including in the aftermath of an apparent extrajudicial assassination in Canada – suggests not much will change if Modi remains in power.
Australia’s Nelsonian eye approach to Modi’s violent Hindu nationalism entails significant risks, highlighted by recent events – and the risk of Australia being badly caught out by this approach appear to be increasing.
Others to watch:
The Russian presidential “election” (ha!) will be held on the 17th March. Vladimir Putin is seeking a fifth term in office.
The Solomon Islands will hold elections by April. Due in November last year, they were delayed to accommodate November 2023 Pacific Games. Australian police were there to provide additional security for the Games, and will now stay on for the election.
South Korea holds legislative elections on the 10th of April. Already marked by a shocking violent attack on opposition Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung, these will be important elections watched closely by the United States and Australia.
The European Parliament holds its elections from the 6-9 June. Amid growing concerns over the appeal of far-right parties across Europe, a cost-of-living crisis, yet another migration scare campaign, and damage to the European project by two catastrophic wars, these elections will provide some indication of where the politics of Europe might be headed.
In his election campaigning, Donald Trump has doubled down on an old position: he’s now promising to shut both the US’s southern border with Mexico and the northern border with Canada. Both of those neighbours are holding their own elections soon: Mexico on the 2nd of June, and Canada must hold its elections before the 20th of October. In a historical first, it looks like Mexico will also elect its first woman president. In Canada, PM Justin Trudeau is seeking a fourth term in government.
Our old chums in the United Kingdom may also hold elections sometime this year – they’re due no later than the 28th January 2025.
And let’s not forget, of course, the US Presidential elections on Guy Fawkes’ Day and the months of political frenzy that will precede it.
As Samuel L Jackson would say, hold on to your butts.
2024 is Election Year – Results Update
Taiwan, 13 January
Taiwan has long been regarded as a potential geopolitical flashpoint for US-China relations. Given our geography and our relationships with both of those big powers, Taiwan is an important consideration for Australia, too.
On the 13th of January, Taiwan held democratic elections for the presidency, vice presidency and the legislative assembly. 14 million people went to the polls – an impressive voter turnout of over 70%.
Former Vice President William Lai Ching-te won the presidency for the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), which now has a historic third term in office. Lai’s vice-presidential running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, was also victorious. The new president will be inaugurated on May 20.
In the legislature, though, the DPP lost its outright majority – it now has 51 seats to opposition party the Kuomintang’s (KMT) 52. The Taiwan Peoples’ Party (TPP) gained three seats, bringing its total up to eight and making it a decisive player in negotiations.
Unsurprisingly, especially in international coverage, China loomed large over this election. In the lead up, there was a quite a lot of handwringing and angst, and quite a few dramatic predictions, about what the result would mean for great power competition.
The DPP and its supporters were concerned about Chinese influence – there is evidence of Chinese efforts to influence public opinion via mediums like TikTok (importantly, there is no public evidence of interference, which is a different thing).
In its time in power, the DPP has largely focused on coalition building and military deterrence and defence. During the campaign, opposition party the Kuomintang (KMT) argued that the DPP has escalated tensions. The third party, the Taiwan Peoples’ Party (TPP), tried to walk a middle line.
But as the election drew closer, the focus shifted away from cross-strait relations and onto issues such as the cost of living. In fact, the people of Taiwan seem less worried about China than Australia and the United States. Beijing isn’t exactly pleased with another DPP victory, but there’s no reason to predict catastrophe.
As Lai put it after his election win, “The election has shown the world the commitment of the Taiwanese people to democracy, which I hope China can understand.”
From an Australian perspective, it’s worth remembering that there are complex, democratic conversations about cross-strait relations happening in Taiwan that we must respect. Widely-held and publicised assumptions about how China will respond are not particularly helpful and risk further entrenching the (false) sense that the west is in an existential end game with China – the inevitable result of which must be violence.
While this is an important election for Taiwan and the world, it’s also important to take a breath and not get sucked into more damaging, binary thinking about China.
Tuvalu, 26 January
The small Pacific state of Tuvalu went to the polls on the 26 January to elect 16 members to its unicameral parliament. Those 16 members will then elect a new prime minister via majority vote.
Several weeks later, those newly elected lawmakers have been unable to meet to choose a new leader, delayed by bad weather – yet another indication of the significant impact of climate change on the Pacific.
The Australian government has no doubt been watching this election and its aftermath very closely, given that it was at least in part a referendum on the Australia-Tuvalu Falepili Union signed by then-Prime Minister Kausea Natano and Australian PM Anthony Albanese in November 2023.
That treaty was widely criticised for the way it arguably ceded Tuvaluan sovereignty to Australia – Article 4 of the treaty says that “Tuvalu shall mutually agree with Australia any partnership, arrangement or engagement with any other State or entity on security and defence-related matters.” It has also been criticised because while the agreement does recognise climate change as a security threat and promises sanctuary to some Tuvaluan climate refugees, it does so even as Australia keeps on expanding its use and export of fossil fuels.
Tellingly, the now-former PM Kausea Natano lost his seat in the election.
Another former Prime Minister, Enele Sopoaga, who is vying for the leadership again, has called the Treaty a “bucket of dirt” that should never have been signed. Sopoaga also described the agreement as an attempt to “buy silence over Australia’s coal exports”.
The Australian government is developing a record of misjudging Pacific politics in this way. A similar process played out recently in Vanuatu, where the new Prime Minister is busy re-writing the Australia-Vanuatu Security Pact.
While what little coverage there is of Tuvalu in Australia has reduced the result to the familiar, tired binary of “will they or won’t they switch diplomatic recognition to Beijing”, Australia’s relationship with Tuvalu and other Pacific states might benefit from a more nuanced approach.
Indonesia, 14 February
Valentine’s Day had special significance this year. Charismatic Indonesian President Joko Widodo is stepping down from the leadership of our largest neighbour. Who will replace him matters.
Dubbed “Indonesia’s Obama” during his first campaign, Jokowi has enjoyed consistently high approval ratings since his election in 2014. In June, the Japan Times argued that “his political skills remain unrivaled in Indonesia.”
Jokowi is probably best known outside Indonesia for starting the process of relocating Indonesia’s capital, building a new city called Nusantara on Borneo. He also has ambitions plans to make Indonesia a high-income country and an OECD member – summed up as “Golden Indonesia” (Indonesia Emas) by 2045.
Like the United States and Taiwan, Indonesia limits presidents to two (in this case 5 year) terms. Also like the US, experts are concerned by ‘democratic regression’ and the undermining of democratic institutions in Indonesia. The country has been labelled a ‘fragile democracy’ by some experts.
In what the Guardian described as “the biggest single-day election in the world,” over 200 million registered voters were eligible to go the polls to elect a new president, vice president, and People’s Consultative Assembly at both national and regional levels.
While official results could take up to a month to come through, early indications are that Jokowi’s former Defence Minister, Prabowo Subianto, won easily – AP reports with somewhere between 57 and 59% of the vote.
Subianto, who ran for the Gerindra Party (the second largest in Parliament), is Jokowi’s former political enemy. He has been linked to the worst excesses of the Suharto regime – like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was once barred from entering the United States because of those allegations. He has always denied wrongdoing.
In another twist, 72 year-old Prabowo’s successful vice presidential candidate is Jokowi’s 36-year-old son Gibran Rakabuming Raka. That required a controversial Constitutional Court decision to waive the usual 40 year age threshold, and for Gibran to jump parties. The move boosted Prabowo in the polls. Experts in democratic accountability and Indonesian domestic politics have questioned the court decision – one of the judges is Jokowi’s brother-in-law – and argued that this is about Jokowi attempting to build a political dynasty.
During the campaign, Jokowi threw his weight behind Prabowo and his son, switching his support from his own party’s candidate. That might have been a gesture to keep the military off his back, or as some have suggested, a bid to open the way for his son.
Director of the Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs program, Allan Behm, has more on the Indonesian elections here.
From the Australian perspective, the role of Indonesia’s military and defence is an important aspect to watch. Under Jokowi, Indonesia has been cautiously supportive of the AUKUS nuclear submarine pact. In December last year, Jokowi approved a whopping 20% increase in Indonesia’s defence budget, from $20.75 billion to $25 billion. This increase has arguably been invoked partly by the machinations of the Quad and the increasing, dangerous securitisation of our region. Prabowo is likely to continue this trend.
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