By Arab News
By Yossi Mekelberg
On the face of it, 2024 should be the biggest celebration of the idea of democracy since the concept was introduced by the Greeks 2,500 years ago. Countries that between them account for more than half of the world’s population — more than 4 billion people — will hold elections in the months ahead. Among them are some of the most populated and influential nations, including the US, the UK, Russia, India and Pakistan.
Yet, as history has taught us, while elections are crucial for the maintenance of the democratic system, simply sending people to polling stations far from guarantees the upholding of democratic principles — never mind the fact that not all of this year’s elections are expected to be free and fair.
Despite welcoming this influx of plebiscites, therefore, we must also be cautious and consider the countries in which elections are likely to be genuine exercises in requesting the voters’ verdict on by whom they would like to be governed for a term set by law, and those in which voting is a mere charade designed to enable dictatorships of varying extremes to pretend, for the sake of perceived legitimacy, that they have popular support.
After all, the quality of the democratic system is measured as much by what happens between elections as during them. Without a robust separation of powers and systems of checks and balances, supported by a vibrant civil society and free media, there is a democratic deficit in the period before and after elections, during which the elected representatives and the executive might accumulate excessive power that could be easily abused.
Generally speaking, the fundamental principle of democracy is that the will of the people is the source of legitimacy in sovereign states. Although there are many models for democracy, at the heart of all can be found the values of critical participation, equality, and rights and freedoms for all. This is unlikely to be the case in all the elections that will take place this year, and in some of them authoritarian elements will, through fear and intimidation, attempt to prevent opponents from exercising their right to stand for election, and/or deny others the right to vote.
Elections are supposed to be a celebration of, and show of respect for, the political will of the people. They are also an opportunity for a society, within a limited period of time and in a focused manner, to be presented with alternative policy options and make an educated choice of whom to vote for.
At their best, elections should represent a time of hope for the electorate so that by making their choices at the ballot box they are helping to ensure a safer and better life for themselves and their families. However, in some of the newer democracies, but also in some of the more-established ones, we can see the cynicism of elected politicians who are serving their own vested interests and not those of their peoples. The consequential erosion of public confidence in the integrity of elections in such nations undermines the legitimacy of those elected to govern, the institutions they oversee and the very principles that constitute the democratic system.
By and large, when elections do not necessarily fulfill what we perceive as their democratic objectives, it is not because they are rigged, which would be an obvious reason, but because the very people who elect their representatives do not trust them. In Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member countries it has been found that less than half of the population trusts their governments. Figures from the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer revealed that more than half of the key economies of the world “actively distrust government, while less than a third of all countries actively trust government.” Elected politicians have also been found to be one of the least-trusted professions.
According to Edelman, trust in government is in decline in all of its aspects, including leadership competence, understanding the fears and concerns of citizens, visionary thinking, decision-making based on facts rather than politics, and many other attributes we expect our leaders to possess.
If elections serve as a some sort of job-selection process, on the basis of this evidence it is a failed process in which voters choose between those they do not think are actually capable of doing the job or, worse, those they deem to be untrustworthy.
The long list of polls in 2024 began with the general election in Bangladesh on Jan. 7, which ended very much as expected, with a fourth consecutive win for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. But it raised a question: What is the point in holding an election when the main opposition is boycotting it and has dismissed the entire exercise as a sham?
Many leaders and supporters of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were arrested, which led to a low voter turnout of 40 percent, compared with 80 percent in the previous election, in 2018. This low turnout, and the alleged harassment of the opposition, leaves the government with a handsome majority but hardly any credibility or legitimacy.
In neighboring Pakistan there is a move in the Senate to delay the elections scheduled for February because of “prevailing security conditions,” as well as expected cold weather.
And then, of course, there is the Russian presidential election, scheduled for March. It is hard to imagine any credible challenger to Vladimir Putin being allowed to run.
However, even the more established liberal democracies, including the US and the UK, that will hold crucial elections this year are experiencing crises. They find themselves facing challenges such as the rise of populism, deep divisions within their societies, and the effects of external interference through the use of social media and artificial intelligence.
Consequently there is less space for the type of constructive debate that might yield a result that best serves the country; instead we see further divisions within societies and, in extreme cases, governments that serve only their own vested interests.
Do not get me wrong, elections are still an important part of the mechanism for maintaining democracy and very much to be desired, and a year in which we will see so many of them promises to whet our political appetite, especially as some of them will be of serious consequence not only for the country involved but the wider world order.
Nevertheless, one needs to avoid the confusion of viewing the holding of an election alone as being democratic, or even representative of the will of the people. In the absence of freedoms and rights, and the mechanisms for safeguarding these principles, elections are a redundant exercise.
• Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at international affairs think thank Chatham House.