The Mounting Damage of Flawed Elections and Armed Conflict

Freedom of the World 2024

Global freedom declined for the 18th consecutive year in 2023. The scope and scale of deterioration were extensive, affecting one-fifth of the world’s population. Everywhere, the downturn in rights was driven by attacks on pluralism—the peaceful coexistence of people with different political ideas, religions, or ethnic identities—that harmed elections and sowed violence. These intensifying assaults on a core feature of democracy reinforce the urgent need to support the groups and individuals, including human rights defenders and journalists, who are on the front lines of the struggle for freedom worldwide.

Choosing democracy in 2024

The rejection of pluralism by authoritarian leaders and armed groups during 2023 produced repression, violence, and a steep decline in overall freedom. This year, voters around the world will be asked to embrace democracy despite the countervailing forces of division and exclusion. The results of these elections will shape the international environment for years to come.


Citizens of South Africa, once a beacon of democratic hope, will go to the polls this summer. The African National Congress (ANC) has governed without interruption since 1994 but now faces serious challenges, including rising violent crime, xenophobia, high youth unemployment, and insufficient accountability for corruption. Thirty years after antiapartheid leader Nelson Mandela came to power, 70 percent of South Africans are dissatisfied with the way that democracy is working, according to the survey group Afrobarometer.


India’s elections will take place within a media landscape characterized by increasing legal attacks on critical journalists and outlets, the spread of internet troll farms, and the use of sophisticated spyware against reporters, civic activists, and opposition politicians. During the campaign, potential voters may receive bigoted information from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party through social media, which could further inflame already destructive ethnic and religious hatreds.


In the United States, harassment and intimidation of federal, state, and local politicians, election administrators, and judges pose a serious challenge to the conduct of November’s presidential election. Threats of violence can have far-reaching, harmful effects, potentially undermining compliance with election rules or deterring participation entirely. Actual violence related to political disputes can and has cost people their lives. Still haunted by the January 2021 attack on the Capitol and related court cases, Americans are heading into a decisive election starkly divided, with some questioning the very utility of fundamental democratic institutions.

The conduct of national elections in South Africa, India, and the United States, three of the most influential democracies in the world, will have ripple effects across the globe, with implications for international trade, interstate relations, and movements for freedom in authoritarian settings. But other electoral contests will also have important consequences.


In June, elections for the European Parliament will be held in 27 member states, and the new legislators will elect the president of the European Commission. The current president, Ursula von der Leyen, has been an important supporter of Ukraine’s efforts to repel Moscow’s full-scale invasion.


The United Kingdom is likely to hold its first general elections since the completion of Brexit, its departure from the European Union in 2020. Both the EU and the UK continue to grapple with the issue of migration and have increasingly sought deals with authoritarian leaders that are meant to prevent the irregular entry of migrants and asylum seekers.

Two autocrats at the center of such deals, Tunisian president Kaïs Saied and Rwandan president Paul Kagame, will themselves seek new terms in deeply flawed contests set to take place in 2024.

All this voting will proceed in a global context that has become increasingly hostile to the sort of respect for different political, religious, and ethnic identities that sustain a democratic society. Over the past decade or more, many democracies have shirked their responsibility as stewards of the international system, failing to condemn coups, work for the peaceful resolution of destabilizing conflicts, and prevent abject repression in places like Afghanistan, China, Iran, and Russia from growing ever worse. In some countries, elections have elevated illiberal leaders who dismantle democratic institutions from within. Amid isolationist and discriminatory rhetoric, democratic governments and citizens may be tempted to wall themselves off from these challenges.

But free people and free nations are stronger together, and easier prey for authoritarians on their own. It is only by upholding inclusive principles at home, supporting those on the front lines of the struggle abroad, and building robust international partnerships based on shared values that democracies can reverse the global decline in freedom.

Flawed elections and armed conflict contributed to the 18th year of democratic decline according to the Freedom House organization. But by drawing strength from diversity, protecting dissent, and building international coalitions to support their own norms and values, democratic forces can still reverse the long decline in global freedom.


Sources: reprinted from Freedom House