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The world's most interesting elections of 2024 and what’s to come

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's about halftime in the world's biggest year of elections. Here's a few stats. More than 60 countries have national elections this year, including the world's four largest democracies. More than half the world's population lives in countries that are choosing new leaders this year. Now, democracy around the world has been declining for well over a decade. So where do things stand at the halfway mark? NPR's Frank Langfitt covers global democracy. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Hey, Ari. How are you?

SHAPIRO: Good. So if we look at this year as a contest between democracy and autocracy, as you look around the world at countries that have voted so far in the first six months, which side is ahead at halftime?

LANGFITT: You know, democracy is doing pretty well, Ari. Many of elections that we've been seeing, they're competitive and uncertain, which is a good sign. It means that autocrats, even as they try to sort of tilt the playing field, they haven't been able to rig the votes. And we've also seen some really interesting bright spots. You know, one was Senegal. The government there tried to delay elections. The constitutional council overruled that. And then, in sort of like a cinematic story, this little-known opposition politician, he'd been in prison, he gets out, and he wins the presidency.

SHAPIRO: Well, are there less-uplifting stories where autocracy prevailed over democracy?

LANGFITT: Of course. I mean, that's been a theme for quite some time. I guess one of the best examples would be El Salvador. Eyder Peralta, our correspondent in Mexico and Central America, has done a lot of good reporting on this. This president, Nayib Bukele, he calls himself the world's coolest dictator. The constitution didn't allow him to run for a consecutive term. But he's got these buddies on a powerful court. They cleared the way for him. He wins in a landslide.

And so much of this, Ari, has to do with the fact that Bukele was able to slash the country's homicide rate. And he did that by putting 76,000 people in prison in this big gang crackdown. So most voters there were a lot more interested in security and their own, you know, their own personal welfare than the constitution. This is a guy named Eddie Ramirez. He spoke to Eyder last year outside the Capitol, San Salvador.

EDDIE RAMIREZ: (Through interpreter) I congratulate the president and the security forces, especially because those working in security are the ones putting their lives on the line for us.

LANGFITT: And, you know, Ari, of course, there's been concern about democratic backsliding in countries like Indonesia. This is the world's third-largest democracy, and it's been a pretty upbeat story over the last 10, 20 years. But Prabowo Subianto - he's a former army special forces commander who's been accused of human rights abuses - he won the presidency, and the way that he did it, his running mate was the outgoing president's son, so it felt very dynastic. The president's son was too young to run. But again, a constitutional court cleared the way for him to stand for office. And the last thing I'll say is, you got to remember, they're major powers that hold elections, but they aren't free or fair. And a great example of that, of course, this year is Russia.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. So if you're describing a mixed scorecard with a slight advantage for democracy, is there evidence that voters are motivated specifically by threats to democracy, as we've seen democratic norms and ideals erode over the last decade-plus?

LANGFITT: You know, Ari, analysts think it's a lot more complicated than that. You've got these big countries, and just like in the U.S., a lot of it is driven by domestic factors, like, say, the economy versus, say, an idea or a principle like democracy. India is a really good example. It's the world's largest democracy, has this increasingly autocratic prime minister, Narendra Modi. But analysts think that Modi's party, the reason they lost the majority in Parliament this year was really about economics. You know, India is now the world's fifth-largest economy, but inequality is at the greatest level since the British ran the country. That said, what was also really interesting is Indian minorities, they include Muslims, they were energized to go to the polls. And that's because Modi's a Hindu nationalist, so they very much saw, you know, his rule as against their interests.

SHAPIRO: So if people are not being motivated by a decision between democracy and autocracy, is there some overarching pattern? Is there a throughline you can identify across the election so far this year?

LANGFITT: Yeah, absolutely, and that's unhappiness with incumbents. Like, let's look at South Africa. After 30 years, the African National Congress, they were dealt a historic defeat. They lost their majority as well. The big reasons - the domestic performance was really bad, high unemployment, rising crime, water and electricity shortages.

We have the U.K. election coming up. You and I both covered the United Kingdom. Polls there show that conservatives could lose more than half their seats in Parliament after 14 years in power. And that's because many people feel the Tories have just run the country into the ground. More than 4 in 5 people in a recent poll think public services there are in really bad shape. Now, I was talking to a guy named Steve Levitsky. He's a co-author of that famous book, "How Democracies Die." And he says all of this is part of a much broader pattern in the West in recent years. Here's how he put it.

STEVE LEVITSKY: By and large, people are unhappy with their governments, much more unhappy with their governments than they were 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. So with some exceptions, being incumbent is increasingly a disadvantage.

LANGFITT: And the problem we're seeing in many places, especially here in the United States as well, is inflation, growing inequality, declining social mobility. And there's also, in some countries, a growing frustration, discomfort with immigration and cultural diversity. So this all is kind of coming together, making it harder and harder for incumbents to stay in office.

SHAPIRO: Well, if incumbency is such a drag worldwide, what does that imply for democracy?

LANGFITT: That's a really good question. Levitsky says he doesn't think it's good at all. It creates opening for populists who don't have much experience and tend to have pretty simplistic solutions. This is what he said.

LEVITSKY: It concerns me a lot because outsiders, they're almost invariably - in fact, by definition, they're inexperienced. Usually, these guys either have authoritarian instincts or they're just really bad and incompetent.

LANGFITT: So while democracy seems to be doing pretty well so far this year, there's still a lot of concerns about where the backlash against incumbents could lead.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Frank Langfitt. Thank you.

LANGFITT: Hey - great to talk, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.