Democracy, or the rule of the people, first surfaced in ancient Greece around the 5th century BC. From the Greek dēmokratía, (dēmos 'people' and kratos ‘rule'), it was seen as an alternative to aristocracy or aristokratía, meaning "rule of an elite". It is the system of government that we have fought wars to preserve and yet in 2024 it may be put to its strongest ever test, for this year, over 3.8 billion people, or nearly half the world’s population, will go to the polls.

Elections are due not only in the UK, but across the whole of the EU and in major nations like Russia, India, Bangladesh, Mexico, Taiwan and Indonesia. Can democracy survive or have we reached a tipping point where the rule of the elite, or autocracy, takes its place?


The Herald: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have called for close foreign policy co-ordination (Sergei Guneyev/ Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP)Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping have called for close foreign policy co-ordination (Sergei Guneyev/ Sputnik/Kremlin Pool/AP) (Image: free)

President Joe Biden has made the preservation of democracy the central plank of his election platform. This month he told a public meeting in Pennsylvania that Donald Trump was guilty of an “assault on democracy” by his tacit support for the January 6, 2021 insurrection, when mobs attacked Capitol Hill.

Yet Trump, who has been impeached by Congress and criminally indicted by a federal grand jury for his role in seeking to overturn the result of the 2020 election, looks on course to return to power in the US elections in November.

On Monday, he won more than 50% of the vote in Iowa in the biggest win in caucus history - despite 91 criminal charges and other legal entanglements.

Trump’s possible re-election has rung alarm bells across the EU, where his threats to withdraw from NATO and turn his back on Ukraine are music to the ears of Vladimir Putin, who stands for re-election as Russian President in March. Although 15 individuals including six self-nominated candidates (independents) and nine party representatives have registered as candidates, the outcome of the Russian poll is already clear.

Trump’s pal Putin will be returned as president with an eye-popping majority. The most prominent member of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, having survived assassination attempts, has been moved to a Siberian gulag. Putin has ensured his main adversary can pose no threat to his landslide re-election. The candidates permitted to run against him are for show only, in this ludicrously fraudulent mockery of democracy.

But Vladimir Putin will not be alone in ruthlessly exploiting the trappings of democracy in a bid to fool the voters into legitimising bogus elections.

In Iran, the ageing and dangerously delusional Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, holds ultimate power and does not require the indignity of public votes to retain his repressive rule as a theocratic dictator. The process will begin, however, to prepare for a new presidential election, with the appointment by Khamenei of a 12-man Guardian Council, whose job is to vet candidates running for office, ensuring that only the person hand-picked by the Supreme Leader can win.

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In 2021, this led to the summary rejection of various high-profile figures and the ultimate election as president of Ebrahim Raisi, dubbed The Butcher of Tehran for his notorious role as an executioner during the 1988 massacre of more than 30,000 political prisoners, mostly supporters of the main democratic opposition movement the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). Nevertheless, Raisi looks likely to be Khamenei’s candidate of choice once again for re-election as Iranian president.

In Europe, the 27 member states go to the polls in June, with a surge of support for some of the more extreme right-wing parties causing concern. In France, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party is likely to do well, as will the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) party in Germany and Geert Wilder’s Party for Freedom in the Netherlands.

The far right grew from having 5% of MEPs during the European Parliament’s 2014-2019 session, to 10% today. Such parties tend to be anti-Muslim and more sympathetic to the Kremlin. They look set to double their numbers yet again in June, undermining the basic linchpins of European democracy.

Presidential elections in Taiwan on January 13 were won by the pro-autonomy candidate William Lai Ching-te, inflaming tensions with Beijing. It now remains a question whether China’s President Xi Jinping will continue to tolerate a democracy on the island or will invade and precipitate a major security crisis in the South China Sea, potentially drawing in the US which has pledged to defend Taiwan against Chinese aggression.

With the ongoing wars in Gaza and Ukraine, the West would find it difficult to deal with a third major conflict. President Xi will be only too well aware of this and may feel a window of opportunity has opened for him to mount an all-out assault on the heavily populated island which has a population of 24 million.


The Herald: Nigel Farage in Iowa with the Trump teamNigel Farage in Iowa with the Trump team (Image: free)

On June 2, some 98 million Mexicans will have the opportunity to vote for a new president. For the first time in history, Mexico has two female candidates as frontrunners for this role. The ruling Morena coalition candidate is Claudia Sheinbaum. Her main opponent is Xochitel Galvez, representing the Frente Amplio coalition, formed by an ideologically diverse array of parties.

In a country where 80% of the wealth is held by 10% of the population, poverty and inequality is a major issue. The outcome of the election will determine if Mexicans want to protect and extend their democracy, or lurch towards an autocratic regime like some of their Latin American neighbours. A recent survey found that 33 per cent of Mexicans would rather have an authoritarian regime, while 28 per cent are indifferent. This means that 61 per cent of Mexicans are willing to stand by as democratic norms are weakened.

The weakening of democracy has also been a factor in India where, after eight years in power, Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP government has imposed pressure on human rights groups, intimidated journalists and activists, and allowed a deterioration of political and civil liberties in the country. India has, in the eyes of some pundits, became an electoral autocracy, marking a sharp fall from the upper ranks of free and democratic nations.

It is a worrying trend. According to recent research, 72 percent of the world’s population, or 5.7 billion people, were living under autocratic rule at the end of 2022. It remains to be seen whether democracy will shrink even further after this year’s spate of elections.

Struan Stevenson represented Scotland in the European Parliament from 1999 to 2014 for the Conservative Party. He was vice president of the European People’s Party/European Democrats (EPP/ED) Group 2004-2009.