2024 is a big election year around the globe. Will democracy win?
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
2024 is an extraordinary year for elections around the world - India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and of course, the United States. A huge swath of the globe will vote in national elections. What might these elections say about the strength or frailty of democracy? We're joined now by NPR correspondents from around the world. Eyder Peralta is in Mexico City, Diaa Hadid in Mumbai, India, and Frank Langfitt, NPR's global democracy correspondent, in Washington, D.C. Let me thank you all for being with us. Thank you.
EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Great to be here, Scott.
SIMON: Frank, let's begin with a sense of the significance of this year and some of what you'll be alert for.
LANGFITT: Yeah. I think this year, as you're pointing out - it's the biggest one for elections that anybody can remember. It's at least 70 countries, billions of voters eligible. And it's not just the numbers, Scott. It's the context. This is coming when democracy has been in decline for the last 17 years. That's according to Freedom House, a think tank here in D.C. You're seeing more and more disinformation campaigns, the specter of AI. And I think what you hear is people are very nervous about the integrity of elections. And there's also a concern that parties may win democratically and then turn around and actually try to undermine the democratic systems and the checks and balances in those countries. So I think people are going to be watching this year incredibly closely.
SIMON: Let me turn to you now, Diaa and Eyder. How do you see these issues in the part of the world you cover?
PERALTA: Well, look, I feel like the conversation in my patch has moved on from the mechanics of elections - first, because the bad guys have become super sophisticated. They've gotten really good at playing the democracy game, at rigging elections through legal maneuvers or with lots of money. And the U.S. and the international community have often gone along, said those elections were good enough. But people have also grown disillusioned with the democratic process because it hasn't fixed some of the most pressing problems in Latin America. And this is among the most unequal regions in the world. And so many countries in Latin America are facing awful insecurity. And I think that's when leaders like the president of El Salvador emerge.
Nayib Bukele doesn't pretend to be a Democrat. He's running for relection in February, despite the fact that the Constitution clearly doesn't allow reelection. But the latest polls show that Salvadorans don't care. You know, why is that? Because he solved - during his first term, he solved one of the biggest problems they had. He threw nearly 70,000 people in jail with either no legal process or an inadequate legal process. And that meant that Salvadorans were no longer being extorted, and they're no longer being killed by gangs on the streets. So, you know, there's a saying that I keep hearing here in Central America, and they say, we can't eat democracy. And so those democratic norms that the West obsesses over doesn't mean much in people's regular lives.
SIMON: Diaa Hadid, what about South Asia?
DIAA HADID, BYLINE: It's interesting, what Eyder is saying. This is the world's most populous region, and it's largely, on paper, democratic. It has institutions bequeathed to it by the British, who once colonized this region. And here we've got three giants voting, or having voted, this year - Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. And what we see is each country is upholding elections, but there's an erosion of democratic standards. And it kind of echoes what Eyder is saying in the sense of the mechanics might be all right, but what happens in between those elections is key.
In fact, though, if I jump to Bangladesh first, where there are elections in early January, there was a wide-ranging crackdown on the opposition before people went out to vote. And, in fact, citizens were treated to the specter of the ruling party competing against itself and obviously winning. In Pakistan, where critics say the military hold ultimate power, there's also been a crackdown on what appears to be the most popular party, which is led by the former prime minister, Imran Khan. But elections are still happening, you see.
SIMON: I have to ask, is the U.S., given the events of January 6, 2021, and subsequent investigations, still consider to be a kind of living example of democracy across the globe?
LANGFITT: Scott, no, I don't think so. People follow American politics extremely closely around the world, but especially in Europe, where I last reported. And with the majority of Republicans supporting Trump, a man who lied about winning the election, tried to overturn those legitimate results, that would be sort of the definition of being antidemocratic. And so I think people are watching this election very, very closely to see what happens. You know, will there be another attempt to try to overturn the results. Or if Americans in the end vote for Donald Trump and he wins, this is someone who's been pretty clear that there are a number of democratic norms that he wants no part of.
PERALTA: I think it becomes even more complicated. I mean, the dysfunction of American democracy has really given antidemocratic forces a lifeline, but it's what's also happened after January 6. And I'll take you back to El Salvador because El Salvador, it's a huge deal here in Latin America. People look at it as a model. And President Bukele in El Salvador consistently says, look at the U.S. and look how human rights groups and the United States criticized me for going after the opposition. But right now, the United States is prosecuting a former president and the leading presidential candidate for the Republican Party in Donald Trump. And so President Bukele in El Salvador uses this to claim hypocrisy, and it seems to carry weight with the population.
SIMON: Frank Langfitt, there's been a rise in populism in the United States and also in much of Europe. How does that figure into the elections this year?
LANGFITT: I think it's a very important election, really, to watch, which Americans won't usually focus on is European Union parliamentary elections - 27 members of the EU. And I think the group to watch there is - there's this group called the Identity and Democracy Group. It's a collection of right-wing populist parties. Right now it's the sixth largest in the parliament. It's on track to become the third-largest party.
Some of those parties are very friendly to Vladimir Putin. And if they win big, there's a concern that they will try to push for some kind of settlement, undermine support for Ukraine. And I think the concern there is Putin could come out in some ways doing relatively well after this bungled invasion. And many people look at the Ukraine story as a democracy story. It's a sovereign nation, a democracy that was attacked by an authoritarian country. And what a lot of people in Europe absolutely don't want to see is that kind of behavior rewarded.
SIMON: Eyder, what about populism in Central America, South America?
PERALTA: So look, here in Mexico, we're having a presidential election. And a lot of pro-democracy advocates are really worried. The president here, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is a populist. He can't run for reelection but he's hand-picked a successor. And he is about to give another go right before leaving office to what he calls reforms to the electoral commission. Essentially, he wants to gut the commission. And in his term, Lopez Obrador has said, forget these institutions. The way I'm going to help the people is to take the money we spend on fair elections or on transparency and give it to the people. And his administration has actually cut checks to everyone - single mothers, students, the elderly. And right now, his hand-picked successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, is leading in the polls by a huge margin.
SIMON: Diaa, let me turn to you. India, the world's largest democracy, the most populous nation in the world - I feel the need for a separate question. What is the state of democracy and that part of democracy that relies on freedom of expression under Prime Minister Modi?
HADID: Well, Scott, I've been speaking to many critics of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his style of rule. And yet they're unequivocal in that India remains a democracy, and a democracy where parties contest and run for elections and really challenge each other at the ballot box. That remains strong. The issue is prominent critics aren't sure how much of India's legacy as a secular state with equal rights for all can survive under a third term of Narendra Modi. And that third term is almost inevitable. He is a wildly popular figure, and he has certainly tapped into a yearning among many in India to see something of their faith and identity and religious practice reflected in the most senior person in the country.
But I'm also meeting people who are on the fringes of Hindu nationalism, who are unhappy with Narendra Modi and unhappy with the BJP because they think it's too soft. They want a harder line against India's minorities - Muslims, Christians, Jews and others. They want to see Hindu rights being elevated in a more robust and aggressive way. And the critics that I'm speaking to just aren't sure how much of India's sense of equality, fairness before the law, its institutions itself, are going to survive another assault.
SIMON: Let me ask you all, is there - what about bright spots?
PERALTA: There's a glimmer of hope for democracy in my patch. Guatemala just inaugurated a pro-democratic, reformist president. And just before elections last summer, all I heard was desolation. Everyone thought the game was rigged. Everyone thought the same old people would win, and instead, democracy won.
LANGFITT: I know people are very despondent about democracy around the world these days, and with good reason. But there are very bright spots. And one of - the most obvious one is Taiwan. We just saw recently an election in which the Taiwanese defied the threats of mainland China and gave the Democratic Progressive Party a third-straight term in the presidency. And, of course, Taiwan is probably the next big battleground over democracy and sovereignty.
HADID: I'm not a cynic. And this goes beyond covering South Asia. I covered the Arab Spring, and I saw people demand the right to decide their own leaders with their bodies. People who are denied democracy and then given it, really don't take it for granted. It's often the reverse. I'm always struck by the apathy of people who come from democratic countries who don't quite understand what other people are fighting for.
SIMON: I want to thank all of you - Eyder Peralta in Mexico City, Diaa Hadid in Mumbai, Frank Langfitt, NPR's global democracy correspondent. Thanks so much.
LANGFITT: Thanks for doing it, Scott.
PERALTA: Thank you, Scott.
HADID: You're welcome, Scott.
(SOUNDBITE OF MAXENCE CYRIN'S "MER DE VELOURS") 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.