January/February (Edition 1)

Ed: Hey, Will.

Will: Hi, Ed.

E: What have you dragged me into now, and, more importantly, what’s with all of those maps and photos of world leaders you have thumb-tacked to the wall?

W: Well Ed, that’s an excellent question. As you know, I’ve been obsessed interested in the intersection between history and geopolitics for a long time, and I’ve been keenly checking in on global elections for a few years now. As you’re already the busiest person I know, I figured you’d have no problem embarking on another little project with me.

E: Absolutely! In all seriousness, that’s something I’m interested in as well: I’m fascinated by the question of whether it’s really possible (or useful) to study a topic like democracy as one, universal idea - or whether we’re better off analysing it as as a particular phenomena which means different things in different places.

With that in mind, perhaps we should begin by introducing this project we’ve set ourselves.

W: This is a big year for democracy. More than two billion people are able to Pokémon GO to the polls around the world in 2024, in around 60 countries depending on how exactly things shake out. Of course, there are only a couple that us westerners are likely to hear about unless we go looking.

E: Month by month, we’ll be dissecting national elections from across the world - particularly the ones that the media here in western Europe may have missed. Along the way, we’ll be analysing the key trends, and asking whether we can locate a global ‘state of democracy’ in 2024.

E: Shall we start right at the beginning? If I’m not mistaken we’re opening on a rather troubling note.

W: Yes - on January 7th, Bangladesh was the first country this year to go to the polls in a parliamentary election. For a little background, Bangladesh gained independence from Britain as part of Pakistan in 1947, as a Muslim majority area determined to be separate from Hindu majority India. It got its own independence from Pakistan in 1971, and was mostly controlled by a military junta until 1990, when democracy was reestablished, but corruption has been a persistent concern. Since 2009 the Awami League has been the party in Government, what about this time?

E: So this was a landslide for the Awami League. Bangladesh has traditionally been a three-party system between the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the Jatiya Party, and the Awami League (AL). Back in 2001, the BNP dominated with the Awami League in second and the Jatiya Party a distant third. So what changed?

W: The Awami League was the first party to be democratically elected back in 1973, and they have generally been on the left side of Bangladeshi politics against typically nationalistic opponents. Since their landslide victory in 2008 following unrest which toppled the BNP government, the AL and their leader Sheikh Hasina have been setting themselves up pretty comfortably, drifting towards populism and eliminating dissent. In other words another major victory for them was not a surprise…

E: The New York Times also reported that the Jatiya Party has become an instrument for propping up the Awami League, with its candidates sometimes putting ‘supported by AL’ on their election posters [source]. The opposition to the AL, therefore, is primarily outside of the electoral arena.
The BNP has boycotted elections since the 2010s. The Diplomat spoke with Tarique Rahman, the acting chair of the BNP, in November last year: he characterised the election as ‘predetermined’ and ‘non-participatory not just for the political parties, but the voters as well.’ [source] Al Jazeera has been reporting on a ‘crackdown’ on the BNP by the AL [source]; sources close to the AL, on the other hand, characterise the BNP as an extremist Islamist group.

W: The AL amended the constitution in 2011, typically framed as a variety of progressive and anti-corruption measures, but it seems pretty clear that it has allowed the AL to leverage its power more successfully ever since, to the point where it is now widely acknowledged as a mixed regime with very weak democratic elements.

E: There’s a larger history here I really wish we had more time to delve into: here we have an example of an historically social democratic party which has become a big-tent, authoritarian party of power over the past decade or so. I imagine we’ll see quite a few other comparable examples in other places around the world.

W: An auspicious start to the year of democracy…

E: Sure is. Perhaps this is a reminder that the electoral maps only tell us so much. Turnout for this election was incredibly low: how much power does a government voted in by well under half of the electorate truly have?

E: And then, two days later, on the 9th of January came the Kingdom of Bhutan - a country whose local name, Druk Yul, translates roughly to ‘Land of the Thunder Dragon.’ Notably, at the end of last year, Bhutan was delisted as a Least Developed Country by the United Nations [source] - as I understand it, Bhutan’s electoral system is pretty distinctive?

W: It is. At a glance the result in this year’s election to Bhutan’s assembly looks wild, with two entirely different parties taking all the seats, and the previous two parties represented being wiped out. In fact Bhutan’s elections are in two rounds, and the first round was late last year. As the two old parties came 3rd and 4th this time they got no seats, but looking deeper we find that there doesn't seem to be a dramatic ideological shift in the country. Last time around in 2018, a centre-left party got 2/3rds of the seats, and a centre-right one got the other 1/3rd. This time around it played out almost exactly the same, seat for seat - just with two different parties.

E: I’ve seen the system referred to as a ‘Buddhist democracy,’ which may explain these apparent quirks: in the academic literature, scholars like William J. Long [link] talk about this as a point of distinction between how Western and Bhutanese policymakers characterise favourable policy outcomes. Bhutan has historically been an isolated state - and its focus on GNH (Gross National Happiness) as a national philosophy, rather than GDP, has been both lauded and criticised for ‘happywashing’ the country’s various social ills.

But otherwise, looking at these results, do you think we’re likely to see more ‘business as usual’ politics in Bhutan?

W: The sacking of both of the old parties does look like an expression of Bhutanese frustrations, particularly with their economy seriously under pressure, [source] and the winning party leader Tshering Tobgay has won again after running on a similar platform of economic revival as in 2013 two election cycles ago. Otherwise this is a much more encouraging picture for the state of democracy in South Asia.

E: I can’t help but feel we’ve been putting off January’s most consequential election.

W: Only one election in January had the potential to fundamentally change the international landscape, taking place on the 13th, so I suppose it is about time we talked about it.

E: So I’ll try my best to set the scene here. Taiwan, which refers to itself as the Republic of China (not to be confused with the People’s Republic of China, or PRC), is a self-governing island that is or isn’t its own country (depending on who you ask) and also may or may not be China. Clear?

W: Indeed, Taiwan in its present form was founded by Chinese nationalists after they lost the Chinese Civil War, and it has had pretty limited international recognition since most of the world decided to recognise the PRC as a legitimate government in the 1970s. But it has become a highly developed, western-facing, tech superpower just the same.

E: So it goes without saying that China (a single-party, ostensibly socialist state) claims Taiwan (a formerly authoritarian state that is now an electoral democracy) as an integral part of China. What both governments refer to as ‘cross-Strait’ tensions are pretty much as intense as they’ve ever been. That ongoing conflict - which is pretty existential for the Taiwanese side - has been at the front and centre of this election.

There are two major political forces in Taiwanese politics. The Kuomintang (KMT) was for years Taiwan’s only party, initially under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Nowadays it is a broad tent status quo conservative power, and the principle political force of the Pan-Blue Coalition which favours Chinese identity.

W: The KMT agrees with the ‘mainland’ assertion that there is only one China, even though they were on opposite sides in the civil war, but they have been losing ground as it becomes more widely felt that the Taiwanese people have a national identity of their own.

E: On the other side is the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) - a more progressive party, and the main political organ of the pan-Green coalition which is distinctly Taiwanese (as opposed to Chinese). Notably, they reject the One China policy.

Taiwan and the PRC have a far more complex (and, dare I say, interdependent) relationship than many in the West realise. They have deep economic ties, and Taiwan has historically been an important source of foreign direct investment in China. Unsurprisingly, relations between the two are easier when the Nationalists are in power - and thus it is also unsurprising that many Taiwanese people would rather keep the ambiguous status quo than upset the balance by pushing for greater autonomy [source].
This election cycle has therefore been dominated by big questions about Taiwan’s future: what does it mean to be ‘Chinese,’ or ‘Taiwanese,’ or both?

W: The result isn’t the most clear cut either. The DPP have successfully held onto the Presidency, despite a tumultuous eight years in power. This was partly due to the fact that the KMT antagonised the other smaller opposition parties and was unable to ally with them, but also because the status quo of Taiwan as an effectively independent state now clearly has majority support.

Having said that, it was a close-fought race, and the DPP lost their majority in the parliament for the first time since 2016. Despite receiving slightly more votes, they gained one seat fewer than the KMT; subsequently the KMT has gained the speakership which will make governing substantially more challenging. Despite all of this, the Nationalists have had to play down their intentions with the mainland repeatedly. The headline message for Taiwan, mainland China and the West to take away will be that despite their difficulties, the DPP seems closer than ever to settling the internal argument on the Cross strait relationship in their favour.

E: I also wanted to pick up upon something I read which confounds the ‘grand narrative’ vis-à-vis China: the new ​​Taiwan People’s Party seems to have done very well among young voters with a platform that focuses on more bread-and-butter issues: housing, the economy, the job market. It makes sense that we try to find core themes to focus on when we write about these elections, but let’s not forget that Taiwan is vibrant democracy: the People’s Party’s relative success shows us that China is one in a constellation of issues that matter to younger people who increasingly see even the DPP as part of a political establishment.

W: That’s an important point, while the result was close and even fractious, it ultimately points to a healthy democracy in good working order, which is good news overall.

E: We’ve gone on about Taiwan for quite a while here…

W: Yes, let’s round up some of the smaller but still significant electoral results for January.

E: First, Sint Maarten - a constituent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the southern half of the island of Saint Martin in the Caribbean. Until 2010, it was a part of the Netherlands Antilles so Sint Maarten’s parliament is a relatively new institution. Although the Netherlands is still responsible for matters related to defence and foreign policy, it has considerable autonomy over domestic affairs. Perhaps exemplifying that dynamic, I found an interesting article which talked about the Netherlands requiring Sint Maarten to adopt anti-corruption reforms in 2017 in order to qualify for relief following the hurricane it experienced that year [source]. Anyway - Sint Maarteners voted in general elections on the 11th January.

W: While it’s not a result likely to have any major global ramifications, for its 43,000 citizens the results of the election for the 15 seat legislature encouragingly point to a highly plural and successful proportional system. 6 parties won seats in this election, including two new ones. A 4 party coalition was quickly formed, led by the ‘Unified Resilient St. Maarten Movement’, hoping to grow towards greater autonomy. All promising signs.

E: Then we have the Comoros, which elected a new president on the 14th January. The Comoros is a troubled democracy: this is the fourth term for Azali Assoumani, a former military leader who staged a coup in 1999 and thus has been in power as long as I’ve been alive. Assoumani held a constitutional referendum in 2018 that allowed him to run again: that led to a deadly armed uprising that was stifled with military assistance.

W: While the parliament had plural multi-party elections in 2015, it seems ever since the 2018 referendum it has been sliding backwards on the world’s democracy and freedom indices, down from a shaky 55/100 according to Freedom House six years ago to a discouraging 42 now. Predictably, Assoumani was reelected again this time with an apparent 63% of the vote - albeit with a pitiful turnout of 16%. While the exact scale of corruption or integrity of this election is difficult to verify, it's pretty clear democracy here is headed in the wrong direction.

E: The Comoros’ immediate neighbour is Mayotte, which remained a French territory. The per capita GDP of Mayotte is now over US$11,000 - in the Comoros it is just over US$1,000. It is always troubling to see former colonies perform so poorly after (in the case of the Comoros) 134 years of French rule.

Okay, finally: let’s travel across the globe to the tiny island nation of Tuvalu.

W: It may be a nation of 12,000 people with no political parties, but this place may be able to tell us more about the fundamental future challenges to democracy than almost anywhere else on earth this year. There is a very real risk that by the end of the 21st century Tuvalu could be completely submerged.

E: It is difficult to overstate how tiny Tuvalu is - only the Vatican City is smaller by population. But I wanted to discuss it here because it shows how the greatest threat facing the Pacific island nations, climate change, is omnipresent. It’s even interfering in its elections. As Reuters [source] reported, the result of the election was delayed by two weeks because of weather: a port official was quoted in that article as saying that there had been ‘flooding some places where there has never been flooding before.’ With four MP-elects stuck on outer islands, the procedure to agree upon a new Prime Minister had to be delayed.

W: Following the election, courting foreign assistance is a major priority for Tuvalu’s new group of independent representatives. While they have looked to Australia, New Zealand and the US recently, and are one of the few countries to recognise Taiwan’s independence, some of Tuvalu’s new representatives have expressed a desire to overturn this recognition, possibly viewing China as a lifeline in the future if the West can’t deliver.

E: The fight against climate change - or at the very least the fight for mitigation - is quickly becoming a fight for the country itself. A recently-signed deal with Australia to allow Tuvalu’s citizens to migrate there hangs in the balance [source], while Tuvaluans continue to seek hard-engineering solutions that would allow them to keep their homeland. When we set out to discuss the stakes of elections in smaller, Global South countries, it is difficult to imagine them being any greater than these.

E: And so we move on to February…

W: February begins with El Salvador and a presidential election where the incumbent got 85% in an apparently free vote, but it seems to be a bit more complicated than that. First of all, the incumbent in question, populist Nayib Bukele, ran again despite re-election being explicitly prohibited by the Salvadoran constitution, and against a background of mass arrests and erosion of the rule of law. What on earth is going on here?

E: Writing for The Conversation, Mneesha Gellman has helped to put those results in context. Voters are drawn towards the security and stability that Bukele offers them. El Salvador has undoubtedly become safer under Bukele: there are fewer homicides, fewer small businesses paying gang taxes, and people feel safer on the streets. That hasn’t come without a cost. Bukele’s presidency has been defined by democratic backsliding - most egregiously in the Supreme Court where he had five justices and the Attorney General ousted [source].

W: It’s hard to know what to make of this one. It seems like gerrymandering and general chicanery have seriously damaged El Salvador's democratic institutions, but there’s no doubt that the most popular candidate in the country won…

E: When Bukele has been talked about in the West, it is as an almost comedic figure - as the ‘Bitcoin president’ (in reference to his policy of making the cryptocurrency legal tender). Comparisons with Trump, especially in the U.S., have abounded. Nevertheless, right-wing populists continue to appeal when democratic institutions fail to function as they should. I suspect that will be a recurring theme this year.

E: Oh, Azerbaijan. What is there to say that hasn’t been said before? It is no secret that the South Caucasus country is the Aliyev family’s piggy bank: there is still so much we don’t know about how ruling elites accumulate and store their wealth. Still, the 2021 Panama Papers offered a tantalising glimpse into the ways in which state resources and considerable oil wealth are pretty shamelessly channelled into offshore banks and property. Perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.

W: This is the first ‘election’ of this year (but probably not the last) which strains the term past its breaking point. Besides maybe the vote in the immediate aftermath of its independence from the Soviet Union in 1992, Azerbaijan has never had a free or fair democratic election and the Aliyev family took control the following year. Stoking the conflict with Armenia has been a key method of maintaining control ever since, along with media domination and heavy suppression of dissent.

E: So what’s different this time? Well, the government has been buoyed by its military success against Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh last year - in the process, displacing over 100,000 ethnic Armenians and raising the international alarm on genocide [source]. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this: ‘reclaiming’ Nagorno-Karabakh has become akin to a national mobilising ideology. Everywhere I looked when I visited Baku two years ago, I saw the slogan ‘Qarabağ Azərbaycandır’ (‘Karabakh is Azerbaijan’) - in supermarkets, on billboards, and even on my boarding pass.

W: It seems like there was never a democratic base here on which to backslide, but unfortunately this result virtually confirms that the dictatorial status quo is set to continue indefinitely.

E: It’s a rubber-stamp election if there ever was one. Aliyev won 92% of the vote, by the way.

E: On that cheery note, let’s turn to one of Azerbaijan’s closest allies: Pakistan.

The headline here is that Pakistan’s former prime minister Imran Khan (PPE graduate-turned-cricket player-turned-politician) won the election from behind bars. Is that an oversimplification?

W: Well, ‘won’ is a strong word, but the fact that his relatively moderate, civic nationalist ‘Pakistan Movement for Justice,’ or PTI, maintained its position as the largest party is pretty incredible. Pakistan has not ranked particularly highly for free or fair elections in recent years, and Khan’s rise to power in 2018 is not considered particularly above board. However, when he was arrested on corruption charges last year and the military made it pretty clear he no longer had their favour, everyone assumed the opposition was going to win this one in a landslide.

E: This is an election where the military has been an incredibly important force. We shouldn’t be surprised really - the military has long called the shots in Pakistan. Yet there has been evidence of popular dissatisfaction with that military power for some time now - this is discussed in greater detail in an analysis by Christina Goldbaum from the NYT [source]. She notes if there’s one thing the election has proven if that’s the military is not the quite the force that many assumed it was.

W: The PTI candidates were forced to run as independents after a clearly coordinated campaign to undermine them and the wider election process, so the fact they still stand well clear of the rest of the field as the most popular force in Pakistani politics demonstrates how fed up many Pakistanis clearly are with military intervention in their political system. Despite being the largest party, the PTI is unlikely to be able to make much headway without a majority though, and the more conservative opposition parties (which certainly received the support of the Military) are in the process of forming a coalition Government.

E: I hope you’ll forgive us for not giving as much space to Pakistan as it really deserves. There’s a lot more that could be said - not least about Imran Khan himself. Depending on who you ask, he is either a maverick leader with much-needed bold ideas or an undiplomatic populist.

W: With its population of 240 Million Pakistan is one of this year's largest and most consequential democratic tests, but it’s still not entirely clear exactly how the wider implications of this one will play out, so expect us to check back in later in the year, especially after official results are actually released.

W: Okay, let’s move on to Finland, and hopefully a more clear cut result in what is apparently the world’s happiest country in 2023 [source]. Please tell me that this one is a bit simpler?

E: I was actually in Helsinki for the big vote itself! And by ‘big vote’ I of course am referring to the biggest event in the country: there were billboards everywhere, emotions were running high, and it was the only thing people could talk about. All of Finland were glued to their screens.

I am, of course, referring to Uuden Musiikin Kilpailu - in which Finns get to decide their representative for the Eurovision Song Contest. The victor was a gentleman by the name of Windows95Man, who (along with an uncredited friend on vocals) won hearts and minds with his ode to self-empowerment, ‘No Rules!’.

W: Elections Ed, we’re here to talk about national elections…

E: Ah yes. Apparently that happened too.

I’m exaggerating a little bit, but we really wouldn’t have known that a presidential election was happening if not for overheard conversations and a little campaigning on the street. This was an election in two rounds: the first took place on the 28th January. I think the big concern for many was the Finns Party - typical of the far-right populist movement that we saw gain ground throughout Europe in the 2010s. Their candidate, Jussi Halla-aho (a man once tried for ‘ethnic agitation’ and charged with disturbing religious worship), gained 18% of the vote which put him in third place.

The run-off, therefore, was between centre-right Alexander Stubb, and centre-left Pekka Haavisto.

W: On the most significant change in foreign policy direction for Finland in about 75 years, namely its ascension to NATO since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, most candidates, including the two who made it to the run off seemed to be in broad agreement on taking a hard stance against Russia. It's probably no coincidence both candidates are former Foreign Ministers. There may be points of difference over EU policy and the evolving relationship with China, but there were really no surprises here.

E: The elections were low-key. Most Finns I spoke to seemed to think both candidates would be up to task.

One thing that did surprise me: Haavisto’s sexuality was the matter of some discussion in the campaign ahead of the second round. This was apparently as surprising to Haavisto (whose private life appears deeply uninteresting, frankly) as it was to me. The context seems to be that a University of Helsinki poll found that a third of voters wouldn’t support Haavisto because he is gay: journalists - especially those from the national broadcaster Yle - appear to have taken this as a cue to discuss (and, arguably, politicise) the matter. I think it’s rather shocking to see this in 2024 in a country like Finland.

W: Is it possible this little media outburst occurred in the absence of any scandal whatsoever? With a relatively high turnout of about 70% in both rounds, we can find some comfort in what might be described as a pretty calm election that in 2024 is proof of a democracy working as intended.

E: Finally, we’d intended to talk about the presidential and parliamentary elections in Indonesia here: those took place on the 14th February.

W: Two weeks later, the results for the general assembly have yet to be announced, so perhaps we’ll save this for the next issue.

E: There seems to be a lot to talk about here - I’m particularly drawn to controversies around the alleged use of deepfakes and AI - but we’ll return to this next time when we’ll (hopefully) know a little more about the results of the parliamentary election.

W: Well, that about wraps up our coverage for the two months of the year. We’ve covered a dozen countries spread over 5 continents - probably only one or two of which made any impact in Western news cycles.

E: There is truly enormous diversity in these elections. There’s everything from the rubber-stamp elections of Azerbaijan, to closely-fought races in Taiwan. Some of these elections were more familiar to us than others: this exercise has really underlined how difficult it can be to write about the state of democracy when that term means different things in different cultural and political contexts. It’s clear that all of the states we’ve discussed here adhere - or wish to be seen to adhere - to the broad trappings and practices of democracy as it exists in the West. But the way it works in practice - in the particularities of Buddhism or climate change or having difficult neighbours - transforms the real-world substance of politics.

W: As expected we’ve already got a seriously mixed bag of results, but as we continue this experiment I wonder if the fact that all of these extremely diverse countries profess to have democratic elements and ‘principles’ will begin to seem more or less reassuring.

On that note, we’ll see you again soon.

Ed Jones is an MPhil candidate who specialises in the geopolitics of the Arctic and the South Caucasus.

Will Hardwick is an MA graduate specialising in Global and Imperial History, the Anglo-American relationship and the British Commonwealth in the Second World War.