A record 60-plus countries, comprising roughly half the world’s population, are heading to the polls this year in a critical moment for global democracy.
Liberal democracy is at a tipping point in many places, under threat from authoritarian strongmen and far-right populism. Amid violent geopolitical conflicts, a global cost-of-living crisis and the relentless effects of unchecked climate change, the stakes could hardly be higher.
With some 4 billion people expected to vote this year, current and former ICWA fellows in Taiwan, El Salvador and the European Union say varying local situations in their regions could have serious implications for global affairs.
While many international outlets focused on how the January victory of the Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te might deepen cross-strait tensions, Mixner LGBTQ+ fellow Edric Huang says China actually played a larger role in the previous 2020 elections than in this contest, where all three major parties promised to maintain their country’s ambiguous status quo relationship with the mainland.
“[Taiwanese] people are quite frustrated with the attention given to China rather than issues they’re facing on an everyday basis,” he said.
Edric described the lead-up to Taiwan’s January 13 general elections as “organized chaos.” The night before the vote, he attended boisterous rallies in Taipei with hundreds of thousands flooding the streets with homemade signs, campaign paraphernalia and their candidates’ colors.
The festivities captured the spirit of Taiwan’s young democracy, Edric said, with voter turnout surpassing 70 percent. The country’s proximity to mainland China, which claims the island as its own, is a constant reminder not to take democratic elections for granted. “Elections are promoted as an opportunity and a responsibility to uphold what makes Taiwan vibrant and different,” he said.
Young voters were less concerned about war with China than domestic issues such as rising rents and low wages. The Taiwan People’s Party (TPP), a center-left third party, gained traction especially among young men who said they were disillusioned by the political establishment. The TPP’s presidential candidate received 26.5 percent of the vote, and the party itself won eight seats in the Legislative Yuan. Those seats will be crucial for either rival to form a coalition government, giving the TPP big influence.
According to Edric, the queer community overwhelmingly voted for Lai’s Democratic Progressive Party, whose legalization of same-sex marriage in 2019 gave the movement momentum. Taiwan also elected Huang Jie, its first openly out LGBTQ legislator.
Across the Pacific Ocean, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele is poised to win re-election by a landslide when his country holds national elections on February 4. Despite dismantling democratic checks and balances by dismissing judges and subverting constitutional term limits, he remains immensely popular with an approval rating near 70 percent.
Joel Millman, an ICWA fellow in El Salvador from 1987 to 1989, attributed Bukele’s broad public support to his crackdown on powerful criminal gangs, a feat previous politicians have promised but not delivered for decades. Describing the public’s relief from the gangs’ paralyzing cycles of crime and violence, he said: “The confidence to invest in business, to return home and walk the streets safely is palpable. Everyone thinks that whatever he’s done, at whatever cost, has made it safe again in El Salvador.”
A Wall Street Journal reporter who was also spokesman for the International Migration Organization in Geneva, Joel said safer streets and a lower homicide rate have come at a cost to El Salvador’s democracy. Human rights organizations have decried the government’s suspension of due process for tens of thousands of detainees and documented cases of torture and death in police custody. A December report by Amnesty International said the crackdown had ushered in one of the country’s worst human rights crises since its violent civil war from 1980 to 1992.
Despite the documented abuses, many seem willing to sacrifice rule of law for security. A senior executive told Joel he supported the crackdown even though his company had spent significant time and money to help release nine employees arrested in a round-up.
A second term would likely hasten El Salvador’s democratic backsliding, with Bukele consolidating control over the courts and legislature. Given popular support for his policies, “I would say he’s unstoppable,” Joel said.
Far-right parties have steadily gained ground across Europe, and significant recent victories in Sweden, Italy, Finland, Germany and Austria have raised concerns that EU parliamentary elections in 27 member states set for June 6-9 will shift the assembly to the right.
Journalist Emily Schultheis, who studied the rise of far-right populism as an ICWA fellow in Germany from 2019 to 2021, believes a “perfect storm” of inflation, general frustration with governments, waning public support for Ukraine and an increased focus on migration has enabled many of these parties to reach new levels of support.
Currently based in Berlin writing about politics, populism and democracy for the Associated Press, Foreign Policy and other outlets, Emily says the parties themselves have matured, pivoting away from calls to exit the eurozone following Brexit, but continuing to use the European Union as a rhetorical enemy. Far-right leaders such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni are also becoming more savvy, refraining from fiery anti-European rhetoric abroad.
As voting for the far right has become normalized, centrist parties like those in Sweden and the Netherlands are more willing to cooperate with them. “They have a seat at the table they would not have been afforded a few years ago,” Emily said.
A stronger far-right presence in the EU parliament could directly affect key policy initiatives for the bloc. More worrying for far-right critics, the popularity of those parties has already exerted pressure on centrist parties to shift their own positions to the right, evident over the issues of migration and asylum.
Elsewhere around the globe, pivotal elections will be held in India, the world’s largest democracy, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Bangladesh and South Africa.
Among all the contests, the world will be closely watching the November presidential election in the United States, which, perhaps more than any other, will have far-reaching consequences for the international order.
Top photo: Edric Huang attends an election night rally at Democratic Progressive Party headquarters in Taipei