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Is Democracy Surviving the “Year of Elections”?

Millions of voters are casting ballots in a string of elections across the globe. At the midyear point, how well is democracy holding up?

By John K. Glenn

June 2024

“The world will know whether democracy lives or dies by the end of 2024,” warned Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa in a recent interview. In 2024, the “year of elections,” half the world’s population will vote. But this wave of voters heads to the ballot box as growing challenges — including global authoritarian influence, foreign information manipulation, and new forms of technology — create what could be considered “a perfect storm” to test elections and democratic institutions globally. With the year halfway done, it may be time to ask: How is democracy faring?

The latest elections show mixed results. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s parliamentary majority was diminished in India, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s successor Claudia Sheinbaum won a strong majority in Mexico, and South Africa’s African National Congress lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since the end of apartheid. By the end of June, elections will have taken place in Bangladesh, El Salvador, Iran, Mongolia, Pakistan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and are scheduled to take place before the end of the year in Rwanda, Sri Lanka, the United Kingdom, and the United States — countries that in Freedom House’s annual index range from Free, to Partly Free, to Not Free.

At the midyear point, three trends are emerging. First, authoritarian regimes such as Russia and Iran continue to rely on sham elections to create the illusion of legitimacy. Second, frontline democracies such as Taiwan are offering important lessons about how to inoculate citizens from the challenge of foreign information manipulation. And third, as concerns about the impact of new generative-AI tools on elections become widespread, it is becoming apparent that the real threat of AI may not be its capacity to deceive people to switch their votes, but instead the way it undermines trust in elections and democracy. A study by International IDEA found that in eleven of the nineteen countries surveyed, less than half of the people say that the most recent election in their country was “free and fair.”

The Continued Audacity of Authoritarian Regimes

One of the bracing lessons of the first half of this year is authoritarian regimes’ continued audacity, stage managing and controlling elections where the outcome is never in doubt in order to legitimize themselves. In March, Russia held what Russia analyst Margarita Zavadskaya called a “three-day pantomime to hand Vladimir Putin the presidency for a fifth time.” The same month in Iran, moderate and reformist figures were disqualified from running in the first elections since the 2022 “Women, Life, Freedom” protests, and hardliners won a comfortable majority.

Ahead of these elections, moderates and independent candidates were banned from running for office in both countries, skewing the playfield where regimes already control the media and information space. Yet voters massed outside polling stations at midday in cities across Russia, meeting the call by Alexei Navalny’s “Noon Against Putin” initiative to demonstrate that opposition to Putin persists. Putin ultimately claimed a victory of more than 87 percent and turnout a record high of 77 percent, but the protests cast a long shadow over the Kremlin’s true support. Iran, by contrast, reported a recordlow turnout of 41 percent, which suggests that regime confidence may have been severely eroded ahead of new elections after the death of the country’s president last month.

Authoritarians do not limit themselves to the electoral contests in their own countries; they see elections in other countries as “battlefields for information manipulation,” too. Observers warned of a “flood of interference” ahead of European Parliament elections, noting the resilience of a Russian online influence operation initially exposed by EUDisinfo Lab in 2022. There is also growing evidence that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is shifting from extolling the virtues of authoritarian models toward interfering in elections in other countries by promoting favored candidates, an approach long favored by the Kremlin. In August 2023, Meta announced its “biggest single takedown” of a Chinese influence campaign that targeted countries including Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Getting Ahead of the Challenge to Build Democratic Resilience

In 2024, Taiwan continued to be a target of information manipulation originating from China ahead of its January elections, which Taiwan’s prodemocracy, pro-independence party (the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP) ultimately won, although without winning control of the parliament. In the run-up to the election, a CCP-aligned network released a book that was used as a script for a social-media campaign of generative AI–produced audio and videos to attack candidates and leaders from Taiwan’s DPP. On election day, doctored videos alleging ballot rigging went viral, suggesting the election could not be trusted because the results were faked.

Yet the response to these videos was swift. Taiwan’s Digital Minister Audrey Tang observed, “What’s crucial is pre-empting information manipulation before it reaches people. It requires understanding the overarching narratives the attackers use — for example, that democracy never delivers, or that democratic processes are corrupt. We then tell people these narratives are going to surface. Ideally people will get the real information before they receive the misinformation.”

Instead of a piecemeal approach — focusing on media literacy or relying on fact checkers — Taiwan adopted what has been called a “whole of society response” that relies on civil society groups, independent fact-check groups, and lawyers to identify and respond to information manipulation and attacks on opposition leaders and journalists. Fact-checking groups debunked the rumors, while the Central Election Commission held a news conference to push back on claims of electoral discrepancies. Influencers like @FroggyChiu, who has more than six-hundred thousand subscribers, put out videos on YouTube explaining how votes are tallied.

Generative AI Undermining Trust in Democratic Institutions

Taiwan effectively responded to Chinese disinformation in part because of how seriously the threat is perceived — but, in an era of polarization and democratic backsliding, this is not the case in every country. Around the world, policymakers and experts have warned about the impact of cheaper and widely available generative-AI technologies that could enable authoritarian powers and their allies to create “deepfakes,” false images, audio, or video that elevate and scale inauthentic, manipulative content.

In Pakistan’s elections, former prime minister Imran Khan — who had been banned from running and imprisoned after being convicted for corruption — used generative AI to generate synthetic audio and video to campaign from behind bars. In a surprise, his party won a plurality of the votes, although the second and third largest parties later formed a new government without his party. In India, voters are being targeted with millions of deepfakes — but not necessarily to deceive voters. Rather, political candidates are embracing these technologies for voter outreach by creating personalized video messages in a country with 22 official languages and thousands of regional dialects.

Despite numerous instances of generative AI–produced content, there is not yet clear evidence to prove these tools are tipping elections in favor of authoritarians. That said, the focus on swaying votes may miss the point. In an era of polarization, voters seek information that reinforces their preexisting beliefs. As such, “cheap fakes,” which are easy to make but do not appear authentic, could be as effective as “deep fakes,” which are easier to make with generative AI but still demand time and skill.

The risk from generative AI may be that it undermines trust in elections and democracy by reinforcing the “liar’s dividend,” whereby a liar can dodge accountability by claiming that we cannot know the truth and everything is false. As awareness of generative AI–produced content increases, the incentive grows even greater for authoritarians and their allies to claim that real — perhaps unflattering or incriminating — media is “fake.”

The Impact of the Year of Elections Goes Beyond Voting

At the midpoint of 2024, the picture is uneven. Any evaluation depends in part on whether you focus on democratic process or outcomes, which may not always align. For example, Thailand’s rating in the annual Freedom in the World report rose last year when an opposition party unexpectedly won the largest share of the parliamentary elections, even though the regime prevented the party from entering the government. By contrast, Poland’s rating declined after the Law and Justice party sought to tilt the playfield in their favor ahead of parliamentary elections last year, even though the opposition coalition won the most seats and formed a new government.

As it stands, any grade given to the year of elections should be marked “incomplete.” This is not only because there are many more elections to be held this year, but because elections are only a part of the measure of democracy. As the study of countering authoritarian information manipulation shows, democracy’s challenges are not limited to nor even necessarily focused on the moments of voting, but precede and follow it, as trust in democratic institutions comes under threat. The assassination attempt of Slovak prime minister Robert Fico after a recent election — during which a disputed audio deep fake was released in the weekend before voting — is a sober reminder for democrats around the world that elections are taking place amid increased polarization that can encourage violence contrary to the most fundamental democratic values.

John K. Glenn is senior director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Man Hei Leung/Anadolu via Getty Images




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