Around 2 billion people in more than 50 countries, including India, Chad, Mexico and South Africa, will go to the polls this year in what has been described as the Super Bowl of elections. From major democracies to emerging nations, the outcomes of these votes will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the future trajectory of countries around the world. While some elections could produce conflict, most will take place under the threat of disruption — all of this will have serious implications for U.S. foreign policy and security.

The Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te, center, was elected the next president of Taiwan on January 13, 2024. Tensions over the island’s status are likely to strain U.S.-China relations. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
The Democratic Progressive Party’s Lai Ching-te, center, was elected the next president of Taiwan on January 13, 2024. Tensions over the island’s status are likely to strain U.S.-China relations. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

In some countries, violent extremist organizations will seek to exploit the political leaders’ focus on election campaigns to escalate violence, while in others fluid election timelines will further complicate the political landscape producing conflict. “By definition, elections are a time of unpredictability, which can tilt in the favor of entities that seek to cause disruption, fear or terror,” said Susan Stigant, director of Africa Programs at USIP.

Already this year noteworthy elections have taken place in Bangladesh and Taiwan. In Bangladesh, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina won a fourth term in an election that was boycotted by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the country’s main opposition party. In Taiwan, voters handed the ruling Democratic Progressive Party a historic third term as pro-sovereignty candidate Lai Ching-te was elected the island nation’s next president on January 13. Ahead of the vote, China, which seeks to unify Taiwan with China, by force if necessary, had described Lai as a “troublemaker” and “separatist,” and said of the election that it was “a choice between war and peace.” Lai’s election is likely to raise tensions between Taiwan and China.

Highlighted below are some key global elections and our experts’ take on what makes them stand out and why they matter to the United States.

The list highlights some countries where the outcome of the elections could have a decisive impact on the trajectory of peace, stability and security in the country.

Key Elections

India:

India, the world’s largest democracy, is scheduled to hold its general elections in the spring. As a key player in global affairs, the outcome of the election will impact regional stability, economic development and India’s role in addressing global challenges.

Why is this election important?

“After the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s decisive wins in major state elections in December, a national victory in spring parliamentary elections over an inchoate and leaderless opposition seems all but a foregone conclusion for the BJP and its immensely popular prime minister, Narendra Modi,” says Sameer Lalwani, a senior expert on South Asia at USIP. A BJP victory would give Modi a third five-year term, putting him on track to be one of the longest-serving prime ministers in India’s history.

Lalwani believes that while the outcome of the vote may be predictable, “the process and campaign are worth watching for what it portends for BJP rule and Indian governance beyond 2024. While the 2014 and 2019 elections were dominated by economic and national security issues respectively, there is a growing concern that the BJP will lean into identity politics in the 2024 campaign, further polarizing religious communities in India.”

Modi can campaign on his accomplishments of macroeconomic growth, massive infrastructure investments, new welfarism and India’s growing international prestige, like its leadership of the Group of 20 or lunar landing that have “put India on the map,” Lalwani says.

“Alternatively, if worried about the concerns around high inflation and spiking unemployment, the BJP might try pivoting to Hindu nationalism,” Lalwani notes. “A spike in communal tensions could prove a challenge for BJP governance if it diverts resources from its developmental agenda, harms India’s image and relations with Western democracies, and diminishes foreign investment.”

Pakistan:

Pakistan’s general elections, which were supposed to take place in October 2023, have now been scheduled for February 2024. Pakistan, a key U.S. ally in the region, has been in flux since the ouster of its former prime minister, Imran Khan, in 2022 following a no-confidence vote. Khan’s arrest in May 2023 on corruption charges provoked large anti-military protests in the country. Instability in Pakistan has serious policy and security implications for the United States.

Why is this election important?

The election will be held after more than a year of political tumult following a no-confidence motion ousting former prime minister Imran Khan in 2022 that led to nationwide protests, attacks against military installations and ultimately a short-lived coalition government led by former prime minister Shahbaz Sharif, says Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia programs at USIP.

“The elections arrive as Pakistan faces the twin crises of terrorism and near collapse of the economy,” says Salikuddin. “The newly elected civilian government will be expected to revive the failing economy and likely negotiate a new IMF program by spring 2024.”

Salikuddin notes that while he remains popular, Khan, the ousted prime minister, will likely not be able to contest in the elections, raising the likelihood of a coalition government.

What will be the implications of the vote for the United States?

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, Salikuddin predicts policy continuity on most pressing issues — including rocky relations with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the continued cease-fire along the border with India and serious terrorism challenges presented by Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and other groups, including the Islamic State (ISKP) — largely because these issues are controlled by the military establishment.

Indonesia:

Indonesia will hold general elections on February 14.

Why is this election significant?

Indonesia is the world’s fourth-most populous nation and the largest democracy in Southeast Asia. “More people vote on election day in Indonesia for more candidates than in any country on any single day,” says Brian Harding, a senior expert on Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands at USIP. “It’s an extraordinary feat that Indonesia has been able to routinely implement largely free and fair elections since democracy has taken hold over the past 25 years.”

According to Harding, the challenge is that “the quality of Indonesian democracy is trending negatively, with receding rule of law and civil liberties.”

What are the likely implications for the United States?

President Joko Widodo is ineligible for a third term. Three candidates — Anies Baswedan, Ganjar Pranowo and Prabowo Subianto — are vying for his job. “Ironically, the most pro-U.S. presidential candidate among the three is the frontrunner, Prabowo Subianto, whose human rights record while in military uniform resulted in a ban from the United States until becoming defense minister in 2019 and symbolizes for many the decline in Indonesian democracy,” says Harding.

Harding does not expect Indonesian foreign policy or the country’s relations with the United States to change dramatically under a new president. “Indonesia will continue to be focused on its own economic development and see itself as a rising geopolitical pole, using its own strategic weight to balance great powers. Many of Indonesia’s partners hope for a leader more internationally engaged than Jokowi, including playing a natural leadership role in ASEAN,” Harding adds.

Iran:

Iran has two elections scheduled in March — one for parliament and the other for its Assembly of Experts.

Why are these elections important?

The parliamentary election is expected to preserve the status quo. This is because the “powerful Guardian Council has already barred many candidates, including reformists, centrists and even sitting members of parliament from running — essentially guaranteeing that conservatives and hardliners will maintain their dominance for the next four-year term,” observes Garrett Nada, a program officer at USIP in the Center for Middle East & North Africa. Although conservatives favor a more pragmatic foreign policy than hardliners, both factions want to expel U.S. forces from the Middle East and support Iran’s military proxies in the region, which have attacked U.S. troops for years.

According to Nada, the Assembly of Experts election, on the other hand, has potentially wide-ranging implications, but there are a lot of unknowns. The 88-member body of Islamic jurists, popularly elected every eight years, is charged with appointing and overseeing the supreme leader. The 84-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, does not have a designated successor. If the next supreme leader shares his revolutionary and anti-Western worldview, the adversarial relationship between Washington and Tehran may not change. If his successor is more open to engagement with the West, then tensions have a better chance of cooling. “But Khamenei does not appear to have any serious health issues, so the transition may not happen for years,” says Nada, adding: “Therefore, the elections may not have an impact on U.S. interests or policy in the near term.”

Latin America:

Five countries in Latin America will be holding elections this year — El Salvador, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Mexico.

Why are these elections important?

While the region has seen an anti-incumbent, leftward swing in recent years, “2024 may prove to be a good year for establishment politicians,” according to USIP’s experts.  

“In the region’s five upcoming elections, insider candidates are polling ahead, at least so far. This could be good news for the United States,” USIP’s Lucila Del Aguila Llausas, Nicolas Devia Valbuena, Keith Mines and Mary Speck write in an analysis. “It means that moderate candidates can still prevail over destabilizing populists, especially in strong democracies with competitive political parties, such as Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. But it could also consolidate authoritarianism in El Salvador and herald a new era of one-party rule in Mexico.”

The Sahel:

Why are these elections important?

Elections are expected in several countries in the Sahel that are navigating the complexities of an “epidemic” of coups and contested political transitions. “From Mali to Chad, these elections are critical processes,” notes Joseph Sany, vice president of USIP’s Africa Center. “On the one hand, countries may embrace the difficult but possible path toward accountable, democratic governance. However, uncertainty prevails as there are concerns that the electoral timelines, to a lesser extent in Chad, may not be adhered to in countries like Burkina Faso, Guinea and Mali, adding to the region’s complex political landscape.”

Sany believes that the elections alone are not enough. “First, elections have to meet a threshold of transparency, credibility and peace. There is a risk that the elections could be used to give legitimacy to the military takeover and reinforce regimes that are not accountable to their people,” he says.

According to Susan Stigant, director of Africa Programs at USIP, a successful political transition will depend on more than just elections. Such a transition depends on opening civic and political space for discourse and debate; forging agreement on how the country will be governed, the fundamental nature of the state and a commitment to uphold those principles; acknowledging, reckoning with and redressing damages caused to individuals and communities; restoring trust between citizens and governments; and a shared vision to move forward together — and confidence that this vision will be implemented and protected.

What will be the implications of the vote for the United States?

While suggesting that elections could open up the possibility of renewed U.S. and international partnerships and assistance, important aspects of which are currently on hold given U.S. legislative requirements and sanctions by regional bodies, Sany adds: “We should be sober in analyzing the possible scenarios about what comes the day after elections and what it means for U.S. partnerships.”

Stigant notes that in too many instances in recent years elected governments have not been able to deliver on the basic needs of their citizens — lower food prices, jobs, security and a better life for children. “The U.S. will need to consider how to move swiftly as bilateral partner and to activate flexible, innovative financing through the international financial institutions and private sector partnerships to give governments the options that they need to make hard policy decisions and deliver swiftly,” Stigant says.

West Africa

Why are these elections important?

In West Africa, elections are scheduled to be held in Ghana, Senegal and Mauritania.

Ghana and Senegal have shown a consistent and persistent commitment to democracy, according to Sany. “With President Macky Sall’s commitment to step down after his second term in Senegal and the robust debates taking place in Ghana over real issues related to the economy, the elections are likely to reflect the messy, hard work of democratic consolidation that we see all around the world,” Sany notes.

Sany goes on to observe that in Mauritania, on the other hand, the commitment to democratic elections is relatively new, “but 2024 is likely to be an affirmation of that choice and commitment to accountable governance by the people and leaders of Mauritania.”

Southern Africa

The elections in South Africa will be the most closely watched of those taking place in Southern Africa this year.

Why is this election important?

“Over the last year, there have been robust debates within the ruling African National Congress on corruption and transparency, service delivery, and the identity of the party that led South Africa’s transition from apartheid in 1994,” says Stigant. “It is expected that the elections will continue to be competitive, and polling suggests that the opposition will possibly gain seats.”

What will be the implications of the vote for the United States?

South Africa is a founding member of BRICS, a leading member of the African Union and a leader in mediation across the continent. “Whatever the result of the elections, the U.S. needs to navigate a historically complex but tremendously important relationship with the South African government,” notes Stigant. “And the American people have the opportunity to sustain deep relationships with South African foundations, civic organizations, universities and private sector.”

The Horn of Africa

While South Sudan is expected to hold its inaugural elections by December 2024, preparations are significantly delayed, says Stigant. Nevertheless “public opinion research shows that citizens are looking forward to the opportunity to choose their leaders for the first time since the country’s 2011 independence.”

Stigant believes that “intensive efforts” will be required to “open the space for discussions and debate around elections, take concrete steps to prevent the real risk of increased violence, and the technical preparations and the guarantees to give political, security and civic leaders, and the people of South Sudan the confidence that an elected government will make progress in addressing the country’s economic, humanitarian and conflict challenges.”

A Notable Exception

Sudan was to hold elections this year. However, a 2021 coup and an ongoing civil war that has pitted the Sudan Armed Forces against the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces has instead pushed the country to the brink of a humanitarian and security crisis.

“While high-level shuttling is taking place by the heads of the Rapid Support Forces and the Sudan Armed Forces around the region, the attention in 2024 needs to be on addressing the tremendous human suffering caused by the spreading war, stopping the war and forging a political deal,” says Stigant.

Ashish Kumar Sen is the acting managing editor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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