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A Big, Ominous Year for Democracy

With democratic governance coming under increasing strain globally, advocates of popular sovereignty find themselves struggling to defend it during the biggest election year in history. The situation demands a caliber of political leadership that seems to be in short supply.

LONDON – On its face, 2024 might seem like a triumph for democracy. With more than half the world’s population living in countries where legislative and presidential polls are scheduled, this is the biggest election year ever. But there is little cause for celebration, because all this voting comes at a time when democratic governance itself is on the ballot.

To advocates of democracy, the system’s virtues are self-evident. It is the most likely to produce results aligned with what most citizens want, most of the time. It is well equipped to remove corrupt, incompetent, or unwanted leaders. It fosters a reluctance to go to war. It is the system that most people will choose if given the choice, and the one that people are most prepared to fight for.

To its critics, democracy often struggles to respond decisively to big problems, such as how to pay for health care and other rising costs associated with an aging population. As senior Chinese officials have put it to British ministers, if a system cannot persuade people to make sacrifices for the long-term good of the country, it simply is not sustainable.