By Nina Kaufmann
Is global democracy on the decline? With autocrats such as Erdogan, Putin, and Bolsonaro in office, Great Britain trying to leave the EU, increased attacks on free media, and rising support for populist movements, this question hit the headlines last year. Luckily 2019 looks much more promising with elections coming up in four of the globe’s most populous democracies. Here comes a preview.
Early this year more than two billion people will have the possibility to cast their votes in four major nation-wide and federal elections. The eligible citizens of India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the European Union together stand for one fourth of the total world population. And they have something very crucial in common: they all have the possibility to shape the futures of their countries. The four ballots are held in greatly different contexts and will consequently have different outcomes. The European parliamentary elections in May are insofar unique, as electorates across 27 member states will decide on the composition of a common parliament. But what about the other three? India, Indonesia, and Nigeria are population-wise some of the world’s biggest countries, but still, their elections often pass by with quite negligent and negative coverage in the Western press. So, what are the Indians, Indonesians, and Nigerians about to vote on this Spring?
Elections in India: a ‘referendum’ on the Prime Minister?
When nearly 900 million Indians head to the polls in April and May (elections here are held over the course of 6 weeks), it looks like the inclusive political culture that characterizes India could – for the first time since the country’s independence 71 years ago – be challenged. A key position in today’s politics is held by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government which in 2014 reached the first single-party majority in the Indian parliament in three decades. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the elections greatly in 2014 with a Hindu-nationalist agenda, but as the 2019 elections are coming up public support has waned. In recent state-wide elections, the BJP lost power in three key states to its main opponent, the secular and historically strong Congress Party. However, it is not certain that this set-back in the state elections will translate to the national level. The parliamentary elections are somewhat to be seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Modi. If he again can convince the Hindu majority to support the BJP and thereby keep a majority in the parliament, he will remain the top figure in Indian politics for many years to come. If on the other hand, the very divided Congress-led opposition is able to come together, build a coalition and get enough votes for a majority, it would be a no to another five years of Modi. Whether the latter would be better for India or not in terms of democratic development and freedom is hard to say, but that India would be moving towards a less diverse political environment with Modi and the BJP still in power is highly presumable.
Economy and transnational ties in focus when Indonesians vote
Religion does not only play a key role in the Indian elections but has always been an important feature in Indonesia, a country with seven official religions and where citizens are required by law to dedicate themselves to one of those seven. Religion will however probably be less significant than usual in the April 17 Indonesian elections. Instead, the country’s economy and its ties to China are topics that are predicted to influence the election outcomes greatly. When nearly 200 million eligible voters cast their ballots in April, it will be the first time that the presidential and parliamentary elections are held on the same day. The presidency stands between current President Joko Widodo (commonly known as Jokowi), a folksy former furniture exporter and Jakarta Governor supported by the country’s Muslim majority, and Prabowo Subianto, a protectionistic businessman and former general in the Indonesian National Armed Forces. The Indonesian economy has not developed the way Jokowi promised his electorate in 2014 – something that could benefit Prabowo, especially in light of the Indonesian financial struggles of 2018. Indonesia’s ties to China are another important topic that will most likely be a key issue in the elections. With Jokowi supporting close relations with China and the Chinese dominating the Indonesian business world, Prabowo offers an opposing agenda based on economic nationalism. Still, the incumbent is expected to win the elections due to his still very strong popularity among the people. If the Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) and its main man Prabowo were to win the elections in 2019, this would be considered a huge, and surprising, loss for president Jokowi and his Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) – and frankly, also a setback for modern democracy in this multi-faceted archipelago.
The entrance of the young in Nigerian politics
In spite of ongoing war against Boko Haram, oil-rich regions struggling with violence, and an increase in conflicts between farmers and herders, the Nigerian democracy has gone through some positive development during the last decade. Fairly democratic elections have been held in the country since 1999. The win of Muhammadu Buhari and his All Progressives Congress (APC) in the 2015 elections was widely seen as a step in the right direction, away from corruption and bad organization and towards a calmer and more democratic Nigeria. However, Buhari’s presidential term didn’t really bring the changes that Nigerians hoped for. A price collapse in the country’s main export – oil – caused financial troubles that the president wasn’t able to handle, and so the support for him has dropped considerably. In the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections that are to be held in February, his main opponent is Atiku Abubakar from the former ruling party, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Expectations on the election outcomes are low amongst the Nigerian people, as few believe that Abubakar and the PDP would be able to handle the economic situation any better than the current government. A major positive change promised by the 2019 election is however that the young play a greater role than ever before. For the first time, candidates under the age of 40 are able to run for elective positions. As a country with over 60 percent of the population below the age of 25, this is, of course, an important step towards a more democratic election system and a more representative parliament.
So is global democracy heading in the right direction, or are claims of democracy on the decline true? The forthcoming mega-ballots will demonstrate that people power, voting rights, and fair elections are more important than ever and that global democracy is highly vital even if some world leaders assiduously try to undermine it. Whether the election outcomes in India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the EU will support a positive development or not is still to be seen, but for now: let a big share of the world population have their own say!
Nina Kaufmann is a student at the Peace & Development Program. When she’s not studying you’ll probably find her listening to radio talk shows or standing in the kitchen with a glass of red wine – preferably in combination. She loves good discussions, long train rides, freshly ground coffee and really sharp pencils. In the future, she wants to learn to do a proper headstand and have at least four morning newspapers.
Cover photo: A man casting his vote in the 2009 Indonesian elections. By Josh Estey/AusAID, licensed under Attribution 2.0 Generic.