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Biggest election year in modern history: Will democracy prevail?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

2024 is the year of elections. Countries accounting for more than half the world's population will be voting this year. Yesterday on the program, we heard about some trends in the elections so far. Democracy has been surprisingly resilient over autocratic-leaning leaders, and economic factors are making life difficult for many incumbents. Well, today, let's look at three important elections that are coming up in the second half of this year. Tamara Taraciuk Broner is a human rights and legal expert in Latin America, where Venezuela is about to vote. Hi, Tamara.

TAMARA TARACIUK BRONER: Hi, Ari. Very nice to be here with you.

SHAPIRO: Tamara Sartania is watching elections in Georgia's capital city, Tbilisi, Georgia. It's good to have you here, Tamara No. 2.

TAMARA SARTANIA: Thank you. I'm very honored to speak today.

SHAPIRO: And Marie-Noelle Nwokolo is an international development researcher born and raised in Ghana. Good to have you with us.

MARIE-NOELLE NWOKOLO: Thank you, Ari. It's good to be here with you all.

SHAPIRO: So three countries, three continents, Venezuela, Georgia, and Ghana. Since Venezuela votes first, let's begin there. Is Venezuela's election in late July shaping up to be free and fair, especially when millions of Venezuelans - yourself included, as I understand - have left and may struggle to cast absentee votes?

BRONER: It's impossible to see Venezuelan elections as free and fair today. You have a context in which millions of people have been forced to flee. Many of us abroad were not able to register because we were asked for absurd requirements. I live in Uruguay, for example, and they asked me for an ID that was valid for four years, when, in Uruguay, they're issued for three. There continues to be repression against political opposition, against critics more broadly. However, this is a very important moment for Venezuela because despite an ongoing humanitarian emergency and continued targeted repression, people want to vote. So this makes this election critical, even if the conditions are very far from free and fair.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn to Georgia, which shares a border with Russia. Tens of thousands of people there have been protesting a new law that Parliament passed over the president's veto. And I saw a photograph of one protester who was holding a sign that said Russian law is not the will of Georgia. So Tamara Sartania, how do Georgia's parliamentary elections in October reflect this global tension between democracy and autocracy?

SARTANIA: Yes, you're right. The ruling party just passed the law that they call the Law on Transparency of Foreign Influence, but it is colloquially dubbed as a Russian law because it's - in spirit, mimics the same laws that Russia passed in 2012. And basically, after the passage of that law, any independent media, any independent civil society organization basically disappeared from Russia.

And sort of, just to give you a bigger picture of what is at stake is that currently the incumbent government has been in power for 12 years, since 2012. They are eyeing their fourth term. And throughout these years, they have managed to consolidate power at almost every single level of governance. And the only sort of pockets of independent organizations are civil society and media. So if the government gets rid of those, there is nothing left of democracy, so to say. That's why these elections are very crucial because basically, it's a referendum between - will Georgia continue to develop as a democratic country, or will we slide back to a Soviet-style dictatorship, so to say?

SHAPIRO: So incredibly high stakes in Georgia.

SARTANIA: Indeed.

SHAPIRO: And then in Ghana, Marie-Noelle Nwokolo, you wrote a paper arguing that Ghana's election in December needs to show, as you put it, that democracy is the way to go for the region and the continent. And so what are the stakes for West Africa and for Ghana in your country's elections?

NWOKOLO: The upcoming elections in Ghana is a really highly anticipated event - right? - set for December 7. And it will be a significant contest between the incumbent party, the New Patriotic Party, and the main opposition, the National Democratic Congress. I think this election is crucial because it will set the direction for Ghana's political and economic future, including resuscitating an economy which has experienced one of the worst economic crisis since the 1980s. This is particularly important given the context of West Africa and the recent spate of coups that we've seen across the region. Ghana has also been that one country with a stable democracy that has - people have looked up to on the continent and in the region, especially.

SHAPIRO: In the first six months of the year, as we've heard, there have been a few trends in global elections. Democracy has done better than expected. Incumbents seem to be doing badly, and voters mostly seem motivated by economic concerns. Does that ring true to the three of you with the trend lines that you are seeing in your countries?

BRONER: This is Tamara, and I find your question extremely interesting when you put Venezuela's election in context in Latin America. In the region, there has been a tendency over the past few years of voting against the incumbent, actually, because what we see is people wanting to find responses by the governments to their basic needs, and they don't care who provides those responses as long as governments deliver.

In Venezuela, however, what I am seeing is actually that the situation is so bad that the government is even losing the bases that it's always had in elections, and there is a big opportunity for democracy to win. I was listening to the other Tamara and to Marie-Noelle, and Venezuela is already a dictatorship. And the question now is, will this election provide an opportunity to bring the country back to the path to a transition to democracy?

SHAPIRO: And in Georgia?

SARTANIA: Ari, you're completely right that bread-and-butter issues is what's on the mind of the people. And you're also right that there is a sort of frustration with the incumbent, especially in case of Georgia, where the incumbent Georgian ruling party has been in power for 12 years. However, the problem is that the support for opposition is not high either. So basically, what you have, you have people who are frustrated with the current government, but you don't have a viable opposition that they're willing to vote for.

SHAPIRO: So many parallels across very different parts of the world. I'm curious what this looks like from Ghana.

NWOKOLO: Yes, Ari. And I think we all very well could be reading from the same script 'cause here in Ghana as well, it really is the economic situation. And parties are actually increasingly reflecting that in their campaigns, which is a variation from what we've done in the past. But I think the challenge really is a lot of people have heard these things over and over again. And if you consider the fact that a lot of - a majority of people really are under 35 years old, so these are people that, if I can put it, have been - to use a more Gen Z term - gaslit for most of their lives. I think the challenge in this election for a lot of people is really the economic basics, and whether any of these two parties, who have been tried before, will actually live up to what they say they will do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: We've been talking with three election experts in different parts of the world. Marie-Noelle Nwokolo in Ghana is a senior researcher and policy advisor at the Brenthurst Foundation. Tamara Sartania is an independent election watcher in Tbilisi, Georgia. And Tamara Taraciuk Broner is director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. She's watching Venezuela. Thank you to all three of you for your insights.

SARTANIA: Thank you and good luck...

BRONER: Thank you.

SARTANIA: ...To Venezuela.

NWOKOLO: Thank you, Ari. And thank you, everyone else.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

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[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
Jordan-Marie Smith
Jordan-Marie Smith is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.