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The decline of strongmen in global elections

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In India, a strong leader won another term but his party lost its majority. In South Africa, the ruling party lost to voters for the first time since the end of apartheid. In Britain, a populist insurgent stormed into an election that would have been a crushing defeat for the long-ruling Conservatives.

If we say that we are already halfway through this year’s global elections, there is one thing they all have in common: voters all want to send a strong signal to those in power – even if it is not a complete purge, then they are determined to shake up the status quo.

Even in Mexico, where climate scientist Claudia Sheinbaum was elected president in a landslide on Sunday as President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s hand-picked successor, voters are rewarding the forces that toppled the country’s entrenched ruling class just six years ago.

With more than a billion people set to vote in more than 60 countries, some analysts fear the 2024 elections will be a fatal test for democracies that could fail after years of undermining them with populist and strongman leaders sowing doubt about the legitimacy of elections while social media inundates voters with false information and conspiracy theories.

In some of the largest, most fragile democracies, leaders such as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are seen as virtually invincible, using nationalism or sectarianism to mobilize supporters and twisting institutions to suit their ends.

Now, however, both Modi and Erdogan have lost their power. Soaring inflation, stubbornly high unemployment and uneven economic growth have widened inequality in India, Turkey and elsewhere, frustrating voters willing to rebel against the establishment.

“Our electoral system does produce outcomes that the ruling party doesn’t want,” said Ben Ansell, professor of comparative democracy at Oxford University. “They were all destabilized by a tough economic environment, and a strongman approach failed to save them.”

Modi and Erdogan remain in power, both in their third terms. But Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost dozens of seats and will have to form a coalition with two secular parties. Being hit In April this year, the Turkish Armed Forces won a series of local elections in a contest with Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and consolidated their control over key cities such as Istanbul and the capital Ankara.

“In many countries, people are talking about going backwards, but we are seeing things getting better,” Professor Ansell said. “It is very important for Modi and Erdogan to take the shine off them.”

With so many elections in so many countries, it’s dangerous to generalize. Russian President Vladimir Putin received 88% of the vote in one election. Landslide reelection victory The move in March said less about the mood of the Russian public than about a dictator’s ability to put on a show supporting his war in Ukraine without facing any meaningful opposition.

In Europe, far-right parties are expected to do well in European Parliament elections that begin Thursday. Analysts say they do not expect this to endanger the political center that has dominated Europe since World War II. Poland’s election results last November were reassuring, when voters ousted the nationalist Law and Justice party in favor of a more liberal opposition party.

Yet the success of far-right figures such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meroni demonstrates the enduring appeal of populism.

“Populists and right-wing elements will continue to gain ground and strike fear into the hearts of European politicians,” said Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, in its analysis of the biggest risks for 2024.

Britain’s general election was shaken on Monday by the election of Nigel Farage, a populist politician, Brexit supporter and ally of former President Donald Trump. Announce He will run for the parliamentary seat on behalf of the Reform Britain Party, which has a strong anti-immigration stance.

That would spell more trouble for the Conservatives, who have trailed the opposition Labour Party by double digits in opinion polls for nearly 18 months. The Reform Party is fielding candidates across the country, which could appeal to those who blame the Conservatives for Britain’s weak economy and rising immigration since Brexit in 2020.

Some critics argue the Conservatives’ problems stem from their free-market policies, which they say have disappointed voters in poorer parts of Britain and set them apart from right-wing parties in Europe or Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign in the United States.

But more fundamentally, the Conservatives, who have been in power for 14 years, face the same pent-up dissatisfaction with the status quo that characterized recent elections in India, South Africa and Turkey.

In some countries, the urge to break with the past has led voters to make unconventional choices: In Argentina, liberal economist Javier Milei came to power last November on a promise to close the country’s central bank and launch a full-scale attack on what he called a corrupt political “class.”

Some analysts believe similar disruptive forces are driving the U.S. presidential race, and that America’s relatively healthy economy and incumbency advantage have not spared President Biden, who still faces a fierce challenge from Trump even after former President Trump was defeated. Convicted of multiple felonies.

“This isn’t a fight between left and right, this is a fight between the status quo and change,” said Frank Luntz, an American political strategist who has lived and worked in Britain. “You can’t afford a house in Britain, and the NHS doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the National Health Service. “You can’t afford a house or health care in America. This is the broken promise year after year.”

The sense of betrayal is even more acute in countries like South Africa, where the African National Congress (ANC) has been in power since democracy began in 1994, amassing a majority despite a crumbling economy and social infrastructure. Voters finally revoltedThis resulted in the ANC’s vote share dropping from 58% in the last national election in 2019 to 40%.

Their biggest complaint is Lack of employment opportunitiesSouth Africa’s unemployment rate, at 42%, including those who have stopped looking for work, is one of the highest in the world. The economic stagnation has exacerbated the country’s already high inequality.

South Africans flock to cities in search of work. But many end up living in dilapidated buildings and shantytowns, often without running water or sanitary toilets. Frequent power outages leave streets dark and many communities vulnerable to crime. South Africa’s murder rate is 6.5 times that of the United States and 45 times that of Germany.

Jacob ZumaThe scandal-ridden former president profited from that pain, helping to found a new party, the People’s Spear (MK), which won nearly 15% of the vote, mostly at the expense of his former party, the African National Congress (ANC).

Zuma has attracted large numbers of supporters disillusioned with the ANC, which they accuse of selling out to wealthy white businessmen and not taking enough aggressive steps to redistribute wealth to the black majority after the end of apartheid.

India’s election was a similar uprising against the incumbent government, though Modi’s BJP remains the largest party in parliament by a huge margin. The BJP spent at least 20 times more on its campaign than the main opposition Congress, whose bank accounts were frozen by the government on the eve of the election over a tax dispute. Much of India’s news media has been bought off or silenced.

However, the results showed that Modi, 73, lost his majority for the first time since taking office in 2014. Analysts said it reflected widespread dissatisfaction with how the fruits of India’s economy have been distributed. While India’s steady growth has been the envy of its neighbors — and created a striking billionaire class — that wealth has not trickled down to hundreds of millions of India’s poor.

The government distributed free wheat, grain and gas. It provided household water, subsidized building materials and gave cash to farmers. But it did not solve India’s inflation and unemployment problems, which left hundreds of millions of people, especially women, jobless for a long time.

There is also some evidence that Modi’s appeal to Hindu nationalism is not as powerful as in previous elections. BJP candidates did not even win the constituency that houses the lavish Ram temple, built on land disputed by Hindus and Muslims. Modi inaugurated the temple before the campaign began, hoping it would energize his Hindu political base.

The economy also influenced the Mexican election, but in a very different way. While overall economic growth has been disappointing — averaging just 1% a year during López Obrador’s term — the government has doubled the minimum wage and strengthened the peso’s exchange rate, helping lift millions of Mexicans out of poverty.

“People vote with their wallets, and it’s clear that almost everyone has more money in their wallets,” said Diego Castañeda Garza, a Mexican economist and historian at Uppsala University in Sweden.

But analysts say voters also want to solidify the changes that López Obrador symbolized when he came to power in 2018. A charismatic outsider, Sheinbaum, 61, has vowed to continue her mentor’s policies but has cast herself — Mexico’s first female Jewish president — as an agent of change.

For Jacqueline González, 33, who works for a freight-hauling company and believes Mexico’s previous governments were corrupt, the decision to vote for Ms. Sheinbaum was a no-brainer.

“As much as some people don’t want to admit it, we’ve seen change with López Obrador,” Ms. González said. “Hopefully, Mr. Scheinbaum can keep up the momentum.”

Reported by John Alligan From Johannesburg, Alex Travelley From New Delhi and Emiliano Rodriguez Mejia From Mexico City.

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