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Sunday, June 16, 2024

In Global Elections, Strongmen Are Taken Down a Notch

In India, a powerful leader wins another term but sees his party’s majority vanish. In South Africa, the governing party is humbled by voters for the first time since the end of apartheid. In Britain, a populist insurgent barges into an election that is shaping up to be a crushing defeat for the long-ruling Conservatives.

If there is a common thread halfway through this global year of elections, it is a desire by voters to send a strong signal to the powers that be — if not quite a wholesale housecleaning, then a defiant shake-up of the status quo.

Even in Mexico, where Claudia Sheinbaum, a climate scientist and the handpicked successor of the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, was elected in a landslide last Sunday, voters were rewarding the forces that had uprooted the country’s entrenched establishment only six years earlier.

With a billion-plus people going to the polls in more than 60 countries, some analysts had feared that 2024 would pose a fateful test for democracy — one that it might fail. For years, populist and strongmen leaders have chipped away at democratic institutions, sowing doubts about the legitimacy of elections, while social media has swamped voters with disinformation and conspiracy theories.

In some of the biggest, most fragile democracies, leaders like Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey had been regarded as close to invincible, using appeals to nationalism or sectarianism to mobilize supporters and bending institutions to suit their purposes.

Yet now, Mr. Modi and Mr. Erdogan have both had their wings clipped. Soaring inflation, chronic unemployment and uneven economic growth have widened inequality in India, Turkey and elsewhere, frustrating voters who have shown a willingness to buck the establishment.

“We do have electoral systems that are producing outcomes the governing parties didn’t want,” said Ben Ansell, a professor of comparative democratic institutions at the University of Oxford. “They’ve all been destabilized by a tricky economic environment, and behaving like strongmen hasn’t saved them.”

Mr. Modi and Mr. Erdogan remain in power, each now in his third term. But Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., lost dozens of seats and will have to govern in a coalition with two secular parties. Turkey’s opposition struck a blow against Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party in April, winning a string of local elections and solidifying its control of important cities like Istanbul and the capital, Ankara.

“In a lot of countries where there’s been talk of backsliding, that’s where we’ve seen a bounce back,” Professor Ansell said. “For Modi and Erdogan, taking the sheen off their infallibility was very important.”

With so many elections in so many countries, it is dangerous to generalize. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia rolled up 88 percent of the vote in a landslide re-election victory in March that spoke less to Russian public sentiment and more to the ability of an autocrat, facing no meaningful opposition, to stage-manage a show of support for his war in Ukraine.

In Europe, far-right parties are expected to perform well in European Parliament elections, which began on Thursday. Analysts said they did not believe this would jeopardize the political center that has governed Europe in the post-World War II era. And Poland provided a source of reassurance last fall, when voters pushed out its nationalist Law and Justice Party in favor of a more liberal opposition.

Still, the success of far-right figures like Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy, attests to the enduring appeal of populism.

“Populists and right-wingers will continue to make gains and strike fear into the European political establishment,” the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy, said in its analysis of the top risks of 2024.

Britain’s general election was shaken up on Monday when Nigel Farage, a populist politician, pro-Brexit campaigner and ally of former President Donald J. Trump, announced he would run for a seat in Parliament under the banner of his Reform U.K. party, which has a strident anti-immigration message.

That will add to the headache for the Conservative Party, which has lagged the opposition Labour Party by double digits in polls for nearly 18 months. Reform, which is fielding candidates across the country, could siphon off Conservative votes among those who blame the party for a weak economy and rising immigration numbers since Britain left the European Union in 2020.

Some critics argue that the Conservative Party’s problems stem from its free-market policies, which they say have disillusioned voters in disadvantaged parts of Britain and set it apart from right-wing parties in Europe or Mr. Trump’s Make America Great Again movement in the United States.

More fundamentally, though, the Conservatives have been in power for 14 years, and they face the same pent-up dissatisfaction with the status quo that fueled the recent elections in India, South Africa and Turkey.

In some countries, the urge to break with the past has led voters to make unorthodox choices: Javier Milei, a flamboyant libertarian economist, swept to power in Argentina last November with a promise to close its central bank and wage an all-out assault on what he described as a corrupt political “caste.”

Some analysts argue that similarly disruptive forces are driving the presidential race in the United States, where a comparatively healthy economy and the advantages of incumbency have not spared President Biden, who faces a neck-and-neck challenge from Mr. Trump even after the former president was convicted of multiple felonies.

“It’s not about left versus right, it’s about the status quo versus change,” said Frank Luntz, an American political strategist who has lived and worked in Britain. “You can’t buy a house in the U.K., the N.H.S. doesn’t work,” he said, referring to the National Health Service. “In the United States, you can’t afford housing or health care. It’s about broken promises, year after year after year.”

That sense of betrayal is even more acute in countries like South Africa, where the African National Congress, or A.N.C., has governed since the start of democracy there in 1994, piling up majorities even as the economy and social infrastructure crumbled. Last week, voters finally rebelled, driving down the A.N.C.’s vote share to 40 percent, from 58 percent in the last national election in 2019.

Among their biggest complaints is the lack of job opportunities: South Africa’s unemployment rate — at 42 percent, including those who have stopped looking for work — is one of the highest in the world. Stagnation has widened the country’s already profound inequality.

South Africans flock to cities looking for work. But many end up in decrepit buildings and slapdash shack communities, often without running water or sanitary toilets. Regular power outages leave streets dark and residents of many communities vulnerable to crime. South Africa’s murder rate is six and a half times as high as that of the United States and 45 times as high as Germany’s.

Jacob Zuma, the scandal-scarred former president, has benefited from this misery, helping start a new party, umKhonto weSizwe, or M.K., which won nearly 15 percent of the vote, mostly at the expense of his former party, the A.N.C.

Mr. Zuma attracts a feverish following among disillusioned A.N.C. supporters, who accuse the party of selling out to wealthy white businesspeople and not moving aggressively enough to redistribute wealth to the Black majority after apartheid.

India’s election was a comparable anti-incumbent revolt, even if Mr. Modi’s B.J.P. is still the largest party in Parliament by a wide margin. The party’s campaign spending was at least 20 times as much as that of its main opposition, the Congress Party, which had its bank accounts frozen by the government in a tax dispute on the eve of the election. The country’s news outlets have been largely bought off or bullied into silence.

And yet, the results showed Mr. Modi, 73, losing his majority for the first time since he took office in 2014. Analysts said that reflected widespread dissatisfaction with how the fruits of India’s economy have been shared. While India’s steady growth has made it the envy of its neighbors — and created a conspicuous billionaire class — those riches have not flowed to the hundreds of millions of India’s poor.

The government has handed out free rations of wheat, grain and cooking gas. It offers home water connections, subsidizes building supplies and gives farmers cash. But it has not tackled India’s inflation or unemployment, leaving hundreds of millions of people, especially women, chronically out of work.

There is also some evidence that Mr. Modi’s appeals to Hindu nationalism were not as potent as in previous elections. The B.J.P.’s candidate did not even win the constituency that is home to the lavish Ram temple, built on grounds disputed by Hindus and Muslims. Mr. Modi inaugurated the temple just before the campaign started, hoping it would galvanize his Hindu political base.

The economy figured into Mexico’s election as well, but in a very different way. While overall growth was disappointing — averaging only 1 percent a year during Mr. López Obrador’s term — the government doubled the minimum wage and strengthened the peso, lifting millions of Mexicans out of poverty.

“People vote with their wallets, and it’s very obvious there’s more money in the wallets of almost everybody in Mexico,” said Diego Casteñeda Garza, a Mexican economist and historian at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Still, analysts said, there was also a desire among voters to cement the change that Mr. López Obrador, a charismatic outsider, symbolized when he came to power in 2018. Even as Ms. Sheinbaum, 61, vowed to continue her mentor’s policies, she cast herself — Mexico’s first female and Jewish president — as a change agent.

For Jacqueline González, 33, who works at a cargo transportation company and viewed Mexico’s previous governments as corrupt, that made voting for Ms. Sheinbaum an easy decision.

“With Obrador we have already seen, although some people don’t want to admit it, some change,” Ms. González said. “Let’s hope it continues with Sheinbaum.”

Reporting was contributed by John Eligon from Johannesburg, Alex Travelli from New Delhi and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega from Mexico City.

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