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After years of decline, countries across the world are voting for democracy in 2024

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Millions of people around the world have cast ballots in elections this year in over 30 countries in an era of democracy and decline and authoritarianism on the rise. It's also a chance to check in with NPR's global democracy correspondent Frank Langfitt. Frank, thanks so much for being with us.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Great to be here, Scott.

SIMON: How's democracy doing this year?

LANGFITT: I think, so far, surprisingly well. I've been talking to a bunch of analysts and they're more upbeat than I expected, you know, especially coming after so many years of decline. And what we're seeing, I think, is many elections are competitive. The best and obvious recent example was just this week, Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, his party, the BJP, Hindu nationalist party, lost their majority in Parliament for the first time. And so this is a guy who, if you think about it last week, was seen as a juggernaut and is now humbled and weakened.

Another example - in March, a stunning story, which we covered as well, in Senegal, the government tried to delay elections there. The constitutional court blocked it. And then there was this little-known opposition politician released from prison as part of an amnesty. Weeks later, he ends up in the presidential palace.

SIMON: But to what degree is democracy on the ballot? Are people voting for democratic leaders consciously against autocratic ones?

LANGFITT: That's a really good question. It can be a factor in some elections, but more often, people are voting on more tangible domestic issues. In South Africa - this is a really good example - last week, voters really bashed the African National Congress. They lost their parliamentary majority as well. They've been in power for 30 years. You know, there's massive corruption and massive unemployment there. And I was talking, Scott, to Steve Levitsky. He's a professor of government at Harvard. He also wrote that book "How Democracies Die." And I asked him what drives voters around the world, and this is what he said.

STEVE LEVITSKY: Most voters are not thinking about democratic rules and procedures or rights. But most voters are thinking about a variety of different things. Sometimes it's their identity. Sometimes it's pocketbook issues, sometimes it's things like crime, but usually have other things on their mind.

SIMON: Frank, what are the trends you're seeing?

LANGFITT: The other thing that's really, I think, very important, especially here in the United States and in Western Europe, is this has been, in recent years, a difficult time for incumbents. Many voters are - you know, whether it's autocrats or whether it's democrats, they're unhappy with the performance of their governments. Modi is a great example. India is now the world's fifth-largest economy, but Modi has not been able to create the millions of jobs that he needs to lift so many people out of poverty, which, of course, is what China did over many, many years. And this cost him at the polls. Generally, there's a lot of discontent out there, and one of the concerns is that can lead, particularly in Western democracies, people to go for more autocratic people, more autocratic populists.

SIMON: And have we seen setbacks for democracy this year as well?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. You know, in February - you and I were talking about this earlier - Nayib Bukele - he calls himself the world's coolest dictator - he won a landslide in El Salvador. And he's been very successful because of this brutal crackdown on gangs. And he was only able to actually run because his allies in the legislature, they stacked the Supreme Court so he could run in back-to-back terms.

You know, another example is Indonesia. If you go back to 1998, President Suharto, he was the dictator. He was forced out of power. And Indonesia became a really successful democratic story. You now have the new president, he was alleged to be involved in human rights abuses, and he's Suharto's former son-in-law.

SIMON: Frank, of course, we're coming up to elections here in the fall. What effect might elections here in the United States have on the state of democracy around the world?

LANGFITT: When I talk to people about this, there's a universal consensus of analysts that if Trump wins, it could be profound. As we know, former President Trump admires autocrats, transactional by nature. And there's a really good example of the impact this could have. Do you remember back in - last year in Guatemala? There was this anti-corruption campaigner, Bernardo Arevalo. He won, but corrupt politicians, they tried to block him. The Biden administration got involved, put a lot of pressure on, and, in fact, Arevalo was able to take office. I was talking to Scott Mainwaring. He's a political scientist at Notre Dame. He says if Trump had been in the White House, it would have been a different story.

SCOTT MAINWARING: I think it's very unlikely that the Arevalo inauguration would have happened, right? I mean, for the Trump administration, and they're very clear about this, democracy in Latin America is not a priority.

LANGFITT: So, Scott, I think, no matter what happens here on November 5, I think the results are going to reverberate around the world.

SIMON: NPR's global democracy correspondent Frank Langfitt. Thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Great to talk, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.