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The World Votes: Reflections on a Year of Political Discontent and Change

Public Affairs
The World Votes: Reflections on a Year of Political Discontent and Change

Written by Managing Director, Moray Macdonald

For many, politics feels broken.  With four billion people across the world heading to the polls in 2024, this year will reveal how true this is – it really is the year the world votes.

Recently the UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, issued a statement on the steps of Downing Street to highlight his fear that democracy was under threat. He thought it was “beyond alarming” that the divisive George Galloway had won the Rochdale by-election, he is also concerned that democracy had become “a target” with MPs no longer feeling safe.

The UK experience is reflected in many other countries across the globe. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has calculated that over 400 significant anti-government protests have erupted worldwide.  This has included farmers in Belgium, Germany and France; anti-austerity protests in Argentina; protests about Gaza; and climate change activism.  According to the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg, for the first time in decades there are more closed autocracies than liberal democracies in the world.  We aren’t as free as we might think.

The World in a Depression

For a while now I’ve described the current state of the world as a depression.  I don’t mean an economic one, although it might feel like that too, but a malaise where for many, it feels like our parliaments, governments and officials don’t represent or stand up for us.  On many issues, there is a wide gap between what is concerning your average voter and what the political establishment are talking about.  If that is sustained, then democracies could indeed be at risk.

Politicians who have been around for a while are a bit more hopeful that this is a phase that will pass rather than some kind of democratic doomsday.  John Kerry, former US Presidential candidate and Secretary of State was visiting the UK recently and in a BBC interview said, “Politics in so many places seems to be broken. But the fever will break”.  For that to happen he said that democracies need to step up.  And I would argue that we need many wise heads to do that, including the voice and actions of business.

Drivers of Political Chaos

So what’s driving this chaos?  Conflict is clearly a key factor for many, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent shockwaves throughout Europe.  Hamas’ attacks on Israel and the resulting war in Gaza have inflamed tensions in the Middle East and increasingly appear to be influencing voting patterns in parts of the UK.  Populists are driving culture wars on the back of COVID-19, economic slowdown, climate change and cost of living, amongst other factors.  Arguably modern communication is critical too, with social media and the internet making for the rapid and mass dissemination of views, news and of course fake news.  The rise of AI and the potential for convincing deepfakes is causing real concern for politicians.

Elections have already been held in Pakistan and it saw arrests, violence, an internet blackout and delayed results.  The main opponent was Imran Khan, even though he wasn’t standing and was in jail. In March, we will see the Russian Presidential election, I think we all know the outcome of that one already.

The USA goes to the polls in November for a re-match between pensioners Joe Biden and Donald Trump.  As it stands, it looks like Mr Trump will be back in the White House, although with a risk that he too could even be in or heading to jail.

Rishi Sunak will likely call a UK election in the Autumn. Many in the UK seem to think it is time for a change, including some Conservatives, and unless the polls are wrong, we will see Sir Keir Starmer emerge victorious – whether he has a big or small majority is up for debate.

In Ireland we may well see Sinn Féin enter Government for the first time, something many would have thought not possible just a few years ago.  They also now lead the Northern Irish Assembly, and you can imagine there will be increasing calls for a united Ireland.

The world’s second-largest democratic elections in June will see more than 400 million people across Europe decide who they want to send to the European Parliament.  Here too the polls, and real elections, suggest many more anti-establishment or populist politicians will be returned to Brussels than before.

The Role of Business in Political Change

In most countries the unrest and polarisation we are seeing is causing real difficulties for governments once they get formed.  It’s difficult to get policies through when you have divided parliaments, so-called culture wars, and a fragmentation of what was the dominant political ideas.  Despite all this business can and must play its part in democracy.  Economies need to grow, or we will face ever-increasing inequality and social unrest. It’s business that helps economies grow, and we need to ensure we have a regulatory environment that supports us to do that. 

For political nerds like me, elections are exciting.  But our job at Instinctif is to provide much more than election analysis, it’s about policies, regulations and helping our clients navigate government, shape their business for change, and make sure that governments understand the critical role that business plays in helping them deliver their agendas.  Over the next few months our team of senior experts across Instinctif will be setting out the key issues, why they matter to business, and crucially what you can do to navigate political change or indeed chaos.

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