A Year Of Elections In Democracies Around The World Is Revealing Deep Dissatisfaction Among Voters

Kristina McGuffey with her 12-year-old daughter, Molly and 9-year-old son Wyatt, speaks while making a purchase at a downtown craft collective Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Greeley, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Kristina McGuffey with her 12-year-old daughter, Molly and 9-year-old son Wyatt, speaks while making a purchase at a downtown craft collective Tuesday, May 21, 2024, in Greeley, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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In a community center in East London, about 20 men gathered for their regular lunch meeting, sipping coffee and tea from mismatched mugs and engaging in an increasingly popular pastime in the world’s democracies: Complaining about their government.

They feel estranged from the country’s leadership — its wealthy prime minister and their members of parliament.

“It feels like you are second-class people. Our MPs don’t represent us people. Political leaders don’t understand what we go through,” said Barrie Stradling, 65. “Do they listen to people? I don’t think they do.’’

In a coffee shop in Jakarta, Ni Wayan Suryatini, 46, bemoaned the results of the recent election, in which the son of Indonesia's former president ascended to the country's vice presidency and the opposition parties seemed to do little to stop him.

"It is difficult to trust them since they only want to reach their goals. As long as they achieve their goals, they will forget everything else,” Suryatini said of politicians.

And inside her cheerfully cluttered craft shop in Greeley, Colorado, Sally Otto, 58, contemplated with dread the upcoming U.S. presidential election between President Joe Biden and the man he defeated in 2020, former President Donald Trump: “I feel like we're back where we were, with the same two poor choices,” Otto said.

As half the world's population votes in elections this year, voters are in a foul mood. From South Korea to Poland to Argentina, incumbents have been ousted in election after election. In just the last week, voters in South Africa who are reeling from deep poverty, inequality and unemployment handed a historic defeat to the African National Congress, which lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since apartheid ended 30 years ago. In Latin America alone, leaders and their parties had lost 20 elections in a row until this past weekend's presidential election in Mexico, according to a tally by Steven Levitsky, a Harvard professor of government.

The dynamic is likely to repeat itself as the European Union launches its legislative elections this week, where conservative populist parties are expected to register gains across the continent. EU parliamentary elections are usually an opportunity for voters in individual countries to vent their frustrations because the candidates they elect will have power in Brussels rather than their own national capitals. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called elections for later this summer in which his party is expected to struggle.

“In many ways we've never had it so good, objectively speaking, and yet people are so unsatisfied,” said Matthias Matthijs, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.


The reasons for the dissatisfaction are many, from social media's ability to magnify problems to the painful recovery from the coronavirus pandemic to the backlash toward economic and cultural changes sparked by globalization and mass immigration.

Though in places like Europe, the populist right has notched several gains and is expected to make more, there is little ideological consistency globally to the unhappiness. In a recent Pew poll across 24 democracies, a median of 74% of respondents said they didn't think politicians cared what people like them think, and 42% said no political party represented their viewpoint.

“It's about economics and culture, but it's also about the functioning of politics itself,” said Richard Wike, managing director of Pew's Global Attitudes Research, citing polarization of voters into warring camps. “It can lead to a situation where politics is seen as a zero-sum game. People see more of an existential threat from the other side, and that makes people unhappy about democracy.”

Experts say there is one notable exception to the trend of global anger with elected leaders — places where the leaders are anti-establishment, populist strongmen of all ideological persuasions.

“Antisystem outsider, populist figures are winning more than in the past,” Levitsky said. “Whether they constitute any movement is unclear to me.”

In Mexico, leftist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is termed out but broke the streak of losses for Latin American leaders' parties as his hand-picked successor, Claudia Sheinbaum, won Sunday's presidential election. In Argentina, newly elected president Javier Milei, a self-described “anarcho-capitalist” dubbed “the madman” by admirers, remains popular despite the country's crippling economic problems that have persisted following his austerity and deregulation reforms.

“I was never interested in politics because nothing ever changed,” said Sebastian Sproviero, a 37-year-old engineer at a Buenos Aires concert that featured Milei belting out rock anthems. “Now it has.”

In India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been criticized for eroding the world’s most populous democracy, the Pew poll found the country had the highest support among all surveyed countries for a more authoritarian form of government, with two-thirds of respondents there backing a strong leader system of government.


Still, even some of the more authoritarian governments such as Modi's have had to deal with dissatisfaction with the status quo. Modi appears to have won his third term as India’s prime minister in national elections that wrapped up Tuesday, but his conservative Hindu nationalist party had an underwhelming showing and will likely need to join a coalition to form a government.

In Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stocked the judiciary and media with loyalists and revised the country's constitution to favor his party, a former member of his Fidesz party, Péter Magyar, has emerged as a new, increasingly popular critic and challenger.

“More and more people in Hungary are increasingly feeling this antiestablishment desire,” said Péter Ember as he attended one of Magyar’s recent demonstrations in Budapest. “We really want to reform this existing political culture, from the opposition to the ruling party. We want a new one, and we want people that work for us.”

The global anti-incumbent mood, coupled with the success of antiestablishment populists, comes amid several warning signs for the health of democracy. The Pew poll found democracy's appeal slipping, even as it remained the preferred system of government around the world. Freedom House, a Washington-based organization that promotes democracy, said its “Freedom Index” measuring democratic health globally has declined for 18 straight years.

Adrian Shahbaz, a vice president at Freedom House, attributed the erosion of support to a series of crises since the turn of the century, including the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in the U.S., the 2008-09 global recession and the coronavirus pandemic. Adding to the stress, he said, is the increasing focus on identity issues such as transgender policies and immigration in democratic politics, especially in Europe and the U.S.

“The key cleavages in democracies tend to be around identity issues rather than economic ones,” Shahbaz said. “That in itself can be very risky because democracy depends on a civil identity that goes beyond tribal identifications.”

Still, the picture is not all gloom for democracy. The anti-incumbent fervor also helped spur some victories for people's rights to choose their own leaders.

In Senegal in March, voters selected a new president after the incumbent unsuccessfully tried to postpone the election. In Guatemala last year, Bernardo Arévalo, a sociologist and anticorruption crusader, won the country's presidential election despite efforts by the incumbent party to block certification of his victory.


One of the greatest tests comes in the U.S. in November when voters will decide whether to stay with Biden or return Trump to the White House. The former president unsuccessfully tried to overturn his 2020 election loss, leading to the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and two of the four criminal cases he's currently facing. Biden, meanwhile, is hampered by an unenthusiastic public — 61% of adults did not approve of his performance in office in an AP-NORC poll taken in March. A CNN poll found 53% of registered voters were unhappy with the choice between Biden and Trump.

The low poll numbers frustrate many Biden advisers given the U.S. economy's relatively strong recent performance compared with the rest of the world. But international pollsters say the U.S. shows particularly stark signs of polarization and unhappiness. The Pew poll identified sharper levels of polarization in the U.S. than in most other democracies. The Gallup Organization found that the U.S. ranks at or near the bottom in confidence in its institutions among the wealthy G7 countries.

One of the few things that unites U.S. voters is frustration over their choices in this fall's presidential contest, a relic of the country's winner-take-all constitutional system, which naturally devolves into competitions between two major political parties fought in the few states where the Electoral College votes are up for grabs.

“I’m angry, but it’s like, what is the solution to my anger? Who am I going to vote for is a great question because the answer is I really don’t know, to be quite honest," said Kenji Takada-Dill, a 30-year-old video editor in Seattle. "We’ve known for a long time that the two-party system doesn’t work. None of the candidates represent my beliefs or my values.”

In Greeley, a city of 112,000 that lies on Colorado's plains 60 miles northeast of Denver, Otto, the craft store owner, said she probably leans conservative but has long tried to ignore politics. That's proved harder since she started using social media to promote her business, where the country's nasty partisan feuds have leaked into her feeds as she promotes ceramics classes and youth programs.

Stepping into the store with her two children, Kristina McGuffey, 41, also bemoaned the increasing toxicity of U.S. politics.

“I just love the way America was founded, one nation under God,” McGuffey said. “We've become people who, when we don't get our way, we throw a hissy fit.”


Riccardi reported from Denver, DeBre from Buenos Aires and Kirka from London. Associated Press writers Gary Fields in Washington, Justin Spike in Budapest and Edna Tarigan in Jakarta contributed to this report.


See AP's coverage of global elections in 2024 here.