THIS is going to be a big year for democracy - the biggest ever, in fact - with a record number and percentage of humankind set to vote in elections in 2014. In a remarkable milestone in history, almost 3 billion people - or 40 per cent of the world's population - in more than 40 countries will face a national poll.
This busy calendar of elections is as extraordinary for the diversity of nations and peoples participating as it is for its numerical scale. It includes the world's second- to fifth-most populous nations - India, the United States, Indonesia and Brazil - and some of the newest or most fragile democracies, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, and South Africa. In our region it also includes New Zealand, Thailand, Bangladesh and Fiji.
But while a record number of people will cast a democratic vote this year, the future of democracy is less than certain. Indeed, democracy will be tested mightily in 2014.
It has been a terrible start to the year. Elections in Bangladesh and Thailand in January were farcical and inconclusive, with a high risk that government paralysis and widespread violence will ensue.
The elections in India in May, and those in Indonesia in April and July, will be of particular significance to Australia. In terms of testing the administration of the democratic process, nothing beats the Indian national election. The biggest election ever, it will involve more than 700 million people attending more than 800,000 polling stations over five weekends.
In both India and Indonesia analysts are predicting regime change, with the new governments likely to be more nationalistic and less pro-Western than the incumbents. In India, the current front-runner to become prime minister, Narendra Modi, is barred from travelling to the US because of his handling of riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002.
The US, too, has a national poll in 2014, with congressional elections in November. A recent Gallup poll found less than half the American population have trust and confidence in their government, a record low. In this environment, getting voters to turn out will be tough and fringe political elements will find campaigning easier.
A similar crisis of faith exists in Europe, where the European Union parliamentary elections will be held in May. Many analysts expect a record-high vote for the populist and nationalist parties that typically operate on the periphery of European politics.
Given recent military commitments, the elections due in Afghanistan and Iraq in April will be keenly watched. Sadly, the Afghanistan election is likely to be plagued by corruption, violence and voter fraud. And the recent surge in sectarian violence in Iraq suggests the elections could lead to civil war.
These elections have the potential to turn the balance of power in global affairs, or spark widespread bloodshed. They also provide an insight into the durability of modern democracies.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the American academic Francis Fukuyama and others triumphantly predicted ''the end of history''. The theory was that the spread of democracy was inevitable, and that this would universally deliver pro-Western, capitalist, liberal governments. More than two decades later, the theory has proven both wrong and right.
Last year, events in Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Russia and China showed that authoritarian tendencies remain strong. In its latest Freedom in the World report, the US think tank Freedom House noted that in 2012 more countries registered declines in freedom than gains for the seventh year in a row. In China and Egypt, the middle class have chosen stability above democracy. In the US, Fukuyama now despairs about the state of his country. In his view, liberal democracy is now under threat due to its shrinking middle class. And in Europe, the rise of populist nationalist political parties is exposing old fault lines that should carry dark warnings for students of history.
Democracy will be tested like never before in 2014
In many advanced democracies - including our own - citizens are feeling increasingly disillusioned, cynical and discontented with how the system is working. The inability of the system to implement worthwhile reform has many people questioning the merit of democratic institutions.
In the midst of all this, it is easy for supporters of democracy to despair. But there are also reasons for hope.
Surveys of citizens in advanced democracies find very strong support for the ideals of democratic government. It remains the model that most developing nations strive for - according to Freedom House, there were 69 electoral democracies in 1990; today there are 117. The so-called Arab Spring has demonstrated that democracy has a potent allure for ordinary people, even in theocratic regimes.
A balanced view of democracy requires an acceptance of its often-confounding results. Elections are, by definition, populist. In Egypt and countless other places, a democratic ballot is simply not going to produce the liberal capitalist government that Western powers hope for. Sometimes the result may put at risk freedoms held dear in other democracies.
This is where vigilance is required. Not just in terms of preserving the free and fair electoral process, but also the vital supporting institutions, such as an independent judiciary, free media, and organised groups that reflect the varied interests of a civil society.
Democracy will be tested like never before in 2014 and, in many cases, found to be wanting. In such cases, it will be worth remembering Winston Churchill's famous phrase: ''No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government - except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.''
This article first appeared at The Age.