Uniquely, in 2024 over 40 nations will be facing elections, comprising 41% of the world's population and an equal percentage of global GDP. Of course some elections like the one in Russia and Belarus have foregone outcomes. Also a win for Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also being foreseen, based on his continuing popularity. But many elections are critical to the perpetuation of the western-supported post-World War II liberal democratic order.
Three that can have major international implications are those in Taiwan on January 13, for electing the European Parliament in June and the US presidential election on November 5. The reasons of course for that are varied.
In Taiwan the current Vice President Lai Ching-te, of the Democratic Progressive Party, is seen as leading. While he does not openly proclaim independence for Taiwan, he rejects kowtowing to the Chinese Communist Party. His win is likely to trigger Chinese paranoia and likely military maneuvers to browbeat the incoming government. It is unlikely that China will go beyond intimidating through aggressive naval and air deployments around the Taiwanese island. However with domestic economic news not encouraging and growing youth unemployment the extent to which a beleaguered autocratic ruler may go can hardly be exaggerated.
The European Union, after Brexit and the Ukraine war, has seen the domestic politics of some members veer to the right. The exceptions have been the recent election in Poland and earlier in Spain. Hungary has been a flawed democratic state for some years. The Netherlands has seen the victory of right wing parties. Elections are due in the United Kingdom before January 2025. It is likely that after 14 years of rule by the Conservative Party the nation may swing towards Labour. In France, a tough Immigration Law was just passed with the President E Macron having to rely on his right wing rival Marine Le Pen. In Germany also the 3-party centrist ruling coalition of Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced embarrassment when the Constitutional Court struck down their budget based on legal manipulation. If the coalition falls, the expected gains of far-right Alternative for Germany(AfD) can spell a major shift in Europe’s economic powerhouse.
Although Europe’s rightward swing is driven by economic woes, for which the people hold immigration responsible, it has serious implications for the western liberal democratic order and the Ukraine war. As it is with the Republicans blocking military aid in the US Congress to Ukraine the responsibility to help Ukraine passes to EU nations. But if more right wing parties capture power in important EU nations, most opposing military aid to Ukraine, the consequences would benefit Russia.
The US presidential election is the last major event that can either help sustain the existing geopolitical order under President Joe Biden’s leadership, if he retainsor power, or face grave uncertainty if Donald Trump triumphs. Combined with the churn in Europe this could create serious geopolitical uncertainty. For instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin, buoyed by failure of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, is already more cockily beginning to engage global leaders, at home and abroad.
The Indian government has begun adjusting to the possible new scenarios. A five-day visit by Indian External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar to Russia is indicative of diminished concern about offending the US. The Pannun affair involving a US sting operation to catch an India-linked assassination plot to bump off US citizens could also be driving the strong Russia outreach. Although India had been buying discounted Russian oil all along, despite US sanctions, India maintained certain redlines, like not supplying weapons or munitions. That squeamishness is now over as India perhaps calculates that Russia will emerge from the Ukraine war largely unscathed, while the US is returning to finger-pointing over matters that the government considers as affecting Indian sovereignty and integrity.
One element that will continue to create disruption in 2024 is the Gaza conflict. The US ability to influence Israel faces a conundrum. The US gains influence by providing military and other aid, but if it threatens to limit it the public opinion in Israel turns hostile, blunting the US’ ability to coerce. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also faces a dilemma. His stated objective of decapitating Hamas and eliminating its threat is hardly achievable in limited time. However the longer the conflict continues the greater international uproar over civilian deaths and hardship.
Iran has created a pincer move with Yemen-based Houthis disrupting shipping in the Red Sea and Hezbollah causing a distraction from the North via Lebanon. Until December 24, over 280 container vessels had been diverted away from the Red Sea-Suez Canal route. Besides them also diverted have been scores of ships carrying oil etc now going around the Cape of Good Hope. This is unlikely to improve unless an Egyptian sponsored ceasefire is accepted by Israel and Hamas.
The New Year thus will bring challenges, making it premature to prefix “Happy” to it.
KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs