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Opinion: Brace yourself. The elections of 2024 could shock the world

Illustration by Leah Abucayan/Getty

Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at SubStack’s Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a foreign correspondent and bureau chief for The New York Times in Europe and Asia and for CBS News in Paris. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.

Voters have administered some profound shocks to the world’s stability this past year — but nothing like what we can expect in 2024.

Next year, countries with more than half the world’s population will hold elections, as The Economist noted. More than 4 billion people live in the countries that will be voting.

As I’ve seen over the past two years chronicling the world’s elections, patterns, at times chilling, have emerged. Across every continent it has become all too easy for electorates simply to reject long-standing liberal philosophies for shiny brass promises held out by extremes – often from the populist far right.

And the prospects for dramatic change are only intensifying.

The momentous election year kicks off with Bangladesh in January. Already there have been anti-government demonstrations sparked by the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, whose top leaders are jailed or exiled. The BNP has threatened to boycott the polls if Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina does not resign and hand power to a caretaker government ahead of the general election. Hasina is likely to continue her iron-fisted rule of 15 years.

In February, the world’s two most populous Muslim nations — Pakistan and Indonesia – have elections within a week of each other. Pakistan will hold its first general election since popular but divisive former Prime Minister Imran Khan was removed on corruption charges. (He denies all wrongdoing). Though not a candidate, Khan is still the driving force behind his political party.

Indonesia will hold the world’s largest single-day election shortly after — featuring more than 200 million voters in the country and 1.75 million Indonesian diaspora — though voters are unlikely to loosen the grips on power of wealthy business and military elites.

Elsewhere, South Africa will hold perhaps the most epiphanal election in Africa, certainly in its troubled post-Nelson Mandela period. When South Africans went to the polls in municipal elections two years ago, Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) party won fewer than 50% of the vote for the first time, with voters dismayed by the disarray and corruption that have marked too much of its 30-year hold on power. If that downward trend continues at the 2024 general election, it will be a defining moment in South Africa’s political history.

Looking to Europe, there will be nine parliamentary elections, where one of the biggest challenges for incoming governments will be finding coalition partners to form majorities.

Keep an eye on Portugal’s snap election in March. It follows a corruption investigation that forced out the country’s socialist prime minister after eight years in office — and could herald a swing to the far-right Chega (Enough) party. Equally, the right seems poised for big gains in Austria’s election, due by fall.

Also due by the end of January 2025 is the United Kingdom’s general election, meaning we can expect to see British voters likely heading to the polls at the tail end of 2024 — and could even see a return of the Labour Party to power after 14 fraught years of Conservative rule.

Turning to Latin America, Mexico is set to get its first woman president, as two are on the ballot for the main parties in June’s elections, where drugs, crime and migration to the US are at the top of the political agenda. Elsewhere, Venezuela’s wildly unpredictable, nationalist leader Nicolas Maduro will seek a new mandate with the stakes including a border battle with neighboring Guyana over oil rights.

But there are five especially dramatic contests worth spotlighting:

Taiwan on January 13: A new president at the center of US-China tensions

The ruling Democratic Progressive Party’s (DPP’s) presidential candidate, Lai Ching-te, gives a speech on December 3 in Taipei. At this stage, he is seen as the front runner in the general election happening on January 13.Annabelle Chih/Getty Images

The stakes are especially high in this time of heightened tension between Beijing and Taipei as the United States continues to pledge a guarantee of Taiwan’s democracy.

With three presidential candidates, narrow front-runner and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pick Lai Ching-te is anathema to China with his pledge to continue the determined defense of the island’s sovereignty, set by incumbent president Tsai Ing-wen. A close second, Hou Yu-Ih of the opposition Kuomintang (KMT), wants to begin talking with Beijing. A distant third, Ko Wen-je of the Taiwan People’s Party (TPP) and former mayor of Taipei, offers a middle ground closer to conciliation.

If voters go with the status quo, expect Beijing to ratchet up the pressure. “A choice between war and peace,” was the official Chinese response, after unity talks between the opposition parties broke down in November.

Russia on March 17: Putin is leaving little to chance

An electronic screen in Moscow shows Russian President Vladimir Putin during his annual end-of-year press conference on December 14. He is all but certain to remain president following the national election on March 17.Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

There’s little doubt about Vladimir Putin’s planned president-for-life status in his fig-leaf re-election campaign. He’ll be 78 by the end of his term, passing Soviet leader Josef Stalin as longest-serving Russian ruler since Catherine the Great.

Putin is leaving little to chance. So far, he appears to have just one officially-sanctioned opponent — Alexei Nechaev, a cosmetics businessman, who happens to be a member of Putin’s own political coalition the All Russia Peoples Front.

There could well be chaos as there was across Russia in the 2018 presidential contest, although hundreds of thousands of potentially anti-Putin voices have fledabroad during the invasion of Ukraine.

With the very real possibility that this could be the Russian president’s final election — given his age — an emboldened Putin could set his sights after the election on an even broader and more destabilizing effort at reassembling a Soviet empire. And the risk of a direct confrontation with NATO should hardly be excluded.

India in April and May: The world’s most populous nation at a crossroads

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at the opening of the budget session of parliament in New Delhi on January 31. The huge country is set to hold an election over several weeks in April and May.Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

Turning the world’s most populous nation from a vibrant democracy into a Hindu nationalist state approaching a theocracy are the stakes for India in this election, expected to be held over several weeks in April and May. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi devoted his first term to cementing an unyielding Hindu nationalism. Out in the cold are the nation’s roughly 200 million Muslims and 28 million Christians. There are fears an anticipated Modi victory would allow him to complete what he sees as a central element of his mission. 

Next month, Modi will inaugurate a sprawling Hindu temple, rising on the ashes of an old mosque site – a symbolic affirmation of dominance for Modi and all of India’s Hindus.

How does the United States deal with such an individual — central to the developing world and at the same time an important trading partner, a counterweight to Pakistan and its lean toward Russia and China and a strategic bulwark against unchecked Chinese expansion in the Pacific?

European Parliament from June 6 – 9: A major shift to the right?

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen gives her annual State of the Union address at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, on September 13. Every five years, EU citizens choose who represents them in the European Parliament, with the next election happening in June.Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

June will be a critical moment for the future of Europe, as the European Parliament holds its first election since Britain’s withdrawal; and one predicted to provoke huge disarray.

The foundations of a potentially vast right-wing swing have been in the works for years, certainly building throughout 2023. The right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) could even take over as the third-biggest group in the new European Parliament. 

Such a block of determined right-wingers and Eurosceptics could throw sand in the gears of a host of moderate EU programs and backstop rightwing swings domestically in leading powers like Germany and France.

On the line: further aid to Ukraine, sanctions on Russia (already the subject of vetoes from Hungary and Slovakia), curbs on immigration, rollbacks on climate controls, justice and the rule of law across the EU, and a shift on how Europe deals with China.

United States on November 5: The Trump factor and beyond

Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at the Pray Vote Stand Summit on September 15 in Washington, DC.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Even if Donald Trump is not elected president, the balloting and campaign leading to November 5 could shred the fabric of democracy in the United States. And if he is elected, it could have ripple effects for large stretches of the world.

What would NATO look like in the event of a Trump withdrawal? Imagine the comfort to those who would dismantle the alliance entirely.

Then there are all the dictators and would-be dictators that Trump has extended warm words towards. On the campaign trail in New Hampshire on Saturday, Trump quoted Putin in calling US President Joe Biden a “threat to democracy.” At the same event, he praised North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Hungary’s hardline nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

How might these words translate into action in the event of a Trump presidency? After all, he has already pledged to visit Argentina’s bombastic new radical-right president, Javier Milei, who’s suggested replacing the peso with the US dollar, while taking a chainsaw to bureaucracy and budgets.

Where the world will be a year from now will be determined by billions of voters visiting or shunning ballot boxes with varying degrees of freedom and transparency — and the politicians who will demonstrate to what degree they respect the choices their people have made.

Hopefully they will consider carefully and vote wisely.

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