Who says elections are passé, a cyclical pastime of largely Western democratic polity as the cliché goes?
The standout feature of 2024 indeed is that the year is poised to be the biggest election year in world history, with 64 presidential and/or general elections, warts and all, scheduled around the globe, excluding the European Parliament elections.
Lest anyone gets carried away with a misplaced euphoria that democracy is alive and kicking, despite the disconcerting rise in geopolitical tensions, conflict and socio-economic uncertainties, this mass exercise in vote casting, assuming they are free and fair, is poised to be the acid test as to the efficacy of the democratic process in delivering tangible benefits to citizens in terms of the various sustainable development metrics.
Detractors of democracy whether in authoritarian states, absolute monarchies, and in Western nations among far-right and far-left populist parties, claim like a stuck record that democracy has spectacularly and consistently failed to deliver the aspirations of ordinary citizens in terms of jobs, housing, education, health care and so on. This is poppycock. Market economics, usually associated with democratic polity, has over the past two centuries presided over the greatest surge in human prosperity.
The problem is that this surge, thanks to the brutal structures of imperialism and colonialism, has been largely one-sided, racist, exploitative, unjust and steeped in dependency and entrenched and widening inequality. The post-slavery, post-colonial, post-independence and post-modern dispensations have seen democratic benefits ostensibly based on shared values take hold albeit fragmented.
But judging by perennial election result disputes ranging from the US to Kenya and most recently in the DRC presidential elections in December 2023, democratic deficits according to Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2023 Report continue to pile up as they have done over the past 17 years, with wars, coups and attacks on democratic institutions by illiberal incumbents the most serious setbacks to freedom and democracy.
The business of democracy has since then evolved, with the downside risks now including cyber-subversion of electoral systems; social media manipulation of the voting process through fake news, bots, trolls etc; the alleged use of Generative AI in undermining elections; corrupt election institutions and officials; dodgy party and political donations; unequal access to media and broadcast services; attempts to block registration of potential voters on spurious and unconstitutional grounds; and the lack of pluralism and diversity in terms of barriers to entry of candidates, parties, officials and the nurturing of a progressive and transparent civic and political culture, without which neither elections nor democracy can meaningfully flourish.
The defining challenge for the scheduled election fest in 2024 as such is how to democratise democracy and make it meaningful to all stakeholders so as to leave no one behind, and to ensure that their development aspirations are at least beginning to be fulfilled. Make no mistake, in the morass of these mass citizen consultative exercises representing over half of the world’s population, will emerge what kind of year 2024 turns out to be.
The four key elections starring in 2024 choose themselves – the South African presidential and general elections, the Indian and UK parliamentary elections between May and the autumn, and the US presidential elections in November. For South African voters will it be an end to the hegemony of a long-discredited ANC which has ruled the country since democratic freedom in 1994?
For India, with the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest democracy, will it be a continuation of a chauvinistic BJP regime and the further marginalisation of a once-proud Congress Party?
For the UK, with its ruling Conservatives presiding over 13 years of austerity which has seen inflation, interest rates and the cost-of-living rise to record post-War II levels, will the axiom that a fatally divided party does not win elections become a truism? For the US, perhaps the biggest challenge for liberal democracy per se, to what extent is American political culture so polarised and dysfunctional that the return of a maverick Trump presidency is a realistic possibility in this battle of the geriatrics.
While elections directly affect the outcomes and lived experience of billions of people, the world effectively saw in the New Year amid the internecine perversity of the conflict in Ukraine and in Gaza/Palestine. As the gong of Big Ben struck the midnight hour to midwife the birth of 2024, Russian missiles were raining down on targets in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities ostensibly in response to Ukranian attacks on Russian targets in Donetsk and in Odessa. Almost in parallel, Israeli jets and armed forces were pounding targets in the enclave of Gaza in a relentless scorched earth policy which has reportedly claimed more than 27000 lives of which almost 7000 were children.
The Palestinian cause has been festering for 75 years, with no sight of any solution let alone a two-state one. The conflict in Ukraine has reached some sort of impasse, at least for now. But if Donald Trump wins the US election, his support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy may start to dissipate on the back of his isolationist foreign policy instinct and his ‘special relationship’ with Russian President Vladimir Putin. If Biden wins, it is a matter of the staying power of unfettered support for Zelenskiy and how long it would take for Ukraine Fatigue to set in on the back of uncertain economic fundamentals.
The moral relativism and difference in the Western response to the two conflicts is revealing. In the case of Russia, it is the demonisation of Putin complete with sanctions, isolation and ostracisation. In the case of Israel, it is unfettered support in aid and arms without impunity for a regime whose very democratic instincts have been soiled by the attempts to undermine the independence of its judiciary and the inclusion of convicted racist antiArab far-right theocratic politicians in the cabinet.
Short of a miracle this trajectory in Ukraine and Palestine will continue in 2024, which will continue to have a knock-on effect on the immediate regions and beyond, especially in terms of fuel and food supply chains, prices and accessibility.
South Africa is the only country to file a case with the International Court of Justice to investigate Israel “for committing genocidal acts in Gaza”.
The fact that Israel is officially fighting the case at the ICJ which is expected to be heard on 11 to 12 January, is no indication about the near-term pathway of the IDF’s conduct of the ground war against the Palestinians both in Gaza and the Occupied West Bank. In terms of geopolitics, the above conflicts will sadly continue to dominate the narrative and reality in 2024, inter-dispersed with the vagaries of coups, smaller conflicts, terrorist acts – both organisation and state-sponsored, extreme climatic events, cyber and social media risks, and catastrophic archetypal natural disasters such as the floods in Bangladesh and the earthquake in Japan – supreme examples of nature’s wrath and warning to humanity.
* Parker is an economist and writer based in London