The years so far this decade have defied all prediction, usually in miserable but spectacular fashion. In the tiny handful of year-ahead columns in 2020 that mentioned a novel coronavirus in China, it was mentioned as an afterthought, rather than something likely to shut down almost half the world.
Whether or not Russia would invade Ukraine was still a matter of intense debate and disagreement even days before the first assault, with numerous armchair generals happily insisting Russia had moved hundreds of thousands of troops to Ukraine’s border for simple and peaceful reasons. The attack in 2023 on Israel by Hamas took the world just as much by surprise as it did Netanyahu’s lunatic fringe government.
Trying to guess what’s going to happen in the world is as difficult as ever it has been, in other words. But there is definitely one theme that will cut through the year: 2024 is perhaps the single most significant year in terms of elections around the globe that we’ve ever seen.
More than 40% of the world’s populace lives in a country holding a major election next year, and some of the contests will likely have seismic consequences for the world. Some elections are a sham, some will obviously be free and fair, and many in the middle will prove consequential, too.
One common theme and concern across many of them is that of electoral interference and information operations, aided through social media and now artificial intelligence. Given the rise in populist support and frustration (or even contempt) towards mainstream politics, the audience for such disruption is as large as ever it has been, and the tools available to those who would mess with an election are more powerful than ever. There is a good chance that this is the year we find out how much we should have been worrying about this, and preparing for it.
Coming to individual contests, the most obviously alarming international election is likely that of the USA, who will go to the polls to select their next president in early November. Donald Trump’s lead in the Republican primary field is so prohibitively strong that it actually outsizes the total vote share of all of his rivals combined – barring huge shocks, he will be the Republican candidate.
Trump may face criminal trial and could even have been convicted by polling day, but none of these would result in either him becoming ineligible to stand for president nor for him having the nomination withdrawn. On the Democratic side, while Biden’s poll ratings are weak, studies which have compared the race between him and Trump versus other possible nominees show Biden is the best candidate they have.
The result is this: Biden vs Trump is the best chance of keeping Trump from returning to the White House, but Trump is still favoured to win. That could make 2025 very scary indeed.
India goes to the polls this year, with nationalist BJP leader Narendra Modi seeking a third time, this time against a largely united coalition of 18 opposition parties. India’s elections in 2024 align with national votes in Pakistan and Bangladesh also, which could reshape the region’s politics significantly.
One vote unlikely to produce any surprises is that of Russia, which under Putin have hardly been known as anything close to free and fair, not least because any serious opposition figure tends to disappear into a gulag or fall off a roof. In theory, Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy would also face re-election in 2024, but elections are widely expected to be postponed given the country is still under martial law.
Amazingly, 2024 also marks the first set of elections to the European Parliament since Brexit was actually carried out, given the slightly bizarre 2020 circumstances in which the UK voted in a selection of MEPs who were made redundant within just a few months. Few expect these to be a triumph for European unity or Europhiles – early polling suggests hard-right and Eurosceptic parties are in the ascendency, which will likely make life harder for those in the Commission who would seek to centralise the union further.
This is just a selection of the contests coming up, thanks to the strange quirk of the political stars aligning to make 2024 a big year for the demos, but there is one country that is so far conspicuous by its absence – and that’s the UK.
We have every reason to believe that 2024 will be the year in which Rishi Sunak – or perhaps one of his successors – finally gives up running out the clock and calls a general election, which would mark the same time the UK general election happened in a US presidential election year since 1992.
Sunak ‘guaranteed’ the lobby that the next general election would take place next year at their Christmas drinks, but at this stage it would be a brave man who would bet the farm on a promise made by Rishi Sunak.
The reality is that in theory at least, Sunak isn’t actually forced to hold an election before January 2025. It would need to be called in December 2024, and would mean activists having to go out on the doorstep over Christmas, but if the polling looked bad enough, might Sunak eke it out all the same?
It would take a braver man than me to make that bet, but it would at least be fitting for the UK at the moment. In the year when the world goes to the polls, and the country desperately wants to go to the polls, we’re the odd man out waiting for our moment to vote.