Perspectives

Looking Ahead to a Pivotal Year for Global Freedom

In 2024, democracy supporters will confront a series of events that could prove decisive in the worldwide struggle against authoritarian rule.

Voters in Des Moines, Iowa cast their ballots at Roosevelt High School on November 3, 2020.

Voters in Des Moines, Iowa cast their ballots at Roosevelt High School on November 3, 2020. (Phil Roeder/ Wikicommons)

 

Every moment of every year carries the potential to change the course of history, but 2024 looks to be especially momentous when it comes to democracy and human rights. In the next 12 months, the world will experience an unusually large number of important national elections, and the outcomes of multiple military conflicts may become clear, with each bearing weighty implications for the future of freedom.

The sheer scale and intensity of this multifaceted contest between democracy and its adversaries can seem overwhelming. But if the free world loses heart, forgetting or squandering its own strength, the years to come may be shaped by authoritarian forces. If, however, we work together to meet this challenge, considerably more people will reap the benefits of peace and liberty than the mere one in five who live freely today.

A profusion of major elections

At least 40 countries will be holding national-level elections in 2024. According to the Economist, a total of 76 countries—accounting for more than four billion people, a majority of the world’s population—will hold some form of polling this year. Each of these elections is crucial to the citizens involved, and cumulatively they will have an enormous impact on the world. But two, in India and the United States, deserve special attention.

Indian voters will cast ballots for a new national parliament in May. The ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which has cracked down on civil liberties and exhibited discrimination against religious minority groups during its decade in power, is competing with an opposition coalition led by the liberal Indian National Congress party. The United States and its allies in the region have sought to strengthen ties with New Delhi with the aim of improving collective security and checking aggression from Beijing, yet a partnership based on shared democratic values could become impossible if India’s government continues to engage in undemocratic practices.

The United States itself has suffered democratic erosion over the past decade, driven by factors including partisan polarization, election denialism, and rising mistrust in public institutions, all of which tear at the country’s constitutional fabric. The trend was punctuated most dramatically with the January 2021 assault on the Capitol by supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump. Trump is currently facing four separate criminal cases, including two focused on his attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. Meanwhile, a number of members of Congress, including a significant faction of the Republican Party, have grown skeptical of US support for democratic partners and allies abroad, which could further weaken the United States’ long-standing role as a force for global democratic solidarity.

Democracy at war

There are several flashpoints in the world where democracy’s future will be decided not at the ballot box, but on the battlefield and in the halls of postwar diplomacy.

The free people of Ukraine have achieved remarkable successes in turning back Moscow’s full-scale invasion over the past two years. While Kyiv’s democratic partners in the United States, the European Union, and elsewhere have provided robust material support for its war of self-defense, their political unity began to fracture in late 2023, threatening the continuity of funding and supplies. It is widely understood that a Ukrainian victory is essential for the security of democratic Europe, and that a victory for the Kremlin would encourage further authoritarian aggression on a global level.

The outcome of the war in Israel and Palestine also carries significant implications. Will the conflict end in a Hamas defeat and lead to a renewal of efforts to provide Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza with a democratic state of their own? Or will Hamas’s murderous attack—and Israel’s brutal counterattack—perpetuate the cycle of violence that has undermined peace initiatives for years? Complicating matters is the risk of a widening conflict, as antidemocratic militant groups in Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere ramp up their attacks with support from Tehran and other authoritarian governments.

Israel’s own democratic character has been under pressure in recent years; a controversial government-backed judicial reform was blocked this week by the country’s Supreme Court, but Israeli society remains politically polarized on this and other issues. The current Israeli government has also been unwilling to rein in settler violence in the West Bank or otherwise take steps to ease an occupation that denies basic rights and dignity to Palestinian residents.

In a war that has received far less international attention, democratic forces in Myanmar have battled the country’s vicious military junta largely on their own for nearly three years since a 2021 coup, receiving insufficient assistance from democratic states. Recent gains suggest that the junta’s opponents have a real chance at victory, but the path to peace, democracy, and ethnic inclusion remains long and uncertain, particularly given the potential influence of neighboring China.

Overlooked crises

Myanmar is not the only global hotspot that has suffered neglect from democratic policymakers.

The bloody civil conflict between two antidemocratic military factions in Sudan continues to destroy civilian lives and infrastructure. Each side is supported by different authoritarian actors in the region, with democracies largely sitting on the sidelines as the public’s hopes for an elected civilian government are crushed.

In addition to Sudan, military coups have succeeded in Burkina Faso, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, Mali, and Niger over the past three years, and regional democracies appear unable to intervene. Islamist insurgencies are growing in most of the same countries, and Russian state-backed mercenaries have replaced multiple military aid missions led by France. Separately, decade-old civil conflicts still fester in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, creating opportunities for authoritarian states like Iran and the United Arab Emirates.

The repressive Azerbaijani regime, which recently succeeded in the complete ethnic cleansing of Nagorno-Karabakh Armenians, continues to threaten the borders of the Republic of Armenia. That country, a nascent democracy, has effectively been abandoned by its traditional ally in Moscow, but its outreach to Europe and the United States has yet to result in substantial protection.

Many democracies in Latin America are lurching through constitutional crises or turning to new leaders who offer extreme solutions to pressing governance problems. Guatemala is facing a serious attempt to overturn the results of its recent presidential election, while authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua remain secure in their repression.

Into the breach

The world’s democratic states are collectively wealthy, powerful, innovative, and entirely capable of mastering the challenges before them. They have countless potential allies among the citizens of repressive countries who are struggling to secure their own freedom.

At the same time, authoritarian regimes in countries like China, Russia, and Iran are fully engaged on the other side of the struggle, and they stand to benefit from democracies’ inaction or dysfunction. Each failure to check and deter authoritarian aggression results in another, more dangerous wave of pressure. Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine continues. Beijing is actively encroaching on the territory of at least a half-dozen neighbors, and has been open about plans to “reunite” with democratic Taiwan, endangering the freedom of the nearly 24 million people who live there. Tehran is conducting an orchestra of militant attacks across the Middle East. Even the shambolic regime in Venezuela has threatened to invade neighboring Guyana.

To ensure that the many pivotal events of the coming year turn in the right direction, it is imperative that the political leaders and citizens of all democracies awaken to both the threats and the opportunities, and set aside their internal disputes in pursuit of a far greater and more consequential shared interest in peace, freedom, and prosperity around the world.