Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Durham, New Hampshire, U.S. December 16, 2023. Reuters/Brian Snyder
Russia's Vladimir Putin looks set to remain in power until at least 2030; India's Narendra Modi seems certain to extend his rule to 2029; and Donald Trump could return to the White House despite charges of subverting U.S. democracy.
For those who worry that authoritarian rulers are firmly in the ascendant over more liberal democrats, there is likely to be much to fret about in 2024.
In all, the governance of more than a quarter of the world's population will be at stake in elections next year, including Taiwan next month, Russia in March, India by May and the United States in November.
Britain is also likely to elect a new parliament by the end of 2024, though that vote could slip into January 2025.
But no contest could have a bigger impact on the debate over the future of democracy than the U.S. presidential election.
WHY IT MATTERS
Trump, who never conceded defeat in the 2020 U.S. election and falsely claimed the vote was rigged, has vowed retribution on opponents if returned to power, including the Department of Justice, the federal bureaucracy and President Joe Biden.
That has fanned fears that political hostilities in the United States could turn white hot and cause civil unrest.
Trump has a slight lead in opinion polls even as he defends multiple criminal charges against him.
Taiwan holds presidential and parliamentary elections on Jan. 13, and the outcome could shape how Chinese President Xi Jinping pursues his goal of taking control of what Beijing considers "sacred" Chinese territory.
China detests the front-running presidential candidate, the Democratic Progressive Party's Lai Ching-te, believing him to be a separatist. U.S. military officers have said Xi has ordered the Chinese military to be prepared to invade Taiwan by 2027.
In Russia, Putin's re-election as president seems assured after years of cracking down on political opposition. That means Russia's war on Ukraine also looks set to continue, testing the patience of Kyiv's main ally, the United States. Trump has been critical of the high level of U.S. military support for Ukraine.
In India, Modi, another self-styled strongman, is sailing towards re-election as prime minister, having nurtured an uncompromising leadership style that plays well to many voters and foreign investors but riles human rights groups.
If Modi's Hindu nationalist party wins, the economy rather than rights is expected to remain his main focus.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR 2024
In the debate over whether liberal democracy is losing to authoritarianism and autocracy, Africa also has a voice.
Coups in Niger and Gabon this year have extended the retreat of democracy in West and Central Africa, where there have been eight coups since 2020. But further south, a big and lively political contest is in prospect for 2024.
After three decades of government marred by graft and economic decline, South Africa's African National Congress risks losing its parliamentary majority for the first time since Nelson Mandela led it to power in 1994 at the end of apartheid.
If so, the ANC may need a coalition partner to stay in power -- likely either the Democratic Alliance, popular with white voters, or the Economic Freedom Fighters, a Marxist party favoured by poor black voters. Either way, South African democracy will have turned a corner.
The election is due sometime between May and August.
Overall, will democracy take a backward step in 2024?
U.S.-based pro-democracy lobby Freedom House, which uses political rights and civil liberties as a measure of democracy, says it has been in decline for 17 years. But in its latest report card, it suggested democracy was making a comeback.
Thirty-four nations made improvements in 2022 and the tally of countries with declines, at 35, was the smallest recorded since the negative pattern began, it said in the report in March.
By Mark Bendeich