"But how can you live and have no story to tell?" Fyodor Dostoevsky
"Who wins between Trump and Biden? It's hard to say but expect some fireworks and bizarre twists."
Consider this. If you think 2023 saw a fair amount of political turmoil, in 2024, 50 countries will hold national elections. It has never happened before that 75 per cent of the places that consider themselves democracies will vote in the same year.
Add to the mix, the world is now suffering more wars than at any time since 1945. Also, a vast gap has opened between Washington's rhetoric and the reality of its actions as the world's enforcer. The unipolar world of U.S. dominance is ending.
Happenstance, many unknown variables and unexpected events could conspire to make 2024 a remarkable year. Let's take a canter through some notable elections and related events.
The United States
"The cognitively impaired Grandpa Biden will face off against the strident Trump."
The big one is the U.S. presidential election, with probably two old men fighting it out. Barring a major medical emergency or Trump going to jail, the cognitively impaired Grandpa Biden will face off against the strident Trump.
Don't be fooled by the recent decision by the Colorado Court to bar Trump from running. He doesn't need Colorado to win. Plus, the final decision rests with the Supreme Court, which usually holds that the people, not the courts, decide elections. Also, the fact that Trump filled the court with his mates won't hurt his chances.
And don't make the mistake of 2016, when the media and commentators misjudged Trump and the level of support he enjoys. This time around, Trump owns the Republican Party machine — he's commanding the scene. His disdain for the other republican candidates is such that he won't even debate them.
Who wins between Trump and Biden? It's hard to say but expect some fireworks and bizarre twists.
"India has emerged as a world power."
India, the world's most populated nation, will also go to the polls. However, its democratic credentials have been somewhat damaged by Prime Minister Modi's suspension of 141 opposition parliamentary members. They've earned his wrath for chanting and brandishing placards in parliament.
Modi has a vision for India as a Hindu state. In 2019, he passed a citizenship law that provides a route to Indian citizenship for persecuted religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan that excluded eligibility for Muslims. Following trends elsewhere, he's asserting a nationalist agenda, although, in this case, with a Hindu foundation.
Further, as one of the BRIC nations, India has not agreed to U.S. demands for sanctions on Russia, while relations with China are problematic following border clashes in 2020.
India has emerged as a world power not least because of its nuclear weapons, population size, and accelerating economy. No longer caught in the poverty trap, India is an important international player, and the election in 2024 is significant. Modi will likely win to continue his vision for India.
"Nationalist parties are gaining ground"
Across Europe, nationalist parties are gaining ground on an anti-immigration agenda. Holland, France, Hungary, Poland, Austria, Germany, and Belgium have all seen nationalists advance to a position where they will either win or influence elections at a national and local level. This trend will have consequences for the E.U. consensus that traditionally welcomed migration.
In short-sighted coverage, some of the media seek to portray these parties as 'far-right'. A closer look at their policies reveals a focus on national identity with a desire to curtail the excesses of the multi-culture drive. But in many other aspects, their policies are moderate centralist.
Much of the swing to nationalist parties is driven by a perceived collapse of the social contract as economies stall and funds for services dry up. Fuelling discontent is the view that indigenous people cannot access medical care or housing, while migrants are viewed as getting a free ride.
Some of the liberal elites seek to portray those complaining as racists. This rhetoric kindles more anger that genuine concerns face dismissals by the sheltered privileged.
Simultaneously, the costs for climate initiatives fall disproportionately on the lowest paid communities who are also most hit by migration. Like the U.K. Brexit vote, the public, when alone in the voting booth, will take the opportunity to punish politicians and institutions they perceive have misled, patronised and failed to deliver.
The United Kingdom
"The U.K. is a country living off its past, not investing in its future."
The Labour Party holds a commanding lead in all the polls and should win when the election is called. An election is due before January 2025.
Meanwhile, the shambolic — governing in name only — Conservative Party is busy fighting itself over a policy that is unimplementable. The Rwanda policy for deporting illegal migrants has seen the U.K. fork out millions, with not a single unlawful migrant removed. And even if the policy comes to fruition, only about 250 migrants would go a year. This number is against a background of net migration to the U.K. at a record high of 745,000 in 2022. The stupidity of the policy speaks for itself.
Hong Kong contributed to the U.K.'s net migration with 191,000 people applying for the British National (Overseas) visa since it commenced in January 2021. Yet, the number of applicants has fallen dramatically. Stories of hardship allied to a growing sense that the U.K. is not welcoming, with a poor economy, has curtailed enthusiasm.
Similar factors affected the pre-1997 departures, with a good number eventually returning to Hong Kong. Studies suggest that between 30 to 40 per cent of migrants returned or existed as Taai Hung Yan (太空人) - Astronauts - moving back and forward.
The BNO scheme is due for a review in 2025. It may lapse. And by then, it is unlikely to have attracted the millions that some advocates fancifully claimed would go. Indeed, I suspect that had it drawn that number of people, the Brits would already have slammed the door shut.
What the Labour Party intends to do about migrants is unclear. Indeed, Labour policies in many areas are vague. Their leader, Keir Rodney Starmer, is not attracting great confidence. Still, he's already made it clear the funding taps won't be turned on if he gains power. Further, his shadow health secretary has declared, "The NHS is a service, not a shrine." These statements suggest that Labour wants radical reform that may not play well with the public if funding is tight.
In truth, there are few easy options for the U.K., as made evident in this report - “Ending Stagnation”. Britons have been living with stagnant wages for the last 15 years. Moreover, income inequality in the U.K. is higher than in any other large European country.
Middle-income Brits are now 20 per cent poorer than their peers in Germany and 9 per cent poorer than those in France. Worse, low-income households in the U.K. are now around 27 per cent poorer than their French and German counterparts.
What is the big vision for the U.K. now that the promise of Brexit evaporated? Startlingly, the report concludes that "The U.K. is a country living off its past, not investing in its future."
Renewing the U.K.'s economic strategy will be far from easy, with questions remaining about whether any politician has the stomach for the job. Blunt honesty with voters may lead to electoral oblivion. After all, turkeys rarely vote for Christmas, and that's the drawback of a democratic system.
"Taiwanese voters don't want to antagonize China"
The first nail-biter election of 2024 is in Taiwan. The election, on 13 January, is between the pro-independence, U.S.-backed, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang (KMT).
Taiwan faces several challenges. Topping the list is stagnant wages, a sluggish economy, a shortage of affordable housing, energy security, and defence policy. Eight years of DDP rule has been unable to solve these issues, disappointing many voters.
Polls suggest the race is neck and neck. Yet even if the incumbent DPP wins, voters could reduce their mandate as they signal that they don't want to antagonise China. Perhaps Taiwanese voters are taking heed of the bigger picture.
"What is the end game?"
As Gaza holds the world's attention, Ukraine's leadership is struggling to maintain focus on its conflict. Presidential elections are scheduled in Ukraine on 31 March, although these will likely be postponed.
The much anticipated Ukrainian counter-offensive of 2023 failed. Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Western public has been sold the story of NATO tanks, planes and assorted military hardware winning the war in a total military victory over Russia. That narrative is in tatters as war fatigue creeps in.
With the Russian munitions industry now cranked up and European weapons stocks depleted, the war of attrition favours Putin. Consider that the Russians fired the equal of the entire U.K. artillery stock in a two-day offensive.
If Putin comes to the negotiating table again, will the U.S. and others stand in the way? Will the slaughter continue? In that case, what is the end game?
The Ukrainian people have outperformed everyone's expectations, and Zelinsky has proved a stellar leader. Yet, the hard truth is they can't win. And if Trump enters the White House, he may push the Ukrainians to accept a deal with Russia.
The Big Stuff - The Geopolitical Stage
"In offering unconditional support for Israel, Biden has granted Putin a significant win."
For sure, Washington's leadership of the world order is diminished in a rain of bombs on Gaza. As the rest of the world called for a ceasefire, Washington exercised its veto to block a vote in the U.N. as innocents continued to die in their thousands.
At the start of the onslaught against Hamas, I felt compelled to support Israelis actions given the horrors of 7 October. That support is now faltering in the face of indiscriminate bombing that the U.S. facilitates by policy and supplies of weapons.
In offering unconditional support for Israel, Biden has granted Putin a significant win. Washington cannot, in all seriousness, call out the Russians for their actions in Ukraine when they agree to worst in Gaza. Biden's claims of a ‘rules-based’ world order ring hollow — a fact the rest of the world is now acknowledging.
To illustrate the point, Saudi Arabia greeted Putin with full honours in early December in a remarkable snub to Biden. Further, all the evidence suggests Western sanctions on Russia aren't working. Indeed, Germany and others suffer more as their economy falters without cheap Russian gas.
And what of relations with China? The West has replaced talk of "decoupling" trade with "de-risking." This ambiguous approach recognises that "decoupling" failed; so to hedge its bets, the more flexible term "de-risking" recognises that the West can't ignore trade with China.
In an attempt to blunt China’s rise, Biden imposed restrictions on technology exchanges. Beijing responded in kind, banning rare-earth metal exports needed for EV batteries and other technology. With its monopoly on mining and refining such metals, China is proving it can hit back and make it hurt.
For sure there are some headwinds for the Chinese economy, yet in 2023, China displaced Japan as the largest auto exporter. China’s EV exports are continuing to accelerate at pace that will dwarf the rest within five years.
After the Cold War, with premature zeal, the West, especially the Americans, proclaimed victory. In truth, the demise of the Soviet Union proved a staging post for the next evolution, with the old geopolitical issues unresolved.
In 2024, the withering of America's reach will open space for China, India and others to shape the world order in their image. Lastly, if you are arguing for a rules-based international order, you can't deploy the rules when it's convenient and ignore them when your allies do bad stuff.
Such affected piety wins you no friends. Hold on because 2024 will be a bumpy ride.
Walter De Havilland was one of the last of the colonial coppers. He served 35 years in the Royal Hong Kong Police and Hong Kong Police Force. He's long retired.