The World in 2024: The Only Election That Matters is in the US
But otherwise, there’s plenty to worry about
There are many elections due in Asia in 2024. Unfortunately, the only one that really seems to matter, whatever your country or preferences, is the November general one in the US. There are those in the rest of the world who would favor a more isolationist US, not one ever eager to be a decision-maker or at least a player. Those who welcome US military links are still worried about why the US still has troops in Iraq and even Syria, creating targets rather than imposing peace.
But given China’s global ambitions, given the rising threat to open global trade, the prospect of a sudden US withdrawal from more significant bases is worrying at least in Asia where former and possible future President Donald Trump’s sudden exit from the trade deal the US had sponsored is not forgotten. And there is the more general fear of Trump’s erratic instincts and ethno-nationalism. Thus China may be more comfortable with a predictable Biden than a Trump who does more harm than just damage US relations with its old allies. Trump seems to be Putin’s candidate, not Xi’s.
Yet even if an aging and unpopular Biden can keep his party together and the next recession doesn’t hit for another year, the capacity for the US to overreach, notably in the Middle East, never ceases to undermine its global role.
The scope of the Hamas attack on Israel and the brutality of the Jewish state’s response must count as an “unknown unknown” prior to October 2023. The reaction to it has so far been more muted than expected. The US remains trapped in unthinking support for Israel despite that nation’s apartheid-style laws, continuing land-grabbing in the West Bank, and de facto rejection of the “two-state solution.” Arab states remain, as usual, divided by ideology, self-interest, fear of Iran, and rivalry between Sunnis and Shias. Other nations pay no heed to Iraq and Syria despite their pivotal role in world history – and the presence of US bases.
But that isn’t to say that the matter will go away in 2024. As it smolders on, pitting in effect seven million Palestinians in Israel+Gaza+West Bank in an unequal but unending struggle against seven million Jews, the global beneficiary seems set to be China. The US is too blinded by its own sense of self-importance to stand against almost the whole United Nations in not backing a Gaza ceasefire. Indeed, even without Trump the US is in danger of being dragged into further conflicts at the behest of Israel by directly taking on Hezbollah and the Houthi insurgents in Yemen. Meanwhile, rolling out more financial sanctions will almost certainly not work without further undermining the long-term role of the dollar and providing a good reason for China to try to offer an alternative means of transfers.
Chinese diplomacy had been through a bad patch with wolf warrior talk, aggressive actions in the Southeast and East China seas and the Indian frontier, and boasting about its military strength. But it has started to back away after noting how much it has done to push most of East and Southeast Asia and India into closer relations with the US. Relations with Vietnam, Australia, and even Japan have improved.
At the same time, China has seen the gains to be made in presenting itself as a friend of the so-called Global South and hence a source of resentment, current or historical, against the West. Gaza feeds directly into this. China does not need to state that Israel is a colonial enterprise. That is understood in much of the Global South, including in India, however many Hindu nationalists have a knee-jerk distaste for most things Muslim.
China had already made a major diplomatic breakthrough earlier in 2023 with its role in bringing Iran and the Saudis to talk to each other and limit their proxy war in Yemen. However, as much as the Saudis detest Hamas, the Houthis, and Hezbollah, they do not want to become a target themselves or to be seen as cozy with the US. China offers the possibility of being able to lean on Iran to moderate its proxies’ activities. Regardless of their death tolls Hamas (or equivalent) and the Houthis are not going away and the West’s quasi-friends in the region, Egypt and Turkey, will view China with favor.
In short, the chance of the situation in the Middle East improving radically in 2024 is tiny. The Ukraine war on the other may be nearing a stalemate with Ukraine’s efforts to recapture territory having stalled but with still enough western backing to hold their own. A Trump victory would weaken that but Russia has its problems too, including the failure of its efforts with Saudi Arabia to drive up oil prices.
A known unknown in the Middle East however is the succession to Supreme Leader Khamenei who has been at the top of an increasingly restive Iran since 1989. He is 84 years old and said to be in failing health. Whether there is a quiet clerical succession with the Revolutionary Guard becoming even more influential than already remains to be seen. It would likely be more nationalistic but less focused on religion. There remains however the possibility that Khamenei’s demise will see mass demonstrations which force major changes in the cleric-led regime. But in the short term at least these are unlikely to alter the regional picture.
Nor are any of the upcoming Asian elections. Even a victory for the KMT in Taiwan, currently seen as unlikely, would induce only a moderate shift in cross-strait relations. India seems unlikely to vote Modi out of office if only because the opposition, Congress and its allies, lack the leadership to exploit Modi’s weaknesses, which include long incumbency. The Bangladesh opposition-boycotted election will simply make the eventual succession to Hasina more difficult. Whatever the outcome of Pakistan’s election the military will continue to determine, one way or another, who gets to be prime minister. It will not be former PM and erratic populist Imran Khan.
Indonesia presents a more interesting situation which may show that dynastic politics can backfire. With the (unstated) backing of President Widodo whose son is vice-presidential candidate, Prabowo Subianto, former son-in-law of former president Suharto, is leading a three-cornered race. But a lot could change not only between now and the February 14 vote and then by June when a second round, with only two candidates, would be held. It may also see whether Sukarno’s daughter and another former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDI-P can muster enough votes in support of Ganjar Pranowo, the former governor of Central Java.
Less likely but still possible is that the former governor of Jakarta Anies Baswedan will beat Ganjar in the first round. With legislative elections also on February 14 there is plenty for democracy-watchers to study. But the result will have only a marginal influence on Indonesia’s international position. All candidates are ideologically very flexible, and have strong links to old elites with vested economic as well as political interests to protect. But competition between them keeps elections alive so shocks such as the 2014 election of Widodo can happen again.
Singapore elections are not due till 2025 but just might be held earlier if popular grumbles about rising consumption taxes abate and Lee Hsien Loong’s currently chosen successor Lawrence Wong can take advantage of a mood for change.
Otherwise in Southeast Asia, Malaysia and Thailand seem comfortably stuck in moderate economic growth and political systems which obstruct change and good government but are largely tolerated. The same could be said of the Philippines but its demography is providing an economic boost with growth in the 5.5-6 percent range. Vietnam has yet to reach the aging problem confronting Thailand, Singapore, and others though global supply chain changes may no longer provide much boost to its exports.
India is likely to remain the star performer of the major economies, helped by its demographics, limited reliance on foreign trade, and the quality of some of its workforce. But it will be very unequally distributed geographically. China’s growth will remain slow due to global trading obstacles, an aging workforce, an obsession with state security, and the long hangover from the property boom and bust. It will however keep a lid on its banking problems, albeit at long-term cost as previously seen in Japan.