ANDREW NEIL: With Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong Un issuing New Year threats, the West’s

Welcome to the Year of Elections. About four billion people — roughly half the world’s population — will go to the polls in 2024, from India to Mexico, America to Russia, Pakistan to the European Parliament and many places in between.

We’re almost certain to have a general election in dear old Blighty, too. It would be comforting to regard the coming year as a great Festival of Democracy: comforting, but wrong.

Even though there will be votes in over 60 countries, 2024 is more likely to be a year of crisis for democracy, which is in greater peril than at any time since the Cold War, perhaps even since the 1930s. Far from this being the Year of Democracy, there is a graver danger it will turn out to be the Year of the Despots.

For a start, some of the elections scheduled for 2024 will be neither free nor fair. Who can doubt president Vladimir Putin will be swept back to power in the Kremlin, whatever Russian voters really think?

Indian democracy is now sullied by an ugly Hindu nationalism, promoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is almost certain to be re-elected, and likely to turn even more authoritarian — and even more pro-Moscow. In Pakistan, it doesn’t seem to matter how people vote, the military and the intelligence services somehow remain in control.

ANDREW NEIL: Putin averred that Russia would 'never retreat' from Ukraine in his New Year's message

ANDREW NEIL: Putin averred that Russia would ‘never retreat’ from Ukraine in his New Year’s message

Some election results could make the world less safe for democracy. If Donald Trump is returned to the White House in November — which all the polls suggest is likely — what hope for Ukraine? He would cut off U.S. military aid and force President Volodymyr Zelensky to sue for a loser’s peace. Putin would play hardball and grab as much as he could.

Even without a second Trump presidency, America’s appetite to stand by Ukraine is waning: a $60 billion military aid package is languishing in congressional gridlock, thanks to the machinations of Republican isolationists. It’s not just Ukraine which has cause to fear Trump. His well-established distaste for Nato will weaken and undermine, perhaps even destroy, the vital military alliance that keeps Europe, including Britain, safe.

To imperil Nato while insisting Kyiv hands over huge chunks of Ukraine to Putin would reinvigorate Russian revanchism and act like a spear to the heart of European democracy. It hardly bears thinking about.

The European Parliament has little if any geopolitical significance. But the prospect of a swing to the Right in this year’s elections would normally be seen as an encouraging stiffening of the bloc’s spine when it comes to defence spending — and a more robust attitude to Russian expansionism.

However, Europe’s new populist Right, which could constitute the biggest political grouping in the Parliament after June’s elections, is depressingly cosy with the Kremlin. Many of its leading lights in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere are content to parrot Putinite talking points and act as apologists for the dictator.

Thus is European democracy at risk of being furthered undermined by the rise of the New Right — and Russia further emboldened. The despots have certainly started the year as if their time has come.

Putin averred that Russia would ‘never retreat’ from Ukraine in his New Year’s message. It’s more than bluster. Ukraine lacks the missiles and artillery to make a dent in Russian fortifications along the frontline. Indeed, Russia now has a five-to-one superiority in artillery, which is why Zelensky is having to fortify the defence of his own frontline rather than prepare for a fresh offensive.

ANDREW NEIL: China's President Xi Jinping is rattling his sabres, too, upping the rhetoric against Taiwan

ANDREW NEIL: China’s President Xi Jinping is rattling his sabres, too, upping the rhetoric against Taiwan

China’s President Xi Jinping is rattling his sabres, too, upping the rhetoric against Taiwan, whose ‘reunification’ with China, forcibly if necessary, he claims is a ‘historic inevitability’. Democratic Taiwan votes on January 13.

The political forces staunchest in defying China’s threats to Taiwan’s independence are currently leading in the polls. If they form the next government, Xi will regard this as a provocation. But I suspect he will await the outcome of the U.S. elections before doing anything.

After all, if a Trump America subsequently reneges on its commitments to Ukraine, what weight would you put on its promises to Taiwan?

Even North Korea’s dictator, the ridiculous and rotund Kim Jong Un, is getting in on the act, threatening this week to ‘thoroughly annihilate’ America and warning that war could ‘break out at any time on the Korean peninsula’.

His threats against America, of course, are farcical but his ability to cause regional mayhem is all too real. Even as his people suffer in squalor and starvation he is spending more on 21st-century military paraphernalia, including spy satellites, nuclear weapons, missiles and drones.

Iran is already showing how much distress a dictatorship can cause the democracies. Having unleashed Hamas, its proxy force, on Israel on October 7, Israel is now bogged down in a debilitating and globally unpopular war of attrition in Gaza.

At the same time, other Iranian proxies have mounted low-level attacks on U.S. bases in Syria, while yet other proxies, the Yemeni Houthi, now threaten crucial shipping lanes at the southern end of the Red Sea. Western navies, including the Royal Navy, are responding, but slowly and without the scale of force required.

ANDREW NEIL: North Korea's dictator, the ridiculous and rotund Kim Jong Un, is getting in on the act, threatening this week to 'thoroughly annihilate' America

ANDREW NEIL: North Korea’s dictator, the ridiculous and rotund Kim Jong Un, is getting in on the act, threatening this week to ‘thoroughly annihilate’ America

Indeed, as the dictators strut, preen, threaten and, in too many places, call the shots, the democracies are depressingly slow to respond — and, worst of all, devoid of necessary leadership. President Joe Biden and America’s European allies responded well to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. But they’re now struggling to sustain their support.

A doddery, weak U.S. president is incapable of rallying the world’s democracies. He merely gives the dictators comfort. The likely alternative to him would sell out Ukraine — and perhaps much of Europe, too. Rarely has American politics offered so little hope of global leadership and direction.

The Europeans are no better. They are more inclined to lecture Israel about Gaza than stand up to Iran. Despite repeated warnings of the dangers lurking in their own neighbourhood, they still spend ridiculously small amounts on defence, with almost no ability to project power even to nearby trouble spots.

Neither President Emmanuel Macron of France nor Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has the willpower or political capital to lead Europe out of this morass. In Rishi Sunak, Britain is run by a geopolitical novice reluctant to boost our defence spending above 2 per cent of GDP (it was 5 per cent during the Cold War).

Elections this year or in the years to come will bring no respite. Trump would be even worse than Biden in defending democracy. Keir Starmer is even more of a foreign-affairs novice than Mr Sunak. Marine Le Pen, whose previous campaigns have been funded by Kremlin-friendly banks, is the favourite to succeed Macron as French president.

Whoever succeeds Scholz in Germany will likely head yet another weak coalition and an economy in secular decline.

There are grim echoes of the 1930s, when stumbling democracies under unimpressive leaders too often allowed the dictators to have their way, with terrible consequences that took a world war to reverse.

I do not argue we are there yet. Nor do I underestimate the ability of democracies eventually to get their act together, as they did under Churchill and Roosevelt in 1940/41. But I am not far- seeing enough to identify a Churchill or a Roosevelt among the potential leaders of tomorrow. Which is why I fear things will get worse in 2024 and thereafter before the democracies finally discover the backbone needed to stand up to dictatorship.

We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. But until then, we will continue to live in the Age of the Autocrats, no matter how many elections the world has.

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