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Get ready for the most important year of your life, yet

If you follow global or regional politics you are probably aware that 2024 is not like any year before it in recent history, and possibly ever: the globe is getting warmer, two wars are raging, the United Nations seems more dysfunctional than in decades, and we will see nearly 4 billion people going to the polls in more than 60 countries around the world. This makes 2024 the biggest election year ever. It is not just the sheer number of elections, but the incredibly influential places in which they are happening – including Taiwan, Malaysia, India, South Africa, the European Union, and the United States. 

The consequences of these elections could reach far beyond domestic and foreign policy. Consider this: will the Taiwanese election, which the anti-Chinese Democratic Progressive Party won, influence Beijing’s willingness to invade? Could Trump’s victory decide the results of the Ukraine war, and hand Russia the win? And more generally, will the elections we are facing accelerate or slow down the global democratic backslide? While deliberating on these crucial questions you should, also, not forget that the likelihood of influence campaigns being involved in every major election is incredibly high. Such campaigns, which we have seen in the past (including Cambridge Analytica), not only sway the electorate in an un-democratic way but also cast doubt about the legitimacy of the results – no matter what they are. They do so by spreading fear and disinformation through social media in a way that pushes the electorate towards a certain candidate or party, often involving xenophobic and racist rhetoric. So, not only will we have elections in some of the most influential countries in the world, but different actors will try to influence them, and no matter the results large numbers of citizens are unlikely to believe them.

These elections alone should make us all stop and consider the stakes of 2024, and the risks that lie throughout it, but the elections are not all that is happening. The war in Ukraine enters its third year with no end in sight; the war in Gaza seems to be entering a state of violent stagnation. Simultaneously, the Middle East resorts to violence in and around Yemen, in Iraq, between Iran and Pakistan, and between Israel and Hezbollah, which is a slippery slope towards a regional war. This means the two wars currently raging are at risk of being sidelined by a larger, Middle Eastern war. Not to mention the probable American and Western military involvement in such a war.

35 years ago many thought that they had witnessed the end of history. Today we know that we are living through history happening in all its drama.

But where does it all meet us? Most of the readers of this article are probably Oxford students, like me. Considering the probable British election this year (which has yet to be announced, but will have to be called by December 17th), in addition to EU and American elections, approximately 80% of Oxford’s student body comes from countries going to the polls. More importantly, all of us will be substantially influenced by these elections and wars. Setting aside for a moment the rising cost-of-living these wars and instability inflict, throughout this year not only will we have to sit through endless dinners discussing Trump’s last outrageous statement, but we might suddenly find ourselves in a less democratic world: a world full of leaders fighting against the values, institutions, and norms that most of us believe in, and that have been fought for in history.

I may have convinced you that 2024 is truly the most important year of your life thus far. Regardless, the question should be asked, can we do anything about this impending storm? The answer is yes. In fact, the answer must be yes, not because of some ‘Oxford exceptionalism’, but quite the opposite. The answer must be yes because we are regular people, citizens. History is full of inspiring citizens who rose to the moment and pushed the arc of history towards justice, but so is the present. We have all been inspired time and again by the people of Ukraine and their strength as individuals and as citizens. I wonder, however, if a similar model could be replicated against different threats to our societies (most of which are much less tangible than Russian tanks and missiles). Could each country unite for its democracy’s survival, and could people unite globally to slow down, or stop, the democratic backslide?

I think universities in general, and in particular institutions as international as Oxford, should have a role in safeguarding our democratic institutions. Universities should remind us of the kind of world we had before our modern democracies, explain the risk of war and division, and propose ideas for maintaining the current democratic state. Not only that, but universities are an international hub unmatched in most societies. Oxford alone has members from 160 countries, which could make them the base for global organisation and cooperation across borders and oceans. But will they? It is partially up to us to make it happen.

The days we are living through will be the subject of history books, but the story is yet to be written. 2024 will be a crucial year for the struggles of our time – for the climate, for our rights, for our lives, and for the world as we know it. No matter what you choose to do about it, as much or as little as you’d like, I urge you to at least read up on what is awaiting us in 2024. When you’re done, you should know we are all looking forward to seeing how you are going to defend democracy. Let’s begin.

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