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This year was widely expected to be a pageant of democracy. Elections were scheduled around the world, and they went off, almost without exception, without a hitch. That happy outcome was the brightest result in a year colored by disappointment. The year 2004 may well be remembered for the many promises betrayed rather than the hopes that were rewarded.

Ballots were held from Australia to the United States, with Asia hosting more than its share of elections. The outcomes — all widely respected, despite several surprises — should put to rest the notion that democracy is somehow alien to Asian society and culture. Even closely contested races, such as Taiwan’s presidential ballot, were accepted despite the controversy arising from the failed assassination attempt on the incumbent, and subsequent winner, President Chen Shui-bian.

In Indonesia, a political unknown, former Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono defeated President Megawati Sukarnoputri to take the reins of a country that is crucial to the future of Southeast Asia and the Asia-Pacific region as a whole. In Afghanistan, citizens braved death threats to participate in the first democratic election in that country’s history.

There were parliamentary elections aplenty. Japan had its own ballot, and the gains of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan nudged this country further toward a two-party system. India’s Congress Party staged a stunning come-from-behind win to evict the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party from power, despite the latter’s record of economic success. In South Korea, President Roh Moo Hyun fought off an impeachment bid to see his Uri Party win a majority in that country’s assembly.

Taiwan’s Mr. Chen was not so lucky; he continues to face a legislature dominated by the opposition, a development greeted with sighs of relief in China and elsewhere. And, in the U.S., a hard-fought campaign produced a second term for incumbent George W. Bush. Fortunately for the U.S. and the world, the election was over within 24 hours and we were spared 2000’s spectacle of hanging absurdities.

It was only in Ukraine that the election process stumbled, but it looks as though democratic ideals will prevail after all as the “Orange Revolution” fended off attempts by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to steal the vote. The same liberal democratic ideals that motivated Ukrainian protests have made the historic expansion of the European Union — to which the new president of Ukraine aspires — and a new EU constitution a near certainty.

Those are the high points. The year will also be remembered for tarnished ideals. The most grievous stain is the photographs of torture and abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. The subsequent revelations that they were not isolated incidents as claimed but part of a strategy to extract information — and that the Bush administration endeavored to exempt itself from conventions governing the conduct of war — blotted Washington’s image and undermined its policies and objectives in the Middle East. It is hard to imagine a strategy more inimical to U.S. goals — and the country itself. Those photos and the attempts to cover them up or to deny the misdeeds portrayed in them are unworthy of the U.S. It will be a long time before the damage is undone.

Historians will also look back with disbelief at the world’s readiness to turn its back on the genocide reported to have occurred in Darfur. Less than a decade after ignoring the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocents in Rwanda, the international community has stood idly by again as people in Sudan died or were left homeless. The United Nations passed resolutions demanding action, but failed to give them teeth — yet another blot on that institution’s record. Coming on the heels of the Iraq debacle, the U.N.’s future is anything but assured.

The year closed with a stunning reminder of humanity’s fragile hold on the planet. The 8.9 earthquake off Aceh, Indonesia — among the five worst quakes recorded in the last 100 years — unleashed a tsunami that killed tens of thousands of people in 10 countries on two continents. Health agencies now warn that disease could easily double the death toll.

Earlier in the year, a series of four hurricanes flattened parts of the Caribbean and the east coast of the U.S. Ten typhoons caused damage in Asia, killing hundreds in the Philippines and hitting Japan hard as well. Japan was also hammered by earthquakes.

Total losses from the natural disasters will be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. That may seem cheap given the toll this year has taken on our egos, our ideals and our collective image of ourselves.

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