2011’s Top 10

A year ago, I had reflected on what I thought to be the top 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. It is always interesting and enlightening to look back at the year past and see which elections were the most significant elections. In 2010, the US midterms and UK election had topped the list in first and second place respectively.

I am ranking elections based more on their significance than any amusement or fun they may have provided. There are, obviously, different criterion  for doing this, but my basic benchmark in deciding whether an election was significant or not is whether or not said election could possible have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, their consequences on the broader region. An election is not necessarily significant, in my mind, if an incumbent government was turfed out of office. An incumbent government can be thrown out, but the election may be more of a pretty boring anti-incumbent mood swing which has little discernible long-term impacts. Furthermore, given how rapidly public opinion and partisan affiliation changes these days – especially during economic crises – it seems as if a lot of the elections we hail as realigning elections only end up being deviating elections. Meaning that I wouldn’t be surprised if the top elections of 2011 ended up having little long-term impact 10 or 15 years from now. Finally, not all elections change the world – far from it – so my other criteria is deciding how interesting an election was. Were its results pretty much decided in advance making the election only half-interesting to a casual observer, or was the election a closely fought contest until the end and whose results had several elements of surprise?

As in 2010, I have given priority to national elections but I have not sidelined subnational elections. By-elections are not taken into consideration, unless somebody can make a case that a particular by-election was one of the ten most important elections anywhere in the world this year.

2011 was a pretty crazy year in terms of geopolitics, and equally insane in terms of elections. Unlike in 2010, I must say that I found it very hard to decide on the most significant election, and I must admit that the top four elections on this list could (should?) all be in first place. Your participation in my poll helped me decide.

1.  Egypt: If you had told me one year ago today that an election in Egypt would be be the top election of 2011, I would probably have laughed in your face and most people would have too. In December 2010, we had just seen a terribly rigged legislative election in Egypt and the only political discussion concerning Egypt back then was whether or not President Hosni Mubarak would run again or if his son would run in his stead. What happened in Egypt – and the whole Arab world – in one year is remarkable and certainly the most important political event of 2011 by a landslide. Mubarak’s regime, thought as of being so solidly implanted, was toppled so quickly it could have seemed as if we lived on another planet than the one we lived on in 2010. The first and second stages of yet-unfinished legislative elections in Egypt were held in December 2011. The election is made all the more important because of the turbulent context in which it takes place in: it could seem as if there are the brewings of another uprising in Tahrir Square, aimed this time at the military “stewards” of the country since February. The results of these elections, which seem to be heading towards a large Islamist majority, but an Islamist majority divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, will have a significant impact on Egypt’s political future. Will the military desperately try to cling to power as it worries about the rise of the Islamists, or will the military be pushed out opening the road for whatever uncertainty an Islamist government may entail? The election is also significant because it ought to teach us another lesson in democratic transitions: never overestimate the political influence of a handful of idealistic revolutionaries and never underestimate the natural penchant for order, stability and moderation on the electorate’s behalf.

2.  Canada (federal): Whether or not the Canadian election will be a realigning election or a deviating election remains to be seen, but for the time being the Canadian election saw three major changes. The first, and actually not the most important in my mind, is the Conservative majority built on a West-Ontario coalition basically excluding Quebec – a first for any Tory majority since Confederation. The two most important shifts were Quebec’s realignment and the collapse of the Liberal Party. The Liberals, Canada’s natural governing party, did not collapse overnight: the roots of their demise had arguably been laid with the loss of Quebec in 1984, while its collapse began in 2006, intensified in 2008 and totally fell off the cliff in May. The Liberals, who had ruled Canada for most of its history, are now reduced to a rump of less than 35 members desperately trying to retrieve past greatness from an historic third place. The other story was Quebec’s realignment, which goes hand-in-hand with the NDP surge. The NDP’s surge from nowhere to everywhere in Quebec, the province where Canada’s left-wing third party had been weakest, was a phenomenon which nobody foresaw prior to the campaign. In line with Quebec’s history for wild swings which breaks swingometers, the orange crush surge gave the Bloc Québécois (BQ), which had dominated federal politics (more or less) since 1993. The Bloc won just four seats, portending a very real threat to the Quebec nationalist movement which is being replicated provincially with the PQ’s impeding collapse (assuming it is a collapse based not solely on leadership). The tragic death of Jack Layton, the architect of the NDP surge in Quebec, opens up a wide open NDP leadership race for March 2012 in which the new leader’s ability to hold the Quebec gains will be crucial to the NDP’s hope to remain in opposition and became a serious contender for government in 2015. It is too early to say whether or not the 2011 federal election represents a total realignment, but whatever happens, May 2011 will have changed something.

3.  Tunisia: Similarly to Egypt, what happened this year in Tunisia went totally unpredicted even as late as one year ago. Ben Ali’s ouster in Tunisia in early January really got the ball rolling for similar uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Tunisian elections, the first free elections in the country, saw the victory of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. Ennahda’s victory was expected, but what makes this election most significant – besides it being an historic milestone – is that it lays the groundwork for Tunisia’s democratic transition. Ennahda has allied with two smaller liberal-secular parties and there is much more optimism regarding Tunisia’s future than there is for Egypt’s future. Will Ennahda become a model, like the Turkish AKP, for a moderate Islamist government in a democratic country, or will it usher in a slow return to the authoritarianism of the past with a new clerical overtone? The reason why I have preferred Egypt over Tunisia in terms of significance is that Egypt is more of a regional power card than Tunisia is, and Egypt is often treated as one of the dominant Arab countries whose evolution carries special weight on other countries.

4.  Ireland: It may be looking increasingly doubtful that Ireland’s elections earlier this year will usher in a major realignment, but even on the short-term the significance of what happened in Ireland cannot be whistled away. Like in Canada, Ireland’s natural governing party for the past, what, 70 years, Fianna Fáil was given a huge slap in the face, winning its worst result in its history (not topping the poll, far from it, a first since 1932) and reduced to a third-place rump concentrated in rural Ireland. In an election fought in the context of the worst economic crisis in the country’s recent history, FF’s thumping will make the history books, even if its thumping is merely a short-term blow as it may end up being. Some ten months later, the new FG-Labour government which some – myself included – had hoped could signal a realignment of Irish politics along left-right lines rather than Civil War lines, seems unlikely to be turning the election into a realignment. Labour has been reduced to its low double-digits, while FF and SF are resurgent. Ireland’s election is likely to turn out to be a deviating election and it is unlikely to carry as much importance as originally predicted. But it remains a significant election in a short-term context and especially in a review of 2011.

5.  Russia: I usually shy away, for obvious reasons, from including blatantly rigged elections in these types of things. But Russia’s election may turn out to have unintended long-term consequences. Fueled both by the obviously rigged results and the poor showing (even officially) of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, the Russian elections have sparked major protests centered in Moscow. The Putin State has not yet been dealt a mortal blow, far from it, but the elections and their aftermath shows that a regime which one enjoyed genuine popularity as long as the times were good is now sustained by increasingly unstable foundations when times turn sour. Putin’s regime, not long ago seen as solidly implanted and almost impossible to topple, may be increasingly shaky especially in the eventuality of a new economic crisis. Putin’s reign is not over, but in a way it is possible that the elections may have the unintended effect of marking the beginning of the end for a regime whose legitimacy is seriously compromised at home.

6.  Peru: This year’s Peruvian elections proved to be a very exciting back-and-forth contest, with frontrunners emerging and quickly fading away. As the dust settled, the runoff opposed the two candidates with the most motivated base but also the two candidates with the largest number of people who hated their guts. In the words of Mario Vargas Llosa, it was a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer, or the daughter of a disgraced authoritarian President and an ethnonationalist former military officer. Ollanta Humala’s victory carries special significance as he is perhaps the first President of Peru whom the country’s indigenous population unambiguously identifies as one of their own. In an historical context, Humala’s victory this year was the product of his moderation and pragmatism after having been defeated five years prior in large part because his radicalism scared away moderate voters. Humala has an historic chance to extend to the fruits of Peru’s new-found economic prosperity and political stability to a majority of voters and tack a new moderate left-wing path in line more with Lula and Kichernerism than with Chavism.

7.  Scotland (United Kingdom): Trailing the opposition by a wide margin, Scotland’s nationalist devolved government led by the SNP turned that around in a drastic manner and won an unprecedented absolute majority previously thought of as impossible in a proportional system. Besides the historic feat, Scotland’s election was significant because it showed that the SNP understood the Scottish voter’s interests at the Holyrood level, to the extent that Labour’s disastrous Westminster-focused campaigned completely failed to. An absolute majority places Alex Salmond’s SNP government in the driver’s seat, especially when it comes to the question of a potential referendum on Scottish independence or devo-max in a near future. The political future of Scotland does not make many headlines, but we would do well to follow political developments in a region which might offer some of the highest chances for sub-national separation in Europe.

8.  Spain (general): The Spanish elections certainly did see major changes, with the governing Socialists receiving an unprecedented thumping at the hands of a previously uninspiring conservative opposition, thanks to the Spain’s disastrous economic situation. However, a government getting thrown out of office – especially under such predictable circumstances – is not enough, in my mind, to make one election particularly significant. Given the circumstances under which the new Spanish government takes office and the nature of this government, like in Ireland, it is rather hard to discern any realignment in the results. That is not to say that it was a totally insignificant election, but I would argue that the most significant aspect of these elections actually lie in the Basque Country, whose counter-cyclical results this year and especially the emergence of the abertzale left post-ETA are very significant. It is the Basque Country’s short-term realignment towards nationalist forces which merits to be highlighted the most, and it is these results’ impact on Spanish-Basque relations which must be observed in the future.

9.  Baden-Württemberg (Germany): The March 27 elections in the German state of Baden-Württemberg are unlikely to have major consequences even outside the boundaries of that state, they must be remembered as we look back on 2011 as the election of the first Green government in any major election at a regional level in Europe. What the Greens in Baden-Württemberg is certainly ground-breaking, as they become the first Green party in Europe to form government as the senior partners. While the German Greens failed in their attempt to win in Berlin and the Grüne surge of 2011 is fading, Greens understand that Baden-Württemberg carries special significance for the Green movement in Europe as it will really be their opportunity to show their worth as a serious senior governing party (rather than just a junior partner). In the German context, the results in the right-wing stronghold of Baden-Württemberg and in other state elections all signify a special blow to the right-wing CDU-FDP government of Chancellor Angela Merkel whose odds for a third term are pretty heavily stacked against her at this point.

10.  Italy (locals): Prior to Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation in November, the Italian local elections, which saw historic victories for the left in places such as Milan, would have probably received a much higher ranking. Back in power since 2008, Berlusconi suffered his first major defeat in these local elections which were coupled with a referendum dear to Berlusconi on a law granting him judicial immunity (Berlusconi also ‘lost’ this referendum). They were the beginning of the end for Berlusconi, touching at the heart of the cavaliere‘s electoral base in Milan. Even if Berlusconi’s resignation in November makes these elections more of a final defeat for Italy’s former Prime Minister, Berlusconi’s upcoming (?) progressive departure from the Italian political scene will entail a significant realignment of Italian politics which since 1994 have become increasingly structured around opposition to or support for Berlusconi, a cleavage which broke, to an extent, old lines of left and right lines. The elections might not have highlighted that, but they perhaps highlighted one important element: the growing importance to the Italian left of two of its junior allies: Italy of Values (IdV) which won in Naples, and especially Nichi Vendola’s SEL whose candidate led the left to victory in the Berlusconian city of Milan.

Honourable mentions go to South Sudan, Turkey, Argentina, Berlin (Germany) and Norway (locals). Which election will top this list in 2012? In my next post, I’ll run through “what’s hot” in 2012 in terms of elections.

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Posted on December 20, 2011, in General information and summaries, World Elections Blog. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Very nice top 10, Gaël. It makes sense and gives a very good summary of what 2011 has brought politically.

    If you don’t mind, I’d like to point out a few disagreements I’d have with this ranking, even though I perfectly understand the resons of your choices.

    First of all, I would have flipped Tunisia and Egypt. I get your point about Egypt’s bigger geopolitical signifiance, but personally I think this is overshadowed by other criteria. First of all, Tunisia has been the spearhead of Arab revolutions, and without the Ben Ali downfall there would probably never have been a Mubarak downfall. Then, with Tunisia the democratic transition seems to have been a success, with democratic institutiond being accepted by all political forces and compromise being privileged over extremism (and the former Ben Ali clique has really been wiped out). In Egypt instead, the army still holds power and won’t let it easily, and the elections have been won by blatantly undemocratic parties. It clearly seems to me that the egyptian revolution has been a failure.

    Then, maybe it’s just me, but I’d really have privileged Baden-Wurttengerg and Italian locals over elections such as Spain or Scotland. Maybe it’s just that I don’t care a lot about devolution and this kind of things, but I think Scotland was much less important than B-W. The accession to power of a green at the regional level is very significant and deserves more than the 8th place IMO. As for Italian locals, I think their impact is being underestimated. I know that now the conventional wisdom is that Berlusconi has been pushed out by the markets, but IMO, had PdL won Naples and Milan, maybe he’d still be in charge nowadays. It’s not only the markets. The reason why Berlusconi fell is that he had lost any credibility. And one of the primary reasons for his lack of credibility was the utter popular discredit of his government. These elections clearly showed that the Italians were fed up to the point where Berluscaland could elect a communist and Mafialand could elect a prosecutor. This certainly is a huge element of Berlusconi’s fall. That said, I might be biased when it comes to Italy. ;)

    I’d also think the French Senate elections would have deserved a honorable mention too. Come on, 135 years ! It’s definitely a historical event, even if in a little country. I know it’s an indirect election, but that doesn’t mean it has not tie to real politics…

    Anyways, don’t take me wrong. Your ranking is great and I don’t want to criticize it at all. Congratulations ! Also, I’m waiting for your “what’s hot in 2012″ post ! :) Though, apart from USA and France, I really don’t see anything big to come next year.

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