2012’s Top 10

As in 2010 and 2011, I wrap up this year with a reflection on what were, in my subjective opinion, the top 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. In 2010, the United States and the United Kingdom topped the list; in 2011, Egypt and Canada topped the list.

These rankings are all subjective and there many different criterion for establishing these rankings. As in my past two rankings, my primary benchmark was to what an extent any election could/would have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, their consequences on the broader region. I do not feel that an election is necessarily significant merely because an incumbent party or individual was tossed out of office, given that there is no shortage of such elections which turn out to be merely anti-incumbent mood swings which ultimately have only a limited long-term or even short-term impact on the country. Similarly, it is easy to label many elections as “realigning elections” at the spur of the moment, but real realigning elections – in my opinion – remain rare occurrences, occurring at most once every decade in most developed democracies. Most elections which we call realigning elections turn out to be deviating elections down the road.

Of course, not all elections (especially in the short time frame of 12 months) – far from it – can be said to have changed a country, therefore my secondary criteria was how ‘interesting’ any given election turned out to be. An election whose outcome was decided months in advance and whose actual results were only of limited interest to a foreign casual observer were not ‘interesting’, but elections – even if not all that significant – which were closely fought or whose results turned out to be surprising can count as ‘interesting’. However, being ‘interesting’ is not enough for any given election to be included in this ranking.

2012 was an exciting year for politics and elections. There were several major elections throughout the world, on every continent, which were all fairly significant or important to that country’s political future. There was President Obama’s reelection in the United States, President Sarkozy’s defeat at the hands of François Hollande in France, the election of a new President in post-revolutionary Egypt, the first free post-revolutionary elections in Libya, a inconclusive election with major swings in Greece followed by a second, conclusive elections, Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin in Russia, President Wade’s defeat in Senegal, the election of a nationalist and pro-Russian President in Serbia, Hugo Chávez’s reelection in Venezuela, the defeat of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s party in Georgia, an election in the Netherlands with some interesting outcomes and the return to power of two historically dominant political behemoths in Mexico and Japan. Even sub-national elections in several countries proved quite important. In Canada, Alberta’s election results turned out to be a major surprise while Quebec voters returned the sovereigntist PQ to power; in Spain, the Basque nationalists returned to power while the governing Catalan nationalists saw their ambitious nationalist agenda backfire against them; in Italy local elections and a regional election in Sicily confirmed that the country, following Berlusconi’s resignation late last year, is in an exciting and fascinating state of political flux and in India, often ignored by western election coverage, the elections in Uttar Pradesh saw the defeat of Mayawati’s incumbent government.

As in 2010 and 2011, I have given priority to national elections but I have not sidelined sub-national elections. Individual by-elections were not taken into consideration.

Once again, establishing this subjective top 10 ranking was quite difficult. There were a lot of elections for which a very strong case could be made that they deserved inclusion on this list, but at the same time, relatively few elections clearly stood out as clear and indisputable contenders for the gold, silver and bronze medals on this podium. This ranking is subjective , it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluations on the importance of each election. I more than welcome debate, disagreements and alternative rankings.

1. Greece Greece (both elections): Greece, with its economy teetering on the verge of collapse following a prolonged economic, fiscal and social crisis, had a political crisis on top on that in May. Legislative elections in May 2012 resulted in the phenomenal explosion of the Greek political system, meaning that no governing coalition could be form. New elections barely a month later did stabilize the political situation somewhat and allowed for the formation of a tenuous pro-austerity and pro-bailout coalition led by Antonis Samaras from the centre-right New Democracy (ND). What has happened in Greece since 2009/2010 has had a huge influence and significant ramifications on European and global politics. The Greek economic and debt crisis precipitated the economic and debt crises in Italy, Spain and Portugal. Greece has become ground-zero for EU/IMF-mandated austerity policies. The survival of the Eurozone and maybe even the entire post-war European project hinged and still hinge on Greece’s political and economic future. It is often rightfully said that Greece is a domino which, if it came to fall, would trigger the (at least partial) disintegration if not collapse of the Eurozone. This year’s two elections had very high stakes, not only for Greece but also for Europe. The inconclusive first election seriously worried Germany, the EU and investors because of the risk of a political crisis in Greece and the absence of a permanent government to tackle the crisis. The second election turned into a domestic referendum on austerity policies, and captivated Europe and the world because of the very high stakes.

The clear and polarized contest between the ‘pro-austerity’ option represented by Samaras’ ND and other parties (notably the old social democratic PASOK) and the left-wing ‘anti-austerity’ option represented, partially, by both Alexis Tsipras’ SYRIZA had clear implications for the rest of Europe. If SYRIZA had won, on its platform of scrapping austerity (but remaining in the Eurozone), Germany and the EU would have struggled to come to agreement with the new powers in Athens and it could have precipitated a “Grexit” (Greek exit from the Eurozone) and the unpredictable consequences of such an event for the Eurozone, the EU and the rest of the world. Even if Samaras’ ND won and cobbled together a more pro-austerity coalition palatable to Berlin, Brussels and the IMF; Greece is not out of the woods for that matter and it remains in a very precarious position.

From a more domestic standpoint, this year’s two elections in Greece might have signaled a fundamental realignment in Greek politics (realignments, in my book, are rare, so any realignment is definitely a big deal) even if the long-term future of Greek politics is conditioned by the future of the Greek economy. At least for now, the elections uprooted a solid, well-implanted and established political system structured around two parties close to one another in actual policies but separated by a deep enmity inherited from the past. The economic crisis also created a crisis of legitimacy for both of these parties (ND and PASOK), as evidenced by their catastrophic results in the ‘protest’ election in May (18.9% and 13.2% respectively) even if ND recovered in June (29.7%). The social disruption created by the economic crisis and the austerity policies led to a significant radicalization of political opinions on both the left and the right, a radicalization which benefited historically minor parties (SYRIZA, KKE at the outset), new parties (ANEL, DIMAR to a limited extent) or even old parties which had been irrelevant for decades (XA). The radicalization of political opinions as an effect of the economic crisis, the disintegration of traditional civil society and the major parties’ legitimacy crisis will have significant effects for Greece (and perhaps indirect effects or repercussions on other European countries in a similar situation) in the future.

The rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn (XA) party, which held up its strong support (6.9%) in the second election despite wider coverage of its violent and racist antics, was another major result from the Greek elections. It is reflective of the radicalization of opinions on the right with the rise of strongly nationalist sentiments (as a result of bailouts and austerity policies ‘imposed’ from the outside, notably Germany) and the animosity towards immigrants (the scapegoats of the economic crisis). Today, about six months after XA maintained its initially strong showing in the June election, the neo-Nazi party is getting up to 14% in opinion polls. The rise of XA, combined with the replacement of the moderate PASOK by a more ‘radical’ left-wing option, has led to comparisons with the late Weimar Republic. Time will tell if this scary comparisons will be true, but there is a non-negligible risk for significant political chaos, if not outright violence, if the situation worsens.

2. Egypt EgyptThe Egyptian presidential in May and June 2012 will prove crucial to the future political evolution of Egypt following Mubarak’s ouster and the 2011 Revolution. The presidential election marked the transfer of power from the ruling military council (SCAF) to a directly-elected civilian President, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the ruling Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP)/Muslim Brotherhood (MB); albeit in return for significant constitutional concessions to the military. Morsi’s election, the ratification in December 2012 of a new constitution with Islamic overtones and new parliamentary elections in early 2013 (after the elected lower house was dissolved by the courts in June) will signal a major political shift in Egypt both from the Mubarak regime (a secular authoritarian regime close to Washington) and SCAF. The new Islamic power in Egypt will usher in some major shifts in Cairo’s foreign policy, with talks of revising the peace treaty with Israel and signals of a rapprochement with groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon. As a regional power and oftentimes a leader in the Arab World, Egypt’s evolution has a major effect on surrounding countries.

The election results, from a domestic political standpoint, revealed a post-revolutionary society divided between many political factions. Morsi’s Islamist (FJP/MB) current appears dominant, but the election showed the resurgence of the felools (supporters of the former regime) around Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister who won 48.3% in the runoff; but also a sizable ‘third pole’ around Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist Nasserist who rallied a fair share of young, more liberal voters. Post-revolutionary democratic consolidation will be difficult given that different sections of the Egyptian population are on different pages. Morsi and the MB hold the reins of power, and they appear to be in the drivers’ seat, having set their mark on the country’s new constitution and consolidating their hold on power thanks to a silent alliance with the military. However, Shafik’s strong support in the runoff (and, it should not be forgotten, Sabahi’s unexpectedly strong showing in the first round, just a few points behind Shafik) revealed that a significant number of Egyptians remain wary of the new Islamist power; either remaining nostalgic of or materially attached to the former regime (especially in the old regime’s strongholds in the Nile Delta) or supportive of a secular, more liberal political model (notably the Egyptian youth in urban areas, an often disunited but vocal group).

New elections in 2013 will mark another major step in the post-revolutionary process in Egypt. For the moment, Egypt remains a fragile country, which could fall back into authoritarian rule (Morsi has already shown authoritarian tendencies, with his decrees to strengthen his own power as President) or emerge as an imperfect democracy – though perhaps not of the kind the West and the United States would like it to be. Whatever happens, the 2012 presidential election in Egypt will likely have played a significant role.

3. United-States United StatesThis year’s American election was nowhere near as significant as the 2008 or 2000 presidential elections. In fact, after an expensive, long-drawn, bitter and polarizing campaign the election more or less resulted in the continuation of the status-quo. While the American election was undeniably exciting and still quite significant, I don’t think that it deserved to top this ranking. President Obama’s reelection will have consequences for the United States and the world, but the Egyptian and Greek election – in my eyes – will prove even more significant not only for those countries in particular but for the world as well. Nevertheless, because the United States is the United States and its politics have a significant effect on the world, it must necessarily take a top spot in this ranking. Once again, the overall results of the American elections were not all that surprising (even if it was a close race) and the status quo ante with President Obama facing a divided Congress. Regardless of how it happened and whether or not voters actually voted for such a state of affairs, Obama will still be in a fairly precarious legislative position and gridlock between a Democratic White House/Senate and Republican House will continue.

Rather, the significance – in the long-term – of the 2012 election will be the generational and demographic shifts it could end up representing in American electoral politics. The 2012 election proved, perhaps even more than the 2008 election, the growing weight and political importance of ethnic minorities in American electoral politics. The African-American, Hispanic and Asian vote combined to account for an even larger share of the electorate than in any previous election (even 2008) and their support proved to be the key to Obama’s reelection and the Republican defeat (across the board). The US election also signaled an important generational shift (part of which should be ascribed solely to Obama’s unique appeal), with the growing political influence of Generations X and Y (the former emerging as the new political leaders, the latter emerging as an important electorate) and the waning influence of the Baby Boom generation. This generational shift has liberalized American society, as evidenced in November with the first electoral victories for gay marriage (in four states) and the legalization of marijuana (in two states).

4. France FrancePresidential elections in France on April 22 and May 6 saw incumbent President Nicolas Sarkozy lose his bid for a second term in office to François Hollande, the unlikely Socialist Party (PS) candidate. Despite coming closer than anybody had predicted (48.4%), Sarkozy, who had been the underdog throughout the campaign, was unable to pull what would have been one of the most stunning political comebacks in recent years. The French campaign interested foreign journalists and observers, perhaps because Sarkozy had made a mark on the world stage with his policies or his style. However, the significance of the 2012 French election does not come from Sarkozy’s defeat. Thus far, Hollande’s policies have disappointed many of his supporters, many of whom feel that his policies do not differ much from Sarkozy’s policies (much reviled on the left since his election in 2007) – even on crucial economic and fiscal matters – and that his government has been amateurish and indecisive at best; incompetent at worst. Things may certainly change between now and the next election (in 2017), but less than a year after his election, Hollande and his Prime Minister’s approval ratings are down the drain (nearly 65% disapprove – even if a lot comes from the right and centre) – one of the most rapid and dramatic erosion in a French government’s popularity (in a country notorious for turning sour on its own electoral choices very quickly). Hollande’s election was due to fairly commonplace anti-incumbent sentiments, contemporary political conditions (Sarkozy’s policies, his style of governing etc) and the ephemeral appeal of anti-Sarkozysm.

The significance, rather, of the French election, therefore lies in results and lessons concealed by the overall result. The first result of significance from 2012, in my eyes, is the reemergence of the far-right with Marine Le Pen’s first round success (17.9%, an all-time high). This result is even more significant when one considers the dire straits in which the far-right (FN) were thrust in following her father’s disastrous result in the 2007 election and the Sarkozyst ‘suction’ of a good number of FN voters. The 2012 election showed the failure of Sarkozy’s attempt to do with the FN what Mitterrand had done to the Communists in the 1980s. Sarkozy’s strategy, pursued since 2005 and throughout his presidency after 2007, was to destroy the far-right; by sinking it electorally (which it managed to do not only in 2007 but also in 2009, when Sarkozy was already quite unpopular), taking up some of its historic themes (immigration, security) and acting on them and adopting a political rhetoric and style similar to the far-right’s traditional rhetoric. Sarkozy proved unable to recognize the danger which Marine Le Pen, the patriarch’s political heir, posed to him. By repacking the FN (as an allegedly more moderate party, untarnished by her father’s foot-in-mouth disease), by widening its political focus to other issues (the economic crisis, globalization, the state) and selling its traditional issues in a more appealing manner; she managed to bring the party back from the dead. The right, now struggling to rebuild, must now deal with a vibrant and threatening far-right. The 2012 election similarly marked the emergence of a different right, as evidenced by Sarkozy’s reelection campaign – which sought to win reelection not through any triangulation or centrist appeal, but rather with a direct appeal to the right and far-right through strongly nationalist and conservative rhetoric.

In my eyes, tinted by my interest and bias towards electoral sociology and demographics, the 2012 election also represented the culmination of a realignment of the left and right’s coalitions in France – perhaps even more so than the 2007 election – and confirmed the fundamental effects of the 2005 referendum on the discourse, structure and coalitions of French electoral politics (despite Sarkozy’s defeat and the apparent victory of Hollande’s centrist appeal strategy). Hollande won with a coalition quite unlike that which had carried Mitterrand to his first victory (with a nearly identical margin) 30 years ago. The most important takeaway from this is that the left now faces a major struggle with its historic core electorate (the working-class), even if it has not lost it. In the 2012 runoff, there were wide swathes of traditionally white working-class country in which Hollande – who won the election with 51% – actually did worse than the PS candidate 17 years prior – who lost the election with 47%. The left has ways of compensating for this deficit, but this should be a major cause of concern for the French left. Indeed, Hollande’s anemic performance with his party’s old electorate came in spite of an incumbent President who was widely seen as having alienated large parts of the working-class electorate and was ridiculed by his opponents as an elitist, ‘bling-bling’ president out of touch with the concerns of the working poor. This result, unfairly ignored by most, is another important takeaway from 2012.

5. Mexico Mexico: Twelve years ago, the 2000 presidential election marked a landmark and historic realignment in Mexico’s history. Vicente Fox, the candidate of the centre-right opposition National Action Party (PAN), won the Mexican presidency, ending 71 years of semi-democratic (at best) rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Now, twelve years after losing power for the first time since its creation in 1929 and only six years after a catastrophic election which threatened the party’s existence, the PRI returned to power this year with Enrique Peña Nieto’s victory in the July presidential election. Peña Nieto’s election was not all that surprising. It was, after all, a very lackluster campaign which lacked much excitement (certainly compared to the 2006 election) and Peña Nieto (EPN) had been the runaway favourite to win the presidency for well over a year – even if he won the election by a narrower margin than was widely expected, against the left’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Nevertheless, Peña Nieto’s victory and the PRI’s return to power is fairly significant – in part because Mexico is one of the world’s major economies, a significant power in the Americas and the centre of a drug war with regional and global implications.

The PRI’s return to power symbolizes disappointment with two terms of PAN rule. For reasons both within and outside its control, Presidents Fox and Calderón proved unable to live up to the high expectations which accompanied their election. Facing a divided Congress with which relations were always fairly tense, the PAN administrations did not have the courage, willpower or determination to confront the tough challenges facing Mexico, challenges which continue to weaken its economic growth, social development and democratic consolidation. The Mexican economy remained weak, because of Chinese competition during Fox’s presidency and the American recession during the Calderón sexenio. Calderón’s strategy of direct military confrontation with the drug cartels only led to a dramatic increase in violence and murders in the country, leaving many Mexicans tired of the bloodshed and thirsty for a semblance of peace. They turned to the PRI, the natural governing party which despite losing power had remained the most organized and formidable political machine on the ground, even after the 2006 debacle. The PRI’s return to power has worried many, who fear for the future of Mexico’s fairly new and maturing democracy. Such fears, howevers, are likely exaggerated. Mexico has changed considerably since the PRI last held the presidency in the 1980s and 1990s. It has a much stronger and resilient democratic system and society, which is not as willing to accept corruption, collusion and authoritarianism in the same way as in the 80s or 90s.

Peña Nieto’s victory also highlighted a growing political rift between urban and rural Mexico, a urban-rural divide which is probably deeper than ever before in contemporary Mexican politics. While Peña Nieto and the PRI found strong support in rural areas, both of his opponents fared much better in urban areas. EPN lost Mexico City, an old stronghold of the left-wing opposition (the PRD), to AMLO by a huge margin. Younger, more educated Mexicans in urban areas proved extremely hostile towards Peña Nieto and his brand of politics, which they feel still reeks of the worst aspects of the old PRI.

Actions always speak louder than words, and unfortunately in Mexican politics, bold words are only rarely followed by equally as bold actions. However, Peña Nieto has an historic opportunity to finally tackle some of the structural challenges facing Mexico – the inefficiency of the state-owned oil monopoly (Pemex), the shambolic and corrupt public education system, the inefficient and unequal social security system, the inefficient tax system or the economic monopolies held by certain influential and powerful actors (television, telephone etc). Peña Nieto may seem to be an unlikely candidate for this job, given his career as a loyal PRI cadre with close (often quite personal) links to these very monopolies and vested interests which are dragging down the country. Some of EPN’s actions might indeed be a cause for concern: his interior secretary has been accused of close ties to a major drug cartel and has an autocratic penchant. However, Peña Nieto’s early words and even deeds can inspire some cautious optimism. His government seems determined to finally open Pemex to much needed foreign investment, while retaining Mexican sovereignty over its natural resources. What is more, Peña Nieto has given some fairly firm indications that he will be taking on the shambolic public education system and directly confront the extremely powerful teachers’ union (the SNTE and its boss, La Maestra) which has been holding up any education and teaching reforms for years. His education secretary is a decade-old opponent of La Maestra, and La Maestra’s allies within the PRI (her former party) have been sidelined. The government will be introducing education reform which will wrestle control over teachers’ pay, hiring and evaluation away from the corrupt SNTE. Even more surprisingly, in his inaugural address, he said that he would work to break the duopoly in Mexican television (controlled by Televisa – a very close ally of EPN – and TV Azteca). It also seems as if Peña Nieto will be actively seeking a broad partisan consensus on this matter. A list of 95 loosely defined promises, the “Pact for Mexico”, was signed not only by the PRI but also by the PAN and even the PRD (even if AMLO’s allies opposes it and he could be creating his own party). Undoubtedly, one the actual actions and deeds of EPN’s government will be the true test for these bold words. Yet, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. Could EPN’s election, against all odds, have signaled some long-overdue reforms in Mexico, which will strengthen its economy and democracy?

6. Myanmar Burma/Myanmar (by-elections): By-elections are only rarely significant enough to merit inclusion on a top 10 list, but the by-elections for 45 seats in Burma (Myanmar)’s lower house, upper house and regional legislatures proved quite significant. For decades an oppressive dictatorship tightly controlled by a military junta which had used violence and bloodshed to maintain its power, Burma is – very slowly – on the road to controlled democratization. In 2011, the leader of the junta, Than Shwe, stepped down after 19 years in power. Officially, the government claimed that military rule was over and that civilians would be taking over the country. That was what they had tried to show in ‘elections’ back in 2010, but the military intended and still intends to control any democratization as tightly as possible. They reserved a quarter of seats in all legislatures for themselves, while the new pro-regime ‘civilian’ party won almost every other seat. The Burmese opposition (NLD), led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, had boycotted the election.

Since then, however, spearheaded by the country’s new civilian leadership (Prime Minister Thein Shein) and with the blessing of their military overlords, Burma has made significant progress on the road to a more democratic political system. The regime’s eagerness to break its diplomatic, economic and military dependence on China and their thirst for foreign investment played a major role in encouraging these bold moves towards democratization, which have received the blessing of the international community.

The by-elections on April 1 represented a landmark moment in this process. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 and her party, the NLD, was allowed to run in these by-elections. As in the last free elections in Burma (in 1990, the results were never honoured by the military), the NLD swept nearly everything in its way. Aung San Suu Kyi herself won a seat in the lower house, and NLD candidates won 43 of the 45 seats up for grabs.

Burma is not yet a democracy, and if it does become a democracy, it will likely be a ‘controlled’ democracy in which the military will have been able to secure a strong position in the new system. The military still controls Burma’s path towards democracy, which means that it could feasibly reverse all progress made to date if they started disapproving of the way things were going. In a country which has struggled to assert its sovereignty over its entire territory since independence and which has faced armed ethnic insurgencies for decades, the difficult democratization process is rendered even more difficult by the threat of ethnic/linguistic/religious violence, as evidenced this summer by bloody riots between Buddhists and Muslims in Rakhine State. However, Burma made significant progress towards a freer political system this year with these landmark by-elections and the election of longtime opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to the Burmese Parliament. It is too early to say how this process will end up, and it will take time (the next elections will be only in 2015), but these 45 by-elections will likely be a landmark in any democratic transition.

7. Netherlands NetherlandsThe Dutch election will probably not lead to significant changes in the country’s politics or the government’s policies. However, I feel as it merits some recognition. This ranking does give some weight and consideration to ‘interesting’ elections, and the Dutch elections this year was quite interesting. Even if it ultimately ended in a grand coalition between Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberal VVD and the centre-left Labour Party (PvdA) – not all that interesting – the campaign and the final outcome of the election had their share of interesting moments and surprising results. Throughout most of the campaign, the left-wing and anti-austerity Socialist Party (SP), benefiting from the PvdA’s troubles while in opposition to Rutte’s VVD-CDA cabinet (backed by the far-right PVV) and its renewed inability to motivate voters on the left, surged into first place. Just as the SP was apparently widening the gap with the PvdA, a strong debate performance by the PvdA’s new leader, Diederik Samsom, led to a rapid, sharp and dramatic swing back to the PvdA. In the end, with heavy strategic voting for Samsom and the PvdA on the left, the PvdA – against almost all expectations – was able to win a very strong second place (24.8% and 38 seats), while the SP failed to gain even a single seat from its fairly mediocre performance in the previous election. The strategic voting and the prime ministerial nature of the contest in its final stretch confirmed the fluidity and volatility of the Dutch electorate (within the broader confines of the left and right) and made for an interesting election.

This election was also significant in that it confirmed a fairly important realignment in Dutch politics, which came as a result of the 2010 election. In that election, the Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) – the Christian democratic party which was formed by the confessional parties which had once dominated politics in the days of pillarization – was replaced as the main force of the centre-right by Rutte’s liberal VVD. Rutte became the first liberal Prime Minister in the Netherlands since 1918. After further squandering its popularity and getting even more voters to dislike it, the CDA sunk even deeper in this election – it won only 8.5% and 13 seats – which is quite something for a party which had been the mainstay of almost every single Dutch government since 1918 and had by and large been the strongest force on the right in the Netherlands. The VVD has successfully taken the CDA’s place as the dominant centre-right party in the Netherlands, accompanied by an ideological shift to the right by the VVD, which has adopted more conservative positions on immigration, law and order or crime and retained liberal positions on economic or fiscal issues. Now in opposition, the CDA has a chance to lick its wounds and find a way to reinvent itself. But it will be hard for a party which has sunk so low and which has built itself a very damaged itself in recent years to roar back to the position it once enjoyed. In this way, this election was also significant, in confirming a fairly significant realignment on the Dutch right.

The election was also noteworthy for the backlash against Geert Wilders’ PVV, which lost 9 seats from its 2010 breakthrough result, winning 15 seats and roughly 10%. Quite significant, this was the first major setback for Wilders, the rising star of Dutch politics and a man who has had a fairly significant influence on the political discourse in the Netherlands. Already, it appears as if this was only a temporary and ephemeral setback for the far-right PVV (which is polling strongly again), which would make this result less significant in the long run. But it was, nevertheless, an important result. For the first time, voters did not play along with the PVV and Wilders miscalculated matters when he precipitated this election. His roughshod, belligerent style – which has up until now served him – might have alienated voters instead this year.

8. Libya LibyaAround the world, the first free election ever held in Libya was overshadowed by the terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and continued militancy around the country. However, the July elections for Libya’s General National Congress (GNC) – which is tasked with drafting a constitution for the country – marked a landmark moment for post-revolutionary Libya. They were the first elections since Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown last year, and they were the country’s first free elections. The National Forces Alliance (NFA), a group led by former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and which has been described as liberal within Libya’s very conservative political culture, won the election for the 80 (out of 200) seats elected by proportional representation and reserved for political parties – taking 48% and 39 seats. In contrast to Tunisia and Egypt, where the first post-revolutionary elections witnessed the victory of local Islamist parties, in Libya the Muslim Brotherhood’s political front – the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) was soundly defeated by the NFA in the list vote, winning only 10% and 17 seats. Furthermore, the Homeland Party, a ‘radical’ Islamist party linked to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG, designated as a terrorist organization by the US), won no seats at all. The first free elections in Libyan history were a major success. Armed militants, local warlords, terrorist groups and radical federalists in the oil-rich western region of Cyrenaica were unable to disturb the election.

In a country such as Libya which had lacked even a semblance of a civil society, political organizations and organized political debate in representative political institutions for years under Gaddafi’s authoritarian and personalist rule, the transition to any kind of more democratic political regime will be difficult. The attack on the consulate in Benghazi revealed that Libya faces a terrorist threat, in addition to lingering threats to the new government’s sovereignty: local warlords, armed militants who have not disarmed following the revolution, the remnants of pro-Gaddafi gangs and ‘federalists’ who clamor for greater regional autonomy. Even more so than Egypt, Libya’s political future remains uncertain. The GNC is dominated by 120 independents and another 15 or so minor parties, which can make for political uncertainty and instability. Electing a Prime Minister was already a tortuous affair; Jibril was defeated by Mustafa Abushagur, a candidate backed by the JCP; but Abushagur’s cabinet was rejected by the GNC in October and was forced to resign. The new Prime Minister is Ali Zeidan, a lawyer and Gaddafi opponent, who has formed a cabinet including Islamists and ‘liberals’, and which respects touchy regional balances. Despite uncertainty over what will come next, the first free elections in Libya nonetheless mark a landmark in Libya’s post-revolutionary and post-Gaddafi era.

9. Serbia SerbiaPresidential and parliamentary in Serbia in May saw major changes in the country’s politics. In the presidential contest, the pro-European incumbent in office since 2004, Boris Tadić was defeated by Tomislav Nikolić, a moderate nationalist. In the parliamentary election, Ivica Dačić’s Socialist Party (SPS) – Slobodan Milošević’s old party which claims to have become more moderate – did well, placing third, allowing Dačić to claim the Prime Minister’s office, in coalition with Nikolić’s party (SNS) and smaller parties. The election of a nationalist President and the formation of a coalition government between the SPS and the SNS (excluding Tadić’s DS) represents a major political shift in Serbia, which had been governed by broadly pro-European parties and politicians since around Milošević fell in 2000-2001.

The news of this major political turnover in Serbia was greeted with some degree of concern in other European countries. Nikolić, a former ally of Vojislav Šešelj, a radical nationalist leader on trial for war crimes, claims to have moderated his positions and favours European integration in the long term. However, few seem to take Nikolić’s conversion to moderate nationalism at face value, in part because he continues to make some inflammatory statements about European integration (claiming that Serbia would be better off as a Russian province), the Balkan Wars (he denied that Srebrenica was an act of genocide and said that the Croatian city of Vukovar was a Serb city). However, Nikolić’s election and the 2012 election does nevertheless mark a shift in the political discourse in Serbia. The old polarization between pro-European/pro-Western reformers and radical nationalists (anti-European and pro-Russian) has dissipated somewhat. In 2008, Nikolić – who had been the de facto leader of the militantly nationalist Radical Party (SRS) in Šešelj’s absence – split from the SRS to create the Progressive Party (SNS), which although still fairly nationalist claims to be more moderate and pro-European. In fact, there was ultimately little difference between Nikolić and Tadić – both of whom supported European integration but opposed Kosovo’s independence (furthermore, some had become frustrated with the general lack of progress on issues such as European integration or relations with Kosovo under Tadić’s two terms) – except that the former is a more recent convert to European integration and preferred to place emphasis on economic and cost of living issues (high unemployment, low growth or corruption). These economic issues, rather than any nationalist tide (even if voters are less enthusiastic about European integration), serve to explain why Tadić lost reelection.

Most feared that the election of Nikolić would led to a major deterioration in Serbia’s relations with its neighbors in the turbulent region – notably Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. To a certain degree, this has proven true. Relations with Croatia have sunk to their lowest point in years. However, the government’s policy towards Kosovo – which declared independence in 2008 but which is not recognized by Serbia – has not been quite what could have been expected from Nikolić and Dačić. EU-sponsored dialogue between the two countries, on technical and now political matters, has made more progress than anyone could have expected. Dačić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Hashim Thaçi have developed a strong working relationship, and the two made progress on issues such as regulating border crossings. Dačić and the Serbian government seem to be coming to terms with the reality of a quasi-sovereign Kosovan state, and have pragmatically decided to cooperate rather than feud with their neighbor. The priority for Dačić and his government remains the fate and status of Serbs living in northern Kosovo. Meanwhile, Serbia may begin EU accession talks soon, after having become a candidate country in March. It may be too early to judge of what will come from this dialogue and the other policies of the new government, but could Nikolić/Dačić emerge as the unlikely leaders of major changes in Serbian politics and Serbia’s place in the Balkans and Europe?

10. Italy Italy (local elections and Sicily regional elections): Italy on the brink of what could be the most important political realignment in the country since the collapse of the First Republic political system in 1994. Local elections this summer and regional elections this fall confirmed that the upcoming legislative elections, in February 2013, will see major political changes and could usher in a political realignment. The local elections saw the success of the left, but above that the collapse of the Berlusconian right (the PdL) and the emergence of a new anti-system and populist political movement, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) proved most important. The collapse of the Berlusconian right, which began in 2011 and was precipitated by Berlusconi’s resignation and replacement by Mario Monti as Prime Minister in November 2011, became apparent in the local elections. The PdL – but also its ally the Lega Nord, till then on an upswing – performed extremely poorly. In contrast, Grillo’s M5S, a new ideologically vague but militantly anti-system, anti-corruption, even anti-politician populist movement, surprised everybody with very strong performances. It placed ahead of the right in several major cities, and it was victorious in Parma and some smaller cities. In part, M5S picked up a good number of right-wingers unhappy with the state of their party and Berlusconi’s antics. The Sicilian regional elections confirmed the relative success of the left, the collapse (but also division) of the old right in one of its main strongholds and the success of the M5S despite a shoestring campaign with an unknown candidate.

The 2013 elections will prove crucial to Italy’s future, as they will likely lead to a fundamental realignment with the collapse of the Second Republic era, a political system structured around one man – Silvio Berlusconi. The collapse of the PdL, the emergence of a new populist force attracting many right-wing voters (similar to the Lega in the early 90s) and the centre-right/Monti’s attempts to rebuild a new post-Berlusconi centre-right all presage this coming political realignment. In the long run, however, the local elections and the Sicilian regional elections will probably have kicked off this realignment in Italian politics. The 2011 local elections (prior to Berlusconi’s resignation) showed the first cracks in his once-formidable coalition, the 2012 local elections saw this coalition crumble.

This concludes the top 10 ranking of 2012’s most significant or important elections. To restate, this exercise is very subjective and there is no ‘correct’ ranking. There are certain elections which many might feel should have been on this list, to the exclusion of some of my top 10 elections. Certainly, strong cases can be made for their inclusion – perhaps equally as strong as the case I tried to make for the ten elections featured above. I will try to justify the exclusion of some of those other elections.

The recent elections in Japan saw the traditional governing party, the LDP, return to power in a landslide only three years after being swept out of power in historic fashion. In the process, the incumbent party – the DPJ – suffered a defeat so serious that it calls into question its future as a party. In a geopolitical context of tensions with China, the election of a more hawkish Prime Minister in Japan is somewhat significant. However, I have a feeling that we tend to overstate the importance of such political changes in Japan. This election confirmed the extreme volatility of the Japanese electorate and the unpopularity of the outgoing government rather than a surge in support for the LDP. Like 2005 or 2009, the 2012 Japanese election was only another big swing of the pendulum, a big anti-incumbent wave. The new government’s policy is unlikely to lead a policy markedly different from that of its predecessor. Finally, given the rapid turnover in Prime Ministers since 2006, we have very good reason to believe that this Prime Minister will have the short longevity of his predecessor.

The coming weeks and months in Venezuela will prove very significant, in the event that Chávez dies. Chávez won reelection back in October, fending off one of the strongest challenges to his presidency yet. Venezuela is an important country, but that election was not all that significant. It did not give clues about the post-Chávez future/succession. It did show that a united opposition with a strong candidate could pose a threat to Chávez’s power, even if Chávez remained dominant; but this had been the case since 2007 and 2010.

President Wade’s defeat in Senegal almost made this list. It was, after all, one of the more significant political events in West Africa and the severe defeat of a man who had built a reputation as a nascent autocrat and national strongman is a significant event. In addition, the peaceful and democratic transfer of power from a defeated incumbent to a democratically-elected new government still remains a difficult and rare event in West Africa. However, in a local context, this peaceful transfer of power from defeated incumbent to victorious opponent is not new: it already happened in 2000, when Wade defeated incumbent President Abdou Diouf.

Subnational elections in Catalonia and the Basque Country (Spain) as well as Alberta and Quebec (Canada) all proved quite significant for the region or province in question. However, none of these elections – or other subnational elections – were significant enough in a wider, national or international, context to merit inclusion on this list. The events in Catalonia come the closest, as the nationalist policies of the regional government have a direct impact on the rest of Spain. However, the Catalan elections did not see either a strong mandate for Artur Mas’ referendum agenda or a substantial increase in overall nationalist support. While Mas still has the ability to push forward with this plan, he is now the ‘hostage’ of the more radical left-wing nationalist ERC, and there is a chance that his very poor result in the Catalan elections will short-circuit his own nationalist agenda (if Mas had won his absolute majority, then this election would certainly be on this list). In the Basque Country, the nationalists have returned to power after having lost it in 2009, but they have no intention to play nationalist tug-of-war with Madrid for the next few years at least. In Alberta, these elections saw the first strong challenge to the continued dominance of the provincial Tories since the 1990s (or even before then) and unlike previous challenges to its power which had been long-shot challenges from the unelectable Liberals or NDP, this challenge came from their right. These elections will be remembered largely for how all pollsters got it all so wrong: they saw the Tories losing power to the Wildrose, but voters reelected a strong Tory majority government. In the long run, if the PCs do come to lose power by the next election, the 2012 election will likely have marked the first major crack in their machine which ultimately brought it down. Elections in Quebec saw the nationalist PQ return to power, after nearly 10 years in opposition, but with a very weak minority mandate, the PQ government is in no position to push forward a nationalist agenda with Ottawa.

Once again, I welcome disagreements with my ranking. I do hope, however, that this ranking provided a solid overview of the main electoral events of 2012 and the significance and impact of some of these most important elections on countries, regions and the world. Stay tuned for another staple of the New Year, the What’s Hot preview of major elections in 2013.

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Posted on January 9, 2013, in General information and summaries, World Elections Blog. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I think you got it pretty much square on, actually. I would’ve liked to have seen another Canadian election get to the Top 10 list, but it can’t happen every year I suppose!

    My one qualm is the Japanese election, though more because I expect Abe’s nationalist cabinet, and the general attitude of the LDP this time out with little to moderate it, plus the huge swing to the nationalist JRP, may become a big issue down the road. That is of course, benefit of hindsight if it does happen though, and you could be right about the short-lived tenure of this government.

    I also have a question: lets say next year that we see in BC something of a “realignment,” with the NDP winning their majority but the BC Cons becoming the main “free market” party, a la 1991 with the Libs and So Cons; or if we see the Ontario Liberals tumble down and the rise of the PCs and NDPs as the competing parties then – would those sorts of elections make this list?

    Thanks for all your work last year! Been a great pleasure keeping up with this site.

  2. Was Alberta really a surprise? The opinion-polls at en.wikipedia.org were quite correct as far as I remember and that the Windrose was too conservative for a replacement was predictable. Less predictable were Ontario or Quebec…

  3. @Georg Ebner:
    AB was unquestionably a huge surprise: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alberta_Election_2012#Opinion_polls. The PCs were underestimated by 8 points by the best pollster which had WRP+2 but it ended up as PC+10. Benefit of hindsight is great after the fact, but you gotta understand that at the time, regardless of whether the WRP was too rightwing or whatever, the result was a *huge* surprise which was bigger, by a mile, than ON-2011 or QC-2012.

    @KyleH:

    Yeah, I certainly understand the idea that Japan should be on the list and maybe it should have been there indeed (though not sure at whose expense). A more nationalist/hawkish govt is probably a bigger deal, but I have the feeling that this cabinet won’t last all that long. As for the JRP, it is probably less significant than it seems. Everything seems to indicate that it picked up a lot of unhappy DPJ voters, it did well nationally but it didn’t make a huge showing outside of Hashimoto’s Kinki/Osaka bastion, and the party is already beginning to drop in polls. Time will tell who is correct :)
    A BC or ON election which sees a huge realignment along the lines hinted at would almost certainly make the list, though this being Canada in the long term it would remain to be seen if it was a true realignment or only a major deviating election (a la ON-1990). AB would have made the list if the WRP had defeated the PCs, and there is a chance that a PQ majority or CAQ OO would have made the list as well. Scotland made the top 10 list last year, for example, as did BW in Germany
    Thanks a lot for your comments this year! Hopefully you’ll enjoy 2013 as well :)

  4. Nice post as usual. Though I think I would have placede France higher (n°2) cause all Europe were watching it. The handle of the debt crisis by “Merkozy” has been highly unpopular almost everywhere in Europe (except in Germany) and many were watching closely french election hoping that an Hollande presidency would help changing european policy . Though many now watch Hollande presidency highly disappointed, the political change in France has helped pass some key measure in June european summit. So I think France is number 2 behind Greece because the change in France helped in some ways, while lesse than many hoped, the handle of European debt crisis

  5. I am happy to read your assessment that the 2012 US election was not as significant as the 2008 one. I became so fed up by everybody calling it a “historic election”, as almost every election nowadays seems to be called: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2012/11/07/not-another-historic-election/

  1. Pingback: First Past the Post: January 10 | Suffragio

  2. Pingback: 2013′s Top 10 | World Elections

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