Elections and Referendums of the Decade
As we enter the second decade of the twenty-first century and 2010, I’ve chosen to look back on the top 20 elections which have marked the 2000-2010 era. Undoubtedly, it’s easy to come up with 30 to 40 elections in the past ten years which have been important, but these are elections which I deem to have had an important effect not only on the country itself but on the region and the world. In addition to that, the ‘criteria’ of sorts expands to include elections which saw surprising and unpredictable results. Basically, I’ve asked myself if these elections had not taken place or if the results had been different, would the country be very markedly different and would the region/world be different. As a result, the ranking is purely subjective though I’ve tried to do it with a balance world view.
- United States, 2000: Undoubtedly, the election of George W. Bush has marked the decade. If Bush had not been President, the world would have taken a different path in a lot of regards. Secondly, on the local scale, the 2000 election marked the rise of the Christian right within the Republican Party and ushered in some important changes in electoral behaviour, at least in presidential elections. Lastly, the disputed elections in 2000 have become a more and more common event around the world, and the importance of the electoral college has been re-emphasized in American elections since the 2000 debacle.
- United States, 2008: The historical significance of the election of a black President in a country such as the United States, and only 40 years after 1968, cannot be underestimated. While a lot of changes in policy might end up being minor in the grand scheme of things, the election of Obama has had an effect on world politics and the idea of a minority President or a ‘local Obama’ is a common theme in a number of countries. In addition, 2008 has brought a minor re-alignment of sorts in American electoral geography and sociology.
- Ukraine, 2004: Ukraine’s 2004 election has ushered in a division between east and west in Ukraine’s electoral geography and political debate. The divide is very marked, and it will likely remain so. In the short run, the election also merits to be recognized because of the political effects it had on Ukraine, Russia and the world. It was a major moment in various ‘democratic’ revolutions in the former Soviet Union, and was seen then as the first disengagement of a close Russian ally from the Russian circle. Lastly, you don’t see a three-round election often these days.
- Iran, 2005: The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has had a very important effect on Iran and the world. On the national scale, it marked not only a backlash against the American invasion of Iraq and Bush’s policy, but most importantly against the liberal and reformist policies of Ahmadinejad’s reformist predecessor Mohammad Khatami. On the international scale, I think the effects of Ahmadinejad’s election have been made very clear since 2005.
- Mexico, 2000: The election of Vincente Fox in Mexico might not have had a huge effect on the world, but on the national scale the significance of the defeat of the PRI machine after over seventy years in power is not to be down played. 2000 in Mexico represented the conclusion not only of the PRI’s decline since the 1988 election but most importantly the arrival of real competitive politics in Mexico.
- Palestine, 2006: The election of the Hamas to power in the Palestinian Authority has had effects of undeniable importance. It represented, firstly, a change in Palestinian policy compared to the Fatah governments and a backlash against the corruption of the Arafat/Fatah establishment. Secondly, the after-effects on the government and Palestinian government have been quite important with the emergence of conflicting sides within the Palestinian independence movement.
- Bolivia, 2005: I find that the importance of Evo Morales’ election on Bolivia and the region has been downplayed a lot. The election of the first indigenous head of state in a country where they form a large majority (but an historically repressed and politically dormant majority) has changed Bolivian politics. The wealthy few, of white or mestizo descent, do not control the country’s natural resources anymore. Morales’ socialist policies and constitutional reforms in favour of socialism and indigenous Bolivians have made him an important player in South America, and represent a departure from the neoliberal policies of Bolivian Presidents such as Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada. With Morales and the participation of a majority in Bolivian politics, the future of Bolivia and its neighbors cannot be the same anymore.
- Taiwan, 2000: The effects of the election of Chen Shui-bian on Taiwanese politics can be seen as similar to the effects of Fox’s election in Mexico the same year. It marked the end of more than half of a century rule by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang. Like the defeat of the PRI, the defeat of the KMT marked the end of an era. The election of the Taiwanese nationalist DPP led to tenser relations with mainland China, and to hopes of change. In the end, however, it ended with corruption, nepotism and a major backlash against Chen Shui-bian’s DPP in the 2008 election and the return of the KMT to power.
- Russia, 2000: While the results of the Russian presidential election of 2000 are not interesting in themselves, they are important in a regional and global context. Putin’s election in 2000 has changed Russian policy, leading to the rebirth of nationalism in Russia and a change in Russia’s foreign policy from a more laid-back and pro-American approach under Yelstin to a tougher and more assertive approach under Putin. Without Putin, it’s undeniable that the decade would have been different.
- Japan, 2009: Another election which marks the end of a long-era of single-party dominance. In Japan, the landslide victory of the DPJ in the 2009 election was predictable since the DPJ’s victory in the 2007 upper house elections, but it remains a noteworthy election because it still represents a major blow to years and years of conservative rule in Japan. While policies might not see a earth-shattering change, the defeat of a mighty electoral machine known for its patronage and close relation to big business is a major shift in a country’s politics.
- Spain, 2004: Spain’s 2004 elections enters the list partly because the results came as a surprise. Held only days after the terrorist attacks in Madrid, the election led to a sudden and unpredicted change in Spanish politics from the right (the PP) which had supported the US intervention in Iraq, to the left (Zapatero’s PSOE) which opposed the Iraq war and pulled out of Iraq shortly thereafter. A change of government in itself is not enough to make an election a top election of the decade, but the surprise effect has a place in the criteria.
- India, 2004: Like Spain the same year, the 2004 election in the world’s largest democracy saw surprising results with the defeat of the Hindu conservative BJP. Furthermore, it has marked a change in policy from a controversial Hindu nationalist approach to the old consensual style of the Congress.
- Brazil, 2002: After running in election after election and suffering humiliation almost every time, Lula and the PT’s election in 2002 led to the establishment of a new left in Brazil and the re-emergence of the Brazilian left after military and civilian rule known for more neoliberal economic policies. In the short run, it closed the neoliberal era of Cardoso although it’s false and very unfair to say it led to socialist policies. Lula’s presidency has given the left credit in Brazil, credit it had first lost with Goulart in 1964 and later under Lula in the 1990s, but most importantly has placed Brazil on the map again as a major economic and political power. Lula’s rule has transformed Brazil, and even if the right wins this year, Brazilian politics will have been transformed in a very important way, perhaps the largest change since the Vargas era.
- Venezuela recall referendum, 2004: The Chavez era in Venezuela and South America needed mention, and I believe that the 2004 recall referendum is the ‘Chavez election’ which merits recognition. Unlike the presidential elections under Chavez, the recall referendum marked the defeat of an American-supported attempt at the removal of an element in South America which opposed American interests. Without Chavez, politics in South America would undoubtedly have been very different.
- France EU constitution referendum, 2005: I had a hard time deciding about the importance of a European Union-related referendum and which to choose (Dutch and French votes in 2005, the Irish vote in 2008) before settling on the French vote in 2005. The rejection of the EU constitution by France in 2005 not only stopped (until 2007) the EU constitution process, but in political terms it marked the rejection by the ‘people’ of a text widely supported by the ‘elite’, a theme which was common in the 2005 campaign.
- Australia, 2007: As said above, changes in government don’t often merit recognition in the view of the decade, but the final defeat of Howard in Australia in 2007, after being in power since 1994, merits some sort of place on the list. After years of conservative rule marked by support of the US intervention in Iraq, conservative policies socially and Australia’s failure to ratify the Kyoto Treaty; the election of the Labor government in 2007 has changed Australian policies in a number of ways. This change of government is important enough to merit recognition.
- Montenegro independence referendum, 2006: It’s certain that the creation of a new nation – especially in the Balkans powder keg – through peaceful and electoral means merits some sort of place on the ranking. While the geo-political impact of the addition of another small country have been very minor, the referendum in Montenegro was significant enough to garner attention from places like Quebec (where independence referendums in 1980 and 1995 both failed) and Spain (where places like Catalonia and the Basque Country actively seek independence) notably because of the 55% threshold imposed for the passage of the referendum.
- Turkey, 2002: The election of the ‘Islamic democrat’ AKP and Erdogan in Turkey in 2002 (and it’s landslide win in 2007) marks the emergence in Turkey of a more clerical and religious current as opposed to the nationalist and secular views of Kemalism; and the emergence in the region of parties which are the Muslim counterparts to European Christian democracy.
- Côte d’Ivoire, 2000: I absolutely think that an African election merits recognition, partly because they’re unfairly forgotten by the world media. The election of Laurent Gbagbo and the clear divide in results between north and south in the West African nation of Côte d’Ivoire led to the 2002 uprising and the ensuing civil war which ended only in 2007 and the political crisis which might potentially end this year with another election. The civil war, and French involvement in the mediation process, has had an important effect on West Africa.
- France, 2002: The surprising results of the 2002 presidential election in France, with the second place showing of the far-right led to a major recognition of the rising strength of the European far-right. However, it should remain low in the list because it only marks a media frenzy over the far-right and did not lead to significant changes in European geo-politics except perhaps recognition of the far-right’s existence (though previous elections in Romania and notably Austria saw similar results with the far-right).
Of course, this list excludes a vast number of other elections, and I feel that some justice must be rendered to them. Here are only some of the ‘honourable mentions’, which did not make the list.
United States, 2004: The close re-election of George W. Bush in the midst of the Iraq war was a two-sided deal: a confirmation of Bush’s Presidency which he controversially won in 2000 but also the fact that Bush remained a very divisive President, even against an opponent generally accepted to be weak.
Argentina, 2003: The election of Nestor Kirchner and the ‘Peronist left’ marked the end of the neoliberal era in Argentina, and the defeat of its main proponent: Carlos Menem.
Poland, 2005: The Polish elections of 2005, which saw the election of the Kaczyński twins to power, marked a re-alignment in Polish politics with the consolidation of power in the hands of the PiS and Civic Platform with the mainstream left sidelined into a third party. Later elections in 2007 and 2009 have proved that this system of power shared between two centre-right parties and a small centre-left party endures, although the far-right has been sidelined since 2004.
Israel, 2001: Although forgotten since his coma, Ariel Sharon has influenced the volatile geo-political situation of the Levant in a significant way, especially in the first half of the last decade. His election over Ehud Barak marked a conservative turn in Israeli politics vis-a-vis Palestine, after the perceived failings of Barak’s Camp David negotiations in 2000. Since 2001 and Sharon’s election, Israeli politics have proved volatile with the split in Likud, the creation of Kadima and the electoral decline of Barak’s Labor Party.
Denmark, 2001: The Danish election of 2001 and the defeat of the Social Democrats in a campaign focused on immigration and asylum marked one of the first incidents in Europe of an electoral campaign over the theme of immigration and a conservative reaction to the increasing number of asylum seekers.
Iran, 2009: While the long-term effects of the Iranian election of 2009 are not yet known, the violent protests following the election, allegedly rigged in the conservative’s favour, are the first incidents of violent protests against the Iranian regime in a number of years and, according to some, this election may end up being the first trigger to the potential overthrow of the Iranian theocracy.
Malaysia, 2008: In the 2008 elections in Malaysia, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) and its allies, which have ruled Malaysia since independence, saw their majority suffering serious loses (from 90% of seats to a mere 64% of seats) in favour of a heterogeneous opposition movement of liberals, hard-line Islamists and the left. The defeat of the UMNO and its allies might not come tomorrow, but the opposition has kept gaining strength and the end of UMNO hegemony in Malaysia might come soon – and this would entail serious changes in the country.
Zimbabwe, 2008: The disputed 2008 elections in Zimbabwe saw the opposition to Robert Mugabe gain control of the legislature and the opposition’s candidate win a plurality in the contested first round. While it has not yet seen the end of Mugabe’s rule, things are slowly changing in Zimbabwe.
Ghana, 2008: The Ghanaian election of 2008 is notable for it saw a very narrow result (50.2% for the winning left-wing candidate in the runoff) – and, a rarity in many African countries, a non-violent transfer of power between the ruling right-wing government and the left.
Ireland Lisbon I referendum, 2008: The Irish rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 was as significant to the European Union’s ‘reform process’ as was the French rejection of the EU constitution. The relatively large NO vote, which came as a mild surprise to many observers, stalled the Lisbon Treaty’s ratification until Ireland held a second vote which succeeded in ratifying the treaty.
France, 2007: Sarkozy’s election in France, in an election which received significant attention from the New World and also other European countries, marked a change of generation in French politics with the arrival of the ‘new guard’ of politicians (Sarkozy, Royal) being a major theme in the campaign. Sarkozy’s victory also resulted in a change of style in French politics, with a much more assertive Presidency on the forefront.
Every list like these are often incomplete affairs. I could go on and on, noting a number of elections including the victory of the left in Latin American nations such as Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador and El Salvador; John Howard’s victory in the 2001 election in Australia; the close election in Germany in 2005; Medvedev’s election in Russia and the establishment of the Medvedev-Putin duo in the executive; Blair’s 2001 and 2005 re-elections in the UK; 0r the right’s victory in Sweden’s 2006 election. The decade has been rich for elections, so this remains only a very subjective and concise list.