2013’s Top 10
As in the past three years, I wrap up 2013 with a subjective reflection on the 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 while in 2012 Greece and Egypt ranked first and second.
These rankings are all subjective and there many different criterion for establishing these rankings. As with my past rankings, my primary benchmark was determining 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, 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. Most elections which we call realigning elections turn out to be deviating elections down the road – as the next Canadian and Irish elections may show.
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.
I give priority to national elections, but sub-national elections and by-electionsf were 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. This ranking is subjective, it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluations on the importance of each election. I welcome debate, disagreements and alternative rankings. Your votes in my poll and your individual comments were taken into consideration and helped me establish some of the rankings.
1. Italy: Perhaps my last post, summarizing 2013 in Italian politics, might have been a major give-away as to my choice for the gold medal in 2013. I am unsure of whether the February 24-25 legislative election in Italy should be called a realigning election, but I am confident that it will nonetheless mark the beginning of a realigning period in Italian politics. The election saw the fall of a traditionally stable left-right party system which had prevailed in Italy, with some exceptions but without any significant external opposition from the centre or far-left, since 1994 and the rise of the ‘Second Republic’ era in Italian politics. Given that this left-right system, widespread outside of Italy, also masked a political system polarized around one man – Silvio Berlusconi, this change is clearly significant.
A new force, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, became the single largest party and the third largest bloc in the new Italian Parliament. Even if Grillo may turn out to be a flash in the pan and ultimately have little long-term impact on Italian politics, the Grillo phenomenon will leave its mark on Italy’s political history and is also of importance in a broader European context. Grillo’s dramatic emergence, coming out of relative obscurity (politically speaking) and rising to nearly 25% of the vote in the space of a year, represented a protest vote against Italy’s corrupt, incompetent, inefficient and gerontocratic political elites (la casta), economic recession, austerity policies and a demand for major political change. Corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, austerity, recession and outdated and aging political leadership isn’t common to Italy, and those are issues which form part of the appeal for populist parties, on the left and right, in other countries in Europe and around the world. However, Grillo does stand out in his style and political communication/marketing from other populist parties, which in Europe are often on the far-right. Grillo communicated his message using a time-honoured form (personal charisma) but also through much newer means – the internet and social media. Grillo continues to lead his party from outside the ‘parasitical’ Parliament, from his blog, and the M5S – which until recently strictly banned its members from communicating through television – has made very heavy use of new(er) technologies – the internet and social media – to mobilize supporters, organize political rallies, decide on policy matters (to a certain extent, it must be emphasized that Grillo is not a shining example of direct democracy), reach out to potential sympathizers and voters, and rile up emotions. Given Grillo’s boycott of television and his lower presence in traditional media (newspapers), his political power in 2013 was entirely the result of his ability to combine traditional, personal forms of political appeal/power (charisma/charismatic legitimacy) with new forms of appeal.
At the same time, 2013 likely signals the beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi, the business tycoon who has been ‘the issue’ in Italian politics since 1994. Although Berlusconi did better than anyone expected in the election, coming so close to actually winning (which few would have imagined a few months before the election), the aftermath of the election likely signal that Berlusconi’s time as the central icon of Italian politics is drawing to a close. In August, the man who prided himself on being drawn to court so often but never having been found definitely guilty in any case, was finally sentenced to a prison sentence and banned from public office. Although Berlusconi will not go to jail and only serve one year of community service, his sentencing – a first – is a watershed in Italian politics. In November, Berlusconi was expelled from the Senate under a law which will ban from holding any public office for the next six years – ending a parliamentary career which began nearly 20 years ago. While Berlusconi will certainly remain a significant force in Italian politics in the coming years, he will be forced to do so from outside the halls of Parliament or any public office. Given that Berlusconi had established himself as the lider maximo of the Italian right since 1994, crushing all potential rivals and overly ambitious ‘anointed successors’ (the latest one, Gianfranco Fini, saw his political career and dreams of leading a post-Berlusconi refoundation of the Italian right ended in the election), his two setbacks in 2013 are very significant. Berlusconi is neither invincible nor eternal, and his gradual withdrawal from the forefront of politics in Italy will mean a certain realignment, especially on the right. This is something which some of Berlusconi’s hitherto most loyal allies have begun realizing this year. Angelino Alfano, a dauphin of the old leader, broke with Berlusconi in November. Although Alfano has been careful not to fall into Fini’s trap and break all bonds with Berlusconi (his mentor), he is young enough to realize that his own career will probably outlive Berlusconi and that there is a world beyond the old Berlusconian dominance of the right. It remains to be seen if Alfano will be another Gianfranco Fini, or if he will be able to be the one leading the post-Berlusconi transformation of a right which remains largely dependent on Berlusconi.
2013 also signals a generational shift in Italian politics, the rise of a new political elite. Sure, an 88-year old president was re-elected in extremis, and Berlusconi (77) is not going away overnight. But a new generation is reaching the apex of power: Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister, is only 46 years old. Matteo Renzi, the new leader of the main centre-left party, the PD, is only 38. Renzi has built his career by denouncing the old elites, vowing to ‘scrap’ them and end the immobility, inefficiency, corruption and incompetence associated with these old elites. The Grillo phenomenon elected over 100 new parliamentarians, almost all of them political novices with little to no experience and drawn from various age groups and social categories. Visceral and bitter opposition to the old political class (la casta) was at the core of Grillo’s radical anti-establishment appeal.
In short, 2013 was an extremely consequential and likely historic year for Italy. The next election will be even more exciting and determinant, but 2013 has clearly begun the realignment process and set the scene for an historic showdown, under a new electoral law with a new generation of leaders, in the next election.
2. Iran: In a very close second behind Italy, Iran’s presidential election (in June) was very significant. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, emerged as the surprise (landslide) winner of an election which most people expected would be won by a conservative loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The actual significance of Rouhani’s election may be a matter of debate. The Iranian president has relatively little power and is expected to respect the primacy of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the one with the hard power as the man behind the armed forces, the political institutions, the judiciary and the ultimate ‘gatekeeper’ controlling access to politics. Still, the President has significant soft power, stature as Iran’s public face to the world, and actual influence/direct power over economic and domestic policies.
Rouhani’s first moves in office have been welcomed by Western countries, and signal a break from the international ostracism which marked the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). From a rhetorical point of view, Rouhani has spoken in support of women’s rights, less censorship, greater press freedoms and improving Iran’s relation with the world – particularly the United States. In late November 2013, Iranian negotiators reached an interim agreement with international partners (European, American, Chinese, Russian) on Iran’s nuclear program after long talks in Geneva, which will freeze key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief. Although Israel, Democrats and Republican lawmakers in the US Congress, pro-Israel lobbies in the US and Canada have expressed scepticism or outright opposition to the plan, it remains a tentative step forward in peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. The deal does remain an interim solution preluding more definite negotiations, and the US will not be dropping sanctions any time soon – but the White House opposes any new sanctions, as many in Congress are demanding, as a threat to Iran if no agreement is reached in the six-month window. Regardless of what comes through, Rouhani’s early moves represent a break from the Ahmadinejad, and a much more constructive engagement with the international community. Tehran is pressed to reach an agreement by the weight of international, US-led sanctions on Iran which have had a severe impact on the economy.
Earlier, in September, Rouhani and Barack Obama talked on the phone, the highest level of engagement between the two countries since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Rouhani and Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, have both made active use of English Twitter accounts to publicize Tehran’s diplomatic policies or the president’s more ‘modern’ appeal to younger Iranians (pictures of him jogging without his cleric robes, re-tweeting a YouTube video mash-up for his 100 days).
There are some who argue that the significance of this election is being overstated. Beyond the rhetoric, the Iranian press is not significantly freer than in the past and opponents of the regime are still being arrested and executed by authorities. Rouhani does not have absolute control over the direction of Iranian politics, especially on foreign policy and nuclear issues, and conservatives hostile to an agreement still hold significant power (if not control) in Iranian institutions, including the military and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). These institutions previously thwarted reformist President Mohammed Khatami’s agenda and destroyed the reformist movement after 2003-2004. Conservatives opposed to Rouhani’s moderate policies, for example, demonstrated with anti-American slogans in Tehran after Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama. Rouhani should not be considered as a reformist or ‘liberal’ who is willing to scrap Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program, which is an issue of consensus across the Iranian political leadership, and there are certain aspects of the (civilian) nuclear program on which Tehran will not compromise. Finally, a few observers believed in June that Rouhani was handpicked by Ali Khamenei to be a ‘moderate’ leader who would improve Iran’s international reputation, break some of the crippling sanctions and give the outward appearance of moderation and reform all the while securing Khamenei’s power and not challenging the clerical primacy in politics (which Ahmadinejad had challenged after 2009, leading to his isolation by the Supreme Leader).
However, while keeping these considerations in mind, we should not be overly cynical and dismissive of the Iranian election’s consequences. This is an election which may have major regional consequences, a rare outcome of any election. Even if we are more dismissive, this election, from a domestic standpoint, marks a break with the Ahmadinejad era, associated with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation, sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei. Rouhani, who promised democratization, international engagement and economic recovery, was able to appeal to a wide base of disgruntled and disillusioned reformists, moderate conservatives and depoliticized Iranians welcoming change and a way out of the Ahmadinejad impasse. Weighing these two viewpoints, I chose to place Iran second, behind Italy – whose significance, while perhaps less important to the wider region, is not as debatable.
3. Venezuela: The death of Venezuela’s emblematic president, Hugo Chávez, on March 5 led to an early presidential election in April, only a few months after Chávez was reelected to another term in office by a comfortable margin in October 2012. The significance of Chávez’s death needs not be underlined any further; the man, for better or worse, had a huge impact on Venezuela and Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century and his death opened a political void and era of uncertainty in Venezuelan but also Latin American politics. Can chavismo function with Chávez? The April 2013 election was to answer that question.
Chávez’s anointed successor and Vice President (but only since October 2012), Nicolás Maduro, was the one who would carry the chavista burden in the election. Maduro was expected to win by a wide margin on the back of a sympathy vote for Chávez, but instead he ended up winning (or ‘winning’, some say) by only 1.8%. Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in 2012 and again in the early election, won about 49% of the vote, has managed to shake off the opposition’s association with the discredited and loathed ‘neoliberal’, ‘imperialist’ and coupist figures of the past and present himself as a young, modern and reformist figure who is not entirely dismissive of Chávez’s mixed legacy. Maduro, despite campaigning quasi-entirely on Chávez’s legacy (transforming chavismo into a secular religion), was unable to catch on to any sympathy votes for Chávez. The election led to serious concerns of fraud and violent protests by pro and anti-government activists leading to nine deaths, but Capriles finally backed down and grudgingly accepted his official ‘defeat’. Capriles backing down and acquiescing to the government’s results and audit process was criticized by some opposition members. At the same time, Maduro’s narrow victory made him vulnerable to rivals within his own party, led by Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro, understanding that he lacked Chávez’s legitimacy, has since moved to cement his power and establish his own legitimacy within his own party and with the wider electorate. The media continues to be tightly controlled by the state, the National Assembly has granted Maduro special decree powers and the government is leading an ‘economic war’ with the occupation and confiscation of private businesses, confiscation of consumer goods (recently TVs and electro-domestic appliances), 50-70% price discounts, new regulations on rent in shopping centres, state control of imports. These policies are part of the government’s attempts to control galloping inflation (54% in November), although these measures are widely seen as attacks on the consequences rather than causes of inflation, and as a means by the government to blame business owners and private companies for the country’s growing economic woes (rather than take responsibility for their own actions). These radical populist policies have reinforced, for the time being, Maduro’s standing. In early December, the governing party won the municipal elections by a larger margin than in April, building a 6.5-point majority over the opposition coalition. However, the opposition retained control of many of the largest cities, including the Metropolitan District of Caracas.
However, for many the government’s policies will be successful only in the short-term, as they will lead to shortages and will ultimately have no effect on inflation which is largely the result of the government’s economic mismanagement and falls in oil revenue/production rather than the ‘parasitical bourgeoisie’ and private sector ‘usury’. An op-ed in El País aptly called the municipal elections a Pyrrhic victory for Maduro. Indeed, they only confirm that Venezuela after Chávez is more unpredictable than ever. The electorate is closely divided and extremely polarized, the rhetoric and political climate is bitter and dialogue effectively impossible. As in the past, the government has moved to squeeze opposition-controlled municipalities of the bulk of their powers, setting up ‘parallel’ governments run by loyalists or transferring their responsibilities to the central government. The opposition remains focused on the 2015 legislative elections, in which it hopes to benefit from a bad economy to gain control of the National Assembly, and impeach Maduro in 2016.
All in all, Chávez’s death and the contested April presidential elections have opened a new era in Venezuelan politics: chavismo without Chávez; with a fragile and insecure government resorting to populist ‘economic war’ policies to legitimize itself; a strong and determined opposition but with its own challenges in a difficult environment; a competitive and polarized electoral process; and great uncertainty as to what the future holds. These new dynamics may weaken Venezuela’s influence in the regional context, with Cuba itself moving in an opposite direction than Caracas (with limited liberalization of their highly-controlled economy) and an opportunity for erstwhile ‘junior chavistas‘ such as Rafael Correa or Evo Morales to gain greater influence over regional geopolitics. Correa, strengthened by a landslide re-election in early 2013, has already given indications that he fancies himself as Chávez’s regional successor.
4. Germany: I certainly had a tough time placing this election somewhere. On the one hand, Germany is clearly one of the most important countries in Europe and German politics have a major impact on the EU and European politics – especially in the current situation. But on the other hand, this election was, in the end, rather uneventful and will little significance either for the direction of the EU/European politics or Germany itself. In this vein, Germany 2013 is similar to the 2012 US election. I had placed the American election third – important country, but an election with little change to the status quo. Granted, unlike US 2012, the German election wasn’t entirely status quo pro ante: Angela Merkel remains as Chancellor, but in a coalition with the Social Democrats rather than the liberal Free Democrats. Domestically, this will likely mean a slightly more leftist direction on social policies: the Grand Coalition agreement with the SPD includes agreement on a €8.5 legal minimum wage beginning in 2015, full equality of same-sex civil unions, a gender quota for certain leadership posts – all SPD promises, but on the other hand, the SPD has agreed to drop its demands for higher taxes on high-incomes, restrictions in CEO salaries and they will agree to a general toll for the highways.
However, I still foresee relatively little change to the status quo. This election would have been highly significant if it had brought major changes in Germany’s policies on the Eurocrisis and European economic management, but of course there will be none of that. The SPD is in little position, after a weak result, to demand much concessions from Merkel who was the only winner of the election with 41.5% of the vote, up nearly 8% on the 2009 election. Angela Merkel, furthermore, has shown herself to be a very strong and smart politician in the past years: pragmatic, fence-sitting, a propensity for policy U-turns to adapt to the public opinion and above all a proven ability to steam-roll her coalition partners. Merkel’s triumph, noted as one of the few victories by an incumbent head of government in the EU in the past few years, is not insignificant – but is the reelection of an incumbent with a good economic record (or one perceived as good) all that surprising or significant?
The liberal FDP, so strong after the 2009 election, failed to achieve anything in a black-yellow coalition with Merkel. They paid the heavy price for failing to leave their mark on Merkel’s second term, and they were crushed. With 4.8% of the vote, down nearly 10 points, they are now shut out of the Bundestag. That’s one of the most significant and important events of this election. For the first time since the creation of the Federal Republic, the FDP will have no seats in the lower house. This might lead to a significant realignment of German politics, with the disappearance of the liberal third party which had played such an important role in German politics since 1949. However, I would still shy away from sensationalism. Nothing proves that the FDP is gone for good, especially given that a Grand Coalition might alienate some right-wing voters from the CDU, sending them off to the FDP, as it happened between 2005 and 2009. However, the second significant aspect of this election is the rise of a new party, the eurosceptic AfD party, which won 4.7% and nearly qualified for seats in the Bundestag. In the long-term, the potential emergence of an eurosceptic party hostile to the euro in a country seen as the driving force between the EU might be significant. But the AfD’s room for growth appears limited.
5. Chile (and second round): This ranking might surprise many, and it will either prove to be either hopelessly foolish and naive or incredibly foretelling (likely the former). This election, clearly, isn’t on the list because it was particularly interesting. Former President Michelle Bachelet won a second non-consecutive term in office in an election marked by low turnout and very little suspense as to the outcome of the presidential ballot (which she won with over 62% in the second round). If you wanted suspense or excitement, this wasn’t the election to follow. However, I am willing to stick my head out here and hail this election as significant in the long-term. In a way, it might be similar to Mexico’s election last year (which I ranked fifth) – not particularly interesting at the time, not a surprising result by any stretch of the imagination but an election which may have long-term significance even if we might not have expected it at the time.
I would argue that the 2013 election (rather than 2009-2010) might signal the final end of ‘transition era’ politics in Chile. It was, granted, the victory of a former president whose presidency while successful was of little long-term impact, and she was supported by a coalition largely made up of old parties at the core of the transition era politics. However, the context in which she returned and the form in which she returned is what is significant. The past three years in Chile have been marked by some of the largest protests since the democratic transition itself, organized by social movements – students at the forefront – independent from and rather distrustful of the established traditional coalitions of the right and centre-left. These protests, especially the massive student movement, symbolized a popular challenge to the neoliberal economic consensus which had prevailed since the Pinochet dictatorship and continued throughout 23 years of democratic politics by both centre-left and centre-right governments. Economic growth, as outgoing president Sebastián Piñera learned the hard way since 2010, is no longer sufficient for an electorate which is increasingly concerned by major social inequalities and inefficient and sub-par education or pensions. This is the first major popular challenge to the economic consensus which allowed Chile to become one of Latin America’s most successful economies but which came at the price of huge inequalities and deep problems in education, healthcare or pensions.
The candidates responded to this challenge, and the tone of the campaign and candidates’ platform was quite stunningly different from that of past years. Most candidates demanded a constituent assembly to write a new constitution to replace the one adopted by Pinochet in 1980. Some candidates proposed the re-nationalization of copper, the reawakening of a sensitive issue in Chile. All but one candidate supported free post-secondary education and significant educational reforms, another break with the economic model of the past decades which had promoted a free-market educational system and allowed it to run wild. Bachelet might not have taken the most radical stances and her platform supported reforms at a gradual, incremental pace rather than revolutionary break; but she still advocated for free education, a substantial tax reform and a new constitution (while short on details as to how she would bring it about). Bachelet will find implementing her promises difficult, given the nature of the Chilean political system. But as I said in my conclusions on the runoff – even if she’s not able to accomplish most of it, there are new ideas and views ingrained in the political debate which will be tough to root out.
Within both old coalitions, there are clear changes. On the centre-left, the old Concertación coalition, which ruled from 199o t0 2010 but which became associated, at the end, with inaction and a dearth of ideas, repackaged itself as the Nueva Mayoría – an expanded coalition, markedly more left-leaning, which now includes the Communist Party (one of the major winners of 2013) and smaller left-wing parties. The Christian Democrats, once the driving force in the Concertación, is still the largest party in the heterogeneous coalition but the perceived leftist shift of the coalition and the loss of a few longtime Christian Democratic leaders in Congress shook up the party, which fears it may have lost its predominance over the centre-left. The right suffered an historic defeat, leaving it four years to lick its wounds and rebuild after a bloody defeat. It nominated an old-timer associated at least a bit with the Pinochet regime, but after her defeat there is rising pressure on the right from younger generations to rebuild. The power of the right’s two parties is being challenged, and there is rising incentive for generational change and renewal – breaking from ‘1988 politics’ and Pinochet’s legacy.
The 2013 elections in Chile also signal the beginnings of a generational change. Four student leaders – including the ‘face’ of the 2011 protests, Communist Camila Vallejo – were elected to Congress while older names in Chilean politics were defeated.
Even the low turnout was significant in itself, in the first presidential election with voluntary voting and automatic registration. It shows deep-seated dissatisfaction, apathy, disillusionment and scepticism about democratic institutions’ ability to affect real change, 23 years after the triumph of democracy. The new politicians will need to face this challenge head-on. Chile, despite an uneventful election, might finally end the transition era of politics once and far all, inaugurating a new political system – far more unpredictable.
6. Czech Republic: The Czech Republic saw two important elections this year: the first direct presidential elections in January, and early legislative elections in October. Both elections may prove to have significant consequences on the country’s political system. The direct presidential election and its victor, Miloš Zeman, strengthens the presidency in a theoretically parliamentary republic. Zeman, for example, intervened directly in the political crisis which led to the early elections by naming a close ally as caretaker Prime Minister (who failed to receive the legislature’s confidence) and fermented factional warfare within the largest party, the Social Democrats. The legislative elections saw the political system which had been in place since the late 1990s completely destroyed. The Civic Democrats, hitherto the main right-wing party, were obliterated as a result of a struggling economy, unpopular austerity but above all corruption – culminating in a crazy corruption scandal involving the then-Prime Minister, his chief of staff-mistress, military intelligence, his ex-wife and illegal surveillance.
The decrepitude of the political system, badly undermined by countless corruption scandals and the incompetence of governments, has created a public receptive to populist parties, mostly on the right, proclaiming the need to clean up the political system and bring new leadership (often businessmen) into politics. The last legislative elections in 2010 had foreshadowed this year’s election, with the two main parties of the centre-left and centre-right each doing extremely poorly, with a new anti-corruption party (which turned out to be extremely corrupt) doing very well. This year, the Social Democrats placed first but with barely 20.5%, even lower than in 2010. The Civic Democrats placed fifth with barely 7.7% of the vote, and they were surpassed by a new right-wing populist party and their former junior coalition partner, the more liberal TOP 09. Populist parties did very well; ANO 2011, a new party led by businessman Andrej Babiš placed second with 18.7% and will play a key role in the next government, likely to be led by the Social Democrats. Úsvit, a new populist party (keen on direct democracy) led by Czech-Japanese businessman/senator Tomio Okamura won 7%. Together, these two right-leaning populist forces, both new creations, won 25.5%. Another populist force, albeit much different, older and more traditional. the largely unreformed Communists won 15% and third place, although it was not their best result.
The Czech elections reflected, far and above anything else, voters’ deep-seated dissatisfaction (and outright anger) with with the political system. For the time being, Czech politics are in a state of flux and uncertainty. It is very unclear whether the two traditional parties will reemerge as the leading forces, whether the new populists like ANO will entrench themselves or prove flash in the pans, whether Babiš will become the Czech Berlusconi as some have predicted and which role the president will play in Czech politics in the future? In short, it’s unclear whether this election will be a realigning or deviating election, and whether it will have long-term significance for Czech politics.
7. Australia: Australia, like Germany, is another important country but I have a tough time seeing the 2013 Australian election as hugely significant. An incumbent government was defeated, and Tony Abbott’s new Liberal-National Coalition government represents a clear shift to the right on issues such as climate change, energy, immigration/asylum seekers, fiscal policy and same-sex marriage. However, the election was more Labor’s defeat than the Coalition’s victory. It’s already clear that Labor isn’t dead and that this is only a temporary and usual defeat for them, and they may be back as early as the next election if Abbott’s extremely short honeymoon is any indication.
What makes this election interesting is the events which preceded it. Since Labor won power in 2007, it had four official leadership spills, two of which saw the sitting Prime Minister removed from office. In March 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had assumed power in June 2010 following a leadership spill which toppled then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, thought she was strengthened and laid the leadership question to rest after she was reelected unopposed at a leadership spill. Rudd, her eternal rival who had lost a leadership spill in February 2012, had been forced to withdraw from the contest in March citing insufficient caucus support. Gillard could now focus on the federal elections in the fall. However, only a few months later, at the end of June, Gillard was toppled by Rudd in a leadership spill. Rudd became Prime Minister and Labor’s leader in a tough campaign against Abbott’s Coalition. It was the endless succession of internecine warfare in Labor ranks, and Labor’s cut-throat leadership culture, which undermined the Labor government(s) and allowed the Coalition to win. Indeed, Labor lost reelection despite a good economy and a policy record which, if not devoid of controversy, was still not particularly disastrous and subjectively decent or good. Labor might have learned its lesson: its new process for selecting and removing leaders is more transparent, democratic and reduces the power of factional power-brokers and the smoke-filled backrooms.
Also notable in this election was a clear shift to the right by both parties on the immigration/asylum seekers issue. Feeling the Coalition’s pressure and the unpopularity of their own relatively liberal immigration policies, one of Rudd’s first policy decisions in 2013 was the ‘PNG solution’ – a return to the offshore processing system for asylum seekers introduced by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet in 2001 and dismantled in large part by Rudd’s first government in 2007. Under Rudd’s PNG solution, asylum seekers would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, and that no asylum seeker would be resettled in Australia. Tony Abbott’s work in opposition and electoral campaign focused on ‘stopping the boats’, including through use of the military. Labor’s controversial U-turn on asylum seekers, which began under Gillard, is symbolic of a general shift to the right on immigration policies (or government rhetoric on the issue) in many western countries.
8. Israel: Israeli politics are undoubtedly of great importance to the Middle East, but Israel’s election in early 2013 provided very little change to the status-quo. Instead, they confirmed the complexity and diversity of Israeli society and politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has little enthusiasm for negotiations with Palestinians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or with Iran over the Iranian nuclear program, remained in office although in a coalition which now excludes religious parties (which had been in all cabinets since the 1977 realignment) and is a bit more centrist with the inclusion of two new centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. Netanyahu’s party, the Likud – allied with right-winger Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – came out weakened, losing 11 seats and nearly 10% of the vote from the two parties’ combined share of the vote in 2009.
What was significant about these elections was that they were focused on economic/social issues rather than security or Palestine, and that there was no shift to the right despite the foreign media’s portrayal of Israelis as increasingly nationalistic, religious and anti-Palestinian. The main winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a new secular centrist party led by former journalist Yeir Lapid (it placed second with 19 seats), whose campaign was focused on the middle-classes and their domestic economic grievances rather than old issues of peace or the conflict. His performance showed that many Israeli voters outside the settlements are more interested by kitchen table issues – like voters around the world – than by peace and the conflict (where their stances, on the whole, lean towards the middle ground). On the right, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which took a tough stance on the conflict, did well but not as well as expected – with 12 seats and fourth place. Bennett did not become a game-changing phenomenon, although his later coalition alliance with Lapid and his desire to transcend his party’s traditional religious Zionist and settler base is of some long-term significance.
In the end, it was just another election. Lapid is probably the latest in a succession of centrist leaders whose party emerges dramatically in one election but collapses in the next one. Lapid’s party has already dropped to about 10 seats in the poll, and many of their voters are disappointed with the party’s performance and Lapid in the thankless finance portfolio. Another centrist party which was very successful at one point, Kadima, basically died out in this election. Yesh Atid will probably go the same way. There was no shift to the right, and as we stand, there is none on the horizon. The Labour Party is still in trouble, with poor and unstable leadership and difficulty to appeal to voters. Netanyahu and his fractious party is not very popular but he remains in charge in absence of a single viable alternative. Israeli policy in the region was not altered as a result of the election.
9. British Columbia (Canada): I hesitate to include sub-national elections on these lists because they almost never have a broader regional impact and often only limited nationwide impact (especially in Canada where federal and provincial politics are more disconnected than in other federal countries). However, I made a spot for the British Columbia election on this list because it definitely fits the secondary ‘interesting’ criteria. The opposition New Democrats (BC NDP) were widely expected to win the election – they led in all polls, almost all by a comfortable margin and often with over 10% leads. Yet, the governing Liberals, in power since 2001, won reelection with a similar majority to 2009 and the BC NDP actually did worse than in 2009.
The election was made interesting by the Liberals’ totally unexpected victory, and the pollsters’ utter failure – a year after a similar failure at calling the 2012 Albertan election. It came as additional reminder that the science of polling, undoubtedly so advanced in this day and age, is not without flaws and faces challenges – both old (predicting turnout and the demographic composition of the electorate) and new (voters without landlines, the rise of online pollsters). I chose to include the BC election on this list after having decided not to include the Albertan election on last year’s list because I feel it was a more remarkable turn-around. The Albertan election was fought between two parties on the right, with ideology important but less central. The BC election was a traditional left-right contest.
If there is one conclusion I might tentatively draw from this election is that negative campaigning works. The BC NDP ran a positive and policy wonk campaign, the BC Liberals ran a negative campaign going on the offensive against the NDP and catching voters’ attention with short, straight talking points and one-liner jabs at the NDP. Although voters insist that negative campaigning sickens them and that they don’t want it, the reality is that negative campaigning does work. Scandals, failures, policy mishaps, talking points and quick jabs stick; thought-provoking wordiness, intricate detailing of policies and ‘staying positive’ don’t work as much and fail to catch voters’ attention in a changing world marked by voters with shorter attention spans for politics and less sympathy for politicians.
10. Eastleigh by-election (United Kingdom): I usually do not include by-elections, but a reader convinced to make an exception and include the February by-election in Eastleigh, in the UK. The Liberal Democrats held the seat, but with a much reduced vote share (-14.4%) and majority (4.3%). The UKIP, a rising force, placed second with 27.8% – its highest result in any parliamentary constituency, and the closest it has come to winning any seat. The Conservatives placed a disastrous third, and their vote fell by 14%.
Eastleigh was a particularly important by-election. On the one hand, it saved the LibDems as an election winning party, despite the party’s image being badly tarnished and support seriously eroded since it entered a coalition government with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010. The LibDems, who held the seat in question since 1997 and are a powerful force in local politics, faced a tough campaign but through a well-targeted campaign on local issues with a local candidate they won a victory, although given that they lost so many votes it was very much a Pyrrhic victory. Still, a victory on local issues and on the back of the local party’s strength on the ground gives hope to the LibDems that they might be able to save more seats than expected in 2015, given that they hold many seats like Eastleigh where the Tories are their main rivals and that the LibDems have held up better in local elections where the party has a strong footing (with MPs etc).
On the other hand, it was a large victory for UKIP – replicated in local elections in England in May which saw UKIP gain 139 councillors and place third with over 20% in the estimated local vote share. UKIP has done similarly well in other by-elections since 2010, often placing ahead of the Tories and/or LibDems, and the party generally polls 10-12% in polls today. Although it remains to be seen if UKIP can hold its momentum until 2015 (it has already fallen from a stint of polling in the high teens) and, even if it does, whether it can break through with the FPTP system or if it ends up like the Alliance in 1983; UKIP’s rise might bring about a four-party system (even if not a four-party Parliament) and UKIP, even if it does not win any/many seats in 2015, will have a major influence on the results in many seats if it is able to win over 20% of the vote in many constituencies. This makes the 2015 election rather open-ended. Although Labour remains the natural alternative to Cameron’s unpopular government and will probably win the next election, its leader Ed Miliband isn’t particularly popular himself and still faces doubts as to his leadership capacities. In Eastleigh, Labour fell flat on its face, unable to win back anti-Tory tactical voters from the LibDems and a bad start in its bid to increase Labour support in southern England.
I will make honourable mentions for Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. These elections were important for each of their countries, they had interesting results, brought in new governments (Kenya, Pakistan) which may prove important, strengthened an eternal opposition (Malaysia), strengthened nascent democracy (Nepal) or confirmed an old regime (Zimbabwe). However, I did not feel that any of these elections met the criteria I listed at the beginning.
2013 was an interesting year in politics and elections, with no shortage of exciting elections or interesting results to analyze. However, making this list, I felt that while many elections were not insignificant and many important countries held major elections, few of 2013’s elections will probably have a long-term impact on the country or the region, either in the form of political realignment or a significant shift in policy. Of course, not every year is going to filled with such elections – after all, most elections end up being fairly insignificant in the broader scheme of things. Only the Italian and Iranian elections seem likely to have a long-term impact; the German election may have some consequences on the makeup of the political system; the Venezuelan, Chilean and Czech elections might begin a new political era in each of these countries but their long-term consequences remain a matter of debate and very much uncertain.
I wish to reiterate that this ranking, only for fun and analysis purposes, is subjective and influenced by my opinions, views, interests and biases. I’m not certain of my own rankings, and if I re-did it in, say, two weeks, I would probably reorder, drop a few and add a few! I am curious to hear of any readers’ alternative rankings, their comments or views on this list.
Thank you for another excellent year. Stay tuned, before we welcome 2014, for a summary of what’s hot in 2014!