Category Archives: General information and summaries
What’s hot in 2013
Another year over, opening the door to another year of (hopefully) exciting and significant elections around the world. As in the past two years, to set the stage for the next twelve months, I preview the most important elections to look forward to in 2013. As in past years, there will be some snap elections which we will not have seen coming, and other elections which will turn out to be less important or interesting than originally assumed. In the coming months, you can expect almost every single one of these elections to be covered in some level of detail on this blog.
Canada (BC, Nova Scotia, federal Liberal leadership): No federal elections in Canada this year, but the stage will be set for the 2015 federal election with the election of a new leader for the Liberal Party, Canada’s traditional governing party which collapsed to third place in the last election. Federal Liberals will finally be electing a permanent leader in April. The runaway favourite is Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is seen by most Liberals as the solution to all their woes, and the promise for a quick return to official opposition or even government in 2015. His candidacy is naturally buoyed by strings of ‘Trudeau polling’ which show the federal Liberals, led by Trudeau, in first place ahead of Prime Minister Harper’s Tories and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP. If Trudeau prevails as expected, it remains to be seen if this honeymoon with Canadians will last and if he will be able to salvage the Liberal vessel from capsizing. In the provinces, British Columbia and Nova Scotia will vote in 2013, and in both cases the incumbent governments – Christy Clark’s Liberals and Darrell Dexter’s NDP respectively – face an uphill challenge to win reelection. Both of their parties are currently down in the polls, with the official opposition parties (BC NDP, NS Liberals) holding the advantage. Most also assume that there will be a provincial election in Ontario, after the governing Liberals elect – on January 26 – a successor to retiring Premier Dalton McGuinty. A new Liberal Premier might alter the playing field considerably, but as of now they remain in a precarious position though with polls still indicating a close three-way contest with the PCs and NDP, they would have a chance at holding power.
Ecuador: President Rafael Correa, a prominent left-wing populist aligned with Chávez, the Castros and Morales, will almost certainly win another term in office on February. Correa, who like Chávez has created wide-reaching social programs with oil money, remains very popular in Ecuador. Correa is an ambitious figure whose political career is still fairly young. Progressively, he has built up his own stature and image on the world stage – recently with the Julian Assange asylum at the Ecuadorian embassy in London – and he is clearly aiming to replace Chávez and take the leadership of the South American left/ALBA. His main rival this year is Guillermo Lasso, a right-wing businessman. He also faces two perennial opponents; former President Lucio Gutiérrez (elected on the left, governed on the right between 2003 and 2005), an indigenous Ecuadorian; and Alvaro Noboa, a wealthy right-wing tycoon who lost the 2006 runoff election to Correa.
Paraguay: After nearly a year of political uncertainty following the controversial impeachment of President Fernando Lugo in June 2012, Paraguay will hold general elections on April 21. Lugo, the first leftist President in the country’s history, was impeached by Congress in June 2012 – in a controversial move denounced as a coup by Lugo and Paraguay’s main neighbors – and replaced with Vice President Federico Franco. Ineligible to run for office himself this year, Franco proved surprisingly successful and efficient despite the odds – in contrast to Lugo, who was seen by most as ineffectual. Already, Franco made progress on agrarian reform, expanding education in rural areas and won passage of the country’s first income tax. However, it is uncertain if Franco’s Liberal Party (PLRA) will hold the presidency. The favourite is Horacio Cortes, a wealthy businessman and the candidate of the right-wing Colorado Party, which ruled the country between 1948 and 2008. The left is divided between two candidates, while controversial populist General Lino Oviedo, a former strongman who almost staged a coup in the 90s, is running again (he placed third in 2008).
Chile: The first round of presidential elections will be held in Chile in 2013. President Sebastián Piñera, the first centre-right president since Pinochet’s regime fell, cannot run again. He leaves office rather unpopular, rattled by big student protests and unpopular decisions. Fancying a return to power, the heterogeneous centre-left Concertación, unwilling to confront its internal problems, has been playing a game of wait-and-see until former President Michelle Bachelet (PS), Piñera’s predecessor who left office with sky-high approval ratings, decides whether or not she wants to run for another term. Bachelet remains very popular and would be the favourite to return to power. If she does not run, the opposition does have other fairly strong candidates but no clear frontrunners. On the right, public works (former mines and energy) minister Laurence Golborne – an independent who became very popular following the rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground in August 2010 – would be the strongest candidate for the governing centre-right coalition, though still at a deficit against Bachelet.
Venezuela (potential): Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was reelected in October 2012, but his cancer returned in December and he has since been out of the country for treatment in Cuba. Few details are leaked of his actual condition, but Chávez appears to be in bad shape. He was unable to return home for his scheduled inauguration on January 10, an inauguration which has been controversially delayed. It is unsure whether Chávez will ever be able to return home. If Chávez was to die this year, new presidential elections would be held within 30 days of his death. The present situation has created a constitutional crisis, with the opposition claiming that Chávez has not been inaugurated, hence his anointed successor, Vice President Nicolás Maduro, has no constitutional right to take power temporarily if he was to die. The constitution says that if there was an ‘absolute absence’ of a president-elect (who is not inaugurated), the president of the National Assembly (in this case Diosdado Cabello) would become the interim president until elections are held within 30 days. The most likely scenario in the event of Chávez’s death in 2013 would be that Nicolás Maduro becomes interim President and elections are held within 30 days. Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro, his foreign minister who is well regarded in Havana, as his successor (Vice President) in October, sidelining Diosdado Cabello, the president of the legislature who is well connected to the military. By officially placing Maduro as his heir, Chávez might have prevented a succession crisis. Cabello insists that he stands behind Maduro, though the opposition claims there is still an internal power struggle between the two men.
In the case of a snap election, Maduro would be the favourite and benefit from the very short campaign. The opposition’s frontrunner would likely be Henrique Capriles, the governor of Miranda who lost to Chávez in October but ran a tough and spirited campaign. However, the opposition lost badly in regional elections back in December (though Capriles won reelection in Miranda) and Maduro would likely benefit from a wave of sympathy for the late President, who is still quite popular with most Venezuelans. Undoubtedly, Chávez’s death would mark the end of an era in Venezuela. The various factions (including the military) which he had held together might disintegrate into a power struggle, while the genuine popular appeal of chavismo might fall apart under a less charismatic figure like Maduro. Simply put, can chavismo survive without Chávez?
Italy: Undoubtedly, the Italian general election on February 24-25 will be one of the most important and significant elections of 2013. As local and regional elections in 2012 hinted at, Berlusconi’s resignation in November 2011 has triggered the start of a major realignment in Italian politics, comparable to the last major upheaval in Italian politics in 1994. The left-wing opposition, dominated by the rather heterogeneous and often hapless Democratic Party (PD), remains the favourite in these elections. The PD’s coalition includes Nichi Vendola’s left-wing Left Ecology and Freedom (SEL). Pier Luigi Bersani, the leader of the PD, emerged victorious in a left-wing primary in November-December, defeating the young mayor of Florence, Matteo Renzi, who had run on a more centrist and ‘outsider’ platform. If the PD-led coalition wins in February, it is guaranteed a majority in the lower house because of the national majority bonus, but it is unclear whether it would have a majority in the Senate, where the bonus operates at the regional level.
Silvio Berlusconi is attempting yet another political comeback after his reinvention as a populist, who criticizes Angela Merkel, the EU and austerity. Berlusconi is finally running, after coming in and out of retirement so many times over the past few months, but he is not running to be Prime Minister – or so he claims. Berlusconi has managed to forge a coalition with his party, the PdL, but also the Lega Nord – which has opposed Monti’s cabinet (while the PdL had been forced to back it until December) and has been through a tough spell after corruption allegations forced its historic leader, Umberto Bossi, to resign. Relations between Berlusconi and the LN had turned sour, but both parties seem to agree that the writing is on the wall for them. Berlusconi may be running again, but he is on his way out. His departure from the political scene, which may not come as quickly as some think but which will ultimately come, will usher in a major realignment on the right, which since 1994 had been structured around his unique personality.
Realizing this fact, the centre/centre-right has sought, since 2010 or so, to take the leadership of the post-Berlusconian right in Italy. The creation of a ‘Third Pole’ around Casini’s UDC and Gianfranco Fini’s FLI (created in 2010 from a split in the PdL led by Fini, the former leader of the post-fascist AN and a former ally of Berlusconi) in 2010-2011 went nowhere. These parties were the strongest supporters of Mario Monti’s government since 2011, and had attempted to get Monti himself to run in an election as their leader. Finally, after the PdL withdrew its support and forced Monti to resign last month, Monti agreed to the idea and he will now lead the centre-right coalition, on a pro-European and pro-austerity ‘Monti agenda’ which is backed by the Catholic Church and the European centre-right (notably Merkel). Monti claims he is a liberal reformer, beyond left and right, but his clear goal – and that of his partisan allies – is to recreate the First Republic’s DC.
This interesting election is made all the more interesting and uncertain with the presence of Beppe Grillo, a former comedian who is now the leader of the M5S. The M5S is a populist, militantly anti-system and anti-establishment party which attacks austerity, taxes, the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the Italian political class and the political system. It grew quickly in 2012, largely on the ruins of the PdL and the Lega, and even if it is not polling as high as before, it remains likely to win over 10% and have a major impact on Italian politics. The 2013 elections in Italy, 19 years after the ultimate collapse of the First Republic, might see the collapse of the Second Republic and the dawn of a new political system dramatically different from the old.
Germany: Federal elections will be held in Germany in September. Chancellor Angela Merkel is likely to remain in power, but it is extremely unlikely that she will be able to renew her coalition with the liberal FDP. Merkel herself is very popular, and some of that popularity has worn off on her party, the CDU. Her position is strengthened by Germany’s relatively good economic performance in the context of a continent in crisis, and many Germans credit her for keeping Germany in the clear during the crisis. However, the liberal FDP’s stint in cabinet since the 2009 federal election has been disastrous for the party, which has seen its popularity plummet because of poor leaders, scandals and unpopular decisions by its government ministers. The FDP is now fighting to clear the 5% threshold to retain its seats in the Bundestag, with polls consistently showing the FDP – which won 14.6% in 2009 – at 2-4% in polls. On the left, the Social Democrats (SPD) are doing only marginally better than in 2009 – a disaster for them – and they will not be helped by their chancellor-candidate, Peer Steinbrück, who has already shown that he suffers from an acute case of foot-in-mouth disease. The Greens are polling better than what they won in 2009, though they have come down to earth after their 2010-2011 surge to unprecedented heights. The SPD-Greens, along with the Left Party, do not appear to have sufficient support to form a left-wing coalition after September. Late 2011-2012 in German politics was marked by the Pirate wave, which saw the Pirate Party surge to over 10% nationally. This bizarre surge has since fallen back, the Pirates are unlikely to enter the Bundestag in September. The most likely option remains a new Grand Coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the SPD, or a black-green (CDU/Green) coalition; in both cases the CDU would be by far the strongest partner, it could possibly win over 40% in September.
Austria: Federal elections will also be held in Austria by September. The SPÖVP Grand Coalition is, for a change, rather unpopular, but it could remain in power after these elections. For some time early last year, it appeared as if Heinz-Christian Strache’s FPÖ could win the elections, fresh from his success in state elections in Vienna in 2011. However, the FPÖ has been badly hurt by controversies and major corruption scandals, which have brought them down to the low 20s at best. Part of the story in these elections will be a new party, Team Stronach, a populist right-wing party led by Austrian-Canadian businessman Frank Stronach (the father of a former Canadian Liberal MP) which is just getting off the ground. Benefiting from its novelty and its populist right-wing platform (anti-euro, flat tax but not anti-immigration), the party is in a strong position to benefit from the FPÖ’s recent troubles and the collapse of the late Jorg Haider’s BZÖ (which will likely lose all seats this year). The Greens should also do well. State election in Haider and the far-right’s backyard, Carinthia, in March will prove interesting as while. Following Haider’s death, the state and federal BZÖ split, with governor Gerhard Dörfler and the state BZÖ aligning with Strache’s federal FPÖ (under the name FPK) while the federal BZÖ took a new right-liberal course. Dörfler’s administration and other parties in the state have been tarred by a major corruption case, this might help the Greens and Stronach’s party.
Norway: September, again, will prove busy in Europe: Norway will hold legislative elections on September 9. As things stand, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s left-wing coalition led by the Labour Party (Ap) will likely be defeated by the disparate right, in opposition since 2005. Stoltenberg’s popularity boomed in 2011 right after the tragic Utøya attacks, but the government has since become very unpopular because of alleged inefficiency, blunders and scandals. Last fall, a parliamentary report about the Utøya attacks concluded that Anders Breivik could have been stopped from carrying out the massacre. The government’s unpopularity has particularly hurt Ap’s two smaller coalition partners, the agrarian Centre (Sp) and the Socialist Left (SV) – the latter could now fall below the 4% threshold and be left with only a single seat. The opposition parties have a 20 point lead over the governing coalition, and would win a very substantial majority. The formation of a right-wing government is made easier by the strong standing of the Conservative Party (H), which is outpolling the Ap and consistently polling over 30%. In contrast, Siv Jensen’s right-populist/far-right Progress Party (Frp), hurt by a sex scandal and Utøya in 2011, is now a distant second on the right (unlike in 2009 when it was the strongest right-wing party) and is polling roughly 17%, down from 23% in 2009. Frp supported without participating in the last right-wing coalition between 2001 and 2005, but the Frp now says that it would not support a government in which it does not participate. Two smaller members of the opposition bloc, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals, are hostile to Frp’s cabinet participation although H is more amenable to it. It remains to be seen, if the right wins in September, whether or not Frp will be allowed to participate in a governing coalition and, if not, if the Conservatives and their smaller moderate allies can govern with Frp’s external backing.
Middle East and Africa
Israel: Knesset elections will be held on January 22 in Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will quite certainly emerge victorious, boosted by his party’s electoral alliance with Avigdor Lieberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beiteinu party. The centrist and left-wing opposition to the dominant right remains, as ever, divided and fractured between various party. Labor, led by Shelly Yachimovich, will make some solid gains and likely place second, benefiting from the 2011 social justice protests. Kadima, the centrist party founded by Ariel Sharon in 2006, now led by Shaul Mofaz, will probably lose all its seat (21 as of dissolution). Mofaz defeated Kadima leader Tzipi Livni in a primary in 2012, and Livni has now started her own party (The Movement), which has received the backing of former Labor leader Amir Peretz. It could win upwards of 10 seats. Another centrist secular party, Yesh Atid, led by journalist Yair Lapid, will likely win around 10 seats as well. Facing such a divided opposition, Netanyahu will win and will remain as Prime Minister, probably under a new coalition which is either oriented towards the centre or towards the right and religious parties. Netanyahu’s result, however, may end up slightly underwhelming. The main winner, in fact, could be the far-right Jewish Home/National Union, two parties which are extremely hawkish and the most supportive of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Led by the charismatic self-made businessman Naftali Bennett, the two parties – which have managed to transcend some of the religious cleavages which have divided the far-right in Israel – could win, give or take, 15 seats (they hold 5 as of dissolution). Israeli public opinion remains firmly on the right, though with contradictory views: most support a two-state solution and the expansion of Israeli settlements.
Kenya: General elections will be held in Kenya on March 3, notably to elect a successor to President Mwai Kibaki, who has held office since December 2002. The last elections in Kenya, in 2007, resulted in an outburst of ethnically charged violence after Kibaki’s rival, Raila Odinga, refused to recognize his narrow (official) defeat. The violence, which notably opposed Kibaki’s ethnic Kikuyu to Odinga’s Luo supporters, killed over 1,500 and displaced over 300k people. A tense compromise was found whereby Odinga would serve as Prime Minister under Kibaki. A new constitution adopted in 2010 changed the electoral system and created a upper house. The President will now be elected in a two-round election. Odinga is running again, and would seem to be the early favourite. Recent polling, however, has hinted that Uhuru Kenyatta – the son of the country’s first President and a Kikuyu – has made gains. Kenyatta’s victory could turn Kenya into an international pariah state, given that both he and his running-mate (William Ruto) have been indicted for inciting violence following the 2007 election. The eventual winner will face the heavy task of preventing another descent into ethnic violence.
Zimbabwe: Will there be presidential elections in Zimbabwe this year? The consensus seems to be that there will be general elections on March 31, and Zimbabwe’s longtime strongman, President Robert Mugabe, will run for another five-year term. However, a constitution which was supposed to be ready in time for the elections is being held up and the process is stalled. In the 2008 elections, opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai (the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change, MDC) actually beat Mugabe in the first round but then withdrew from the runoff on the grounds that it would not be fre and fair. Following the election, the regional community imposed a power-sharing national unity government between Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and Tsvangirai’s MDC. The influx of foreign aid following the deal and the adoption of the US dollar significantly improved the country’s economic situation. But Mugabe does not care much for power-sharing and openly seeks to rid himself of the MDC as soon as possible. The MDC likes the new constitution, but the ZANU-PF would prefer to fight this election under the old one, which affords it much more leeway to control the election’s outcome. The result of the next election and its impact on Zimbabwe’s political situation (which is also marked by the question of Mugabe’s eventual succession) is quite uncertain. Polls indicate that the ZANU-PF might have regained popularity recently and Mugabe remains in a good position to defeat Tsvangirai, although Tsvangirai remains popular.
Egypt: Egypt’s post-revolutionary future will take another step in April 2013 with new legislative elections. The legislature elected in 2011-2012 was dissolved by the courts in June 2012, which ruled that the elections had been unconstitutional and one-third of seats were filled ‘illegitimately’. This decision was followed by a presidential election in which Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood (MB)’s party (FJP), was victorious. In December, a new constitution controversial for its religious content and concessions to the military, was approved in a low-turnout referendum. Morsi’s decision to grab more powers for his presidential office was met with renewed violence and demonstrations by opponents, largely secular liberals, in Cairo. This chain of events has forced the secular opposition to unite, under the auspices of a National Salvation Front led by Mohammed El-Baradei and Amr Moussa. However, the opposition remains divided between these secular liberals and the felools, supporters of Hosni Mubarak’s old regime. The felools, who, with Mubarak’s former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik had placed second behind Morsi in the presidential race, have formed their own coalition and will probably find stronger support than they had in the first general elections in 2011-2012. Morsi’s governing FJP, the MB’s party, won a solid plurality in the general elections in 2011-2012, but their popularity has declined since then, rendering the outcome of this election more uncertain. The performance of the very conservative Salafists, whose Al-Nour Party had placed second in 2011-2012, will also be worth tracking.
Tunisia: Direct presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held in June in Tunisia, following the ratification of a new constitution in February. In contrast to Egypt, the constitutional process has been less controversial and less acrimonious. The governing coalition, led by the Islamist Ennahda Party, is conciliatory and accommodating in its relations with its secular junior partners and has steered clear of religious controversy in the constitution. Tunisia still faces major economic and fiscal problems, and issues such as youth unemployment persist. These problems have weakened Ennahda, which won 37% in the October 2011 constituent elections, polls now show it slightly weaker. In the presidential election, polls have indicated a close race. Béji Caïd Essebsi, the interim Prime Minister after Ben Ali’s fall, is narrowly ahead. Essebsi has created a strong opposition party, the(Call of Tunisia which includes secular liberals, leftists and former Ben Ali supporters. Incumbent President Moncef Marzouki, the leader of the secular CPR, trails, as does Prime Minister Hamdi Jebbali (Ennahda).
Lebanon: General elections are due to be held before July in Lebanon. Lebanese politics are extremely complex and I won’t pretend that I can even begin to fully understand them, luckily this old post on another blog provides a good base. When that post was written, a fractious and ineffective pro-western and anti-Syrian coalition led by Saad Hariri had been chased out of office by the opposition, which installed Najib Mikati as Prime Minister. Hariri, the son of a prominent anti-Syrian Sunni politician assasinated in 2005 (leading to a mass anti-Syrian movement which forced Syria’s military to leave Lebanon), led the March 14 Alliance – a fractious and fragile alliance of Sunni and Christian (often hardline Christian) parties. Mikati’s governing coalition, styled the March 8 Alliance is an equally fragile multiconfessional alliance of Christian parties (Michel Aoun’s FPM) and Shiite parties, most notably Hezbollah, the militia-party branded as a terrorist organization by the west and Israel and which enjoys close ties with Syria and Iran. Hezbollah holds 12 seats in Lebanon’s 128 seat Parliament. Since 2011, Lebanese politics have been influenced by the civil war next door in Syria. Lebanon has feared that the violence in Syria would spill across the border, and to a certain extent it has. In October 2012, a senior policeman known for his opposition to the Syrian regime, was killed in Beirut. The March 14 bloc blamed Syria and Hezbollah for the attack. The upcoming elections will likely be influenced by the bloody conflict in Syria and its impact on Lebanon. Lebanese politics are still heavily marked by sectarianism, but voting outside of sectarian boundaries is increasingly common. In addition to a highly diverse and fractious array of parties who may abandon alliances very quickly, this renders the outcome of the upcoming election quite uncertain.
Pakistan: General elections will be held before March in Pakistan. Pakistan has been in a democratic transition since the 2008 elections, and the subsequent resignation of military ruler Pervez Musharraf. There seems to have been laudable progress towards democratization since then, notably with the 18th amendment in 2010 which significantly strengthened the parliament and the Prime Minister’s powers over those of the President. However, the democratization process remains quite fragile and very messy, with the state/legislators, the activist judiciary and the military all tussling for power. In June, the activist courts ousted Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani after he had refused to write a letter to Swiss authorities to open an investigation into a money laundering case involving his boss and the President, Asif Ali Zardari. The ruling party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) nominated Raja Pervez Ashraf to replace him. The incumbent administration, led by the PPP, is fairly unpopular. Some of the problems faced by the administration have included deeply ingrained corruption, nepotism, feudal politics, terrorism, religious radicalism, political violence (notably in Karachi), floods, a weak economy/stagflation and electricity shortages in Punjab.
The PPP, ostensibly left of centre but primarily the Bhutto/Zardari family party with close ties to the Sindhi landed elite, faces a strong challenge in this election. Its traditional rival is the PML-N, a more conservative party led by Nawaz Sharif and closely linked to the feudal lords of northern Punjab. Sharif is a former Prime Minister who had opposed Musharraf’s rule, and still maintains difficult relations with the powerful military. There is, however, a new figure in these elections – Imran Khan, a former cricket player who has been in politics for some 15 years (but always got humiliated in elections). The leader of the nationalist and vaguely centrist Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Khan has seen his popularity and his party’s membership numbers surge in the past few months. He is anti-corruption, and fairly anti-American – notably in opposition to American drone strikes in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan. The military appears suspicious of him, as do the traditional political elites, but Khan would not have gotten this far without gaining some elite support – he got the support of a few influential landlords, some technocrats and members of the PML-Q (a faction of the PML which supported Musharraf and has been left in a pitiful state since Musharraf’s fall). These elections could mark an important step in Pakistan’s messy transition to democracy, perhaps witnessing a peaceful and orderly transition of power from a democratically elected government to another (it would be a first).
Nepal: The Nepalese monarchy collapsed following street protests in 2006 and was abolished after a Constituent Assembly (CA) was elected in 2008. A ten-year Maoist insurrection between 1996 and 2006 claimed over 16,000 lives, which, combined with the King’s autocratic tendencies, led to the fall of the monarchy. The Maoists, converted to the virtues of liberal democracy, won a majority – but not an absolute majority in the CA back in 2008. They formed government, with their famed leader Prachanda becoming Prime Minister until he resigned in a row with the army and the ceremonial President in 2009. The CA had been tasked with writing up a constitution, and its mandate was originally supposed to end in May 2011 but it extended its mandate until May 2012. At that point, the courts ruled that a fifth extension of its mandate would be unconstitutional, so the CA was dissolved without it having been able to produce a constitution in four years. Originally supposed to be held in November, new elections should be held in April-May this year. In the meantime, Nepal faces a political crisis. The Maoist Prime Minister, Baburam Bhattarai, remains in charge, and so does the ceremonial President, Ram Baran Yadav – who is backed by the opposition parties, the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). In 10 years of bloody conflict, the Maoists made many enemies and many question their true committment to democracy. Their opponents often contend that the Maoists would not hesitate to abandon the CA and take up arms again if things did not go their way. Now, however, the Maoists are actively pushing for new elections. The opposition seems more lukewarm at that prospect, which raises questions about how they would perform in new elections. The President has ceremonial powers, but Yadav has played a political rule – he was one of the main actors in Prachanda’s downfall in 2009 and rumours are that he might be trying to push the Maoist government out now.
One of the blockage points in the CA has been federalism. Nepal is a mosaic of languages, cultures, ethnic groups and castes; and Nepali politics have historically been led by the upper caste elites. Ethnic and linguistic minorities (such as the Madhesi people in the plains bordering India) and the lower castes formed the backbone of the Maoist rebellion and they are now demanding ‘ethnic federalism’. The Maoists, for self-interested reasons, support federalism; though the strongest proponents of ethnic federalism are Madhesi regional parties and other ethnic minority parties. In contrast, the NC and UML – two more elitist parties which formed the moderate left-wing opposition to the monarchy – strongly oppose ethnic federalism.
Iran: Iran, one of the if not the top geopolitical hotspot, holds crucial presidential elections on June 14. The President has considerably less powers than is usually assumed, most important powers are held by the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei. Incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a conservative Islamist first elected in 2005 and reelected in the controversial circumstances we all know of in 2009, may not seek reelection. Following his reelection, Ahmadinejad, who had sought to strengthen his office, was engaged in a backdoor political struggle with Khamenei, who viewed disapprovingly of Ahmadinejad’s attempt to win more powers. Conservatives close to Khamenei won a majority of the seats in legislative elections last year. The election process is tightly controlled by the Supreme Leader and his allies (the Revolutionary Guard and Basij), meaning that candidates who do not fit the regime’s image or are not approved supporters of the Iranian leadership are not able to run. This will likely disqualify a lot of reformists, crushed and persecuted following the 2009 post-election protests. It could also disqualify or seriously hinder conservatives closer to Ahmadinejad. There is no clear favourite on the conservative side, but the main names including Tehran mayor Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf (a more moderate religious technocrat), parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani (a candidate in 2005), former foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati (close to Khamenei), Khamenei loyalist Gholam Ali Haddad Adel and ultraconservative nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. Ahmadinejad’s favourite would be his close confidant Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, but Mashaei is widely disliked by the leadership. There are rumours that the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, is thinking of running again and has been trying to soften his image with the regime leadership in order to do so. Iran’s next president may not be as powerful as most assume, but this election can have major repercussions for the region and the world.
Malaysia: A general election must be held in Malaysia before June 27, and it appears that Prime Minister Najib Razak will go for an election in March or April. The Barisan Nasional (BN), a coalition of parochial and sectarian racially-based parties led by the Malay nationalist UMNO, has won every election since 1957, often through vote rigging or using its built-in advantages in the Malaysian political system. In the last election, in 2008, however, the BN did historically poorly, losing its two-thirds majority in the legislature, while the opposition Pakatan Rakyat, a rag-tag three party coalition led by UMNO dissident Anwar Ibrahim, did very well. The BN’s 2008 disaster led to a coup and Najib’s accession. Najib styles himself as a modern, progressive reformer who has sought to downplay old ethnic tensions and moved to liberalize the economy and loosen some of the old restrictive security, censorship and university laws. Najib, however, similar to Gordon Brown in the UK, has dithered over calling an election to win a mandate and it now seems like he will pull his government to the last possible date for an election. Najib has strong approval ratings, but the BN government is considerably less popular. It appears as if this will be one of the most closely contested elections in Malaysian history, with an energized opposition within striking distance of power. It must gain another 30 seats, but these will be hard to find – given that many lie off the mainland in Sabah and Sarawak, two oil-rich states which are solid ‘vote reserves’ for the BN (with gerrymandered seats). The BN’s goal will be to win a two-thirds majority. It must pray that Najib’s own personality shines off on his government and the BN, which is not the case today.
Japan: The recent general elections in December 2012 in Japan saw the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), led by Shinzo Abe, return to power with a crushing two-thirds majority. The very fickle Japanese electorate sought to punish the governing Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which had defeated the LDP with a similarly massive mandate in 2009 (after the LDP had ruled since 1955 with one short interruption). A new nationalist party, the Japanese Restoration Party (JRP), almost won as many seats as the annihilated DPJ. Abe’s election could mean some significant changes in the region in the context of Japanese-Chinese tensions over the Senkaku islands. Abe and the LDP are mow hawkish and nationalistic than the DPJ and more likely to adopt a confrontational or assertive position against China. At home, Abe and his finance minister will seek to stimulate growth through public works stimulus spending and pressuring the Central Bank to further loosen monetary policy. Abe faces his first political test on July 11, when a third of the less powerful upper house (House of Councillors) is due to be renewed. The DPJ still holds a bare plurality there, meaning that it too has a lot to lose from these elections after 2012. Abe is still on honeymoon with the voters, but will Japan’s famously fickle voters stick with him until the summer and be amenable to voting for the LDP then? After all, the LDP did not win because voters liked it or its leader (in fact, the LDP’s popular vote was quite bad) but rather because they hated the DPJ. Similarly, how will the DPJ perform a few months after its December obliteration? Finally, how will the new JRP be able to perform? In part, the JRP’s large vote came from unhappy ex-DPJ voters who might now ‘return home’.
Maldives: The political climate in the beautiful collection of atolls in the Indian Ocean has been tense since President Mohamed Nasheed, a human rights activist who had become the first democratic President of the island country in 2008, was forced to resign after protests against his decision to arrest chief justice Abdulla Mohamed (Nasheed said Mohamed had failed to act impartially in cases dealing with criminals). Nasheed was replaced by his former deputy, Mohammed Waheed. Presidential elections will be held in July. Since Nasheed’s resignation, the political climate has been very acrimonious and marked by violence and death threats against legislators or activists. The new government, notably, has been accused of pushing a conservative Islamist agenda after Nasheed had led a surprisingly liberal secular agenda in the religious Muslim nation. Nasheed, who is wanted in court for arresting Mohamed, has claimed that he was removed from office by a coup. He is now running again. There is speculation that Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the country’s former autocratic president for 30 years before his defeat in 2008, will run as well.
Australia: Federal elections must be held in Australia before November 30, and it appears as if Prime Minister Julia Gillard will be going to the polls sometime in the fall. Gillard became Prime Minister in the summer of 2010 following an internal coup within the Labor Party (ALP) which toppled Kevin Rudd, who had led the ALP to victory over Prime Minister John Howard’s centre-right Coalition (including the Liberals and the National Party). She quickly tried to win a mandate on her own terms, but the August 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament with a Green MP and four independent MPs holding the balance of power. Gillard remained in office, striking a deal with the Green and three of the independents. Despite a tense relation with the Greens, this Parliament will have lasted its full term. Gillard has struggled since taking office, with most polls showing the Coalition ahead of the ALP. The optics of coming to office as a result of an internal coup orchestrated by the ALP’s infamous factional bosses did not help matters. The deal with the Green forced her to ‘renege’ on her vow to not introduce a carbon tax (as Rudd had attempted to do), a carbon tax was passed in late 2011. The Coalition pounded on this ‘broken promise’ and it would repeal it once it is elected. The government has also struggled with some scandals involving MPs and other issues.
The opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has been successful in his relentless attacks on the government’s unpopular decisions. A focus on unpopular decisions helped the Coalition defeated ALP governments in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, and Abbott is hoping to do the same this fall. However, the Coalition faces a problem. Abbott is highly unpopular, with dissatisfaction ratings at around 60%; in fact, he is more unpopular than Gillard and trails her on the “best PM” rankings. As the election draws nearer, the ALP have eaten into the Coalition’s support a bit and as the vote keeps getting closer, Abbott’s deficit on the best PM rankings could come back to haunt him. Gillard faces a tough race, but this election is not over yet.
Other important elections in 2013 to keep an eye out for include midterm elections in Argentina and the Philippines, a general election in Honduras, legislative elections in Iceland, Bulgaria and Albania, presidential elections in Georgia and Armenia and a new race for the leadership of the right-wing opposition UMP party in France.
With the major exceptions of Italy, Germany and Australia; there are few major national elections in either western Europe, North America or down under; but there are several interesting elections in geopolitical hotspots (Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan) and key elections in countries which don’t often make headlines in the West (Malaysia, Nepal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Paraguay). Which elections in 2013 are you looking forward to the most?
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 (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: The 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: This 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: Presidential 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: 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. 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: The 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: Around 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: Presidential 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 (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.
What’s hot in 2012
As we wrap up 2011, we close the door on a very momentous year in terms of electoral politics. Some of the elections held in the past years are sure to mark history in one way or another twenty years from now. Even in cases where they won’t mark history, the elections of 2011 were certainly all interesting and a few were downright fascinating. Last year, I had previewed the elections which I had seen as being “hot” in 2011. Obviously, I hadn’t foreseen the Egyptian or Tunisian elections and had not imagined the importance of the Russian elections. This year, I try to do the same thing by looking ahead at 2012 and picking out the elections which will be interesting. Obviously, as in 2011, there are elections in 2012 which we won’t expect (given the geopolitical events of 2011, nothing can be predicted for sure!) and a few of those which we expect to be interesting will be a snoozefest.
Canada (Alberta, potential provincial elections and NDP federal leadership): For the first time since 2006, Canadians won’t wake up in 2012 with quasi-weekly headlines proclaiming the inevitably of a snap federal elections. Federal politics is not really the place to be right now in Canadian politics, but there are still interesting federal leadership contests shaping up. In March, the official opposition NDP will choose from within a crowded field of 8 candidates a leader to replace the late Jack Layton. The ability of whoever becomes leader of the NDP to hold the gains of the orange wave in Quebec back in May 2011 will be crucial. In 2013, the Liberals will choose a permanent leader who will attempt to return Canada’s natural governing party to the glory of years past (or at least the “not-that-bad-compared-to-2011” years of 2006-2011!).
In provincial politics, Alberta holds a provincial election before June which promises to be the most closely fought election in Alberta in years. The governing PCs, in office since 1971, go into battle with a new Premier, Alison Redford, who hails from the party’s left-wing (Red Tories). They face their main challenge not from the Liberals, who are on life support or the NDP, which are doing hardly better; but rather from their right with the libertarian Wildrose Party which has 4 MLAs. For a PC dynasty used to win landslides, 2012 may mark their first true challenge to their hegemony enjoyed since Peter Lougheed defeated the SoCred dynasty in 1971.
Quebec and British Columbia’s Premiers may choose to go the polls early. In British Columbia, Liberal Premier Christy Clark might try her hand at winning her first government at the polls, but the NDP’s lead over the Liberals and the emergence of a right-wing challenge to the centre-right Liberals might discourage her. In Quebec, Premier Jean Charest’s Liberals are at their lowest point in decades but the official opposition, formed by the left-nationalist PQ is also at its lowest point in decades. The political scene in la belle province is completely turned on its head by François Legault’s new party, the CAQ, which just merged with the ADQ. If Quebec votes in 2012, Legault enters as the runaway favourite but it remains to be seen how solid the support for the politically ambiguous CAQ really is.
United States: Needless to say, the American presidential election in 2012, coupled with the GOP primaries and the concurrent Senate, House and state house battles will attract the world’s attention. It is pretty useless to remind you of the importance of the American elections. The Republican primaries, beginning on January 3 in Iowa, have been all over the place with no less than five frontrunners. Will Ron Paul, the insurgent surging in Iowa, carry through with a win in Iowa? Or will Newt Gingrich, Rick Perry or even Michele Bachmann be able to retrieve conservative support as the “not-Romney” opponent to Mitt Romney, the only candidate whose support has neither surged nor collapsed since he announced his candidacy. Who the Republicans put up against Obama in November will matter a lot, and will perhaps have a downballot effect for Republicans seeking to gain control of the Senate (with close races in states such as MT, ND, NE, MO, VA, FL, MA and NV) and trying to retain their majority in the House, whose races will be fought on new congressional district lines often redistricted by Republican state legislatures.
Mexico: Twelve years after Vicente Fox’s election ended over 70 years of rule by the PRI, the same PRI is now the favourite to regain the presidency from the term-limited Felipe Calderón on July 1, 2012. Against a government PAN which struggles to find a strong candidate out of its three contenders and a PRD represented by a now severely discredited and unpopular Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who placed second in 2006), the PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto, former governor of the state of Mexico, is the runaway favourite. The likely victory of the PRI is unlikely to usher in a return to the pre-1990s era of quasi single-party rule by the PRI, but the change in power in Mexico twelve years after the PAN toppled the PRI is likely to have significant effects, especially when it comes to the drug cartel wars which have crippled Mexico in recent years.
Venezuela: Venezuela’s controversial President Hugo Chávez will be seeking a third term in office on October 7, 2012 roughly two years after the Chavist party, the PSUV, barely won the 2010 legislative elections against a united opposition front. In 2011, Chávez was hospitalized in Cuba with colon cancer and there have been some doubts about Chávez’s health. He has shown absolutely no signs of relinquishing office in 2012, and will probably enter the 2012 election as the favourite but the opposition will likely mount a more challenging opposition than Manuel Rosales had manged to do in 2006.
France: France holds presidential elections in April and May, followed by legislative elections in June (which will be less interesting, as they confirm the results of the presidential ballot). President Nicolas Sarkozy, now only four months out from the presidential election, is lower than any incumbent president seeking reelection since 1981 has ever been. His approval ratings remain terrible, his support at an anemic 25% in the first round and a disastrous 40-43% in the runoff against the PS’ François Hollande. But Sarkozy is a formidable campaigner, and despite the increasing factionalization of his party, the UMP, retains a strong electoral machine. Similarly, Hollande’s post-primary momentum has been eliminated as questions arise about his ability to be a strong leader and his competence on budgetary matters or foreign affairs. The left has been out of power since 2002 and last won a presidential election in 1988 with François Mitterrand. The popular mood is very much one of discontent and disillusion with the two main contenders, who nonetheless top the polls. But can this state of affairs, not too dissimilar from the one which existed in 2002, be twisted to the advantage of either Marine Le Pen, the far-right’s candidate who remains a threat to the two main contenders with her 16% support; or the centrist François Bayrou, looking surprisingly strong?
The legislative elections will likely confirm the presidential election. If Hollande wins, as polls still say he is in good shape to, the left would likely win a large majority (a vague rose) in Parliament. If Sarkozy wins, the right would still be favoured to win a majority for political stability’s sake but the conditions of a potential Sarkozy reelection will be quite unlike the euphoric hope which accompanied his 2007 victory. On the left, the PS’ increasingly picky Green allies (EELV) achieved their goal of extracting 15-25 winnable constituencies from the big boss, but at the cost of a thunderstorm which has crippled their presidential candidate, Eva Joly and to the displeasure of many Socialists – including several incumbent PS members who got tossed to the side in favour of Green candidates backed by the PS such as Green leader Cécile Duflot in Paris-6. On the right, the waters are just as turbulent which a factional storm centered in Paris-2, opposing Prime Minister François Fillon and MEP Rachida Dati. Finally, an element which is rarely mentioned, but which promises to be rather important: the strength of the FN and the risk of the FN’s strong showings in its strongholds either eliminating the right or left outright or recreating 1997’s triangulaires de la mort for the right. These will be the first elections since 1988 fought on new constituency boundaries, and there will be 11 new seats reserved for French citizens living abroad.
Belgium: Belgium, 541 days after federal elections in the summer of 2010, finally got a formal government in December 2011. This government is led by the Francophone Socialist Elio di Rupo and unites Socialists, Liberals and Christian democrats on both sides of Belgium’s linguistic border between Flanders and Wallonia. But this coalition is heavily Walloon in its support base, because it excludes the Flemish nationalist N-VA, which is the largest party in Parliament and in Flanders (it won 28% in Flanders in 2010). Municipal and provincial elections will be held on October 14. The federal government will be tested at the polls, especially in Flanders where the N-VA’s performance will be one of the most important things to watch out for. A poor showing by the governing parties, especially in Flanders, might hinder its legitimacy and its ability to re-unite the two linguistic communities following the protracted political crisis of 2010 and 2011.
Greece: At the centre of the Eurozone debt crisis and one of the countries hit the most severely by the economic crisis, Greece will likely hold snap elections by the end of February 2012. The incumbent government is a technical government led by an independent, Lucas Papademos and including members of George Papandreou’s PASOK, the opposition conservative ND and the far-right LAOS. It will be interesting to observe the electoral ramifications of the Greek crisis, which Papandreou and now Papademos’ governments have responded to with EU and IMF-imposed severe austerity medicine which Greek voters find extremely bitter and try to spit out at any occasion. The next elections are unlikely to provide stability around PASOK and ND, because both of Greece’s main parties are failing to “catch fire” with voters. ND stands at 30% support (33.5% in 2009), while PASOK has collapsed to 15-19% support (it won 44% in 2009). The main beneficiaries happen to be parties which are unlikely to be as supportive of austerity: the socialist SYRIZA, the quasi-Stalinist KKE and SYRIZA splinter DIMAR. LAOS stands to gain, but its support has already weakened after it entered government. Together, the fractious Greek left (SYRIZA and KKE, who hate each other with a passion) would be the largest force, but even divided it could prevent the formation of a government along the lines of PASOK, ND and LAOS.
Croatia: Croatia is likely to become the 28th member of the European Union, but the country’s accession to the EU requires popular approval in a referendum likely to be held as quickly as January 2012. Voters have shown themselves very supportive of accession to the EU, with a few slips in support most recently in April, but could the Eurozone crisis and the EU’s weakness in the debt crisis cool the European apatite of Croatian voters? If Croatia turns down EU membership, it would the first time such a thing has happened and would be a severe blow to the EU and Croatia’s new government.
Slovakia: Snap elections will take place in Slovakia in March 2012. The unsteady right-wing coalition government led by Prime Minister Iveta Radičová fell in October following her government’s defeat on a confidence vote expanding the European Financial Stability Fund. The government’s defeat on the first round of the EFSF was caused by the defection of her junior partner, Richard Sulík’s liberal SaS but also by a well maneuvered political ploy by Socialist leader Robert Fico whose party, Smer, abstained on the first round and came around to support the EFSF in a second round in return for snap elections in which Fico’s Smer, which won 35% in 2010 (but failed to hold its majority after its allies were defeated), is the favourite. Robert Fico’s government, shunned from European left-wing circles after his 2006 alliance with the far-right SNS, was known for its nationalism and his confrontational relations with Hungary. If he returns to power in March, he will govern alongside an Hungarian government led by Viktor Orbán which is both nationalist and worryingly authoritarian.
Serbia: Serbia will vote for parliamentary elections between now and May 2012, in the context of a political scene turned on its head by the collapse of the far-right Radicals (SRS) who had won 29.5% in 2008. The far-right nationalist and anti-European SRS, led in exile by suspected war criminal Vojislav Šešelj, split in late 2008 when the moderate faction led by the SRS’ defacto leader, Tomislav Nikolić, who is more moderate and pro-European than Šešelj, formed the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). In the midst of economic troubles, Mirko Cvetković’s pro-European centre-left coalition centered around President Boris Tadić’s left-wing DS, is showing signs of strains and narrowly trails the SNS while support for the SRS has collapsed to 7%.
Romania: Legislative elections will be held in Romania in November, the first elections since right-wing President Traian Băsescu’s so-narrow reelection to the presidency in 2009. Prime Minister Emil Boc’s minority government, composed of Băsescu’s right-wing PD-L and the Hungarian UDMR, faces a united opposition, made up of the Social Democrats (PSD) and the National Liberals (PNL) running together as the “Social Liberal Union” (USL) and led by the PSD’s Victor Ponta. I have not found any polls concerning the public opinion in Romania and its evolution since 2009.
Ukraine: Parliamentary elections will be held in Ukraine in October 2012. These are the first legislative elections since 2007, and the second elections (following locals in 2010) for Viktor Yanukovych, in office since 2010. These elections will take place under a new electoral law which bans electoral coalitions and replaces full PR with 50-50 MMP. President Viktor Yanukovych, generally perceived as pro-Russian, has been in office since early 2010. He has been accused by opponents of trying to create a “controlled democracy” by limiting civil liberties and persecuting political opponents, most significantly his main rival and former pro-European Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, now in jail on accounts of corruption, abuse of office and tax evasion. Tymoshenko’s sentencing frosted fragile relations between Yanukovych’s government and the EU. In the last polls, marked by a lack of enthusiasm for any party, Tymoshenko’s party narrowly outpaces Yanukovych’s PR, which did very well in the 2010 local elections. While former President Viktor Yushchenko’s party has predictably collapsed, there are unstable new forces including former Speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front for Change and the ultra-nationalist anti-Russian Svoboda which did well in western Ukraine in the 2010 local elections. These elections will be important for their effects on Yanukovych’s presidency and on Ukraine’s place between the EU and Russia.
Russia: In a game of musical chairs, current Prime Minister and former President Vladimir Putin wants to return to the presidency while exchanging his office of Prime Minister with current President Dmitry Medvedev. However, the aftermath of the rigged parliamentary elections in December 2011 was marked by large anti-Putin demonstrations which have shown the increasing shakiness of Vladimir Putin’s state apparatus in Russia. Putin will not lose on March 4, 2012 (though they might make him go to a runoff), especially given that his opposition once again consists mostly of old Stalinist Gennady Zyuganov and stand-up comedian Vladimir Zhirinovsky sprinkled with a discredited Western liberal and a former Kremlin ally who is rarely taken as a serious opponent. Rather, what makes the 2012 elections worth following is more its immediate impact (any protests?) and its long-term effects on Russia and the stability of the Putin apparatus.
Africa and the Middle East
Libya: The overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi after 42 years in power will be, in retrospect, one of the marking moments of 2011. Few people had predicted that Gaddafi’s regime, which had ruled Libya since 1969 with little apparent opposition, would in the spread of less than a year succumb to a civil war started as an unorganized protest movement in Benghazi and which would culminate not that long after that in the collapse of Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli and Sirte with NATO air support, and eventually Gaddafi’s own death at the hands of the rebels. Under his personalist and erratic rule, Gaddafi had done away with elections, political parties (in fact, parties have been banned in Libya since 1952) and with traditional legislative institutions. As such, he left the country without any structured political institutions (unlike in Egypt and Tunisia) and with no organized political forces that we know of (unlike, again, in Egypt and Tunisia where the old regimes were backed by parties and traditional legislatures). As such, we know little of the potential political forces which will emerge in the first elections (by June 2012, says the NTC). There is likely an Islamist current in Libya, and it is already well represented in the NTC, but we cannot speak of a party similar to the MB or Ennahda already structured on the ground. It will be fascinating to follow the political evolution and democratic transition in Libya, as well as the first elections in Libya since 1965. Frankly, the Libyan elections are probably what is exciting me the most about 2012.
Egypt: Following the conclusion in January of the legislative elections and the three-stage election of the consultative upper house or Shura Council, political attention in Egypt is scheduled to shift to presidential elections expected by July 2012. This all depends on what happens between now and then, especially in the context of continuing bloody protests against the interim military government (SCAF) which is looking more and more to assert its political power and hold on to the reins for as long as possible, especially as they worry about the Islamist performance (especially that of the Salafists) in the elections thus far. The favourite for the presidency remains former Arab League boss Amr Moussa, not too well perceived in western circles for his close ties to the old NDP and his more anti-Israel policy, but very popular in Egypt for his stance on Israel. He seems to be the preferred choice of the conservatives over former IAEA boss Mohamed El Baradei, more closely tied to the young revolutionary liberal-secular sectors. El Baradei’s constituency, however, has barely been registering in polls.
Senegal: Senegal has had only three Presidents since independence, but is generally regarded as much less authoritarian and much more stable than its other West African neighbors. In 2000, long time opposition leader Abdoulaye Wade defeated incumbent President Abdou Diouf and was reelected, not without controversy in 2007. There is mounting concern in Senegal and abroad that Wade, accused of corruption, nepotism and limiting civil liberties, is trying to establish an authoritarian regime. He has already broken the constitution by running for a third time (claiming the constitution, passed in 2001, allows him to run again). There has been some protests to his candidacy, and the aftermath of his practically certain reelection will be interesting to follow.
Kenya: Kenya’s last presidential election in 2007 had been followed by ethnic violence between the supporters of President Mwai Kibaki and his opponent, now Prime Minister in a national unity government, Raila Odinga. Under a new constitution which necessitates a runoff if no candidates win an absolute majority (or if the winner’s support is too heavily concentrated in certain counties), Raila Odinga is the favourite for an election due before December 2012. His main opponent seems to be Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, a member of President Kibaki’s PNU party. We can hope that these elections will not lead to ethnic violence as in 2007.
Madagascar: The Malagasy political crisis which began in 2009 with the ouster of President Marc Ravalomanana by the military and current President Andry Rajoelina. Ravalomanana has since been in exile, but the political situation has been unresolved and elections often delayed since 2009. They are now planned for May 2012, following a deal signed in September with Ravalomanana’s supporters, a deal which allows Ravalomanana to return (but the state says they’ll arrest him if he does) and participate in the transitional process.
Asia and Oceania
India (7 states including Uttar Pradesh): State elections will be held in Goa, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Manipur, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. The elections in Gujarat and Punjab will be major races, but the most important election is perhaps Uttar Pradesh (UP) with its 200 million people which makes it the most populous subnational entity in the world and potentially the fifth most populous “country” in the world. Since 2007, UP has been governed by Mayawati and her BSP, a left-wing party claiming to represent the lowest castes in Indian society as well as minorities such as Muslims. The BSP won an absolute majority in 2007, with 206 seats, easily defeating the main opposition in the state, Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party (SP). In the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, the BSP had not done as well as expected against the SP, which might (or might not) spell trouble for Mayawati, whose wealth has opened her to accusations of corruption.
Taiwan (Republic of China): The elections in Taiwan/Republic of China on January 14 will be the first major election of 2012. In 2008, the election of Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) ushered in a more conciliatory policy towards mainland China after years of tension under the rule of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) which supports Taiwanese independence. Ma Ying-jeou’s presidency have brought tensions between the two Chinas to their lowest point in decades and forged business deals with mainland China which helped keep Taiwan afloat during the economic crisis. He had won a landslide in 2008 largely because the incumbent DPP President, Chen Shui-bian, was accused of corruption (he is now in jail). The 2012 race, in which he faces the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen, leader of the DPP and a former Vice Premier, is promising to be much closer. Ma’s recent pronouncement in favour of a peace treaty with the mainland was a bombshell but did not help him much in a China-wary electorate. He is now basically neck-and-neck with Tsai, who has run a campaign focused on social policies. Prediction markets have even had Tsai well ahead of Ma for quite a while now. Ma is weakened by the candidacy of James Soong, an old KMT dissident who, as in 2000, threatens to split the pro-China vote and hand the election to the DPP. He could pull between 5% and 10% support, likely all support which would go to Ma in a two-way race which won’t happen.
South Korea: Presidential elections will be held in South Korea in December 2012. The election marks the end of President Lee Myung-bak’s term, which began in 2007. Lee, who hails from the right-wing GNP, is particularly pro-American but has seen his support at home waver in part because of economic policies which are perceived as favouring the wealthy over the underprevileged. The favourite thus far is the GNP’s Park Geun-hye, who had lost to Lee running as a GNP dissident in 2007 and is the daughter of former authoritarian President Park Chung-hee, who ruled between 1963 and 1979. However, the independent candidacy of Ahn Cheol-Soo, a businessman and professor, seems to be gathering steam. The GNP received a major blow when its candidate lost the Seoul mayoral by-election (Lee had been mayor of Seoul prior to becoming President) to an independent, Park Won-soon, who was backed by Ahn.
That makes for a brief run through of what to look forward to in 2012. I’ve likely omitted a few elections which will turn out to be important and generally sidelined municipal elections and the like, perhaps for no good reason in fact. On that note, thank you for continuing to follow World Elections in 2011, and Happy New Year 2012 in a world full of fascinating electoral contests to follow.
2011’s Top 10
A year ago, I had reflected on what I thought to be the top 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. It is always interesting and enlightening to look back at the year past and see which elections were the most significant elections. In 2010, the US midterms and UK election had topped the list in first and second place respectively.
I am ranking elections based more on their significance than any amusement or fun they may have provided. There are, obviously, different criterion for doing this, but my basic benchmark in deciding whether an election was significant or not is whether or not said election could possible have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, their consequences on the broader region. An election is not necessarily significant, in my mind, if an incumbent government was turfed out of office. An incumbent government can be thrown out, but the election may be more of a pretty boring anti-incumbent mood swing which has little discernible long-term impacts. Furthermore, given how rapidly public opinion and partisan affiliation changes these days – especially during economic crises – it seems as if a lot of the elections we hail as realigning elections only end up being deviating elections. Meaning that I wouldn’t be surprised if the top elections of 2011 ended up having little long-term impact 10 or 15 years from now. Finally, not all elections change the world – far from it – so my other criteria is deciding how interesting an election was. Were its results pretty much decided in advance making the election only half-interesting to a casual observer, or was the election a closely fought contest until the end and whose results had several elements of surprise?
As in 2010, I have given priority to national elections but I have not sidelined subnational elections. By-elections are not taken into consideration, unless somebody can make a case that a particular by-election was one of the ten most important elections anywhere in the world this year.
2011 was a pretty crazy year in terms of geopolitics, and equally insane in terms of elections. Unlike in 2010, I must say that I found it very hard to decide on the most significant election, and I must admit that the top four elections on this list could (should?) all be in first place. Your participation in my poll helped me decide.
1. Egypt: If you had told me one year ago today that an election in Egypt would be be the top election of 2011, I would probably have laughed in your face and most people would have too. In December 2010, we had just seen a terribly rigged legislative election in Egypt and the only political discussion concerning Egypt back then was whether or not President Hosni Mubarak would run again or if his son would run in his stead. What happened in Egypt – and the whole Arab world – in one year is remarkable and certainly the most important political event of 2011 by a landslide. Mubarak’s regime, thought as of being so solidly implanted, was toppled so quickly it could have seemed as if we lived on another planet than the one we lived on in 2010. The first and second stages of yet-unfinished legislative elections in Egypt were held in December 2011. The election is made all the more important because of the turbulent context in which it takes place in: it could seem as if there are the brewings of another uprising in Tahrir Square, aimed this time at the military “stewards” of the country since February. The results of these elections, which seem to be heading towards a large Islamist majority, but an Islamist majority divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, will have a significant impact on Egypt’s political future. Will the military desperately try to cling to power as it worries about the rise of the Islamists, or will the military be pushed out opening the road for whatever uncertainty an Islamist government may entail? The election is also significant because it ought to teach us another lesson in democratic transitions: never overestimate the political influence of a handful of idealistic revolutionaries and never underestimate the natural penchant for order, stability and moderation on the electorate’s behalf.
2. Canada (federal): Whether or not the Canadian election will be a realigning election or a deviating election remains to be seen, but for the time being the Canadian election saw three major changes. The first, and actually not the most important in my mind, is the Conservative majority built on a West-Ontario coalition basically excluding Quebec – a first for any Tory majority since Confederation. The two most important shifts were Quebec’s realignment and the collapse of the Liberal Party. The Liberals, Canada’s natural governing party, did not collapse overnight: the roots of their demise had arguably been laid with the loss of Quebec in 1984, while its collapse began in 2006, intensified in 2008 and totally fell off the cliff in May. The Liberals, who had ruled Canada for most of its history, are now reduced to a rump of less than 35 members desperately trying to retrieve past greatness from an historic third place. The other story was Quebec’s realignment, which goes hand-in-hand with the NDP surge. The NDP’s surge from nowhere to everywhere in Quebec, the province where Canada’s left-wing third party had been weakest, was a phenomenon which nobody foresaw prior to the campaign. In line with Quebec’s history for wild swings which breaks swingometers, the orange crush surge gave the Bloc Québécois (BQ), which had dominated federal politics (more or less) since 1993. The Bloc won just four seats, portending a very real threat to the Quebec nationalist movement which is being replicated provincially with the PQ’s impeding collapse (assuming it is a collapse based not solely on leadership). The tragic death of Jack Layton, the architect of the NDP surge in Quebec, opens up a wide open NDP leadership race for March 2012 in which the new leader’s ability to hold the Quebec gains will be crucial to the NDP’s hope to remain in opposition and became a serious contender for government in 2015. It is too early to say whether or not the 2011 federal election represents a total realignment, but whatever happens, May 2011 will have changed something.
3. Tunisia: Similarly to Egypt, what happened this year in Tunisia went totally unpredicted even as late as one year ago. Ben Ali’s ouster in Tunisia in early January really got the ball rolling for similar uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. The Tunisian elections, the first free elections in the country, saw the victory of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party. Ennahda’s victory was expected, but what makes this election most significant – besides it being an historic milestone – is that it lays the groundwork for Tunisia’s democratic transition. Ennahda has allied with two smaller liberal-secular parties and there is much more optimism regarding Tunisia’s future than there is for Egypt’s future. Will Ennahda become a model, like the Turkish AKP, for a moderate Islamist government in a democratic country, or will it usher in a slow return to the authoritarianism of the past with a new clerical overtone? The reason why I have preferred Egypt over Tunisia in terms of significance is that Egypt is more of a regional power card than Tunisia is, and Egypt is often treated as one of the dominant Arab countries whose evolution carries special weight on other countries.
4. Ireland: It may be looking increasingly doubtful that Ireland’s elections earlier this year will usher in a major realignment, but even on the short-term the significance of what happened in Ireland cannot be whistled away. Like in Canada, Ireland’s natural governing party for the past, what, 70 years, Fianna Fáil was given a huge slap in the face, winning its worst result in its history (not topping the poll, far from it, a first since 1932) and reduced to a third-place rump concentrated in rural Ireland. In an election fought in the context of the worst economic crisis in the country’s recent history, FF’s thumping will make the history books, even if its thumping is merely a short-term blow as it may end up being. Some ten months later, the new FG-Labour government which some – myself included – had hoped could signal a realignment of Irish politics along left-right lines rather than Civil War lines, seems unlikely to be turning the election into a realignment. Labour has been reduced to its low double-digits, while FF and SF are resurgent. Ireland’s election is likely to turn out to be a deviating election and it is unlikely to carry as much importance as originally predicted. But it remains a significant election in a short-term context and especially in a review of 2011.
5. Russia: I usually shy away, for obvious reasons, from including blatantly rigged elections in these types of things. But Russia’s election may turn out to have unintended long-term consequences. Fueled both by the obviously rigged results and the poor showing (even officially) of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia, the Russian elections have sparked major protests centered in Moscow. The Putin State has not yet been dealt a mortal blow, far from it, but the elections and their aftermath shows that a regime which one enjoyed genuine popularity as long as the times were good is now sustained by increasingly unstable foundations when times turn sour. Putin’s regime, not long ago seen as solidly implanted and almost impossible to topple, may be increasingly shaky especially in the eventuality of a new economic crisis. Putin’s reign is not over, but in a way it is possible that the elections may have the unintended effect of marking the beginning of the end for a regime whose legitimacy is seriously compromised at home.
6. Peru: This year’s Peruvian elections proved to be a very exciting back-and-forth contest, with frontrunners emerging and quickly fading away. As the dust settled, the runoff opposed the two candidates with the most motivated base but also the two candidates with the largest number of people who hated their guts. In the words of Mario Vargas Llosa, it was a choice between AIDS and terminal cancer, or the daughter of a disgraced authoritarian President and an ethnonationalist former military officer. Ollanta Humala’s victory carries special significance as he is perhaps the first President of Peru whom the country’s indigenous population unambiguously identifies as one of their own. In an historical context, Humala’s victory this year was the product of his moderation and pragmatism after having been defeated five years prior in large part because his radicalism scared away moderate voters. Humala has an historic chance to extend to the fruits of Peru’s new-found economic prosperity and political stability to a majority of voters and tack a new moderate left-wing path in line more with Lula and Kichernerism than with Chavism.
7. Scotland (United Kingdom): Trailing the opposition by a wide margin, Scotland’s nationalist devolved government led by the SNP turned that around in a drastic manner and won an unprecedented absolute majority previously thought of as impossible in a proportional system. Besides the historic feat, Scotland’s election was significant because it showed that the SNP understood the Scottish voter’s interests at the Holyrood level, to the extent that Labour’s disastrous Westminster-focused campaigned completely failed to. An absolute majority places Alex Salmond’s SNP government in the driver’s seat, especially when it comes to the question of a potential referendum on Scottish independence or devo-max in a near future. The political future of Scotland does not make many headlines, but we would do well to follow political developments in a region which might offer some of the highest chances for sub-national separation in Europe.
8. Spain (general): The Spanish elections certainly did see major changes, with the governing Socialists receiving an unprecedented thumping at the hands of a previously uninspiring conservative opposition, thanks to the Spain’s disastrous economic situation. However, a government getting thrown out of office – especially under such predictable circumstances – is not enough, in my mind, to make one election particularly significant. Given the circumstances under which the new Spanish government takes office and the nature of this government, like in Ireland, it is rather hard to discern any realignment in the results. That is not to say that it was a totally insignificant election, but I would argue that the most significant aspect of these elections actually lie in the Basque Country, whose counter-cyclical results this year and especially the emergence of the abertzale left post-ETA are very significant. It is the Basque Country’s short-term realignment towards nationalist forces which merits to be highlighted the most, and it is these results’ impact on Spanish-Basque relations which must be observed in the future.
9. Baden-Württemberg (Germany): The March 27 elections in the German state of Baden-Württemberg are unlikely to have major consequences even outside the boundaries of that state, they must be remembered as we look back on 2011 as the election of the first Green government in any major election at a regional level in Europe. What the Greens in Baden-Württemberg is certainly ground-breaking, as they become the first Green party in Europe to form government as the senior partners. While the German Greens failed in their attempt to win in Berlin and the Grüne surge of 2011 is fading, Greens understand that Baden-Württemberg carries special significance for the Green movement in Europe as it will really be their opportunity to show their worth as a serious senior governing party (rather than just a junior partner). In the German context, the results in the right-wing stronghold of Baden-Württemberg and in other state elections all signify a special blow to the right-wing CDU-FDP government of Chancellor Angela Merkel whose odds for a third term are pretty heavily stacked against her at this point.
10. Italy (locals): Prior to Silvio Berlusconi’s resignation in November, the Italian local elections, which saw historic victories for the left in places such as Milan, would have probably received a much higher ranking. Back in power since 2008, Berlusconi suffered his first major defeat in these local elections which were coupled with a referendum dear to Berlusconi on a law granting him judicial immunity (Berlusconi also ‘lost’ this referendum). They were the beginning of the end for Berlusconi, touching at the heart of the cavaliere‘s electoral base in Milan. Even if Berlusconi’s resignation in November makes these elections more of a final defeat for Italy’s former Prime Minister, Berlusconi’s upcoming (?) progressive departure from the Italian political scene will entail a significant realignment of Italian politics which since 1994 have become increasingly structured around opposition to or support for Berlusconi, a cleavage which broke, to an extent, old lines of left and right lines. The elections might not have highlighted that, but they perhaps highlighted one important element: the growing importance to the Italian left of two of its junior allies: Italy of Values (IdV) which won in Naples, and especially Nichi Vendola’s SEL whose candidate led the left to victory in the Berlusconian city of Milan.
Honourable mentions go to South Sudan, Turkey, Argentina, Berlin (Germany) and Norway (locals). Which election will top this list in 2012? In my next post, I’ll run through “what’s hot” in 2012 in terms of elections.
What’s hot in 2011
As we close the door on a fruitful and fun-filled election year in 2010, we look forward to 2011 which has a similar stock of elections to look forward to. As a sort of preview (and Christmas present) of the upcoming year, I’ve chosen to preview and highlight a few of the major elections and referendums being held in 2011. This list, of course, is not complete and there will obviously be some snap elections which we aren’t expecting (and some snap elections which won’t surprise us); as there are elections which will excite some but bore to death some others. From my perspective, here are the main elections of 2011 and a short preview of what to look forward to.
Canada: A federal election might come in 2011, and it will be a test of Stephen Harper’s ability to win a majority after winning two straight minorities. Yet, a minority government is more than likely to come out of an early federal election. At any rate, 2011 is Canada’s super-election year with a whole slew of provincial elections in Manitoba (Oct 4), Ontario (Oct 6), Newfoundland and Labrador (Oct 11), Saskatchewan (Nov 7) as well as still unscheduled votes in Prince Edward Island and the Yukon (the only territory with partisan politics). In Manitoba and Ontario, the NDP and Liberal provincial governments respectively are lagging behind in polls and seem to be likely to lose power after 12 and 8 years in power respectively. Yet, given that neither Manitoba nor Ontario’s PCs are exceptionally strong or well-organized, it would be wrong to count them as certain winners. In Newfoundland and Labrador, the PCs will try to maintain their huge majority but they’ll have to do so without their exceptionally popular Premier Danny Williams who recently stepped down. In Saskatchewan, Brad Wall’s conservative SaskParty will win a landslide as will Robert Ghiz’s Liberals in PEI. In the Yukon, the only territory with partisan politics, anything could happen as far as we know. Furthermore, there are federal by-elections in the waiting among which the most interesting is Haute-Gaspésie—La Mitis—Matane—Matapédia, where the Bloc faces a strong challenge from the Liberals.
Nicaragua: Nicaragua votes on November 6, and incumbent President Daniel Ortega is determined to run for reelection (and has stacked the courts to allow him to do so). The opposition, which suffered from its division in 2006 (which allowed Ortega to win with only 38%), is trying to find a common consensus candidate, a task which is proving difficult. Former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002) is interested in running again, but 2006 runner-up Eduardo Montealegre has backed Fabio Gadea Mantilla, a 79-year old regional parliamentarian, for the job.
Peru: Peru goes to the polls on April 10, in which the presidential ballot will be the main attraction. On the right, Alberto Fujimori’s daughter Keiko is running for President at the helm of the latest incarnation of Fujimori’s outfit(s). She seems to be running slightly behind the current frontrunner (who will probably not be the winner) Luis Castañeda, the former right-wing mayor of Lima. In the centre, former President Alejandro Toledo is running in fourth place. Further left, Ollanta Humala, a far-left indigenous nationalist who came second behind Alan Garcia in 2006, is running third but is slowly creeping up and might bump Keiko or Castañeda out of a potential runoff. As for Alan Garcia’s APRA, its candidate, Mercedes Aráoz, is trailing far behind.
Argentina: The death of former President Néstor Kirchner in October changed the cards drastically in this election due on October 23. The governing Peronist coalition is divided, as always, between the Kirchnerists and the Federal PJ (which is anti-Kirchner). Incumbent President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose popularity has increased considerably since her husband’s death, is likely to run for reelection. The Federal PJ’s strongest contender to date is former President Eduardo Duhalde, though former President and governor Adolfo Rodríguez Saá and former President Carlos Menem are also considered potential contenders. The leader of the neoliberal centre-right PRO and incumbent mayor of Buenos Aires Mauricio Macri, who has some affinity with the Federal PJ, is a likely contender. The Acuerdo Cívico y Social, the UCR-led opposition coalition, has two main contenders: congressman Ricardo Luis Alfonsín, son of former President Raúl Alfonsín and Vice President Julio Cobos. Elisa Carrió, now at the helm of her own isolated coalition, will run for a third time.
Ireland: Ireland will vote early in early 2011 at the latest. Ireland’s government has become less popular than the black plague following the economic crisis, and the IMF-EU bailout has further sunk it. As a result, the governing Fianna Fáil, Ireland’s natural governing party and the top vote-getter since 1932, is hovering between third and fourth. The main opposition, Fine Gael, hasn’t benefited as it should, given the incompetence of its leader Enda Kenny. Instead, Ireland’s traditionally weak Labour Party is hovering between second and first in almost all polls. Furthermore, Sinn Féin, whose leader Gerry Adams is running in the south now, is on route to an historic success in the south thanks to the unpopularity of the IMF-EU bailout. As for Fianna Fáil’s unlucky coalition partners, the Greens, they will get wiped out.
United Kingdom: Throughout the UK, voters will vote on May 5 on adopting the AV electoral system. The AV referendum is one of the few things the LibDems got out of the Con-LibDem deal last May. It is unknown whether or not AV will actually pass, but the success rate for FPTP-alternatives in such referendums is pretty low. At the same time, in England, local elections will be held for 36 metropolitan boroughs, 194 second-tier district authorities and 45 unitary authorities. The coalition will take a hit, the Conservatives much less so than the LibDems whose polling numbers are reaching new lows every day.
Scotland: Scotland votes on May 5 as well, with the SNP defending its governing position it had won in 2007. The SNP is down to Labour in polls since the general election, though they’re not doing that badly overall. The Tories and LibDems, however, are doing badly. Labour seems to have an edge to reconquer the government of one of its traditional bases, but the SNP shouldn’t be counted out especially if they’re able to build a coalition with the LibDems if Labour doesn’t win a majority.
Wales: Wales, on May 5, votes for its National Assembly and in a referendum to expand the National Assembly’s power on March 3. The referendum is likely to pass, and Labour is likely to win big and perhaps win an outright majority alone. Though Plaid and the Tories are likely to hold their ground relatively well, polls have been extremely bloody for the LibDems.
Northern Ireland: Again, on May 5 (or before), Northern Ireland’s Assembly is up. Though major groundbreaking changes are unlikely due to the polarized nature of politics, the main interest of this election will be to see whether or not Sinn Féin (which might outplace the DUP as the largest party) can claim the office of First Minister with Martin McGuinness. The performance of Jim Allister’s anti-power sharing TUV, the dwindling Ulster Unionists and the liberal Alliance (whose Naomi Long defeated FM Peter Robinson in the Westminster election this year) are also worth looking at.
Germany: No federal election, but no excuse to not be excited about German elections in 2011. State elections will be held in Hamburg (Feb. 20), Saxony-Anhalt (Mar. 20), Baden-Württemberg (Mar. 27), Rhineland-Palatine (Mar. 27), Bremen (May 22), Berlin (Sept. 18) and Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (late 2011/Sept. 4). The SPD is the biggest party in four of those states, but with Angela Merkel’s federal CDU/FDP coalition being unpopular (the FDP in particular), the German left is going to have a good year, and red-green coalitions are the favourites in most states. Baden-Württemberg, which has a CDU/FDP government, will be a major test for the Greens where they’re riding in second place far ahead of the SPD. They could be on track to forming the first ever green-red coalition, an option which could also come out of the polls in Berlin where the Greens are neck-and-neck with Klaus Wowereit’s SPD. In Hamburg, which votes early after a black-green coalition collapsed earlier this year, the SPD is the big favourite while the Greens are left fighting the CDU for distant second. In Bremen back in 2007, the Greens won their strongest state result ever with 16.4% and they’re favoured to break that record at least twice next year. FDP supporters will have a very bad year, most likely, as their party struggles badly federally and is fighting to retain representation in all states even in Baden-Württemberg, one of their strongest states.
Denmark: Denmark votes in a key parliamentary election sometime before November 12, and a referendum on abolishing Denmark’s EU opt-outs might also be held that day. In power since 2001, the right-wing Venstre-led government is down in polls. Venstre itself trails the Social Democrats by increasingly wide margins, although the Social Democrats themselves are polling rather weakly. Instead, the left-wing Socialist People’s Party is keeping up its high polling numbers, registering as the third party. It had already won one of its best results since the late 80s in 2007, and now seems likely to win its best result ever. The far-right Danish People’s Party suffered quite a bit after it voted in favour of the government’s austerity-style budget and thus alienated a good part of its electorate, and thus might lose ground after increasing its vote share in every single election thus far.
Switzerland: Federal elections will be held in Switzerland on October 23. Of course the government won’t change, but the strength of the major parties will be worth tracking. The populist right-wing SVP remains ahead in polls, though about at 2007 level. All other parties seem to be at their 2007 levels as well.
Spain: Regional and local elections on May 22. Held a year before the 2012 general elections, Spanish local elections between 1995 and 2003 all picked correctly the winner of the general election the next year (the PP narrowly won the 2007 locals, but lost in 2008). Regional elections in 13 of the 17 regions (all those regions with no special autonomy status) will be held alongside local elections in all regions. The economic crisis, which has hurt Spain a lot (with the housing bubble burst and 20% unemployment) has hurt Zapatero’s two-term Socialist government which now trails the conservative PP in polls. However, the PP’s Mariano Rajoy remains unpopular and the PP has suffered from its share of corruption scandals. Yet, the economic crisis will likely prevail in voters’ mind and put PSOE administrations (or, in Cantabria, a regionalist-PSOE administration) in Aragon, Asturias, the Balearic Islands, Cantabria and Castilla-La Mancha at risk.
Finland: Mari Kiviniemi, the new 42-year old Prime Minister of Finland, must defend her spot on April 17. Her Centre Party is in a narrow third, though all three major parties remain at or slightly below their 2007 level, when they were in reality all tied up. The right-wing National Coalition Party, in government as the Centre’s junior partner, is ahead but falls below its 2007 level. The SDP is second, but also falls behind its 2007 level as does the Centre. The main winner of these elections could likely be the far-right True Finns, who are polling nearly 15% (they won 4.1% in 2007).
Croatia: Croatia’s centre-right HDZ government only narrowly and surprisingly survived in 2007, but is facing a landslide humiliation at the end of 2011. In office since 2009, Jadranka Kosor temporarily managed to perk the HDZ’s head up a bit but the party has been wrecked by corruption and especially by former Prime Minister Ivo Sanader who resigned suddenly in July 2009, attempted a comeback in 2010 before fleeing the country to escape prosecution for high-profile corruption cases. He has since been arrested in Austria, after his head was placed on Interpol’s most wanted list. The Social Democrat-led opposition has united as the Alliance for Change, a broad coalition which now has a 20 point lead over the HDZ in polls. Also in Croatia, though maybe not in 2011, a referendum will be held on the EU Accession Treaty which Croatia will be signing soon. Polls have indicated a narrow lead for the yes.
Turkey: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government is up for reelection on June 12. After its crushing wins in 2002 and 2007, weaker results in the 2009 locals and 2010 referendum might mean that the AKP might face a slightly tougher challenge although it remains heavily favoured over the eternally incompetent and hapless CHP. If victorious, the AKP plans to draft a new constitution altogether, emboldened by the successful approval of its constitutional reforms in a vote earlier this year.
Italy (potential): An election might be held in Italy in 2011 if Silvio Berlusconi’s coalition finally collapses some day. Yet, if there’s an election, it will likely be one of the most interesting of 2011. Berlusconi will be fighting for yet another term, but without his former ally Gianfranco Fini who might create some sort of coalition with Casini’s UDC. The left will try to make gains out of Berlusconi’s unpopularity, but faced with a poor leadership it remains unable to win anything. Polls indicate a narrow lead for the right, with the Lega Nord making important gains at the expense of Berlusconi’s PdL. Fini’s new Future and Freedom is not doing all that well, with barely 4-5% of voting intentions against 5-6% for the UDC. The PD continues doing poorly, the IdV is down a bit from its heights in 2009 but Nichi Vendola’s Left and Freedom (a new-left type coalition) is doing decently with 6-7%.
France: This is probably me being a French electoral nerd, but cantonal elections in March will probably be fun. It will be a test of Sarkozy’s popularity a year before the big year, but a test which takes place in a context where the left is on the defensive – the cantons up in 2004 are up in 2011, and 2004 was already a ‘red wave’. The left will target departments such as Jura, Hautes-Alpes, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Cote-d’Or, Aveyron and Vienne where the right has a very weak majority. The right has less targets, but Allier, Val-d’Oise, Seine-et-Marne and Ain are its big targets. Within the left, the Greens buoyed by their 2009-2010 successes and their recent consolidation into a new party will seek to build a cantonal base where it very weak. Though cantonals are not good for the FN, their result and their effect in runoffs will be worth watching. These will also be the last cantonal elections before the planned 2014 territorial reform. Later, in September, part of the Senate is up and the left is extremely optimistic of its chances to gain a majority in the Senate for the first time since 1958.
Africa and Asia
South Sudan: South Sudan holds a crucial independence referendum, or so it claims, on January 9. The victory of the yes seems inevitable, so what will be worth watching is how the vote takes place – if there’s any violence – and how Sudan and other African countries will react the quasi-certain victory of the independence option. Not much is known thus far, except that it is very important and might set an important precedent for Sudan and the rest of Africa.
Zambia: A presidential and parliamentary election, two years after the special presidential election in 2008, will be held sometime in 2011 in Zambia. Rupiah Banda of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), first elected in a 2008 by-election to fill the rest of deceased President Lewy Mwanawasa’s term. The MMD, a pro-western party which has been one of the most vocal opponents of Mugabe next door in Zimbabwe, had narrowly retained the presidency in 2008 against the populist pro-Mugabe Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF). Banda is running again, and Sata probably will run again setting up a very close and interesting contest.
Liberia: Liberia’s presidential contest, on October 11, is shaping up to be an interesting race. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, first elected in 2005 and the only elected female head of state in Africa, is running for reelection. Opposing her, the other two main contenders in the 2005 contest: footballer George Weah and Liberty Party leader Charles Brumskine have announced their intentions to form a coalition and run a single ticket to oppose Sirleaf. It is unknown which of Weah or Charles Brumskine will head the ticket.
Thailand: Thais will likely get to vote in 2011, maybe in November. Abhisit Vejjajiva’s centre-right Democrat government seems popular enough, but the result of the latest incarnation of the Thaksin Shinawatra clan (they’re now the Pheu Thai Party) is hard to predict and will probably one of the key things to watch in this election, as well as the impact of an election on the political chaos in the country since 2006/2008.
New Zealand: Sometime by the end of 2011, a general election and a referendum will be held in New Zealand. John Key’s centre-right National Party seems to be the favourites to win a second term (and likely will win an even bigger majority), and in doing so will likely be able to get rid of ACT as a coalition partner, especially given that the small libertarian ACT is facing political death. The referendum on electoral reform is likely to be much more interesting. First, voters will decide whether they want to stick with the MMP system or get rid of it. If they want to get rid of it, they have a choice between FPTP, preferential voting, STV and supplementary member (the latter is supported by most MMP opponents). Polls, as they always are in these types of scenarios, are all over the place.
These are not the only elections in 2011, of course, and neither are they the only elections which will be covered on this blog. As well, there will probably be a bunch of elections which are not scheduled right now or elections which don’t seem very interesting now but which will end up being quite interesting when they’re held. Which 2011 elections are you looking forward to the most?
2010’s Top 10
Last year, around at the same time, I listed the most important elections of the last decade. This year, no such fun, but instead a much more modest ranking of the top 10 elections of 2010. There are diverse criterion for doing this, but I’ve chosen to focus on elections which have or will have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country. Given that not all elections, far from it, change the world; my second criteria is how interesting the election was even if it may not have been all that ground-breaking in the short and long term. I have given priority to national elections, and lesser priority to subnational elections. By-elections are not taken into consideration. So, here’s my take on 2010’s top 10.
1. United States mid-terms: The 2010 midterms in the United States saw the emergence of an activist conservative movement, the Tea Party, and a strong popular rebuke of Obama’s more interventionist response to the economic crisis. The primaries, especially on the Republican side, saw the defeat of a number of old incumbents who fell victim to a challenge from their right (the Tea Party). The defeat of Arlen Specter (the Republican-turned-Democrat in Pennsylvania), Bob Bennett (in Utah), Lisa Murkowski (in Alaska) and Mike Castle (in Delaware) will remain for a lot of us some of the most interesting primary fights in recent American political history. The general election saw the Republicans take over the House (but Democrats hold the Senate), something which will entail deadlock in the next two years but which – some say – be good for Obama once 2012 comes up – he’ll be able to run against, like Truman in 1948, a “do-nothing Congress”. The general election in Alaska also witnessed the historic and almost unprecedented (at least since 1954) write-in reelection of Lisa Murkowski against her Palin-backed Tea Party rival Joe Miller. The stretch between primaries, meanwhile, provided us with much fun. Christine O’Donnell, the witch, saying that she’s you. Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s popular Democratic Governor who wanted to be Senator, shooting legislation with his shotgun. Dale Peterson, the delightful all-American Alabama cowboy, running for AgCommish against the ‘thugs and criminals’ who steal his yard signs. Tim James, the businessman from Alabama, who wants us to speak English in Alabama and stop giving driver license exams in twelve languages. Rand Paul, the new Tea Party hero from Kentucky, who made women bow down to him and his “Aqua Buddha” God.
2. United Kingdom: Is it me or does it seem as if that election was a century ago? At any rate, the UK’s May election resulted in the defeat of a 13-year old Labour government, the first hung parliament since the 70s and the first formal coalition government in a very long time. This government might not get reelected to a second term in 2015 and certainly the LibDems are on route to take quite a thumping in the next election. Yet, the election will have important short-term effects with the government’s austerity policies and its repercussions on the country and the LibDems. During the election, while the expected LibDem wave amounted to zilch, it provided for a very amusing and fun election with the media and people going into either mass panic or mass admiration in front of Nick Clegg (how that has changed).
3. Belgium: This year’s Belgian elections are important because they have and will continue to intensify the political deadlock in the country, as a government is unable to be formed as a result of an election which saw a party dedicated to the breakup of the country poll the most votes and win the most seats. The continuation of such deadlock will certainly have important effects on Belgium itself, given that, according to some, it might speed up the destruction of the country.
4. Australia: The campaign was extremely boring and lackluster, but what makes Australia’s August election worth remembering is the deadlock which followed the vote. For at least a week, nobody knew who was going to be Prime Minister given that both the government and the opposition had the same amount of seats. In the end, the conclusion to this slightly surreal election hinged on the decision of three rural independent MPs of which two finally gave their support to Labor’s Julia Gillard.
5. Côte d’Ivoire: After delaying it a million times, Côte d’Ivoire finally held its first election since 2000 and unlike in 2000 the run-up was all fair, with no candidates excluded on shaky grounds. The first round went off without a hinge, and many people hoped that the incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo would, if defeated in the runoff, leave without issues and peacefully transfer power to the person who is seen as the rightful winner – Alassane Ouattara. Then, of course, all hell broke lose when it became clear that Gbagbo had lost and that he didn’t feel like giving up power. Tensions have flared and they continue to escalate, and it’s still possible that things will end badly. Another election which dashes our hope for free elections and peaceful transfer of powers from a defeated incumbent to a legal winner in West Africa…
6. Guinea: Not all hope in West Africa is lost though. Guinea held its first really free election since 1958, and all went off relatively smoothly despite there being a military junta of doubtful honesty in power. It is too early to tell now, but there is hope that the election of Alpha Condé – a longtime opponent of Guinea’s various madmen-dictators, could finally right the country and do at least something, anything, to get it out of its position as one of West Africa’s poorest and most corrupt nations.
7. Sweden: When the Swedish right wins power, it rarely holds it for more than one term and often suffers a large swing against it when it runs for reelection. Quite the opposite happened this year in a country known for its socialist tradition. The governing centre-right coalition was reelected, although it lost its majority, with a significant swing towards the largest party in the coalition – Prime Minister Reinfeldt’s Moderates. On the other hand, the dominant Social Democrats almost lost their century (or so) old first place position and still won its worse result in a very long time. This election represents a significant victory for Reinfeldt’s moderate brand of European conservatism (since adopted, allegedly, by David Cameron) which accepts the welfare state but pushes for welfare reform with programs such as back-to-work incentives and the like. On the other hand, this election also saw the entry of the far-right into the legislature of a country not traditionally known for being very anti-immigration.
8. North Rhine-Westphalia (Germany): Regional elections are rarely of much importance (for example, the French regional elections were of interest but of no impact), but state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW) – which is Germany’s most populous and most powerful (economically) state are always important. In 2005, the SPD’s defeat in one of its traditional strongholds led to the CDU led to snap elections. In 2010, the defeat of the governing CDU-FDP administration was seen as a major setback for Angela Merkel’s federal CDU-FDP coalition, which is indeed doing very poorly these days (especially the FDP, which risks losing all seats in an election as of now). The strong showing for the Greens – their strongest ever in NRW – also coincides with the Greens raking up some of their highest ever polling numbers in Germany (18-21%) and puts them on track to claim first spot in Berlin and perhaps first spot amongst the left in Baden-Württemberg – both of which vote next year.
9. Brazil: Brazilian elections are always interesting (of course!), but these elections were not of much impact. There was little suspense over the winner, although there almost was at times, given that Lula’s preferred successor Dilma was always the overwhelming favourite. It still is of interest on this list because it was quite interesting, and downballot races for Senate and Governor were often quite interesting with old right-wing politicos such as Tasso Jereissati and Marco Maciel going down to defeat after decades in power. The presidential campaign, with its late swing against the frontrunner Dilma over abortion comments and the late surge of Green candidate Marina Silva were quite interesting. Not the election of a lifetime (even 2006, arguably, with the massive changes in the Nordeste emerging, was more interesting).
10. Poland: Held in the wake of President Lech Kaczyński’s death in a plane crash in April, Poland’s early presidential election saw a battle between interim President Bronisław Komorowski and Lech’s twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński. Komorowski’s victory signaled both approval for the PO government led by Donald Tusk (up for reelection in 2011) and a final shift away from the national-conservatism and Euroscepticism of the Kaczyński years, a shift which started in 2007. Buoyed by a strong economy, the governing liberal coalition is favoured to win reelection – something which has never happened in Poland (I’m not talking about the presidency) since the fall of communism.
Honourable mentions in this list would go out to Iraq, Ukraine, Netherlands and Japan (House of Councillors).
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.