Category Archives: World Elections Blog
Dear readers and loyal followers of the World Elections blog,
As of January 12, I will be moving to Colombia for some four and a half months. During this time period, I will, most likely, be blogging significantly less than usual and/or at a much slower pace. While I would like to continue this blog at the current rate given the avalanche of exciting elections around the corner in the coming first months of 2015 – Greece, Israel, the UK, Finland or Zambia – I’m afraid that I won’t be able to cover them quite as I’d like. I will, conditions and lifestyle permitting, still be doing some blogging on the most interesting elections (in my eyes), which is actually kind of what I’ve been doing for the past few months anyways. If unable to do much at all, I may at the very least offer some brief impressions on the results of a few major elections and/or make some maps of the results.
Naturally, if anybody would like to contribute guest posts on any relevant topic over the coming months, I would be more than happy to welcome them.
This is only a partial and temporary hiatus, and I want to get back to ‘full-time’ election blogging afterwards. You can subscribe to this blog, follow me on Twitter or like this blog on Facebook to be kept informed of any new posts and updates.
Thank you for your understanding, and thanks again for reading and following this blog.
What’s hot in 2014
As 2013 closes, this is a chance to look at which elections might be most exciting and interesting in 2014. As in past years, there will be some snap elections which we will not have seen coming, some elections which will not happen, and other elections which will turn out to be less important or interesting than originally assumed. In the next twelve months, you can expect almost every single one of these elections to be covered in some level of detail on this blog.
Canada: At the federal level, attention will be focused on the groundwork for the 2015 federal election now that the three major parties are set (barring any major surprises) in their leadership. Particularly, will Justin Trudeau’s Liberal hold their momentum? Will 2014 prove as difficult as 2013 for Harper’s Conservative government? Will Thomas Mulcair’s NDP regain lost support and place itself as a major contender for what might be a three-way race for first in 2013? Provincially, September or October 2014 will see an election in New Brunswick, in which the Liberal opposition is the runaway favourite. The NDP, weak in NB provincial politics, will be a factor to watch as they’re currently neck-and-neck with Premier David Alward’s unpopular Conservative government. Of more interest, however, are what appears to be likely early elections in Quebec and Ontario – two provinces with minority government. In Quebec, Premier Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois (PQ) government opted not to call a snap election for December 2013, but most believe that it will go to the polls sometime in early 2014. The government’s controversial Quebec Charter of Values will be a major issue in the election. The PQ will be hoping to win a majority government, but they are trailing or statistically tied with the Liberal opposition in polls. In Ontario, Liberal Premier Kathleen Wynne is expected to face the voters in an early election, perhaps in the spring of 2014. In power for ten years, the provincial Liberal government is hit by major scandals, voter fatigue and a struggling economy; but Wynne is more popular than her discredited predecessor, Dalton McGuinty, and is still polling relatively well – although the Tories, led by Tim Hudak, are leading in the polls. Hudak is a poor leader and has faced internal challenges (albeit isolated) to his leadership in 2013, following poor Tory showings in five by-elections in August 2013 (in which the Liberals lost three seats). Municipal elections in Ontario on October 27 will be followed if only for the race in Toronto.
United States: Will the 2014 midterm elections be as bloody for President Barack Obama and the Democrats as Obama’s first midterms, in 2010, were? One year after taking office for a second term, Obama’s approval rating is down to the low 40s, after a tough year marred by the NSA surveillance scandal, mini-scandals, a botched Obamacare rollout and other issues. On the other hand, the Republicans are hardly more popular, being held responsible (by a plurality, but by no means all) for the 2013 government shutdown and the deadlock in Congress; additionally, a recovering economy may help Obama. In congressional elections, Republican control of the House does not appear to be in any danger, thanks in part to gerrymandering. Republicans need to gain six seats to win control of the Senate, this is not out of reach but still probably an uphill battle. If retiring Democrats in ‘red states’ such as South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana open the door to likely Republican gains; the GOP would still need another three victories and no loses – among Democratic-held seats, Arkansas is the most vulnerable while Louisiana, North Carolina, Alaska and Michigan may also fall – but appear, for now, more difficult. But some Democrats are confident that they stand a chance against the GOP in Kentucky and Georgia, although gaining seats in GOP-leaning states in midterms will be tough. Gubernatorial races will feature interesting contests as well, especially with the freshmen of the ‘class of 2010’ facing reelection. Some first-term Republican incumbents in Pennsylvania, Florida and Maine appear very weak, but others in Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin, Nevada and New Mexico are far more solid. Republicans will hope to gain Arkansas and Illinois.
Central and South America
El Salvador: February 2 will see the first round of a presidential election to succeed one-term President Mauricio Funes (ineligible for consecutive reelection). It is shaping up to be a very close race between Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the governing left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), with former President Antonio Saca of the centre-right GANA/Unidad coalition, an ARENA splinter, holding the keys to victory in the runoff for either men. While the FMLN is the least unpopular party, the runoff on March 9 will be closely disputed. President Funes, a moderate leftist, is relatively popular but El Salvador struggles with an extremely high homicide rate (one of the highest in the world) and a sluggish economy. ARENA defeated the FMLN in midterm legislative elections in 2012.
Panama: Interesting presidential elections are brewing in Panama, scheduled for early May. Right-wing President Ricardo Martinelli is relatively unpopular as he leaves office, with a mixed record and an administration in disarray. Martinelli, a wealthy businessman, is nevertheless keen on retaining a stake in politics after he leaves. José Domingo, the candidate of Martinelli’s party, Democratic Change, is a relative unknown seen as pliable and pro-Martinelli; he is currently barely ahead. Martinelli, however, would likely be extremely displeased if Juan Carlos Navarro, the leader and candidate of the main opposition party, the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) wins – he is a close second in polls – because Navarro and Martinelli are sworn enemies. Complicating matters is the candidacy of Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, a former ally of the President who has since turned on him and is running for president as the candidate of the old vaguely centrist Panameñista (or Arnulfista) Party. Varela, who has used the vice presidential office to criticize Martinelli, is in third place.
Colombia: President Juan Manuel Santos, first elected in 2010, will run for a second term in presidential elections scheduled for May 25, after congressional elections on March 9. When Santos was first elected in 2010, he was seen (not entirely correctly) as the favourite of then-President Álvaro Uribe, a conservative known for his hardline security policy in the long-lasting civil conflict against the FARC rebels. In office, however, Santos broke with his predecessor by adopting a far more moderate position on security – opening negotiations with the FARC in 2012, with have stalled numerous times. Santos is the favourite, but his main rival will be Óscar Iván Zuluaga, the candidate of the right-wing uribista Uribe Centro Democrático. Santos currently holds a large lead in polls, but many are undecided and Santos remains far below 50% of voting intentions.
Brazil: The presidential and legislative in Brazil on October 5 will be closely followed. Incumbent President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party (PT) is the favourite. While she has been a relatively strong president who has stepped out of her predecessor’s, Lula, shadow and taken a slightly tougher stance against corruption in her own party, she has faced difficulties with a weaker economy than in previous years, divisions in the governing alliance and corruption scandals or trials hitting her coalition or the PT. Dilma remains personally popular, and her moderate economic and fiscal policies have made her popular with more right-leaning voters as well. However, the government and the entire political elite was shaken by unprecedented massive protests in June 2013, which initially were protests against public transit fare hikes but which quickly became catch-all expressions of urban discontent with the inefficient provision of social services, deficiencies in infrastructure, political corruption and heavy government spending (overspending) for the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup, 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Rio Summer Olympics. Dilma’s popularity was hit, but she recovered since, as she took the initiative in proposing reforms and new policies responding to protesters’ demands (but not all of them). The Mais Médicos program, designed to attract doctors to peripheral and interior municipalities, has been cited as a major factor in her popularity’s recovery. Dilma, in the absence of solid opposition, remains the early favourite for October 2014. The centre-right PSDB’s candidate, Minas Gerais senator Aécio Neves, was once hailed as the party’s great hope for 2014 but his senatorial term has been uninspiring and Neves has low support in polls. Eduardo Campos, the governor of Pernambuco and the leader of the Brazilian Socialist Party (PSB), a former PT ally, is a strong contender on paper but 2014 may be too early for him. Marina Silva, the 2010 Green candidate who broke with the Green Party in 2011, was unable to have her new movement registered, forcing her to join the PSB and she will not be running.
Also worth following: presidential and congressional elections in Costa Rica (Feb. 2), Bolivia (late 2014) and Uruguay (Oct. 26 and Nov. 30).
European Union (Parliament): European elections will be held in all 28 member states of the EU between May 22 and 25. While turnout is low in most countries and many voters do not really understand the purposes of the election, EU elections are often interesting (and, for some countries, significant) tests of public opinion for European governments – given that voters, despite innumerable efforts to the contrary, still vote largely based on the national political situation and their party system. These elections are made more interesting given that the new Parliament will elect the EU Commission president based on recommendations from the European Council, itself taking into account the results of the election. The pan-European parties have or will nominate presidential candidates, some parties – like the European Greens – choosing to involve voters in the process through open primaries. The hope is that voters in the member states will take pan-European parties’ candidates into account when voting, but that seems rather unlikely.
If I will be closely following the elections it is because they are tests of public opinion in 28 countries, even if low turnout, proportional voting systems and the propensity for midterm ‘middle finger voting’ in EU elections makes them less than entirely reliable and ‘accurate’. Since the 2009 EU elections, many countries have since elected new governments (Portugal, Spain, France, the UK, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, Lithuania, Denmark, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta) – many of these governments – especially in the Iberian Peninsula, France, the UK, Ireland and Denmark – are now quite unpopular. Greece, Italy and the Czech Republic have seen huge changes in the party system since 2009, with Greek politics seemingly fundamentally realigned because of the economic crisis and Italy having seen a new party (Grillo’s M5S) rise in 2013. Each country will be worth watching, but some of the more interesting countries would probably be Spain, France, the UK, Ireland, Italy, Belgium and Greece (obviously!).
Belgium: Federal and regional elections will be held along with the EU elections in Belgium on May 25. Belgian politics have become famously unstable and polarized; after the June 2010 elections, a governing coalition was only formed in December 2011 and after a major constitutional reform which devolves powers to regions/communities, splits the contentious district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and turns the Senate into an unelected assembly of regional parliaments. Francophone Socialist Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo, at the helm of a coalition made up of the French/Walloon and Dutch/Flemish Socialist, Liberal and Catholic parties, has held the country together but little has changed politically – deadlock ahoy? In Wallonia, the historically dominant Socialists retain their usual sizeable lead over the liberal Reformist Movement (MR), which will be hurt in Francophone Brussels by the scission of the Fédéralistes Démocrates Francophones (FDF), a federalist and French-speakers’ lobby group which was a component of the MR until 2011. In Flanders, Antwerp mayor Bart De Wever’s New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), a Flemish nationalist party which became the largest party in Flanders and the whole of Belgium in 2010, becoming the main reason behind the 500+ day political deadlock. The N-VA continues to lead Flemish polls, with slightly increased support from 2010, and will likely re-emerge as the largest party in Flanders in the federal (and regional) elections. What this will mean for the government and the formation of a new one, only time will tell.
Scotland: A much-awaited and talked-about referendum on Scottish independence on September 18. While some thought that First Minister Alex Salmond would seek to hold a referendum which would include an option for full devolution short of independence (devo-max), Scottish voters will finally be asked a straight yes-no question – Should Scotland be an independent country? The current polling suggests that the no option retains plurality support and records double-digit leads over the yes in most polls. The yes option is stuck in the high 20s or low 30s. The real campaign, however, has not yet started and it’s possible that voting intentions may change as interest picks up and the campaigns kick off in earnest. Expect significant debate on issues such as an independent Scotland’s economic strength and viability, whether Scotland would remain a member of the EU and NATO without needing to re-apply in the case of independence and relations with the rest of the UK especially as it concerns currency or defense.
Sweden: Swedish elections are scheduled to be held on September 14. Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s centre-right coalition, led by his Moderate Party, will be hoping to win a third term in office, first elected in 2006. Voter fatigue, however, has set in. Reinfeldt is not particularly unpopular and his government’s record fairly decent by most accounts (but never devoid of controversy, naturally), but the right is criticized for lacking ideas for the future. The Social Democratic-led left-wing opposition, hampered by a poor campaign in 2010, have recovered some lost support under Stefan Löfvén’s surprisingly strong leadership of the party since 2012. The centre-right coalition is weakened by its two smallest parties, the Centre and Christian Democrats, hovering at or below the 4% threshold – if one or both of them fail to win seats in Parliament, it will be a bad blow to the right’s chances of winning reelection. The left may be hurt by concerns over the inclusion of the Left Party in a centre-left cabinet. However, the right began as underdogs in 2010 but won reelection (with a minority), meaning that this race shouldn’t be called early. On the far-right, the performance of the Sweden Democrats, which won their first seats in 2010, will be worth following. From 5.7% in 2010, they have increased their support in polls to 9%.
Hungary: Elections will be held in Hungary by June 30. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s conservative government, which has a two-thirds majority in the Parliament, has drawn widespread criticism – including from the EU – for a series of new laws and a new constitution which critics claim undermine judicial independence, freedom of the press, the independence of the central bank and the data protection office. For example, through a new media law the government intends to tighten regulation and control of most media sources, subjecting it to a regulatory body whose members are all nominated by the Parliament (and thus, the ruling party), all with the aim of strengthening domestic media sources which are mostly owned by allies of the ruling party. Although these trends are concerning, Hungary is not a ‘rogue state’ or authoritarian pariah. Viktor Orbán is likely to win reelection, although seemingly with a somewhat reduced majority. The main opposition party, the Socialists (MSZP) remain largely discredited and have suffered from several splits, as such they are hardly on a better footing than in 2010. Two former MSZP Prime Ministers will be competing with their own parties: Ferenc Gyurcsány (2004-2009, whose closed-door admission that he had been lying to Hungarians began the MSZP’s slow descent to hell) is leading the Democratic Coalition (DK) and Gordon Bajnai (2009-2010) is leading Together 2014.
France: Municipal elections will precede the EU elections in France, on March 23 and 30. These are the first nationwide political ‘test’ for President François Hollande’s deeply unpopular Socialist (PS) government. Many are expecting a vote sanction against the government, and the right (UMP) and far-right (FN) will be hoping to benefit from an anti-government ‘middle finger’ vote. However, if municipal elections in the past have clearly obeyed to national political mood swings (1977, 1983, 2008), the fact remains that municipal elections still follow different dynamics: many residents like their incumbent mayor regardless of partisan affiliation, many voters still claim to vote primarily based on local rather than national issues, candidate personality and strength matters a great deal and politics in small towns (less than 1,000 inhabitants) use a different electoral system and are almost always completely non-partisan and fully dependent on local factors. However, voters in the larger cities do tend to be less closely attached to ‘their’ mayors and they are the ones who often decide the national implications of the results. Yet, despite the government’s record high unpopularity, the PS remains favoured to hold Paris and Lyon and it even fancies its chances in France’s other major city – Marseille – where the performance of the far-right FN will be determinant. The UMP and its allies would like major cities such as Angers, Amiens, Metz, Reims, Strasbourg or Saint-Étienne to switch sides. The far-right’s performance will be closely followed; in 2008 the FN was at record lows, but now it stands at record highs as it might top the poll in the EU elections. The far-right has a tougher time in municipal elections, because of the difficulty of fielding complete lists in all towns, but it has done well in past local elections – most remarkably 1995, when it won Toulon (to lose it in a landslide in 2001). They will heavily target far-right hotspots including Marine Le Pen’s adopted homebase of Hénin-Beaumont, while in other towns their qualification for the runoff in three-way runoffs (triangulaires) may have unintended consequences, good and bad, for both the left and right. Expect thorough posts on these elections, and the EU elections in France, as they come up.
Catalonia: The Catalan government intends to hold a two-question referendum on the autonomous community’s political future on November 9. Voters, according to questions recently announced by the Catalan government, will be asked if they want Catalonia to be a ‘state’ and, if so, if they want this state to be independent. Unlike in Scotland, where the referendum will go ahead following a precedent-setting agreement between the Scottish government and the UK government, there is no such agreement in Spain. The Catalan government, led by the increasingly nationalist-separatist centre-right Convergence and Union (CiU) and backed by the left-wing separatist Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), has been locked in a war of words and thinly-veiled threats with the Spanish government, led by the conservative and anti-nationalist Popular Party (PP). Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, backed by the main opposition party in Spain, the Socialists (PSOE), considers the referendum to be illegal and vows it will not go ahead. If Spain did allow the vote to go ahead, it would mark an historic (and dangerous, in Madrid’s eyes) precedent which might be used by nationalists in the Basque Country and other ‘peripheral nationalist’ communities to seek independence. If it did go ahead, furthermore, polling indicates that – unlike in Scotland – a majority of Catalan voters would vote yes on both questions and open up a constitutional crisis of gigantic proportions. As such, don’t expect this referendum to go ahead legally, but the issue is on the table and a referendum is now a matter of political debate. Where will this take Catalonia and Spain?
Also worth following: local elections in Greece (May 18), England and Northern Ireland (May 22), presidential elections in Macedonia, Slovakia (March), Lithuania (May) and Romania (November), and legislative elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina (Oct. 5) and Moldova (by November).
Asia and Oceania
Turkey: There will be local elections on March 30 followed by the first direct presidential elections in August. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) has ruled the country since 2002, benefiting from the absence of a viable alternative to the AKP. The Turkish economy has done well under AKP government, and the country has gained a more prominent rule in regional and European politics. However, Erdoğan has faced criticism for his authoritarian style, and his government’s socially conservative and Islamist policies have flown in the face of the country’s old secular elite and the military. In June 2013, the government faced unexpectedly large popular protests, which began in late May as a local protest in Istanbul over the government’s redevelopment of a popular park, but which quickly became a large-scale protest against the government’s authoritarianism and restriction of civil liberties and basic freedoms. The government cracked down on the protests, leading to charges of police brutality. Only days ago, in December, the sons of three cabinet ministers along with other public officials were arrested in a bribery investigation. Erdoğan, who seems to see sinister conspiracies all around him, responded by sacking top police chiefs. The three ministers whose sons were arrested, including the interior and economic ministers, resigned on December 25, very critical of Erdoğan. These two events mark a turning point for the AKP, the first significant setbacks for the increasingly powerful ruling party. This makes the local elections open ended. Erdoğan will likely run for president as he may not run for a fourth term as Prime Minister in 2015 due to party by-laws, and Erdoğan’s goal is to transform Turkey in a presidential rather than parliamentary republic. The elections will test whether the opposition, a rag-tag and uninspiring bunch, have been able to benefit from the protests or the corruption arrests.
Iraq: Legislative elections are scheduled to be held in Iraq on April 30. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has been in power since 2006, will be seeking a third term – an attempt by his opponents to pass a law banning him from running for a third term was overturned. Maliki, a politician from the Iraqi Shi’a majority, has been accused of seeking to consolidate his power at the expense of the Sunni majority, the dominant political elite under Saddam Hussein. In December 2011, the Iraqi security forces issued an arrest warrant for Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, a senior Sunni politician, on charges that he was running a death squad. Although he fled to Turkey, he was sentenced to death in absentia. In December 2012, a raid on the home of Sunni finance minister Rufi al-Issawi kicked off large Sunni anti-government protests. The insurgency and sectarian violence worsened in 2013, which was the bloodiest year since 2008 with about 8,500 deaths according to independent estimates. Maliki’s Shi’a State of Law coalition won provincial elections held in April 2013, although with slightly less seats than in 2009. Iraqi politics remain very sectarian; within the Shi’a majority, Maliki’s coalition faces competition from Shi’a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sadrist Movement, and Ammar al-Hakim’s Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq.
India: The largest democracy in the world will hold massive general elections sometime during the spring. The Congress-led alliance (UPA) has governed the country since 2004, and while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is generally appreciated but ineffectual, the Congress finds itself in a difficult position ahead of the 2014 elections. Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement, which began in 2011, has undermined the government and galvanized the public’s interest in the issue. Economic growth is low, inflation is low and joblessness is high. Investors often charge that economic growth is being hampered by the government’s reluctance or inability to reform the economy and allow for more foreign direct investment. Indeed, the government’s reformist attempts have often been held down by the INC’s venal allies who often have little interest in economic reform and far more interest in protecting their turf. The Congress, led by Sonia Gandhi and her lacklustre son Rahul Gandhi, offers little in the way of inspiring policy. The favourite to succeed the Congress would be Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate of a right-wing alliance (NDA) led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Modi’s economic record in Gujarat is rather good (but critics point out poverty and human development remain huge issues), but he has a nasty past in fuelling ethnic violence in Gujarat and his promotion of an often chauvinistic and exclusive brand of Hindu nationalism. Modi, however, has tried to soften his image and has strong backing from the business community; and he’s a strong campaigner popular with his own party. The BJP was handed a major boost in state elections whose results were announced on December 8: the BJP defeated incumbent INC governments in Rajasthan and Delhi, easily held Madhya Pradesh and held back an INC offensive in Chhattisgarh. In Delhi, the elections resulted in a hung parliament, with a new anti-corruption movement, the Aam Aadmi Party, winning 28 seats to the BJP’s 32 and Congress’ disastrous 8. However, a BJP government torn apart by corruption and infighting in the southern state of Karnataka badly lost reelection to a surging Congress.
Indian federal politics, however, remain a complex game of ever-evolving state-by-state alliances. Some states have their own party systems, in which the BJP and/or Congress are both weak. There are regionalist parties, parties with a defined regional base and national parties without a presence in some states. The BJP recently lost the backing of the Janata Dal (United), a party led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. Some polls, notoriously flawed and unreliable in a country like India, have suggested that parties outside the two main alliances may hold a plurality of seats between themselves, forcing both main alliances to buy the support of the smaller parties.
Afghanistan: Presidential elections are due to be held in Afghanistan on April 5, and President Hamid Karzai – who has been in power since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001 – is ineligible for reelection. The three major candidates appear to be Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Qayyum Karzai. Abdullah, a former foreign minister and close friend of the late Northern Alliance rebel leader Ahmad Shah Masoud, lost the 2009 presidential election to Karzai, officially taking 30.6% in the first round, marred by serious allegations of large-scale fraud and vote rigging in Karzai’s favour. Since then, he has been the main opponent of the outgoing president. Ashraf Ghani, an economist and academic who lived in exile in the west for decades before returning to Afghanistan to serve as finance minister from 2002 to 2004. Ghani ran in the 2009 election and was perceived as being the most pro-US candidate; he received only 2.9%. Qayyum Karzai is one of President Karzai’s brothers, who, like his siblings, is a controversial businessman-politician embroiled in several corruption scandals.
Thailand: To counter a rising protest movement, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved the House and called for elections on February 2. The protests, which began in November, are the latest in a series of protests in Thailand’s famously polarized politics. This time, the protesters are the ‘yellow shirts’ – conservative (often proto-fascist) monarchists drawn from the country’s elites and often counting on the tacit support of Thailand’s politicized military. They oppose Yingluck, a political newcomer who is the sister of exiled and deposed Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra – a business magnate whose social policies made him the hero of northeastern Thailand’s impoverished masses but whose corruption, authoritarianism and populism made him the sworn enemy of the yellow shirts. The military overthrew him in a 2006 coup which defines Thai politics to this day. Yellow shirts protested a pro-Thaksin elected government in 2008, pro-Thaksin ‘red shirts’ protested against a militarily-sanctioned opposition government in 2010. Yingluck called the election to catch the yellows, supported by the Democrat Party – the main conservative opposition force – unprepared and call their bluff. The opposition and yellows, knowing that they would not win an election anymore than in 2011 or 2007, will boycott the election. But don’t read this as a sign that the yellows are conceding victory. Their leader, who is also a senior Democrat politician, Suthep Thaugsuban, wants an unelected governing council to replace Yingluck as a transitional measure. Unofficially, the yellows are banking on a military coup. On December 27, a military commander did not rule out a coup. This could follow a cycle similar to that in April 2006: Thaksin called for elections, the opposition boycotted them, polarization and political violence deepened and the military intervened in September 2006.
Indonesia: Another heavily populated Asian democracy, Indonesia, holds legislative elections on April 9 followed by presidential elections on July 9 (with a possible runoff in September). President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in office since 2004, may not run for reelection. Since 2004, SBY, as he is referred to, has presided over a period of rapid economic growth which made Indonesia a booming country. However, the last year has been tougher for his administration, as the economy slowed down (from 6.2% to 5.3% GDP growth) and the administration faced questions over its inability to upgrade infrastructure, reform inefficient bureaucracy, tackle widespread corruption and ill-managed decentralization. The President’s party, the Democratic Party, is heavily trailing in the polls and does not seem to have a clear presidential frontrunner of its own. The April legislative elections will determine who is able to run in July, because candidates need to be backed by a party or a coalition thereof which won over 20% of the vote. For the moment, the two main candidates for the presidency are Prabowo Subianto and Joko Widodo. Prabowo is a former special forces commander and the son-in-law of former President Suharto, Indonesia’s authoritarian strongman between 1967 and 1998. He is alleged to have played a role in the disappearance of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s. Prabowo, who heads a small party, Gerindra, which won only 4.5% in the 2009 legislative elections, is a populist and lashes out at the political ‘elites’ and corruption. He is currently trailing in polls, however, to Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta since September 2012. A relatively young politician at 52, Jokowi – as he’s known – is untied to the old political Suharto-era leadership and he has a record as an efficient and transparent administration, as mayor and since 2012 as governor (he defeated Fauzi Bowo, the incumbent governor backed by the president’s party). Jokowi, who would be backed by the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle – one of the three main parties – isn’t confirmed as a candidate, as he will need to face down a potential challenge from former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Indonesia’s first President who served between 2001 and 2004. Leaving a mediocre impression, she lost reelection to SBY in 2004 and lost the 2009 election as well.
New Zealand: Voters in New Zealand will go to the polls near the end of 2014, likely in November. Prime Minister John Key’s conservative National Party remain far ahead of the main opposition, the Labour Party. Key has performed, by most accounts, generally well since winning reelection in 2011 – the economy is strong, there are no crippling scandals attached to the government and Labour has struggled in opposition. However, he has faced a few problems: he was personally criticized for allowing illegal spying by the intelligence services on Kim Dotcom, the founder of Megaupload. The government’s mixed ownership model, a plan to partially privatize (49%) of four state-owned energy companies and sell off part of the government’s share in Air New Zealand (from 74% to 51%), has been rather controversial. In December, the government suffered a setback on mixed ownership when 67% of voters voted against the model in a citizens-initiated referendum. Labour has picked itself up, a bit, from a disastrous showing in 2011 – its worst result since the 1920s – but it struggled through one leader before finally choosing a new one, David Cunliffe, in September 2013. The National Party leads Labour by about ten points, and remains high in the polls (mid-40s). However, Key may have trouble finding allies for a new government after the election: both of his junior partners may lose their sole seats, and a Labour-Green coalition may hold a majority of seats, especially if Winston Peters’ populist NZ First fails to return to Parliament (it is consistently polling under 5%, but it was underestimated in 2011).
Also worth following: Australian state elections in Southern Australia (March 15), Tasmania (before June), and Victoria (Nov. 29), legislative elections in Bangladesh (Jan. 5) and Lebanon (by October).
South Africa: The fifth democratic elections since the fall of apartheid, the 2014 South African elections (likely in April) mark the twentieth anniversary of multi-racial democracy in the country and they are, symbolically, the first election in which the ‘born free’ generation – children born after 1994 – will be eligible to vote. These elections will probably be the country’s most exciting elections since 1994. President Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress (ANC), the dominant party since 1994, remains the favourite and will almost certainly win another absolute majority. However, the ANC finds itself seriously weakened by corruption, failures at service delivery, incompetent or inefficient administration and deficient infrastructure and social services. President Zuma himself is in hot water with a continuing scandal over taxpayer-funded upgrades at his Nkandla homestead, upgrades which included – among other lavish expenses for personal use – a swimming pool. The opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) made gains in the 2011 local government elections and will likely make gains in 2014 as well, but the DA still remains perceived as too much of a white party for its own good, despite attempts to promote new (and generally talented) black leaders. The ANC faces a new challenge from two new parties expected to draw black voters from the ANC. Mamphela Ramphele, a former anti-apartheid activist (she was the life partner of Black Conciousness leader Steve Biko, killed by the apartheid regime) and one-time Managing Director at the World Bank, created a new party – Agang – in February 2013, which has been criticized for being extremely vague as to its policies. A more serious threat will be Julius Malema’s new Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party; Malema is a former ANC Youth League leader known for his fiery, nationalist and left-wing populist rhetoric which have won him unsympathetic comparisons to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. EFF directly challenges the ANC for hitherto reliably ANC voters in poor black townships and rural areas.
I hope to write a massive guide to South African history and politics before the election.
Also worth following: presidential and/or general elections in Algeria (April), Mozambique (Oct. 15) and Namibia (November), legislative elections in Botswana (by October), constituent assembly elections in Libya (February) and constitutional referendum in Egypt (Jan. 14-15).
Which elections are you most excited for in 2014?
2013’s Top 10
As in the past three years, I wrap up 2013 with a subjective reflection on the 10 most significant elections of the past twelve months. In 2010, the United States and the United Kingdom topped the list; in 2011, Egypt and Canada topped the list while in 2012 Greece and Egypt ranked first and second.
These rankings are all subjective and there many different criterion for establishing these rankings. As with my past rankings, my primary benchmark was determining to what an extent any election could/would have an important effect on the short or long-term future of the country or, in rarer cases, the broader region. I do not feel that an election is necessarily significant merely because an incumbent party or individual was tossed out of office, given that there is no shortage of such elections which turn out to be merely anti-incumbent mood swings which ultimately have only a limited long-term or even short-term impact on the country. Similarly, it is easy to label many elections as “realigning elections” at the spur of the moment, but real realigning elections – in my opinion – remain rare occurrences. Most elections which we call realigning elections turn out to be deviating elections down the road – as the next Canadian and Irish elections may show.
Of course, not all elections (especially in the short time frame of 12 months) – far from it – can be said to have changed a country, therefore my secondary criteria was how ‘interesting’ any given election turned out to be. An election whose outcome was decided months in advance and whose actual results were only of limited interest to a foreign casual observer were not ‘interesting’, but elections – even if not all that significant – which were closely fought or whose results turned out to be surprising can count as ‘interesting’. However, being ‘interesting’ is not enough for any given election to be included in this ranking.
I give priority to national elections, but sub-national elections and by-electionsf were taken into consideration.
Once again, establishing this subjective top 10 ranking was quite difficult. There were a lot of elections for which a very strong case could be made that they deserved inclusion on this list. This ranking is subjective, it is based on my own personal opinions and evaluations on the importance of each election. I welcome debate, disagreements and alternative rankings. Your votes in my poll and your individual comments were taken into consideration and helped me establish some of the rankings.
1. Italy: Perhaps my last post, summarizing 2013 in Italian politics, might have been a major give-away as to my choice for the gold medal in 2013. I am unsure of whether the February 24-25 legislative election in Italy should be called a realigning election, but I am confident that it will nonetheless mark the beginning of a realigning period in Italian politics. The election saw the fall of a traditionally stable left-right party system which had prevailed in Italy, with some exceptions but without any significant external opposition from the centre or far-left, since 1994 and the rise of the ‘Second Republic’ era in Italian politics. Given that this left-right system, widespread outside of Italy, also masked a political system polarized around one man – Silvio Berlusconi, this change is clearly significant.
A new force, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, became the single largest party and the third largest bloc in the new Italian Parliament. Even if Grillo may turn out to be a flash in the pan and ultimately have little long-term impact on Italian politics, the Grillo phenomenon will leave its mark on Italy’s political history and is also of importance in a broader European context. Grillo’s dramatic emergence, coming out of relative obscurity (politically speaking) and rising to nearly 25% of the vote in the space of a year, represented a protest vote against Italy’s corrupt, incompetent, inefficient and gerontocratic political elites (la casta), economic recession, austerity policies and a demand for major political change. Corruption, inefficiency, incompetence, austerity, recession and outdated and aging political leadership isn’t common to Italy, and those are issues which form part of the appeal for populist parties, on the left and right, in other countries in Europe and around the world. However, Grillo does stand out in his style and political communication/marketing from other populist parties, which in Europe are often on the far-right. Grillo communicated his message using a time-honoured form (personal charisma) but also through much newer means – the internet and social media. Grillo continues to lead his party from outside the ‘parasitical’ Parliament, from his blog, and the M5S – which until recently strictly banned its members from communicating through television – has made very heavy use of new(er) technologies – the internet and social media – to mobilize supporters, organize political rallies, decide on policy matters (to a certain extent, it must be emphasized that Grillo is not a shining example of direct democracy), reach out to potential sympathizers and voters, and rile up emotions. Given Grillo’s boycott of television and his lower presence in traditional media (newspapers), his political power in 2013 was entirely the result of his ability to combine traditional, personal forms of political appeal/power (charisma/charismatic legitimacy) with new forms of appeal.
At the same time, 2013 likely signals the beginning of the end for Silvio Berlusconi, the business tycoon who has been ‘the issue’ in Italian politics since 1994. Although Berlusconi did better than anyone expected in the election, coming so close to actually winning (which few would have imagined a few months before the election), the aftermath of the election likely signal that Berlusconi’s time as the central icon of Italian politics is drawing to a close. In August, the man who prided himself on being drawn to court so often but never having been found definitely guilty in any case, was finally sentenced to a prison sentence and banned from public office. Although Berlusconi will not go to jail and only serve one year of community service, his sentencing – a first – is a watershed in Italian politics. In November, Berlusconi was expelled from the Senate under a law which will ban from holding any public office for the next six years – ending a parliamentary career which began nearly 20 years ago. While Berlusconi will certainly remain a significant force in Italian politics in the coming years, he will be forced to do so from outside the halls of Parliament or any public office. Given that Berlusconi had established himself as the lider maximo of the Italian right since 1994, crushing all potential rivals and overly ambitious ‘anointed successors’ (the latest one, Gianfranco Fini, saw his political career and dreams of leading a post-Berlusconi refoundation of the Italian right ended in the election), his two setbacks in 2013 are very significant. Berlusconi is neither invincible nor eternal, and his gradual withdrawal from the forefront of politics in Italy will mean a certain realignment, especially on the right. This is something which some of Berlusconi’s hitherto most loyal allies have begun realizing this year. Angelino Alfano, a dauphin of the old leader, broke with Berlusconi in November. Although Alfano has been careful not to fall into Fini’s trap and break all bonds with Berlusconi (his mentor), he is young enough to realize that his own career will probably outlive Berlusconi and that there is a world beyond the old Berlusconian dominance of the right. It remains to be seen if Alfano will be another Gianfranco Fini, or if he will be able to be the one leading the post-Berlusconi transformation of a right which remains largely dependent on Berlusconi.
2013 also signals a generational shift in Italian politics, the rise of a new political elite. Sure, an 88-year old president was re-elected in extremis, and Berlusconi (77) is not going away overnight. But a new generation is reaching the apex of power: Enrico Letta, the Prime Minister, is only 46 years old. Matteo Renzi, the new leader of the main centre-left party, the PD, is only 38. Renzi has built his career by denouncing the old elites, vowing to ‘scrap’ them and end the immobility, inefficiency, corruption and incompetence associated with these old elites. The Grillo phenomenon elected over 100 new parliamentarians, almost all of them political novices with little to no experience and drawn from various age groups and social categories. Visceral and bitter opposition to the old political class (la casta) was at the core of Grillo’s radical anti-establishment appeal.
In short, 2013 was an extremely consequential and likely historic year for Italy. The next election will be even more exciting and determinant, but 2013 has clearly begun the realignment process and set the scene for an historic showdown, under a new electoral law with a new generation of leaders, in the next election.
2. Iran: In a very close second behind Italy, Iran’s presidential election (in June) was very significant. Hassan Rouhani, a moderate cleric, emerged as the surprise (landslide) winner of an election which most people expected would be won by a conservative loyal to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The actual significance of Rouhani’s election may be a matter of debate. The Iranian president has relatively little power and is expected to respect the primacy of the Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, who is the one with the hard power as the man behind the armed forces, the political institutions, the judiciary and the ultimate ‘gatekeeper’ controlling access to politics. Still, the President has significant soft power, stature as Iran’s public face to the world, and actual influence/direct power over economic and domestic policies.
Rouhani’s first moves in office have been welcomed by Western countries, and signal a break from the international ostracism which marked the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (2005-2013). From a rhetorical point of view, Rouhani has spoken in support of women’s rights, less censorship, greater press freedoms and improving Iran’s relation with the world – particularly the United States. In late November 2013, Iranian negotiators reached an interim agreement with international partners (European, American, Chinese, Russian) on Iran’s nuclear program after long talks in Geneva, which will freeze key parts of Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief. Although Israel, Democrats and Republican lawmakers in the US Congress, pro-Israel lobbies in the US and Canada have expressed scepticism or outright opposition to the plan, it remains a tentative step forward in peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue. The deal does remain an interim solution preluding more definite negotiations, and the US will not be dropping sanctions any time soon – but the White House opposes any new sanctions, as many in Congress are demanding, as a threat to Iran if no agreement is reached in the six-month window. Regardless of what comes through, Rouhani’s early moves represent a break from the Ahmadinejad, and a much more constructive engagement with the international community. Tehran is pressed to reach an agreement by the weight of international, US-led sanctions on Iran which have had a severe impact on the economy.
Earlier, in September, Rouhani and Barack Obama talked on the phone, the highest level of engagement between the two countries since the Shah was overthrown in 1979. Rouhani and Javad Zarif, the foreign minister, have both made active use of English Twitter accounts to publicize Tehran’s diplomatic policies or the president’s more ‘modern’ appeal to younger Iranians (pictures of him jogging without his cleric robes, re-tweeting a YouTube video mash-up for his 100 days).
There are some who argue that the significance of this election is being overstated. Beyond the rhetoric, the Iranian press is not significantly freer than in the past and opponents of the regime are still being arrested and executed by authorities. Rouhani does not have absolute control over the direction of Iranian politics, especially on foreign policy and nuclear issues, and conservatives hostile to an agreement still hold significant power (if not control) in Iranian institutions, including the military and Revolutionary Guard (IRGC). These institutions previously thwarted reformist President Mohammed Khatami’s agenda and destroyed the reformist movement after 2003-2004. Conservatives opposed to Rouhani’s moderate policies, for example, demonstrated with anti-American slogans in Tehran after Rouhani’s phone conversation with Obama. Rouhani should not be considered as a reformist or ‘liberal’ who is willing to scrap Iran’s cherished but controversial nuclear program, which is an issue of consensus across the Iranian political leadership, and there are certain aspects of the (civilian) nuclear program on which Tehran will not compromise. Finally, a few observers believed in June that Rouhani was handpicked by Ali Khamenei to be a ‘moderate’ leader who would improve Iran’s international reputation, break some of the crippling sanctions and give the outward appearance of moderation and reform all the while securing Khamenei’s power and not challenging the clerical primacy in politics (which Ahmadinejad had challenged after 2009, leading to his isolation by the Supreme Leader).
However, while keeping these considerations in mind, we should not be overly cynical and dismissive of the Iranian election’s consequences. This is an election which may have major regional consequences, a rare outcome of any election. Even if we are more dismissive, this election, from a domestic standpoint, marks a break with the Ahmadinejad era, associated with a terrible record of civil rights abuses, unprecedented isolation, sanctions, an economy in shambles and a feud with Khamenei. Rouhani, who promised democratization, international engagement and economic recovery, was able to appeal to a wide base of disgruntled and disillusioned reformists, moderate conservatives and depoliticized Iranians welcoming change and a way out of the Ahmadinejad impasse. Weighing these two viewpoints, I chose to place Iran second, behind Italy – whose significance, while perhaps less important to the wider region, is not as debatable.
3. Venezuela: The death of Venezuela’s emblematic president, Hugo Chávez, on March 5 led to an early presidential election in April, only a few months after Chávez was reelected to another term in office by a comfortable margin in October 2012. The significance of Chávez’s death needs not be underlined any further; the man, for better or worse, had a huge impact on Venezuela and Latin America in the first decade of the 21st century and his death opened a political void and era of uncertainty in Venezuelan but also Latin American politics. Can chavismo function with Chávez? The April 2013 election was to answer that question.
Chávez’s anointed successor and Vice President (but only since October 2012), Nicolás Maduro, was the one who would carry the chavista burden in the election. Maduro was expected to win by a wide margin on the back of a sympathy vote for Chávez, but instead he ended up winning (or ‘winning’, some say) by only 1.8%. Henrique Capriles, the opposition candidate in 2012 and again in the early election, won about 49% of the vote, has managed to shake off the opposition’s association with the discredited and loathed ‘neoliberal’, ‘imperialist’ and coupist figures of the past and present himself as a young, modern and reformist figure who is not entirely dismissive of Chávez’s mixed legacy. Maduro, despite campaigning quasi-entirely on Chávez’s legacy (transforming chavismo into a secular religion), was unable to catch on to any sympathy votes for Chávez. The election led to serious concerns of fraud and violent protests by pro and anti-government activists leading to nine deaths, but Capriles finally backed down and grudgingly accepted his official ‘defeat’. Capriles backing down and acquiescing to the government’s results and audit process was criticized by some opposition members. At the same time, Maduro’s narrow victory made him vulnerable to rivals within his own party, led by Diosdado Cabello.
Maduro, understanding that he lacked Chávez’s legitimacy, has since moved to cement his power and establish his own legitimacy within his own party and with the wider electorate. The media continues to be tightly controlled by the state, the National Assembly has granted Maduro special decree powers and the government is leading an ‘economic war’ with the occupation and confiscation of private businesses, confiscation of consumer goods (recently TVs and electro-domestic appliances), 50-70% price discounts, new regulations on rent in shopping centres, state control of imports. These policies are part of the government’s attempts to control galloping inflation (54% in November), although these measures are widely seen as attacks on the consequences rather than causes of inflation, and as a means by the government to blame business owners and private companies for the country’s growing economic woes (rather than take responsibility for their own actions). These radical populist policies have reinforced, for the time being, Maduro’s standing. In early December, the governing party won the municipal elections by a larger margin than in April, building a 6.5-point majority over the opposition coalition. However, the opposition retained control of many of the largest cities, including the Metropolitan District of Caracas.
However, for many the government’s policies will be successful only in the short-term, as they will lead to shortages and will ultimately have no effect on inflation which is largely the result of the government’s economic mismanagement and falls in oil revenue/production rather than the ‘parasitical bourgeoisie’ and private sector ‘usury’. An op-ed in El País aptly called the municipal elections a Pyrrhic victory for Maduro. Indeed, they only confirm that Venezuela after Chávez is more unpredictable than ever. The electorate is closely divided and extremely polarized, the rhetoric and political climate is bitter and dialogue effectively impossible. As in the past, the government has moved to squeeze opposition-controlled municipalities of the bulk of their powers, setting up ‘parallel’ governments run by loyalists or transferring their responsibilities to the central government. The opposition remains focused on the 2015 legislative elections, in which it hopes to benefit from a bad economy to gain control of the National Assembly, and impeach Maduro in 2016.
All in all, Chávez’s death and the contested April presidential elections have opened a new era in Venezuelan politics: chavismo without Chávez; with a fragile and insecure government resorting to populist ‘economic war’ policies to legitimize itself; a strong and determined opposition but with its own challenges in a difficult environment; a competitive and polarized electoral process; and great uncertainty as to what the future holds. These new dynamics may weaken Venezuela’s influence in the regional context, with Cuba itself moving in an opposite direction than Caracas (with limited liberalization of their highly-controlled economy) and an opportunity for erstwhile ‘junior chavistas‘ such as Rafael Correa or Evo Morales to gain greater influence over regional geopolitics. Correa, strengthened by a landslide re-election in early 2013, has already given indications that he fancies himself as Chávez’s regional successor.
4. Germany: I certainly had a tough time placing this election somewhere. On the one hand, Germany is clearly one of the most important countries in Europe and German politics have a major impact on the EU and European politics – especially in the current situation. But on the other hand, this election was, in the end, rather uneventful and will little significance either for the direction of the EU/European politics or Germany itself. In this vein, Germany 2013 is similar to the 2012 US election. I had placed the American election third – important country, but an election with little change to the status quo. Granted, unlike US 2012, the German election wasn’t entirely status quo pro ante: Angela Merkel remains as Chancellor, but in a coalition with the Social Democrats rather than the liberal Free Democrats. Domestically, this will likely mean a slightly more leftist direction on social policies: the Grand Coalition agreement with the SPD includes agreement on a €8.5 legal minimum wage beginning in 2015, full equality of same-sex civil unions, a gender quota for certain leadership posts – all SPD promises, but on the other hand, the SPD has agreed to drop its demands for higher taxes on high-incomes, restrictions in CEO salaries and they will agree to a general toll for the highways.
However, I still foresee relatively little change to the status quo. This election would have been highly significant if it had brought major changes in Germany’s policies on the Eurocrisis and European economic management, but of course there will be none of that. The SPD is in little position, after a weak result, to demand much concessions from Merkel who was the only winner of the election with 41.5% of the vote, up nearly 8% on the 2009 election. Angela Merkel, furthermore, has shown herself to be a very strong and smart politician in the past years: pragmatic, fence-sitting, a propensity for policy U-turns to adapt to the public opinion and above all a proven ability to steam-roll her coalition partners. Merkel’s triumph, noted as one of the few victories by an incumbent head of government in the EU in the past few years, is not insignificant – but is the reelection of an incumbent with a good economic record (or one perceived as good) all that surprising or significant?
The liberal FDP, so strong after the 2009 election, failed to achieve anything in a black-yellow coalition with Merkel. They paid the heavy price for failing to leave their mark on Merkel’s second term, and they were crushed. With 4.8% of the vote, down nearly 10 points, they are now shut out of the Bundestag. That’s one of the most significant and important events of this election. For the first time since the creation of the Federal Republic, the FDP will have no seats in the lower house. This might lead to a significant realignment of German politics, with the disappearance of the liberal third party which had played such an important role in German politics since 1949. However, I would still shy away from sensationalism. Nothing proves that the FDP is gone for good, especially given that a Grand Coalition might alienate some right-wing voters from the CDU, sending them off to the FDP, as it happened between 2005 and 2009. However, the second significant aspect of this election is the rise of a new party, the eurosceptic AfD party, which won 4.7% and nearly qualified for seats in the Bundestag. In the long-term, the potential emergence of an eurosceptic party hostile to the euro in a country seen as the driving force between the EU might be significant. But the AfD’s room for growth appears limited.
5. Chile (and second round): This ranking might surprise many, and it will either prove to be either hopelessly foolish and naive or incredibly foretelling (likely the former). This election, clearly, isn’t on the list because it was particularly interesting. Former President Michelle Bachelet won a second non-consecutive term in office in an election marked by low turnout and very little suspense as to the outcome of the presidential ballot (which she won with over 62% in the second round). If you wanted suspense or excitement, this wasn’t the election to follow. However, I am willing to stick my head out here and hail this election as significant in the long-term. In a way, it might be similar to Mexico’s election last year (which I ranked fifth) – not particularly interesting at the time, not a surprising result by any stretch of the imagination but an election which may have long-term significance even if we might not have expected it at the time.
I would argue that the 2013 election (rather than 2009-2010) might signal the final end of ‘transition era’ politics in Chile. It was, granted, the victory of a former president whose presidency while successful was of little long-term impact, and she was supported by a coalition largely made up of old parties at the core of the transition era politics. However, the context in which she returned and the form in which she returned is what is significant. The past three years in Chile have been marked by some of the largest protests since the democratic transition itself, organized by social movements – students at the forefront – independent from and rather distrustful of the established traditional coalitions of the right and centre-left. These protests, especially the massive student movement, symbolized a popular challenge to the neoliberal economic consensus which had prevailed since the Pinochet dictatorship and continued throughout 23 years of democratic politics by both centre-left and centre-right governments. Economic growth, as outgoing president Sebastián Piñera learned the hard way since 2010, is no longer sufficient for an electorate which is increasingly concerned by major social inequalities and inefficient and sub-par education or pensions. This is the first major popular challenge to the economic consensus which allowed Chile to become one of Latin America’s most successful economies but which came at the price of huge inequalities and deep problems in education, healthcare or pensions.
The candidates responded to this challenge, and the tone of the campaign and candidates’ platform was quite stunningly different from that of past years. Most candidates demanded a constituent assembly to write a new constitution to replace the one adopted by Pinochet in 1980. Some candidates proposed the re-nationalization of copper, the reawakening of a sensitive issue in Chile. All but one candidate supported free post-secondary education and significant educational reforms, another break with the economic model of the past decades which had promoted a free-market educational system and allowed it to run wild. Bachelet might not have taken the most radical stances and her platform supported reforms at a gradual, incremental pace rather than revolutionary break; but she still advocated for free education, a substantial tax reform and a new constitution (while short on details as to how she would bring it about). Bachelet will find implementing her promises difficult, given the nature of the Chilean political system. But as I said in my conclusions on the runoff – even if she’s not able to accomplish most of it, there are new ideas and views ingrained in the political debate which will be tough to root out.
Within both old coalitions, there are clear changes. On the centre-left, the old Concertación coalition, which ruled from 199o t0 2010 but which became associated, at the end, with inaction and a dearth of ideas, repackaged itself as the Nueva Mayoría – an expanded coalition, markedly more left-leaning, which now includes the Communist Party (one of the major winners of 2013) and smaller left-wing parties. The Christian Democrats, once the driving force in the Concertación, is still the largest party in the heterogeneous coalition but the perceived leftist shift of the coalition and the loss of a few longtime Christian Democratic leaders in Congress shook up the party, which fears it may have lost its predominance over the centre-left. The right suffered an historic defeat, leaving it four years to lick its wounds and rebuild after a bloody defeat. It nominated an old-timer associated at least a bit with the Pinochet regime, but after her defeat there is rising pressure on the right from younger generations to rebuild. The power of the right’s two parties is being challenged, and there is rising incentive for generational change and renewal – breaking from ‘1988 politics’ and Pinochet’s legacy.
The 2013 elections in Chile also signal the beginnings of a generational change. Four student leaders – including the ‘face’ of the 2011 protests, Communist Camila Vallejo – were elected to Congress while older names in Chilean politics were defeated.
Even the low turnout was significant in itself, in the first presidential election with voluntary voting and automatic registration. It shows deep-seated dissatisfaction, apathy, disillusionment and scepticism about democratic institutions’ ability to affect real change, 23 years after the triumph of democracy. The new politicians will need to face this challenge head-on. Chile, despite an uneventful election, might finally end the transition era of politics once and far all, inaugurating a new political system – far more unpredictable.
6. Czech Republic: The Czech Republic saw two important elections this year: the first direct presidential elections in January, and early legislative elections in October. Both elections may prove to have significant consequences on the country’s political system. The direct presidential election and its victor, Miloš Zeman, strengthens the presidency in a theoretically parliamentary republic. Zeman, for example, intervened directly in the political crisis which led to the early elections by naming a close ally as caretaker Prime Minister (who failed to receive the legislature’s confidence) and fermented factional warfare within the largest party, the Social Democrats. The legislative elections saw the political system which had been in place since the late 1990s completely destroyed. The Civic Democrats, hitherto the main right-wing party, were obliterated as a result of a struggling economy, unpopular austerity but above all corruption – culminating in a crazy corruption scandal involving the then-Prime Minister, his chief of staff-mistress, military intelligence, his ex-wife and illegal surveillance.
The decrepitude of the political system, badly undermined by countless corruption scandals and the incompetence of governments, has created a public receptive to populist parties, mostly on the right, proclaiming the need to clean up the political system and bring new leadership (often businessmen) into politics. The last legislative elections in 2010 had foreshadowed this year’s election, with the two main parties of the centre-left and centre-right each doing extremely poorly, with a new anti-corruption party (which turned out to be extremely corrupt) doing very well. This year, the Social Democrats placed first but with barely 20.5%, even lower than in 2010. The Civic Democrats placed fifth with barely 7.7% of the vote, and they were surpassed by a new right-wing populist party and their former junior coalition partner, the more liberal TOP 09. Populist parties did very well; ANO 2011, a new party led by businessman Andrej Babiš placed second with 18.7% and will play a key role in the next government, likely to be led by the Social Democrats. Úsvit, a new populist party (keen on direct democracy) led by Czech-Japanese businessman/senator Tomio Okamura won 7%. Together, these two right-leaning populist forces, both new creations, won 25.5%. Another populist force, albeit much different, older and more traditional. the largely unreformed Communists won 15% and third place, although it was not their best result.
The Czech elections reflected, far and above anything else, voters’ deep-seated dissatisfaction (and outright anger) with with the political system. For the time being, Czech politics are in a state of flux and uncertainty. It is very unclear whether the two traditional parties will reemerge as the leading forces, whether the new populists like ANO will entrench themselves or prove flash in the pans, whether Babiš will become the Czech Berlusconi as some have predicted and which role the president will play in Czech politics in the future? In short, it’s unclear whether this election will be a realigning or deviating election, and whether it will have long-term significance for Czech politics.
7. Australia: Australia, like Germany, is another important country but I have a tough time seeing the 2013 Australian election as hugely significant. An incumbent government was defeated, and Tony Abbott’s new Liberal-National Coalition government represents a clear shift to the right on issues such as climate change, energy, immigration/asylum seekers, fiscal policy and same-sex marriage. However, the election was more Labor’s defeat than the Coalition’s victory. It’s already clear that Labor isn’t dead and that this is only a temporary and usual defeat for them, and they may be back as early as the next election if Abbott’s extremely short honeymoon is any indication.
What makes this election interesting is the events which preceded it. Since Labor won power in 2007, it had four official leadership spills, two of which saw the sitting Prime Minister removed from office. In March 2013, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who had assumed power in June 2010 following a leadership spill which toppled then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, thought she was strengthened and laid the leadership question to rest after she was reelected unopposed at a leadership spill. Rudd, her eternal rival who had lost a leadership spill in February 2012, had been forced to withdraw from the contest in March citing insufficient caucus support. Gillard could now focus on the federal elections in the fall. However, only a few months later, at the end of June, Gillard was toppled by Rudd in a leadership spill. Rudd became Prime Minister and Labor’s leader in a tough campaign against Abbott’s Coalition. It was the endless succession of internecine warfare in Labor ranks, and Labor’s cut-throat leadership culture, which undermined the Labor government(s) and allowed the Coalition to win. Indeed, Labor lost reelection despite a good economy and a policy record which, if not devoid of controversy, was still not particularly disastrous and subjectively decent or good. Labor might have learned its lesson: its new process for selecting and removing leaders is more transparent, democratic and reduces the power of factional power-brokers and the smoke-filled backrooms.
Also notable in this election was a clear shift to the right by both parties on the immigration/asylum seekers issue. Feeling the Coalition’s pressure and the unpopularity of their own relatively liberal immigration policies, one of Rudd’s first policy decisions in 2013 was the ‘PNG solution’ – a return to the offshore processing system for asylum seekers introduced by Liberal Prime Minister John Howard’s cabinet in 2001 and dismantled in large part by Rudd’s first government in 2007. Under Rudd’s PNG solution, asylum seekers would be sent to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement, and that no asylum seeker would be resettled in Australia. Tony Abbott’s work in opposition and electoral campaign focused on ‘stopping the boats’, including through use of the military. Labor’s controversial U-turn on asylum seekers, which began under Gillard, is symbolic of a general shift to the right on immigration policies (or government rhetoric on the issue) in many western countries.
8. Israel: Israeli politics are undoubtedly of great importance to the Middle East, but Israel’s election in early 2013 provided very little change to the status-quo. Instead, they confirmed the complexity and diversity of Israeli society and politics. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has little enthusiasm for negotiations with Palestinians on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or with Iran over the Iranian nuclear program, remained in office although in a coalition which now excludes religious parties (which had been in all cabinets since the 1977 realignment) and is a bit more centrist with the inclusion of two new centrist parties, Yesh Atid and Hatnuah. Netanyahu’s party, the Likud – allied with right-winger Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu – came out weakened, losing 11 seats and nearly 10% of the vote from the two parties’ combined share of the vote in 2009.
What was significant about these elections was that they were focused on economic/social issues rather than security or Palestine, and that there was no shift to the right despite the foreign media’s portrayal of Israelis as increasingly nationalistic, religious and anti-Palestinian. The main winner of the election was Yesh Atid, a new secular centrist party led by former journalist Yeir Lapid (it placed second with 19 seats), whose campaign was focused on the middle-classes and their domestic economic grievances rather than old issues of peace or the conflict. His performance showed that many Israeli voters outside the settlements are more interested by kitchen table issues – like voters around the world – than by peace and the conflict (where their stances, on the whole, lean towards the middle ground). On the right, Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home, which took a tough stance on the conflict, did well but not as well as expected – with 12 seats and fourth place. Bennett did not become a game-changing phenomenon, although his later coalition alliance with Lapid and his desire to transcend his party’s traditional religious Zionist and settler base is of some long-term significance.
In the end, it was just another election. Lapid is probably the latest in a succession of centrist leaders whose party emerges dramatically in one election but collapses in the next one. Lapid’s party has already dropped to about 10 seats in the poll, and many of their voters are disappointed with the party’s performance and Lapid in the thankless finance portfolio. Another centrist party which was very successful at one point, Kadima, basically died out in this election. Yesh Atid will probably go the same way. There was no shift to the right, and as we stand, there is none on the horizon. The Labour Party is still in trouble, with poor and unstable leadership and difficulty to appeal to voters. Netanyahu and his fractious party is not very popular but he remains in charge in absence of a single viable alternative. Israeli policy in the region was not altered as a result of the election.
9. British Columbia (Canada): I hesitate to include sub-national elections on these lists because they almost never have a broader regional impact and often only limited nationwide impact (especially in Canada where federal and provincial politics are more disconnected than in other federal countries). However, I made a spot for the British Columbia election on this list because it definitely fits the secondary ‘interesting’ criteria. The opposition New Democrats (BC NDP) were widely expected to win the election – they led in all polls, almost all by a comfortable margin and often with over 10% leads. Yet, the governing Liberals, in power since 2001, won reelection with a similar majority to 2009 and the BC NDP actually did worse than in 2009.
The election was made interesting by the Liberals’ totally unexpected victory, and the pollsters’ utter failure – a year after a similar failure at calling the 2012 Albertan election. It came as additional reminder that the science of polling, undoubtedly so advanced in this day and age, is not without flaws and faces challenges – both old (predicting turnout and the demographic composition of the electorate) and new (voters without landlines, the rise of online pollsters). I chose to include the BC election on this list after having decided not to include the Albertan election on last year’s list because I feel it was a more remarkable turn-around. The Albertan election was fought between two parties on the right, with ideology important but less central. The BC election was a traditional left-right contest.
If there is one conclusion I might tentatively draw from this election is that negative campaigning works. The BC NDP ran a positive and policy wonk campaign, the BC Liberals ran a negative campaign going on the offensive against the NDP and catching voters’ attention with short, straight talking points and one-liner jabs at the NDP. Although voters insist that negative campaigning sickens them and that they don’t want it, the reality is that negative campaigning does work. Scandals, failures, policy mishaps, talking points and quick jabs stick; thought-provoking wordiness, intricate detailing of policies and ‘staying positive’ don’t work as much and fail to catch voters’ attention in a changing world marked by voters with shorter attention spans for politics and less sympathy for politicians.
10. Eastleigh by-election (United Kingdom): I usually do not include by-elections, but a reader convinced to make an exception and include the February by-election in Eastleigh, in the UK. The Liberal Democrats held the seat, but with a much reduced vote share (-14.4%) and majority (4.3%). The UKIP, a rising force, placed second with 27.8% – its highest result in any parliamentary constituency, and the closest it has come to winning any seat. The Conservatives placed a disastrous third, and their vote fell by 14%.
Eastleigh was a particularly important by-election. On the one hand, it saved the LibDems as an election winning party, despite the party’s image being badly tarnished and support seriously eroded since it entered a coalition government with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives in 2010. The LibDems, who held the seat in question since 1997 and are a powerful force in local politics, faced a tough campaign but through a well-targeted campaign on local issues with a local candidate they won a victory, although given that they lost so many votes it was very much a Pyrrhic victory. Still, a victory on local issues and on the back of the local party’s strength on the ground gives hope to the LibDems that they might be able to save more seats than expected in 2015, given that they hold many seats like Eastleigh where the Tories are their main rivals and that the LibDems have held up better in local elections where the party has a strong footing (with MPs etc).
On the other hand, it was a large victory for UKIP – replicated in local elections in England in May which saw UKIP gain 139 councillors and place third with over 20% in the estimated local vote share. UKIP has done similarly well in other by-elections since 2010, often placing ahead of the Tories and/or LibDems, and the party generally polls 10-12% in polls today. Although it remains to be seen if UKIP can hold its momentum until 2015 (it has already fallen from a stint of polling in the high teens) and, even if it does, whether it can break through with the FPTP system or if it ends up like the Alliance in 1983; UKIP’s rise might bring about a four-party system (even if not a four-party Parliament) and UKIP, even if it does not win any/many seats in 2015, will have a major influence on the results in many seats if it is able to win over 20% of the vote in many constituencies. This makes the 2015 election rather open-ended. Although Labour remains the natural alternative to Cameron’s unpopular government and will probably win the next election, its leader Ed Miliband isn’t particularly popular himself and still faces doubts as to his leadership capacities. In Eastleigh, Labour fell flat on its face, unable to win back anti-Tory tactical voters from the LibDems and a bad start in its bid to increase Labour support in southern England.
I will make honourable mentions for Pakistan, Nepal, Malaysia, Kenya and Zimbabwe. These elections were important for each of their countries, they had interesting results, brought in new governments (Kenya, Pakistan) which may prove important, strengthened an eternal opposition (Malaysia), strengthened nascent democracy (Nepal) or confirmed an old regime (Zimbabwe). However, I did not feel that any of these elections met the criteria I listed at the beginning.
2013 was an interesting year in politics and elections, with no shortage of exciting elections or interesting results to analyze. However, making this list, I felt that while many elections were not insignificant and many important countries held major elections, few of 2013’s elections will probably have a long-term impact on the country or the region, either in the form of political realignment or a significant shift in policy. Of course, not every year is going to filled with such elections – after all, most elections end up being fairly insignificant in the broader scheme of things. Only the Italian and Iranian elections seem likely to have a long-term impact; the German election may have some consequences on the makeup of the political system; the Venezuelan, Chilean and Czech elections might begin a new political era in each of these countries but their long-term consequences remain a matter of debate and very much uncertain.
I wish to reiterate that this ranking, only for fun and analysis purposes, is subjective and influenced by my opinions, views, interests and biases. I’m not certain of my own rankings, and if I re-did it in, say, two weeks, I would probably reorder, drop a few and add a few! I am curious to hear of any readers’ alternative rankings, their comments or views on this list.
Thank you for another excellent year. Stay tuned, before we welcome 2014, for a summary of what’s hot in 2014!
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).
World Elections: 1 year
World Elections is happy to celebrate it’s first birthday, which is officially on October 28, 2009. The first post, concerning the Quebec provincial election of December 2008 was posted on October 28, 2008 and the blog started from there. In one year, I’m pleased to report that over 23,600 people from all over the world have visited this blog for various reasons. In addition, we now get between 140 and 200 visits to this blog each day.
These numbers are impressive considering that most blogs tend to have little traffic and often become the interwebs equivalent of a private diary, although read by some who know of it. Of course, World Elections resembled that last year, but the rise of traffic and visits was quite steady and we already had over 200 visits for the month of December 2008 alone. To date, September 2009 remains the most productive month, with 4,407 visits. The unfinished month of October 2009 trails with around 4,370 visits.
At any rate, the high traffic is undoubtedly a success and, as editor, I am happy of the success this blog has had. I started this blog last year in an effort to provide something which was generally hard to find or even lacking on the vast empire of the interwebs, an English-language, (generally) non-biased and (generally) analytical view of elections of interest in all countries holding elections, regardless of the coverage of these elections by the print and televised media or the native language of these countries. It is a very large field, and few people realize how many people are voting at any place in the world on any given day in either a regular general election, a regional election, a referendum or even by-elections from the local level in a ward in isolated Labrador to a crucial congressional by-election in California. I obviously don’t cover all of these, and this isn’t the place for coverage of many local by-elections, but I attempt to cover all those of interest to psephologists, observers and keen election-nerds around the world. Election nerds aren’t something you often find in your neck of the woods, but the vast empire of the interwebs allows them to find some place to read up on their interests.
This blog has covered elections at the four corners of the world: from Argentina to British Columbia, from Portugal to Japan, from Norway to South Africa, from India to Australia and so many more. As editor, I will do my best to continue building upon the list of countries covered and I will do my best to continue providing what I hope is an accurate, interesting, and generally non-biased coverage of world elections.
On a final note, a big thank you to all readers and to those who have linked to this blog from their own blogs, sites and so forth. Thank you: you really keep this blog going.