As far as Australia goes, 2009 has been a lean year for elections: a handful of uninteresting by-elections, and a state election in Queensland — although the latter produced a historic result, with our first election of a female premier. Next year will be much bigger, with a federal election and three state elections (South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria).
Internationally, however, this year was much more interesting. Five of the world’s largest democracies — India, Indonesia, South Africa, Japan and Germany — held elections, as did the European parliament. Add in Israel and Lebanon (both fertile ground for psephologists), controversial and probably rigged elections in Iran and Afghanistan, a dramatic turnaround in Moldova, plus exceptionally close presidential contests in Ghana and Romania, and there was quite a bit going on.
A year or so ago, when the global financial crisis was at its height, there was a lot of speculation about its electoral consequences. There were basically two competing theories: that voters would swing to the left, away from more market-oriented parties, or that voters would take out their anger indiscriminately on incumbents of all stripes.
Both theories turned out to be wrong. Incumbents have actually done rather well, being comfortably returned in Queensland, India, Indonesia, South Africa, Lebanon and Germany (plus, of course, Iran and Afghanistan). Where there have been swings, they have gone to the right (Israel, the EU, Portugal, Germany) at least as much as to the left.
Japan was the one major election that swung to the left and against the incumbents, but it was hardly a vote against the market system, since the Democratic Party is more pro-market than the ossified bureaucrats of the LDP. India, where the incumbents unexpectedly gained ground, could also be seen as a move to the left, but Congress is also now identified as pro-market, and the largely anti-market “third front” did poorly.
The right also scored a narrow but unexpected win in Romania’s presidential election, and defeated the communists in neighboring Moldova. A leftist president was re-elected in Bolivia, but the first round of the presidential election in Chile put the right in the lead (the run-off will be held in the new year), and Honduras moved to the right after its leftist president was removed in a coup.
Lebanon’s parties defy easy ideological description, but the result was generally seen as a victory for the pro-Western parties. Israel and Bulgaria turfed out centre-left governments in favor of the right, while Greece went the other way. The European parliament lacks governmental powers, but the centre-right made gains to emerge as the largest group.
By and large, the expected carnage failed to happen — whether because voters thought the crisis was overblown, or because they realised capitalism wasn’t to blame, or thought that politics wasn’t the answer. The GFC was the dog that failed to bark in the night-time.
Commentators love turmoil, excitement and controversy, but the electoral story of 2009 is something quite different: democracy working in its unobtrusive way, and voters mostly expressing confidence in the system and its imperfect leaders. How’s that for a Christmas good news story?