Not all countries shut down for January. Australia’s politicians may be still on holiday, but the world’s 2010 elections are already under way: Croatia elected a new president on 10 January, and last Sunday saw the second round of Chile’s  presidential election and the first round of Ukraine’s.

Neither was a major surprise. Run-off voting, the most common way of electing presidents, is conceptually the same as our preferential voting; the also-ran candidates are eliminated, and the voters choose between the top two candidates in the second round. In Chile and Ukraine, the first-round leader was expected to do less well on preferences than his challenger.

In Chile, that still wasn’t enough to change the result: billionaire conservative Sebastian Pinera held on to his first-round lead to defeat social democrat Eduardo Frei (51.6% to 48.4%), returning the right to power for the first time since General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. But there is no suggestion of a threat to democracy; Pinera has promised to maintain many of the policies of outgoing socialist Michelle Bachelet (who remains popular), but he benefited from a general sentiment that it was time for a change.

In Ukraine, however, pro-Russian opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych led in the first round but with only 36.8% (Pinera had 44.1%), a 10-point lead over prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In the second round, in two weeks, Tymoshenko should pick up the lion’s share of preferences (including those of incumbent Viktor Yushchenko, who managed only fifth place, with about 6% of the vote), and will have a serious chance of overtaking Yanukovych.

For election watchers, 2010 is not as big a year worldwide as 2009, but there will still be plenty of interest. Three of the G20 countries go to the polls (last year there were five): Britain in April/May, Brazil in October, and of course Australia, most probably in September or October.

Other notable countries to vote will include Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Iraq, the Philippines, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Sweden. Closer to home, there will be state elections in South Australia and Tasmania on March 20, and in Victoria on November 27. (Adam Carr keeps a running schedule, as do Maximiliano Herrera and Wikipedia.

Last year’s big electoral story was what didn’t happen; the electoral carnage widely predicted to result from the global financial crisis failed to materialise. Of the five big elections, only Japan threw out the incumbents. This year, Britain’s Labour government seems headed for certain defeat, but most other incumbents seem well placed (as in Australia) or at least competitive. Brazil’s president Lula da Silva, having served two terms, is not eligible for re-election, but his party is still reasonably popular.

Two other controversial presidents, not up for re-election themselves, are facing important congressional elections: Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in September, and Barack Obama in the US in November. Tuesday’s Senate by-election in Massachusetts, with its morale-boosting win by the Republicans, has made the latter a particularly interesting prospect.

There will also be the usual run of elections, or “elections”, in places where public opinion has little relevance. Last year brought hotly disputed results in Iran, Afghanistan and Honduras; no doubt this year there will be at least one new location where the political contest is fought out in the streets, not at the ballot box.

Peter Fray

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