It hasn’t been a big year for elections in Australia, with only one state election (although it was a humdinger) and a handful of by-elections, but worldwide it’s been quite interesting — especially in Europe, where fully a third of the 27 EU members held national elections. Four of the G20 nations (Canada, Turkey, Argentina and Russia) held elections, all of them returning the incumbents, although the Russian result needs to be treated with considerable scepticism.

Otherwise it was a mixed bag; some big swings and some long-serving governments tipped out, but some good news for incumbents as well. Without doubt the most pleasing development was the opportunity for voters in some Middle Eastern countries to cast meaningful votes for the first time — with more to follow in 2012.

So here’s my top 10 of the most interesting elections of 2011 …

Ireland (February 25): Ireland’s idiosyncratic party system limits its usefulness for comparisons, but there was no doubting the historic nature of this one, with the traditionally dominant Fianna Fail losing more than two-thirds of its seats and reduced to third-party status. Sinn Fein recorded its best-ever result and the Greens were wiped out.

New South Wales (March 26): A defeat of epic proportions for Labor after 16 years in office, recording its worst result in more than a century. Traditional working-class electorates saw serious (and sometimes successful) Liberal campaigns for the first time anyone could remember, and Barry O’Farrell took power with a huge majority. Labor will recover one day, but not soon.

Canada (May 2): Another realignment election. Canada’s Liberals lost more than half their seats and were replaced as official opposition by the New Democrats, while the Quebec Bloc was almost annihilated. But the real scandal was that the electoral system gave Conservative Stephen Harper an absolute majority despite the fact that the voters clearly preferred his opponents — a fact that nonetheless failed to stir the British to support electoral reform in a referendum later the same week.

Singapore (May 7): Not a democratic election, but popular discontent with the long rule of Harry Lee’s PAP was still allowed to show through — its vote fell to a record-low 60.1%, and the opposition Workers’ Party won six seats. Presidential elections later in the year also gave the government a rebuke, with its preferred candidate winning by less than 1%.

Thailand (July 3): A fresh instalment in the battle of the shirts, with Thaksin Shinawatra’s party triumphantly returned under the leadership of his sister, Yingluck. There was widespread fear this would be the signal for some sort of military intervention, but so far all has been quiet, raising hopes Thais might develop the habit of settling their differences peacefully.

Poland (October 9): Not historic change this time, but historic absence of change — prime minister Donald Tusk’s victory was the first re-election of a Polish government since the Communist era. This continued the  strong showing for the free-market right in central Europe that was evident last year and earlier this year in Estonia and Latvia.

Tunisia (October 23): The first fruit of the Arab Spring saw Tunisians elect a constituent assembly in a peaceful, democratic election of a sort virtually unheard of in the region. The largest share of seats was won by the moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, which will govern in coalition with other groups. Elections in Egypt, still under way at year’s end, are also showing strong results for the Islamists.

Spain (November 20): A long-expected but still heavy defeat for the centre-left Spanish government, in power since 2004; the centre-right completed its clean sweep of the big EU economies. The economic crisis in Europe certainly produced discontent, but it was remarkable how well parties could do by promising austerity and sound finance.

New Zealand (November 26): Another good result for an incumbent, with John Key’s National Party re-elected, and New Zealanders also rejected moves to change their proportional voting system — aided no doubt by the fact its opponents’ predictions of instability keep being falsified.

Croatia (December 4): Finally some good news for the European left: Croatia’s centre-right government was tipped out with a big swing and the Social Democrats took power. Together with similar results in Denmark and Slovenia it provided some evidence that the high tide for the right might be ebbing, but it’s too early to say. Next April’s presidential election in France will be the big test.

Happy holidays to all, and best wishes for peace and democracy in 2012.

Peter Fray

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