Well, it’s that time again, when we review the highlights of the year that has passed. Actually, for most media outlets “that time” seems to be around two weeks ago, so anything that happens in late December (as two of this year’s biggest elections did) just misses out. So I’ve consciously left it until the last day of the year to review the elections of 2012.

It was again a mixed year, where the forces of change and the forces of stability both had their victories. Six of the G20 countries held elections in 2012, compared to four in 2011 (you can read last year’s review here). Three of them – France, Mexico and Japan – went against the incumbents, but none of the results were really unexpected. Of those contests that could be seen in ideological terms the left probably had a slight edge, but it’s hard to see much of a global trend.

Australia missed out on most of the action, with just one state election: in Queensland, where the ALP suffered a whitewash. Although its vote held up better than it had last year in New South Wales, its parliamentary representation was much more comprehensively destroyed – illustrating again the vagaries of the electoral system.

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So here, in chronological order, are my top ten elections of 2012:

Taiwan (14 January): President Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang was re-elected reasonably comfortably, in what amounted to a referendum on his policy of closer engagement with the communist mainland. Voters evidently decided that the gains from better cross-strait relations justified the shelving of some of their national aspirations.

Russia (4 March): Former president Vladimir Putin, having spent four years as prime minister, returned to his old job after winning 63.6% of the vote in Russia’s presidential election. The impressive opposition protests from late 2011 failed to translate into a significant opposition vote – partly due, no doubt, to unfairnesses in the electoral system, but also to Putin’s genuine popularity in much of the country.

Senegal (26 February/25 March): In one of Africa’s more robust democracies, incumbent Abdoulaye Wade was permitted, on slightly dubious constitutional grounds, to run for a third term. But the voters decided that two was enough and although Wade led on the first round, he was comfortably defeated in the runoff by former prime minister Macky Sall.

France (22 April/6 May): Possibly the landmark election of 2012, in which the European left, which has had a shocking few years, signalled that it was on the comeback trail. Socialist François Hollande scored a clear victory over centre-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, with voters apparently seeing him as a safe pair of hands in Europe’s continuing financial crisis. Hollande went on to win a solid majority in parliament, and the left also took power in Slovakia and Lithuania, although it failed to topple the liberals in the Netherlands.

Egypt (23-24 May/16-17 June): For the first time ever Egypt gained a democratically elected president – Mohammed Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood. He wasn’t the president most democrats had wanted, but liberal and left-wing candidates had been eliminated in the first round, and Morsi faced off against a candidate of the old regime in the runoff, winning with 51.7%. Electoral systems matter.

Greece (17 June): This was Greece’s second parliamentary election for the year, after the first, on 6 May, failed to produce any workable majority. This time the voters decided that they could live with austerity as the price of remaining in the eurozone, and a broad coalition led by the centre-right New Democracy took office – helped by an electoral system that gave a bonus allocation of seats to the party with a plurality.

Mexico (1 July): The Institutional Revolutionary Party, out of office for 12 years, returned to power with new president Enrique Peña Nieto and a promise to wind back the deadly drug conflict. It was otherwise a quiet year for elections in Latin America, but Hugo Chávez overcame strong opposition to win re-election in Venezuela in October.

Georgia (1 October): In parliamentary elections the party of president Mikhail Saakashvili was defeated by an opposition coalition and Georgia’s richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, became prime minister – raising hopes for better relations with neighboring Russia. Saakashvili is a great favorite with America’s neoconservatives but has been less successful domestically.

United States (6 November): Democrat president Barack Obama was re-elected with a reduced but still reasonably clear majority. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone who had read and understood the opinion polls, but that category evidently didn’t include large sections of the Republican party. Democrats also increased their majority in the Senate, although Republicans (aided by widespread gerrymandering) retained control of the House of Representatives.

Japan (16 December): Once again, Japanese voters decided that life without the Liberal Democratic Party wasn’t such a good idea; after three years in office, the Democratic Party of Japan was defeated in a landslide (at least in seats – votes were a lot closer) and the LDP returned to power. But it wasn’t all bad for East Asian incumbents, as the centre-right held on in South Korea later the same week.

Dishonorable Mentions: As usual, there were a number of questionable, fraudulent or conspicuously non-existent elections. Kazakhstan, Iran and Syria all deserve mention, but at the bottom of the pile is China, the world’s second-largest economy and third-greatest military power, which changed leadership in a completely opaque process with essentially zero public input.

Must try harder in 2013. Happy new year, everyone.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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