As 2013 comes to a close, it’s time to again look back at the key electoral events of the year and see what we can say in general terms about the way the democratic (or “democratic”) world is travelling.
There were a lot of interesting elections in middle-ranking countries, but relatively few big ones. Only three of the G20 countries held elections (Italy, Australia and Germany), compared to six last year. In that regard 2014 will be much bigger, with Brazil, South Africa, India and Indonesia all scheduled to vote.
In general one can say 2013 was a fairly ordinary year for incumbents. After several years in which the widely anticipated anti-government swings mostly failed to materialise, voters finally seem to be losing patience with their governments. Many, however, are turning not to the traditional opposition but to new populist forces, often led by wealthy mavericks such as Australia’s Clive Palmer.
Ideologically, it’s harder to spot a clear trend, although Europe continued its gradual and somewhat uncertain shift to the left. Malta, Bulgaria, Northern Cyprus and the Czech Republic all elected new centre-left governments, although Iceland went the other way. In Latin America, Chile made a decisive move leftwards, but otherwise the right did reasonably well, with victories in Paraguay and Honduras and a near-miss in Venezuela.
So let’s look, in chronological order, at my top ten elections for 2013:
Israel (22 January): Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition was re-elected, but not without a fright; the opposition, whose task had looked hopeless, came out looking much better than expected. Post-election negotiations saw Netanyahu ditch the ultra-orthodox parties and instead take the new centrist party Yesh Atid into government. In policy terms there wasn’t much of a shift, but as I said at the time, “A future without Netanyahu has become thinkable.”
Italy (24-5 February): The big election for the first half of the year was in Italy, where the centre-right had a majority in the outgoing parliament but the actual government had been a centrist, technocratic affair put in place to deal with the financial crisis. Silvio Berlusconi lost the election but won the post-election manoeuvring; the centre-left won a lower house majority in the new parliament but was unable to translate that into government in its own right – partly because the populist movement led by comedian Beppe Grillo won the balance of power in the Senate. The two major parties ended up in a grand coalition and the centre-left ended up with a new leader.
Kenya (4 March): Kenya surprised itself somewhat by conducting a peaceful and orderly election, by contrast with the bloodshed of 2007. After a drawn-out count, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the country’s founding president, was declared the winner, narrowly avoiding a runoff. Both he and his running mate were under indictment at the International Criminal Court [not the International Court of Justice, as originally stated – thanks to Seb in comments] on charges connected with the 2007 violence (although at the time they had been on opposite sides), but the case against them now seems to be on the point of collapse.
Venezuela (14 April): The death of the controversial Hugo Chávez led to a fresh presidential election in Venezuela, in which Chávez’s designated successor, Nicolás Maduro, only narrowly held off his centre-right opponent, Henrique Capriles. Capriles refused to concede defeat, but his losing margin of only 225,000 votes was an encouraging sign that Venezuela remained a functioning if somewhat precarious democracy.
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Malaysia (5 May): After years of trying, Malaysia’s opposition, led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, finally won a majority of the vote. But it did it no good, because the electoral system still delivered the National Front government a large majority. Australia, which was happy to comment on dodgy election practices in countries like Zimbabwe, continued its record of ignoring the democratic deficit in its near neighbors. (Later in the year, a big swing to the opposition in Cambodia gave the same message of danger to South-East Asian autocrats.)
Pakistan (11 May): A somewhat chaotic process in Pakistan nonetheless yielded a real milestone, with a democratically-elected government completing a full term and then being peacefully voted out of office. Opposition leader Nawaz Sharif became prime minister with a clear mandate to finally put civilian government on firm foundations.
Iran (14 June): Perhaps the biggest electoral surprise of the year was the decisive first-round victory of moderate Hassan Rouhani in the Iranian presidential election. Other reformist candidates were excluded from running, but Rouhani garnered popular enthusiasm and was able to capitalise on discontent with theocratic rule. So far he seems to have managed his relationship with religious leader Ali Khamenei well, and he has already scored diplomatic breakthroughs with the west on the nuclear issue.
Australia (7 September): The one that most readers won’t need reminding of, but a significant election also in world terms, as a centre-left government that, by most measures, had been very successful was nonetheless repudiated by the voters in no uncertain terms. Various culprits could be identified, but disunity at the top was the big killer, exploited by an unusually close collaboration between the opposition and the media.
Germany (22 September): Angela Merkel’s centre-right coalition government did very well at the polls, but the electoral system that had given it a majority last time failed to come good a second time. Instead Merkel was forced into a period of negotiations with the Social Democrats that after almost three months finally led to a grand coalition. Some winding back of austerity is now expected, although a similar process in neighboring Austria seems to have led to the opposite outcome.
Chile (15 December): Former president Michele Bachelet ensured herself a return to the top job by crushing the centre-right’s Evelyn Matthei, winning 62.2% in the runoff – a record for the post-Pinochet era. Once again, Chile showed itself to be something other than a typical South American country: elsewhere the tide seems to be running out for the left, but Bachelet won effortlessly with a more left-wing platform than in her previous term.
And that’s a wrap. Wishing a very happy and democratic new year to all our readers.