Although we gained a new prime minister, there wasn’t much happening in electoral terms in Australia this year. There were a few quiet byelections, and a state election in Queensland turfed out a one-term LNP government. Also, our neighbors in New Zealand had a referendum to choose a candidate new flag.

But around the world there was a lot more activity. The swing against incumbents that was patchily evident last year became much more pronounced. But there wasn’t much ideological content to it: governments that had overstayed their welcome got it in the neck, regardless of political colour.

With rare exceptions, it seems voters are pretty unhappy with the way they’ve been served and are turning to whoever seems best placed to make a change. Sometimes that’s a mainstream opposition party, sometimes it’s a more radical force to the right or left, and sometimes it’s an uneasy combination of both.

So here, in chronological order, are my top 10 elections of 2015:

Sri Lanka, January 8
It wasn’t a big year for Asian elections, but the Sri Lankan presidential contest that kicked off the year was a stunner. Authoritarian president Mahinda Rajapaksa was challenged by his former health minister Maithripala Sirisena; against all expectations, not only did the president lose (albeit narrowly), but he accepted defeat and went quietly. Sirisena went on to call an early parliamentary election in August, where his supporters won a majority.

Greece, January 25
With its economy in hock to international creditors, Greece’s centre-right government called a snap election and paid the penalty, with voters turning instead to the radical left Syriza of Alexis Tsipras. Tsipras failed to get much joy from the creditors in terms of lessening austerity, but Greeks evidently felt he’d done his best, and re-elected him in September.

Nigeria, March 28-29
Africa’s biggest election turned in a surprise result, with incumbent Goodluck Jonathan defeated by his challenger Muhammadu Buhari — the first time an opposition candidate has ever won in Nigeria. Voters may have felt that a Muslim president was better placed to face down the terrorists of Boko Haram, but it was striking confirmation of the trend to democracy in West Africa.

United Kingdom, May 7
Britain was the big exception to the year’s anti-incumbent mood, with Prime Minister David Cameron returned for a second term — this time with a majority in his own right. But the Conservatives only had 37% of the vote: the electoral system did the rest. And the shocking performance of the opinion polls, which had unanimously predicted a hung parliament, was typical of the year.

Turkey, June 7
Like neighboring Greece, Turkey also had two elections in the year. The first showed that Turkish democracy was still alive, as the party of its increasingly authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, lost its parliamentary majority. But the opposition parties were unable to agree on a coalition, and Erdogan’s manoeuvring resulted in a fresh election in November, which returned him the desired majority.

Canada, October 19
Canadians had been trying for some time to get rid of their Conservative government under Stephen Harper, but it was maintained in office by the vagaries of the electoral system. This time, however, the anti-incumbent mood prevailed. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau led his party back from its crushing defeat in 2011 to become prime minister.

Argentina, October 25 and November 22
The left-wing Peronists had been in power for 12 years in Argentina under the husband-and-wife team of the Kirchners. But this time the voters decided that the economy needed a change in direction, and Peronist Daniel Scioli, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s chosen successor, went down to his centre-right challenger Mauricio Macri.

Burma/Myanmar, November 8
Myanmar’s striking emergence from dictatorship continued with the long-anticipated democratic election and a landslide victory for the opposition National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi. Democratisation is still incomplete, and although the military has promised to respect the results there will probably be some hard bargaining ahead.

Venezuela, December 6
On one interpretation, Venezuela showed that it was less authoritarian than many had thought, since the centre-right opposition was able to score a landslide victory in congressional elections. Leftist president Nicolas Maduro, who still has more than half his term to run, will now have to work with a hostile legislature and the knowledge that his voters are very unhappy.

Spain, December 20
The year’s last big election, just last Sunday, was typical of 2015 in Europe. The incumbents went down to defeat, but the shape of their replacement is unclear, since the traditional opposition is having to fight for primacy with new political forces. In this case it was the centre-right on the losing end, as had previously happened in Portugal, but centre-left incumbents did equally badly in Denmark and Croatia, as did centrists in Poland. Only Estonian voters seemed pretty content.

Honorable mention
And one can’t leave the subject without a mention of Saudi Arabia, which held local elections — the only sort there ever are, as the national government is an absolute monarchy — on December 12. There’s an awfully long way to go before Saudi Arabia will look anything like a liberal democracy, but it was a major landmark in that women for the first time were allowed to vote and stand for election, with about 20 being elected.

That’s it for another year — best wishes to everyone for a democratic 2016.

Peter Fray

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