Close elections start the year

Last year was a pretty big one for elections worldwide – you can read my survey from last month in Crikey, now out from behind the paywall. This year looks like being a bit less active, but there will still be a lot on. Four of the G20 countries go to the polls (Argentina, Canada, Turkey and the United Kingdom), with a strong chance of an early election in Italy as well.

Europe looks like being particularly busy in psephological terms, with Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Poland, Portugal and Spain all due to vote, plus an early election in Greece later this month. Australia is also holding elections in two of our three biggest states, Queensland on 31 January and New South Wales on 28 March.

The electoral year has already kicked off with two presidential elections – one largely ceremonial, one very much not so. But both produced the same result, namely a narrow verdict against the incumbent.

Sri Lanka

First, on 8 January, Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, seeking a legally dubious third term, was surprisingly defeated by challenger Maithripala Sirisena, who won 51.3% of the vote to Rajapaksa’s 47.6%. Another 17 candidates, several of them apparently dummies for one of the two majors, shared the remaining 1.1%.

Just as surprising as the result was the fact that, despite the authoritarianism of Rajapaksa’s second term, the transfer of power was accomplished quickly and peacefully. Rajapaksa conceded defeat on the night, apparently with good grace, and Sirisena was sworn in the day after the election. He now faces a major task in restoring his country’s democratic institutions as well as its international reputation.

There are some signs that it could easily have been much messier: the new government has promised to investigate allegations that Rajapaksa planned to use the police and army to shut down vote counting and stage a coup, and was only deterred by the refusal of officials to co-operate.

In electoral terms, Rajapaksa was the victim of his own success. When he was first elected, also by a narrow margin, in 2005, the separatist Tamil Tigers still controlled much of Sri Lanka’s north. Turnout there was negligible; had the Tamils voted to the same extent as the rest of the country, Rajapaksa would almost certainly have been defeated. (The candidate he beat that time, Ranil Wickramasinghe, has now been appointed by Sirisena as prime minister.)

Having won the war against the Tigers and imposed tranquility on the north – at an alarming cost in human rights – Rajapaksa now found that there was no obstacle to the Tamils turning out and voting against him. And they did: in Jaffna district, the Tamil heartland, Sirisena won 74.4% of the vote.

Croatia

Unlike Sri Lanka, Croatia has a Westminster-style parliamentary system, where the president is mostly a figurehead. Nonetheless, direct elections for the post mean that it still holds considerable political interest.

Incumbent Ivo Josipović, nominally an independent but backed by the centre-left, was elected in 2010 with a comfortable 60.3%. Seeking a second term, he led narrowly in the first round, held last month, with 38.5% against 37.2% for the centre-right’s Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović. They therefore contested a runoff on 11 January.

Turnout in the first round was only 47.1%, but it jumped to 59.1% for the runoff, and it seems as if it was centre-right voters who were more motivated to show up. Grabar-Kitarović scored a narrow victory with 50.7%. She will be sworn in next month as Croatia’s first female president.

Together with similar results last year in Slovakia and Romania, it’s a sign that the European centre-left may have passed its peak, although a general anti-incumbent mood may be equally to blame. Either way, Croatia’s centre-left government, due to face the voters at the end of this year, will be feeling decidedly uneasy.

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