Observers came to 2017 in a rather shell-shocked condition after the twin surprises of Brexit and Trump in 2016. But for such an ill-omened year, things didn’t go too badly.
The world remains a troubled and dangerous place. By and large, however, the fears (or hopes) of those who thought that the new right-wing populism would sweep all before it have not been borne out. Those who (like your humble blogger) said that 2016’s results were throwbacks and anomalies have not yet been proven right, but they are looking in better shape than their critics.
Here, in chronological order, are my top ten electoral events for 2017. Rather than attempt to summarise each one, I’ll just link to some of my previous commentary, and then attempt an overall assessment.
- 15 March, Netherlands (parliament).
- 2 April, Ecuador (president, second round).
- 7 May, France (president, second round).
- 9 May, South Korea (president).
- 8 June, United Kingdom (parliament).
- 23 September, New Zealand (parliament).
- 24 September, Germany (parliament).
- 22 October, Japan (parliament).
- 26 October, Kenya (president, re-run).
- 17 December, Chile (president, second round).
Five of the G20 countries went to the polls (France, South Korea, Britain, Germany and Japan); that’s the first time since 1924 that the three big economies of western Europe have all voted in the same year. Latin America continued its swing to the right, but elsewhere it was hard to discern much of a trend. Incumbents did well in the Netherlands, Japan and Germany; badly in South Korea and Chile. A sitting prime minister hung on despite voter disapproval in Britain, and another lost office despite voter approval in New Zealand.
The surge in support for the far right fell below expectations, although it still produced some alarming results. Marine Le Pen won a third of the vote in France, and the far right returned to the German parliament for the first time since the Second World War. But the media’s narrative of populist xenophobia triumphant ran into some problems: not least in Australia, where One Nation underperformed in Western Australia and Queensland.
Mainstream parties found that the dilemma of how to deal with the far right had not gone away; the centre-right dealt them into government in Austria, and the centre-left did the same in New Zealand. But they remained firmly shut out in the Netherlands, Germany and Czechia.
The electorate’s preference for the mainstream didn’t seem to help centre-left parties much – at least not on the European continent. They recorded abysmal results in the Netherlands, France, Germany, Austria and Czechia. But Britain’s Labour Party unexpectedly recovered some ground in the reaction against Brexit, and its New Zealand counterpart did well with a charismatic new leader. South Korea was a good (if expected) win for the centre-left, and even Japan showed some promise.
And in the United States, the Democrats displayed recuperative power with strong wins in New Jersey and Virginia, and in a Senate by-election in Alabama. The Republican Party, now thoroughly colonised by Trumpism, is looking towards this year’s mid-term elections with a sense of dread.
Referenda weren’t as big a thing as in 2016, but there were still a few important ones: support for immigrants in Switzerland, constitutional revision in Turkey, same-sex marriage in Australia, and of course the endless saga of independence for Catalonia.
To sum up: the resilience of democracy is often under-rated, but the dangers it faces are very real. More often than not, however, they are internal. The avowed enemies of democracy are relatively weak, but its natural defenders are often clueless and irresponsible.
One of the best (and most worrying) pieces of analysis in the aftermath of the French election was this from Nate Silver, in which he argues that pundit ignorance or mendacity about opinion polling is feeding back into the polls themselves, making them less reliable. That’s just one part of a larger picture of betrayal from the media in general and one large media organisation in particular. Where once Tom Wolfe warned us about radical chic, News Corp and its fan club are now promoting fascist chic.
A useful new year resolution, for politicians and commentators alike, would be to stop treating the the extremists as either potential allies or light entertainment, and rally around the defence of our imperfect civilisation. It’s not too late, but one day it might be.