Like most years, 2018 was a mixed bag; if you’re determined to be either an optimist or a pessimist about the world’s political direction, it’s easy to find plenty of examples to support your point of view.
Nor is there anything abnormal about that. But it really does seem that the contrasts last year were more striking than usual: that there was more of both the markedly good and the markedly bad, and rather less of the in-between. Big things are happening, but the overall trend remains unclear.
So let’s run through the top ten elections of 2018, in chronological order, and see what they tell us about the year. (Compare 2017’s list here.)
Italy (parliament, 4 March). A disturbing one to start with, featuring a surge in support for the far-right League. But the fact that it emerged as the junior partner in government was due not just to the voters but to the centre-left’s refusal to negotiate with the populist Five Star Movement. The European far right also scored with the re-election of Czechia’s Trumpist president (27 January) and Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister (8 April).
Lebanon (parliament, 6 May). Long delayed due to regional warfare and other problems, Lebanon’s election showed democracy to be still alive in some of the Middle East. Prime minister Saad Hariri remained in office, but in a weakened position. Both halves of Cyprus also held elections (7 January & 4 February), but Egypt’s presidential “election” (28 March) was just as farcical as the last one.
Malaysia (parliament, 9 May). Observers (including me) mostly thought that the Malaysian government would again rort its way to victory, but instead the opposition triumphed, giving hope to democrats across Asia. Later in the year the same thing happened in the Maldives (23 September); East Timor (12 May) also delivered power to the opposition, but Fiji’s autocrat was untroubled (14 November).
Turkey (president & legislature, 24 June). A more important autocrat, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, succeeded in winning the new executive presidency and gaining a legislative majority, but both by narrow margins – suggesting that Turkish democracy may still have some life left in it. Much more dubious electoral processes confirmed in power such strongmen as Russia’s Vladimir Putin (18 March), Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro (20 May) and Cambodia’s Hun Sen (29 July).
Mexico (president & legislature, 1 July). One of the year’s big ones, with the left’s Manuel López Obrador finally taking the presidency at his third attempt. Mexico’s voters were clearly fed up with violence and corruption, but there was no consequent shift towards Trumpism. (There’s still no wall, either.) Earlier in the year, Costa Rica’s centre-left had soundly defeated a challenge from the fundamentalist right (1 April).
Pakistan (parliament, 25 July). The opposition’s Imran Khan won a convincing victory in Pakistan; depending on how you look at it, it was either a win for the military, who had destabilised the previous government, or a win for democracy, with the third successive peaceful transfer of power. (The truth is often messy.) But in the country’s former eastern half, Bangladesh (30 December), the opposition was given no such chance.
Zimbabwe (president & parliament, 30 July). With former president Robert Mugabe having been removed in a coup the previous year, elections confirmed his successor Emmerson Mnangagwa in power: there were some doubts about the process, but it was an improvement on what had gone before. There wasn’t much other electoral news in Africa, but the opposition won power in Sierra Leone (31 March) and DR Congo finally went to the polls at the end of the year, with results still pending.
Sweden (parliament, 9 September). Sweden entered gridlock when the far right, although very much a minority, retained the balance of power and the other parties were unable to reach agreement among themselves. A fresh election this year is a distinct possibility. Latvia (6 October) also produced an indecisive result, but Slovenia (3 June) eventually produced a centrist coalition government, and a similar coalition was re-elected in Luxembourg (14 October).
Brazil (president & legislature, 7 & 28 October). The biggest shock to the defenders of liberal democracy came with the election of ultra-Trumpist Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It continued the swing to the right that’s been evident in Latin America for a while – Colombia (17 June) illustrated the same trend – but instead of a mainstream centre-right politician, the beneficiary was an open admirer of military rule. Scary times for the world’s fourth-largest democracy.
United States (legislature, 6 November). But voters in most places remained sceptical of the Trumpist wave: notably in the US itself, where midterm elections recorded a big swing to the Democrats, giving them control of the House of Representatives (although the Republicans held on in the Senate). It was the same in Australia’s biggest election for the year, in Victoria (24 November), where the opposition’s populist right-wing campaign was soundly defeated.
As I said, a mixed bag. Later in the month, I’ll do a rundown of the big elections expected for 2019; no doubt there’ll be some surprises among them as well.
Meanwhile, Happy New Year everyone!