A year ago, looking back on the electoral highlights of 2018, I said that “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.” I suggested that there had been “more of both the markedly good and the markedly bad, and rather less of the in-between.”
Those comments apply to 2019 as well. But whereas in 2018 one could point to gains and losses for both sides, last year was more a matter of entrenched positions becoming more entrenched. Democracy mostly held its ground, but the enemies of democracy held theirs as well.
Since it’s democracy that’s mostly been on the defensive in recent years, holding ground could maybe count as a win. But the polarisation is deeply troubling.
You might miss some of this if you think of elections just in terms of left vs. right. For example, to take two easily-confused countries, Australia and Austria both held elections last year (in May and September respectively). Both could be described as victories for incumbent centre-right governments.
But that would obscure a vital difference. Australia has gone full Trumpist under Scott Morrison, but Austria’s Sebastian Kurz won after evicting the far right from his government and is expected to take in the Greens in their place. Austria remains a normal democracy; Australia is not.
Or, sticking with the “A”s, consider Argentina, which voted in October. The centre-right president was defeated by his centre-left challenger, but nothing fundamental is likely to change. Argentina remains a functioning democracy, albeit a deeply corrupt and unresponsive one.
Virtually all the year’s big elections showed a similar lack of change. Autocratic leaders had their power confirmed in Thailand, India and Poland; democratic governments were returned in Indonesia, Canada and Spain. Nigeria and South Africa present more problems of classification, but both also saw victory for the incumbents.
In the year’s second-largest election, the European Union got a new parliament with some reshuffling of the existing groups. The far right won increased representation courtesy of a jump in support for Italy’s League. But Italy itself did not go to the polls; the League attempted to force an election but was outmanoeuvred, with the centre-left replacing it in government as junior partner to the populists.
Most recently, the United Kingdom returned its quasi-Trumpist government, but since the main alternative was just as detached from reality it’s hard to count that as a win either way (more about this next week). And Israel remains deadlocked after two elections, with a third on the way; its far-right prime minister is primarily focused on staying out of jail.
A common theme in many of these results is the way in which pro-democratic parties are disadvantaged by undemocratic electoral systems. The Thai, Indian, Polish and British elections all produced artificial majorities for their governments; Canada’s system (one of the worst) for once got the right result, although still with serious distortions.
Ukraine elected a fresh face, with comedian Volodymyr Zelensky beating incumbent Petro Poroshenko, but only time will tell whether significant change has taken place. Zelensky’s main impact so far has been indirect, as an attempt to shake him down led to Donald Trump’s impeachment in the United States.
Local elections were also important, and there the story is more heartening. Democrats did well in the big cities of Hungary and Turkey, and in an assortment of off-year elections in the United States. Australia’s single state election, in New South Wales, yielded little change. And Hong Kong, scene of huge and occasionally violent protests against autocracy, gave its pro-democracy forces a resounding endorsement.
Not all change happens at the ballot box: protests in the streets were a major element of 2019. The jury is still out on the results of most of them; prospects seem reasonable in Sudan and Lebanon, less so in Iran and Venezuela. Bolivians succeeded in overthrowing one autocrat, but may well find that the replacement is no improvement.
Protesters, of course, are not always on the side of the angels. One of the most encouraging stories of the year was the decline of the “yellow vest” movement in France, with all its echoes of previous assaults on liberal democracy. Instead France has returned to the more familiar theme of union protests against economic reform, which may frustrate the government of Emanuel Macron but pose no real threat to the democratic order.
There’s much more, of course, but that will have to do for a summary. Many of these stories, and others, will run on into 2020 and later. The battle for civilisation is not going to be won quickly or easily. The consoling lesson of 2019 is that at least it is not going to be lost quickly either.
Happy new year, everyone!