Well, that’s a wrap. It wasn’t the year we expected, but 2020 comes to an end with the world in rather better shape than might have looked likely six months earlier. In particular, democracy has held firm against its enemies and even regained some ground, although its overall condition as compared to a decade or so ago is still precarious.
The outbreak of Covid-19 brought numerous restrictions on everyday life, and both libertarians and “libertarians” (for somewhat different reasons) expressed concerns about some of the measures that were taken. But the fears that it would be used as an excuse for curtailment of democratic rights have not, in general, been borne out. And as vaccination is gradually rolled out, hopes are high for a return to something like normality in 2021.
It was a fairly lean year for elections, only partly due to the pandemic. For the first time in a generation, none of the major economies of western Europe went to the polls. Only two of the G20 countries voted, and one of them (South Korea) was only a legislative election in a presidential system. But the other was the United States, whose long and convoluted electoral process dominated the year.
Generally speaking, elections went well for incumbents. That was a trend already clear in 2019, but the health crisis seemed to reinforce it. Even in the US, where an incumbent went down to defeat, his performance was a good deal better than expected; if his response to Covid-19 had been even halfway competent it’s almost certain that he would have won.
So here, in chronological order, are my top ten elections for 2020, including links to the original reports:
Taiwan (president and legislature, 11 January). A landslide to start with, with centrist president Tsai Ing-wen winning re-election against her centre-right opponent by a margin of more than 18 points. The big issue was relations with mainland China; in light of what had happened in Hong Kong, Taiwanese voters decided that this was not the time to contemplate making concessions to Beijing.
Ireland (parliament, 8 February). The only national election for the year in western Europe, but it was a dramatic one. The two-party system that has dominated Ireland since the 1930s broke down, with Sinn Féin topping the poll and the two historic rivals, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, forming a coalition to keep it out. Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union has put Irish unity on the agenda.
Israel (parliament, 2 March). Number three in a series: two elections the previous year had failed to give Israel a majority government, and this one didn’t do any better. The health crisis induced the formation of a government of national unity, but it failed to last the year and the country is going back to the polls next March. Far-right prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu still dominates the landscape despite the threat of imprisonment on corruption charges.
South Korea (legislature, 15 April). As the coronavirus took hold, incumbents started to benefit, including the centre-left government of South Korea. It won a big legislative majority, helped by its opponents’ unsuccessful attempt to game the new electoral system. Asian incumbents also won big in Mongolia (June) and Singapore (July), although given its degree of control the latter’s performance was not so impressive.
Montenegro (parliament, 30 August). But not all incumbents were successful. The defeat of Slovakia’s autocratic centre-left government in February was a key milestone. Even more striking was the fall of Montenegro’s Milo Đukanović, in power for thirty years, who was replaced by an eclectic coalition. It was a big year for Balkan elections; Croatia, North Macedonia and Serbia re-elected their governments, although in Serbia’s case there were grave doubts about the process.
New Zealand (parliament, 17 October). New Zealand was one of the most successful countries in dealing with the pandemic, and centre-left prime minister Jacinda Ardern was rewarded for it, winning the first single-party majority since the introduction of proportional representation in the 1990s. In neighboring Australia, Queensland’s Labor government also won re-election comfortably, for much the same reason.
Bolivia (president and legislature, 18 October). Covid-19 also hit South America badly, but in Bolivia the big issue was the disputed resignation last year of leftist president Evo Morales. The right-wing government that replaced him held (somewhat surprisingly) a fair election for a new president, and the candidate of Morales’s party, Luis Arce, won a very comfortable victory. It’s a good omen for the Latin American left, with several big elections in the region scheduled for next year.
United States (president and legislature, 3 November). This was the big one: it was closer than the polls had predicted, but Democrat Joe Biden won a clear victory over Republican Donald Trump. The country’s creaky and decentralised electoral system, however, provided ample opportunity for confusion, and Trump, who still refuses to concede defeat, has done everything he could to sow doubt about the result and distrust in the democratic process.
Romania (parliament, 6 December). The biggest election in Europe for the year, and the only one that gave much comfort for the far right (or what the media still call “populism”). They entered parliament unexpectedly with nine per cent of the vote, but had no real influence on the result, which saw a centre-to-centre-right coalition emerge with a clear majority. A similar coalition was also successful in October in Lithuania.
Ghana (president and legislature, 7 December). West Africa’s biggest democratic success story again saw a contest of two veterans, with incumbent president Nana Akufo-Addo this time scoring a fairly narrow win against his challenger, John Mahama. Incumbents also won in rather more dubious circumstances in Burkina Faso, Guinea and Ivory Coast, but in Malawi the courts threw out a dodgy election and the rerun produced an opposition victory.
And a dishonorable mention goes to Belarus, whose president declared himself the winner with eighty per cent of the vote after August’s election, provoking massive public outrage. He is still clinging to power, but the chance of him serving out a full term seems remote.
And with that, a happy new year to all our readers! Stay safe, and we’ll look forward to more democratic adventures in 2021.