2021 in review

This time last year I noted that “hopes are high for a return to something like normality in 2021.” It didn’t turn out that way, as Covid-19 remained a disruptive and destructive force. But the hopeful signs for democracy that we observed in 2020 are still there, and in some respects have been reinforced.

First of all, here as usual are my top ten elections of 2021 (in chronological order), with links to the original reports. Then I’ll venture some remarks about the trend.

After a few years in which extremism – and especially parties of the far right – seemed to be on the march, this year we have seen the revenge of the mainstream. The health crisis benefited incumbents, but especially those that stuck with conventional politics and avoided the shoals of denialism and authoritarianism.

Latin America was something of an exception; after a good few years for the right the trend was more to the far left, which won the presidency in Peru and Chile and held the legislature in Mexico. But even there it was mostly a reaction against the far right. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who faces the voters next year, will be hard pressed to survive.

Six of the G20 countries went to the polls, although three only for legislative elections in presidential systems – one of which (Russia) is no longer a democracy. Of the other three, incumbents were returned in Canada and Japan, while Germany elected a new broad-based coalition. Mainstream incumbents also did well in the Netherlands, Albania, Tasmania, Armenia and Iceland, and in a recall election in California.

The world’s most dangerous autocrats are still in power. China extinguished the remnants of Hong Kong’s self-government, Myanmar’s generals seized power in a coup and Iran’s theocrats consolidated their control. But none of them look especially secure (the Middle East, where some of the worst have American support, is an exception); Vladimir Putin’s party went backwards in elections, Viktor Orbán’s opposition formed a united front, and lesser autocrats in Israel, Samoa and Bulgaria went down to defeat.

Perhaps the darkest shadow over the year was cast by an event at its very start, the 6 January Trumpist insurrection in the United States. American democracy now hangs by a slender thread, imperilled perhaps most of all by the fact that most of its defenders still do not realise the seriousness of the threat.

Nor is that the world’s only problem. Covid-19 has exposed a rich vein of anti-science thinking that should already have been familiar from the debate over climate change; along the way, assorted groups of “libertarians”, in alliance (ironically enough) with some of the world’s most authoritarian leaders, have done much to discredit the cause of human freedom.

But the denialists have fared badly at the polls, and voters have consistently reaffirmed their faith in democracy. The onus is now on democratic leaders to ensure that their trust is not betrayed. The overt enemies of civilisation cannot prevail through their own strength, only through our weakness.

Happy new year everyone! Next week we’ll have a look at some of the things to watch out for in 2022.

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