2022 in review

Not to suggest that the last few years in general have been uneventful, but 2022 was a year of high political drama.

Twelve months ago, democracy was under siege from an array of authoritarian regimes and pro-authoritarian parties, in a way that raised memories of the 1930s. Xi Jinping’s China was the most powerful of them, but in terms of ideological leadership and active interference in other countries, the most prominent was Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Putin sounded themes – some old (like the feebleness of liberal democracy), some new (like the menace of transgenderism) – that won him a host of more or less open devotees in the west, both in far-right parties (many of which he funded) and as a sort of fifth column within previously mainstream centre-right parties. Although in his own mind ideology clearly placed well below his personal wealth and power, he was a vital factor in keeping the anti-democratic movement together.

A year later, all looks very different. As autocrats often do, Putin over-reached. In February he launched a massive invasion of neighboring Ukraine, apparently believing the assurances of his own sycophants that he would meet little resistance either in the west or in Ukraine itself. The reality turned out to be very different.

The war continues, and its future course remains uncertain. Its political effects will also take a long time to become clear, but we can already say that it has done huge damage to the unity of the authoritarian coalition. Far-right parties have denounced Putin, with varying degrees of sincerity; China has given him at best lukewarm support, and many lesser authoritarians have moved away from his embrace.

Partly as a result, it was a good year electorally for mainstream and anti-authoritarian parties. Here are my top ten elections for the year, in chronological order as usual (compare my preview a year ago), with links to the original commentary:

Six of the G20 countries went to the polls, an unusually high number, and they mostly voted for change: only France was a clear incumbent victory. But the others stayed within the mainstream (with Italy as a partial exception), as did most of the other major contests; in addition to Kenya, Malaysia and Fiji there was peaceful democratic change in Colombia, Costa Rica, Slovenia and Sweden, and a presidential election in East Timor dealt a rebuke to irresponsible government.

The wins for authoritarianism were fewer, although still not insignificant. In addition to Hungary, Serbia’s leader also won a dubious election, and the Philippines exchanged one authoritarian for another. Israel also elected a new far-right government after the collapse of its broad-based coalition, and Tunisia’s democratic backsliding continued apace. Bulgaria’s reformist government lost office, in part due to the pressures of the Ukraine war.

An assessment in terms of left vs right is more difficult; several Australian pundits suggested that the centre-left was on a roll. But it seems to me that the pundits were behind the curve and that (like the previous year) the trend was more for something of a swing back towards the right. That matters less, however, than usual – as can be seen, for example, from Italy, where the new political fault line runs down the middle of its new right-wing government.

It seems almost perverse to find a message of hope in the slaughter and destruction in Ukraine. But the truth is that Putin has given the democratic world a new lease of life, by exposing so dramatically the reality of what authoritarianism means. The battle will not be an easy one, but more than ever it is clear what we are fighting for.

I’m reminded of the words of Sherlock Holmes, forecasting the onset of the First World War: “It will be cold and bitter, Watson, and a good many of us may wither before its blast. But it’s God’s own wind none the less, and a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared.” His hopes were disappointed then, but maybe this time the world will do better.

Tune in tomorrow for a look at the big elections to watch out for in 2023!

One thought on “2022 in review

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.