In the turmoil of the next year, what do you think will change people’s lives the most: armed force, acts of nature, economic pressure, or personal democratic choice?
Officially, the grand narrative of 2013 will be shaped by a series of important national elections. What unites these votes, however, is the deep disconnect between the fast-changing world and the stagnant electoral choices.
This should be a good moment for democracy. According to the think tank Freedom House, about 65 per cent of the world’s seven billion people now get to choose their leaders (about half of those non-democratic 35 per cent live in China).
In the past 12 months, we have seen citizens change their governments in surprising and often exciting ways in Mexico, France, South Korea, Georgia and Senegal. In Libya, people voted overwhelmingly for liberal non-Islamists; in Egypt, they chose Islamists by a slim margin in a regime that may still be military-controlled. Greece voted itself into fringe-party chaos. Russia and Venezuela stayed with strongmen in votes that can barely be called democratic. Americans surprised many by avoiding a stark regime change.
But 2013 will be defined by a series of potentially history-changing elections in some of the world’s most influential countries:
Israel, Jan. 22: Yes, we know that Benjamin Netanyahu is almost certain to remain prime minister, a depressing prospect in a country that hasn’t had a leader capable of properly confronting its largest challenges since 1995. Voters seem turned off by his Likud Party: Polls show him winning only 29 per cent of Knesset seats.
To keep power, Mr. Netanyahu may have to form a coalition with the even more extreme and ardently anti-Palestinian Jewish Home party, which is capturing 11 per cent in polls. Yet, Mr. Netanyahu’s hatred of its leader – former adviser Naftali Bennett – is legendary. A forced marriage between these two would mark a low point in Israeli politics, and an unpopular one, not reflective of Israeli attitudes to peace and settlements. Would this prospect finally trigger a shift back to moderation, perhaps a Labour-Likud coalition? That’s the best possible hope.
Italy, Feb. 24-25: The very fact that Silvio Berlusconi stands a decent chance of being elected prime minister for the fourth time shows how deeply poisoned the politics of Southern Europe have become. A man who’d probably be in prison on serious charges if he hadn’t changed the laws to protect himself, the billionaire Mr. Berlusconi is, this time, positioning himself as an Occupy-style outsider populist, opposing the painful austerity measures and important new taxes that Italy has endured. His return to mainstream politics would be catastrophic, and not at all representative of the views of Italians.
Iran, June 14: The good news is that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will not be back; Iran’s two-term limit will keep the inflammatory leader out of this presidential election. And his party, the hard-line Principlist bloc, has been hurt by his very public and humiliating feud with Iran’s other political force, the unelected Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This could theoretically create an opening for reformists who seek peace with the West – but remember, Mr. Ahmadinejad owes his current presidency to the Supreme Leader’s decision to declare him a winner in the fractious 2008 election and order top reformists placed under house arrest.
Could an even more conservative leader, loyal to Ayatollah Khamenei, be shunted into power? Yes, but public outrage is growing, and this might be the moment when ordinary Iranians lose all patience with their bumbling, economy-wrecking leaders and begin to take matters into their own hands.
Germany, September/October: Chancellor Angela Merkel ought to be punished at the ballot for failing to address the continent-wide currency crisis for the better part of four years, using German complacency and public cynicism at Greece to transform a recession into a catastrophe. She won’t: Her Christian Democrats are poised to win again.
But watch what’s happening in the margins: Her current coalition partners, the libertarian Free Democrats, are doomed. She’ll likely team up with a resurgent, fiscally sensible Green Party or with the left-leaning Social Democrats – and may be more comfortable with this. Now that Germany has become the de facto leader of Europe, this shift to the centre could foretell a larger continent-wide trend.
The big changes, in Germany as elsewhere, won’t be at the top but in the forces that will determine the next several years of politics. We call it representative democracy, but it’s often hard to say what’s being represented.