Editor’s Note: David A. Andelman, a contributor to CNN, twice winner of the Deadline Club Award, is a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor, author of “A Red Line in the Sand: Diplomacy, Strategy, and the History of Wars That Might Still Happen” and blogs at Andelman Unleashed. He formerly was a correspondent for The New York Times and CBS News in Europe and Asia. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Liberal democracy was hanging on by a thread this year across the world as nations ranging in size from France to the Faroe Islands went to the polls to choose who would rule them. All too often, though, voters demonstrated a sharp turn to the right or, having little free choice, merely cemented in power ancestral dictators.
Over the course of this year, I’ve chronicled 30 national elections on five continents and four oceans – beginning with France’s presidential election in April and continuing through to Fiji and Tunisia last week. Each has had its own unique cast, but often seem to exhibit certain core principles – object lessons for how people prosper or simply survive in the disparate corners of our planet.
First were the game-changers – nations and people that chose a substantial break with a past that didn’t seem to have worked for them, or where leaders promised something better and were able to persuade voters that they had some sort of magic sauce.
Perhaps the top example this year has been Italy. Here, the country shed a consummate technocrat, Mario Draghi, previous longtime president of the European Central Bank, who as prime minister of Italy for 20 months had been piloting his country through the Covid-19 pandemic and away from the shoals of utter economic collapse. All while embracing the efforts of Ukraine to repel the Russian invasion, and its hopes of joining the European Union.
Even in Italy’s breakneck turnovers of governments, it was a short-lived premiership. In July, Draghi resigned in disgust over his treatment at the hands of a parliament that was resisting his every move.
In his place, voters chose to install a toxic triumvirate of far-right extremists, led by Giorgia Meloni. Italy’s first woman prime minister was at the helm of the most far-right government since the fascist era of Benito Mussolini.
Meloni’s fellow troika members were Matteo Salvini, a veteran right-wing extremist, and the 86-year-old four-time Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, an unabashed supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Not long after Meloni’s victory in Italy, at the other end of Europe, Swedish voters were going to the polls with equally dramatic results. They elected a rightist prime minister who needed the nationalist, firmly anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats to form a government – a party whose leader Jimmie Akesson, in pre-election debate, had reportedly refused to choose between President Joe Biden and Putin.
The Putin factor
Halfway across the globe, Brazil’s voters also appeared at first blush to be opting for an abrupt change in direction in October’s election. Though in this case, it involved shedding right-wing demagogue Jair Bolsonaro and returning to power the far-left icon, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
But it was a pyrrhic victory for “Lula,” as he is known. He was immediately confronted by a parliament with a majority held by the party still controlled by Bolsonaro – a man whose campaign was reportedly supported by Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, and who is friendly with Putin. In short, don’t count out Bolsonaro for a minute.
A similar political bind had already developed in France. One hand giveth, the other taketh away as voters rewarded President Emmanuel Macron with a second five-year term in April, the first back-to-back repeat since Jacques Chirac two decades ago.
But then weeks later in June, the same voters removed Macron’s absolute majority in parliament. Instead, they turned over the role of power broker to the far-right icon Marine Le Pen, who Macron had twice defeated for the presidency. Le Pen has well-documented, close ties to Putin going back years. (She has also condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while advocating that sanctions on Russia should be removed).
Coupled with the fourth consecutive victory by Hungary’s firebrand Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Putin’s staunchest ally within the European Union, the Kremlin leader has appeared to have cemented a powerful network of supporters on multiple continents.
All this was happening in deeply entrenched democracies. Elsewhere, in the face of broad international condemnation, several long-standing dictators or dynasties managed to cement their single-handed rule of their nations.
In the November election in OPEC-member Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang, the world’s longest-ruling head of state with 43 years in office, won nearly 99% of the vote. Little wonder the US State Department concluded “we have serious doubts about the credibility of the announced results.”
Turning to Asia, voters in the Philippines who decades earlier shed the long, kleptocratic rule of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, somewhat inexplicably returned their son Bongbong Marcos to power with a resounding victory in May.
His victory assured that Bongbong and his mother Imelda, now aged 93, would likely go unpunished for their family’s stolen funds that are estimated to have risen as high as $10 billion during the Marcos’ rule a half century ago. Philippine voters appear simply to be hoping that history won’t repeat itself.
Another of what I Iike to call franchise-holders was Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu. He managed to return to power in November’s election with the help of far-right parties that both oppose statehood for Palestinian territories and embrace Israel extending its sovereignty throughout the West Bank.
One of his allies is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who’s been promised the powerful National Security ministry. Ben-Gvir also happens to be the spiritual successor to the Jewish Defense League and its founder Meir Kahane, whose violent activities in New York in the 1960s led him to flee to Israel and form the anti-Arab Kach Party.
The wild cards
And then there are those who somehow managed to snatch victory following some very questionable campaign moves.
Notable among these was Denmark’s youngest female prime minister Mette Frederiksen. Her campaign was burdened by an ill-considered decision to exterminate the country’s entire 17 million-strong mink population after a scare that the critters might be in a position to pass along Covid-19 mutations to humans.
Forced by the uproar to call an election seven months before her term ended, she managed to eke out a victory. This despite her actions costing Denmark almost $2 billion to compensate the mink farmers whose livelihood was impacted.
As for the Faroe Islands in the North Atlantic, it appears many there would love to break the final bonds that have tied them to Denmark since Napoleon, with the pro-independence People’s Party fielding nearly 20% of votes in an election earlier this month.
At the time England’s Magna Carta first ushered in the concept of democratic choice, there were barely 300 million people in the world. This year, the global population hit 8 billion.
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Yet as I have chronicled this year, for the most part, democracy of one form or another still is not played out, as the defeat of election deniers in the US midterms suggested.
My hope is that enough voters recognize the value of maintaining a system of free choice, even in the hardest of times, to keep democracy alive – even if they do not always achieve the goal of tolerance, respect and cohesion.