Voters set the pace in 2012

Thu, Dec 27, 2012, 00:00

“Elections belong to the people. It’s their decision. If they decide to turn their back on the fire and burn their behinds, then they will just have to sit on their blisters.” – Abraham Lincoln

Don’t we know.

It was a year, for good and ill, to an unusual extent defined and driven by elections, their campaigns and their aftermaths, an essentially democratic year. Elections which shaped continent-wide politics, even global dynamics, as they settled scores at home.

US presidentials, in particular, have a way of putting domestic and international disputes on hold, as contenders shadow box, fighting out, or refighting, theoretical tussles with Iranian ayatollahs, Syrian rebels, Libyan murderers of a US ambassador, the duplicitous Pakistanis or the Chinese and their undervalued currency. Each got its moment in the sun in the campaign, occasionally injecting terrifying farce – after all, candidates were vying for the right to run the planet! – as when Republican contender Herman Cain stumbled in an interview: “Okay, Libya. President Obama supported the uprising, correct? . . . No, that’s a different one . . . all this stuff twirling around in my head.”

The story of the election was of a Republican Party held hostage by its conservative base, opting for a candidate who would face both ways simultaneously, but unconvincingly. House speaker John Boehner warned rightly in July that “the American people probably aren’t going to fall in love with Mitt Romney”. In the end it was comfortable for Obama, though without the congressional majority he needs to pull back from the looming fiscal cliff. “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term,” Senator Lindsey Graham told Republicans.


Both China and Russia used elections to confirm notionally, the path of glacial reform, the latter, at least, resembling something democratic. Xi Jinping replaced Hu Jintao as secretary general of the Communist Party in an internal, opaque party shuffle. He will become president in 2013. And Vladimir Putin returned to the role, resuming where he left off after an interregnum from Dmitry Medvedev.

The shift in Japan in December was to the nationalist right, with the defeat of reformist NDP after six inglorious years and the return of former prime minister Shinzo Abe.

Closer to home, Europe was transfixed by two key elections, in France and then Greece, and by a referendum. The defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy by François Hollande in April marked a turning point in the rightward drift of politics EU-wide and a shift in the rhetoric of the EU’s approach to the euro crisis: as Hollande put it, “relief and hope at the idea that austerity does not have to be our only fate”. It was a pushback for growth against Angela Merkel’s Thatcherite insistence that cutbacks were the only way.

When in May, our European partners holding their breath, Irish voters passed the EU fiscal treaty, France’s vote for Hollande certainly played its part in reassuring voters. As it did in June when Greeks handed a narrow victory in their elections to mainstream conservative New Democracy to forge a pro-euro and pro-bailout coalition. The vote had become a referendum on Greece in the euro with many fearful of apocalyptic consequences for the currency.

That both Greek and Irish voters should willingly back such pain was a remarkable testament to the ability of democracies and their peoples to take tough decisions – the absence of civil strife on Irish streets has bewildered many commentators. Italy’s looming election, it is to be hoped, will tell the same story, with voters looking likely to reject the easy blandishments of that old rogue Silvio Berlusconi.


Elections in the Middle East also drove much of the dynamic of its politics, except in Syria where the Assad regime seems increasingly beleaguered but the newly united opposition remains unable to deliver the coup de grace.

The victory of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi in Egypt’s presidential election marked an uneasy step in the country’s transition and an important shift in the regional balance of power – not least a new interlocutor between Israel and Hamas over Gaza. But his assumption of special powers and determination to push through a constitution largely drafted by the brotherhood and Salafist allies has opened up dangerous rifts with secular Egypt. In Israel the prospect of an election in January has served to raise political temperatures, feeding prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s irredentism and determination to make Palestinians pay for their impertinence in seeking recognition as a state at the UN.

The year must also be remembered for a triumphant London Olympics and in July in Geneva, for arguably the most important scientific discovery of our age, the bizarrely named Higgs boson, the “God particle”, a crucial building block in our understanding of the fundamental laws of nature. Humanity at its best.

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