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2015: the year in elections

It’s been a dramatic year in elections around the world: old leaders were toppled, upstarts and novices seized the helm, and embattled governments somehow managed to cling on. Here, the experts who covered them take stock of what’s happened – and look at what’s in store for 2016.

Zambia: praying for rain

Stephen Chan, SOAS

Zambia’s 2015 election was triggered when the incumbent president, Michael Sata, died in office. Constitutionally, after a period of acting presidency by the vice-president, Dr Guy Scott – who, for a short time, had the distinction of being a white president of a black country – any chosen successor had to face the polls. Edgar Lungu was picked after a fractious process and ultimately beat off a strong challenge from opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema.

Lungu’s time in office may be brief, since he was elected only to fill out the term until full elections in September 2016. He has had to preside over a grave economic downturn and has called days of prayer instead of coming up with technocratic solutions. A catastrophic shortage of rain exacerbated power shortages as hydroelectric production literally dried up and the country’s brief economic bubble has burst.

He is dogged by rumours of ill health and Zambians now joke about whether he will join the country’s roster of presidents who have died in office. Whoever wins the 2016 elections may come up with an economic plan to overcome the curse of plunging international copper prices – but may yet be reduced to praying for rain.

Israel: zero sum game

Yoav Galai, University of St Andrews

This year’s election was framed by identity politics as a zero-sum game. That much was clear from the decision of four different (mostly) Arab parties to run together as the “Joint List”, a banner under which they became the third-largest party in parliament.

Bibi wins again. EPA/Jim Hollander

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party trounced the Labour opposition – and Netanyahu is now set to become the longest running prime minister in Israeli history. Unlike his previous coalition government, he had no need to cross ideological lines to compose a coalition – and this government is his most right-wing yet.

This was a big surprise; even on the day of the elections the polls predicted a draw with Labour. Netanyahu then delivered a warning that “the Arabs are coming to the polling stations in droves”. The false and racist statement painted the participation of Israel’s Arab minority in the national elections as illegitimate, but it worked wonders.

Some of the racist inclinations of the other side became visible too. At an anti-Netanyahu rally in March, prominent left-wing intellectual Yair Garbuz drew a direct line between criminality, anti-Arab racism and Mizrahi Jews, the majority of Israel’s Jewish population who have roots in Arab countries – and, looking back at the election, Labour leader Shelly Yechimovich conceded that Garbuz’s statements may have been partly to blame for her party’s loss.

With a fragile majority of one, the coalition can easily be pushed into extremism by the Nationalist Religious Jewish Home party and by the Likud’s more right-wing ministers. With no clear plan regarding Palestinians except the normalisation of settlement activity, attention has returned to zero sum identity politics, with the general categories of Arabs and left as the targets of legislation and policy.

Nigeria: matters of urgency

Catherine Gegout, University of Nottingham

When Muhammadu Buhari was elected president of Nigeria in March, he certainly had his work cut out. Nigeria’s economy badly needs to be diversified; petroleum exports revenue represents more than 90% of total export revenue, even as only half of all Nigerians have access to electricity. Education is in a dismal state, especially in the north, where only 6% of children have primary education.

Muhammadu Buhari. Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde

There have already been some promising moves. Buhari has renewed Nigeria’s beleagured fight against corruption, including oil corruption and both he and his deputy took a symbolic pay cut. He must now start honouring his promise to improve gender representation in politics. Currently, only 16% of cabinet members are women, and only 6% of senators and members of the House of Representatives.

Then there’s the fight against Boko Haram. Approximately 1,500 people have been killed since June 2015, there is the serious prospect of true co-operation between the group and Islamic State and the group is still targeting the north’s few schools.

United Kingdom: political carnage

Louise Thompson, University of Surrey

Almost every poll of the British electorate failed to predict the result on the night, which was ultimately heralded by a shocking exit poll that turned out to be correct.

The election ultimately returned a familiar face to Downing Street in the form of David Cameron, but the turmoil of the losing parties had huge implications for the British political system.

Before the bloodbath: 2015’s first UK party leaders’ debate. EPA/Ken McKay/ITV

The Liberal Democrats went from a party of government to a party of the (very) backbenches, while Labour’s loss (and near-wipeout in Scotland) was followed by a messy post-election leadership battle and the surprise ascendancy of left-winger Jeremy Corbyn. The result is an opposition more divided than any party in recent memory.

Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party took almost all the Scottish seats. It has so far maintained this momentum at Westminster, marking itself out as the party to watch.

One thing is certain: there will be even more division and discord at Westminster in 2016, as Labour infighting continues and the parties prepare for the impending EU referendum campaign.

Poland: right turn

Simona Guerra, University of Leicester, and Fernando Casal Bértoa, University of Nottingham

Even though Poland has low levels of unemployment and inflation and an overall positive macro-economic outlook, its people still threw out the incumbent Civic Platform party president in favour of the opposition Law and Justice (PiS) candidate. A socially conservative party, PiS doubled down on its success in October’s legislative polls, when it won in almost all regions and across different demographics.

The PiS’ leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski (R) and Prime Minister Beata Szydlo. EPA/Jacek Turczyk

Since then, PiS has been on a tear, not least with some rather sobering appointments. Controversial nationalist Antoni Macierewicz is still minister of defence despite allegations of explicit anti-semitism, while Zbigniew Ziobro became minister of justice despite having already been in the spotlight after a number of politicised prosecutions.

The party also holds serious sway over the Polish Constitutional Court, which has sole authority to declare laws unconstitutional – and because of impending retirements and amendments, PiS is moving forward the controversial debates on the court’s future. As Poland becomes more Eurosceptic, more protective of Polish interests and more disinclined to accept refugees, PiS now has a chance to implement its own distinctive version of law and justice.

Denmark: holding together (just)

Martin Vinæs Larsen, University of Copenhagen

Denmark’s parliamentary election ended with a victory for the Liberal-Conservative bloc, which ousted the Social Democratic prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

Lars Løkke Rasmussen. EPA/Nils Meilvang

But her successor at the helm, the Liberals’ Lars Løkke Rasmussen, saw his own party severely weakened at the election. Instead, he had to rely on the right-wing populist party, the Danish People’s Party, to gain a majority. The People’s Party had an outstanding election, becoming the second largest party in the new parliament.

The outlook was therefore somewhat bleak for the new prime minister, who now leads one of the smallest minority governments in the country’s history. In spite of this, he has managed to manoeuvre through the difficult parliamentary situation, shepherding through several important reforms of the labour market and new laws dealing with the refugee crises. But it remains to be seen how long he can hold his right-wing coalition together.

Sri Lanka: end of an era

Oliver Walton, University of Bath

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nine years in power came to an abrupt end in January, when the former president suffered an unexpected defeat at the hands of his one-time ally Maithripala Sirisena.

Sirisena’s victory was widely seen as marking a revival of democratic governance in Sri Lanka, and was consolidated with another victory in August’s parliamentary elections.

The new government has begun a constitutional reform process and cooperated with a UN-mandated mechanism for investigating war crimes, but concerns persist over the continued heavy military in the north and continuing evidence of arbitrary detention and torture.

Guatemala: all change

Neil Pyper, Coventry University

Guatemala’s presidential race produced a surprise outcome, while also shaking up the rest of Central America. Until almost the eve of September’s first round, it seemed inevitable that Manuel Baldizon of the Renewed Democratic Freedom (Libre) party would win relatively comfortably.

Guatemala finally got fed up of its corrupt leaders. Reuters/Jorge Lopez

But mass protests about a corruption scandal that eventually brought down the outgoing president, Otto Perez Molina – as well as his vice president and numerous ministers – drastically eroded support for Baldizon, as questions about wrongdoing within his party mounted. They also led to the rapid rise of political outsider Jimmy Morales, a well-known television personality. Morales topped the poll in the first round and won the subsequent run-off by a landslide.

He takes office in January, but faces the unenviable task of satisfying the public appetite for fundamental overhaul of the political system.

Greece: accepting austerity

Sotirios Zartaloudis, Birmingham

Alexis Tsipras’ decision to call snap elections in September turned out to be a masterstroke of Machiavellian political ingenuity.

Alexis Tsipras. EPA/Orestis Panagiotou

On one hand, the Syriza prime minister managed a very efficient manoeuvre to get rid of his anti-Euro internal opposition; on the other, he saved face for his anti-austerity U-turn, and now has the legitimacy he needs to implement the three extra years of harsh measures he agreed to before the elections.

It remains to be seen how his transformation from a hard-left radical to a pro-austerity premier will turn out, but so far, he has escaped punishment from the electorate despite reneging on almost all of his pre-2015 promises.

Singapore: marching on

Afif Pasuni, University of Warwick

Singapore’s election was expected to trouble the country’s one-party system. It ultimately failed to change much – and the People’s Action Party (PAP) is still going strong after more than half a century of rule. Thanks to consistent economic progress, the party’s critics failed to gain much of a foothold.

But even though it won the election, the party is at a crossroads. Strict media controls and persistent socio-economic interventions are still the norm, but there are also signs that the government’s tight grip is relaxing. Still, while the state is not blithely ignoring to the demands of its critics, 2015 reminded us that surprises are still an alien concept in Singaporean politics.

Canada: a new generation rises

Steve Hewitt, University of Birmingham

Led by three-term prime minister Stephen Harper, Canada’s Conservatives waged an election campaign based on fear, focusing on the threat posed by Syrian refugees specifically and Muslims more generally. The party duly held on to its base vote, but they were not able to go beyond it – while optimism helped Justin Trudeau’s Liberals increase their vote by over 4m.

Justin Trudeau’s election represents a generational change in terms of attitudes toward drugs. Whereas no other national leader in a Western democracy has both admitted using drugs and then promised to legalise them nationally, after Trudeau admitted in 2010 that he had smoked pot, he not only refused to apologise but also pledged to legalise marijuana if his Liberal Party won the election. That promise was reiterated in this year’s throne speech.

Justin Trudeau. Reuters/Blair Gable

Trudeau is a sign of things to come as a new generation takes power around the world. As in the 2015 UK result and recent US presidential elections, most major Canadian cities – often increasingly diverse with citizens drawn from around the world along with youth and dynamism – voted for left-of-centre parties, while older and more homogenous suburban and rural voters opt for right-of-centre parties. The divide is growing, and it won’t start to close anytime soon.

This is the politics of the 21st century – and Justin Trudeau has harnessed it capably.

Turkey: deep trouble

Bahar Baser, Coventry University

Turkey’s June election was ripe with possibility, both good and bad. The pro-Kurdish leftist party, the HDP, was taking a major risk by participating in the elections for the first time, and the results of the elections were expected to determine whether the country would start moving towards a more authoritarian presidential system.

In the end, the HDP passed the 10% threshold needed to enter parliament and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its absolute majority – but the country’s various parties could not agree on a coalition government, and a snap second election was called for November.

Between the two polls, the Kurdish peace process stalled completely and the Turkish army and police forces began cracking down on Kurdish majority areas, causing numerous civilian casualties in the process. Then there was a massive bombing in Ankara, the worst in Turkey’s recent history.

Celebrating the November result outside AKP headquarters. Reuters/Umit Bektas

But instead of haemorrhaging votes as some predicted, the AKP won an outright majority in November by charming nationalist voters, paving the way for a transition to a more authoritarian system under one-party rule. The HDP once again cleared the 10% threshold, but with fewer votes.

All this bodes ill for 2016. The PKK and the Turkish state will be forced to find a way forward, while a crackdown on freedom of speech and human rights is already underway. And all the while, Turkey must struggle to manage its increasingly complex position in the Syrian crisis.

Myanmar: a new dawn?

Andrew Fagan, University of Essex

The first credible general elections to be held in Myanmar for more than 50 years took place this November. Everyone predicted that Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) would win, but few expected the landslide scale of the victory. Crucially, the large number of votes the NLD secured from Myanmar’s multitude of ethnic minorities, who this time around have placed their hopes for real change in the NLD rather than their own ethnicity-based political parties.

Still, despite voting for the NLD, many remain unconvinced by its commitment to genuinely ending the discrimination and persecution of Myanmar’s minorities . This is especially the case with respect to the Rohingya, who are classified by the UN as one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. The NLD’s commitment to human rights will ultimately be measured by its ability to confront and overcome ethnic and religious conflict.

Argentina: let’s change

Juan Pablo Ferrero, University of Bath

Mauricio Macri won Argentina’s first ever presidential run-off by a narrow margin, making him the first ever democratic president to come from a third party. His coalition, Let’s Change, ran on a minimalist platform that targeted middle-class concerns, emphasising meritocracy and difference over equality and social rights.

Macri’s win matters for the whole region because it is the first presidential election lost by a coalition of the centre-left – playing into the narrative that Latin America’s leftist political era is coming to a close.

Riding high: Maurico Macri. Reuters

Still, any hopes Macri will dismantle Argentina’s post-neoliberal consensus are premature – any such attempt will face organised resistance from social movements and opposition parliamentarians. The country is divided in two opposing cultural blocs roughly equal in political heft and with roughly equivalent representation throughout the system, so making policy without resorting to presidential decrees will be tough.

The government’s main challenge will be to turn its electoral victory into a broader political consensus that can keep Argentina governable – and the opposition must reflect about why the same sectors of the middle class that supported its ascent have now brought it down.

Venezuela: the dream is over

Marco Aponte-Moreno, University College London

Venezuela’s congressional election marked the end of 16 years of hegemony for the late Hugo Chávez’s socialist party.

In a historic vote with a turnout of almost 75%, the opposition obtained a supermajority of two-thirds of the legislature. These results will allow the opposition to call a referendum to remove the country’s unpopular president, Nicolás Maduro, from office once his term reaches its midpoint in mid April 2016.

The opposition will also try to pass an amnesty to release jailed opposition leaders and remove judges installed by court-packing. Meanwhile, for many voters, the decisive issue was Venezuela’s dire economic performance. Addressing desperate shortages of food and basic goods will be a challenge for the opposition and the “chavistas” alike.

Spain: ¡sí, se puede!

Paul Kennedy, University of Bath

Spain’s political system had shown signs of fracturing for some time, but on December 15 the country’s two-party system was finally consigned to the history books. The ruling People’s Party remained the largest in parliament but came up well short of a majority; the once-governing Socialists were very nearly one-upped by leftist insurgents Podemos.

The upshot is that no obvious political partners have the seats to assemble a parliamentary majority – and given the Catalan nationalists’ wholehearted push for independence, bringing them into a coalition will be more politically tricky than ever before. Whoever gets to do it, governing Spain for the four years until the next scheduled election will be a fraught business indeed.

Stay with The Conversation in 2016 for our coverage of elections in the US, Peru, the Philippines, and many more.

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