Let this be the year democracy shines its beacon as it should | Andrew Rawnsley

Politicians may often prove feeble, but the forthcoming elections across the world are still something to celebrate

This will be a year of elections. The United States will choose a new president or decide, which is my guess, to stick with Barack Obama rather than twist with a Republican. The two most significant powers of the European Union go to the polls soon: France this year, Germany next year. Russia and China will also stage votes, though in these cases that will scarcely be the full democratic experience. The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist party will begin the transfer of power from President Hu to his almost certain successor, Xi Jinping. Vladimir Putin will likely win a third term at the Kremlin in March, but in a fashion that will foment dissent. There will be elections in Egypt, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and Venezuela, to name but five of the other countries going to the polls. Even Burma may get a taste. In Britain, our electoral excitements will be more limited. Barring a sudden collapse of the coalition, which for all its stresses and strains still seems unlikely, we can look forward only to the more parochial affair of Boris Johnson versus Ken Livingstone for the London mayoralty. This may not be as significant as the battle for the White House, but the cage fight for City Hall will be at least as entertaining.

This coming year of the ballot could have the potential to lift the spirits a little after the year that we rang out last night. 2011 was a very mixed advertisement for democracy. Across the Arab world, a region too often wrongly regarded as a hopeless cause for freedom, people risked everything, up to and including their lives, to liberate themselves from the grasp of tyranny. The uprisings against calcified and brutal dictatorships in the Middle East and north Africa was testimony to the universal yearning to have the right to choose your government.

The west generally applauded and encouraged. Yet in its mature polities, democracy came dangerously close to looking like a failure. Elected politicians too often proved feeble in the face of events, and unequal to the power of the financial markets to bend governments and, when it came to Greece and Italy, to break them. It was not the bunga-bunga parties that finally did for Silvio Berlusconi. It was the bond markets. In the case of Italy’s ex-prime minister, it suggests that bond markets can have a socially useful function, but the over-turning of an elected government in that fashion is not an event you’d want to see repeated too often. Forthcoming elections in Greece, likely to be held in April, will be a test of how angry voters respond to the imposition of “technocratic” governments. The United States was an uncertain beacon for the virtues of democracy. It was deadlocked at home and weakened abroad by the stand-off between a partisan and reckless Congress and a president too often reluctant to take the fight to his opponents. The European Union repeatedly tried and as repeatedly failed to find a lasting resolution to the greatest crisis of its existence. A challenge for all politicians of the west in 2012 will be to address the cynicism of many voters and the threats from those who would subvert or overthrow freedom by reasserting the supremacy and effectiveness of democratic politics.

Each of the coming contests will have its own special characteristics, peculiar to the country in which it is held. So it is foolish to venture too many generalisations and hazardous to predict outcomes. But let’s do so anyway. From the day he got to the White House, I have forecast that Barack Obama would secure a second term and I have continued to think so even when he passed through the lowest points of his presidency. Recent signs that the American economy may be going in the right direction make that prediction look a bit safer today. So does the circus that is the Republican process to select an opponent to Mr Obama in November. The Iowa caucus on Tuesday will be the first ballot box judgement on the fragmented field of Republican contenders.

With each, often farcical lap of the Republican race, the president looks a bigger, more authoritative figure. His most likely opponent will either be Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts whom Republicans don’t really want, or Newt Gingrich, the abrasive and divisive former Speaker whom I can’t see mainstream Americans putting in the White House. Mr Obama will not be able to run as the “hopey, changey, dreamy” candidate that he was four years ago, but he is a formidable campaigner who has already amassed about $1bn in his war chest. After Republican primaries which are likely to showcase the least attractive aspects of that party, he ought to be able to make the election as much about them as it is about him. And even if it is mainly about him, his record, while flawed, contains quite enough achievement to more than justify his re-election.

Of course, I could be wrong and Americans may choose to make Obama a one-term president. If I am wrong, this may say something interesting about democracy in a time of austerity. Since 1981, Americans have usually decided to reward the incumbent with re-election. Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W Bush were all given two terms. The one exception was George Bush senior. Those were broadly good years for Americans when they enjoyed prosperity at home and supremacy abroad. In that context, incumbency proved to be a massive asset. It was better to run from office than it was to run for office. So one question which will be raised by this battle for the White House is whether it remains an advantage during a time of austerity at home and challenge abroad. The power of incumbency will also be put to the test in the contests for the Elysée Palace and the Bundestag. Since 1945, German chancellors have commonly enjoyed at least two terms in office. Since the foundation of the Fifth Republic, the French have more often than not given their presidents two terms. Past precedent suggests you ought to bet with a certain amount of confidence on the re-election of both Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. Yet it is no longer clear whether those old rules still apply. In so much as there has been any pattern to recent elections in Europe, it is this: whoever is in gets thrown out. Incumbency has been a liability not an advantage. In Denmark, a government of the right was recently supplanted by one of the left. In Spain, a government of the left was even more recently replaced by one of the right. I might nevertheless hazard a small sum on Ms Merkel winning her contest, especially if the German economy has clearly picked up by then and the euro crisis has been resolved – or at least sedated. But those are almighty big ifs and her coalition partners, the Free Democrats, are threatened with oblivion, a bracing thought for our own Lib Dems about what can befall the junior wing of a coalition. I am not betting anything on the contest in France at the moment. Nicolas Sarkozy is still a long way behind his opponent in the polls, but slightly less further behind than he was, and the gap will probably narrow further in the weeks to come.

All these contests will be eagerly watched by our own politicians and not just because, by nature, they get an adrenalin rush from elections, even other people’s elections. The outcome of the contests in America, France and Germany, in particular, could have big consequences for Britain. I think it is unlikely, but the possibility is there that David Cameron could find himself having to get to know and work with a new American president, a new French president and, not so very long afterwards, a new German chancellor. Our prime minister, still a relative novice, could find himself in international company which makes him feel like a veteran. Despite that, I suspect that Mr Cameron would prefer the re-election of all three incumbents, though only after much agonising in the case of Nicolas Sarkozy.

Labour naturally wants to see Barack Obama returned to the White House. It will also be Ed Miliband’s fervent hope that the French socialists and German social democrats prevail in at least one, and preferably both, of the elections across the English Channel. A victory for François Hollande would bring to an end 17 years of centre-right occupancy of the Elysée, and a victory for the German SPD would then put the centre-left in the most powerful seat in Europe. That would help Labour to argue that international momentum is with its side of politics and its sort of arguments. A failure of the left in France and Germany, especially against two incumbents who ought to be vulnerable, would be very depressing news for Labour. That result would add weight to the thesis that times of austerity broadly favour conservatives and their values.

In this period of elections, many of the contests will be unedifying and all of the governments they produce will be more or less flawed. Yet the sheer number of them is something in itself to celebrate. In 1940, there were just 14 democracies in the entire world. Now they number well over 100. For all its many disappointments and imperfections, democracy is, as Winston Churchill had it, the worst system of government – apart from all the other ones.

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