After an annus horribilis in 2015, the new calendar year begins with new democratic opportunities – on all political levels. A preview by Bruno Kaufmann from people2power.
There was a sense of genuine relief watching the fireworks explode in Perth in Western Australia that announced a new chapter in our history: 2016. Coming a few hours ahead of most readers, colleagues and friends across the world, these first moments of January 1 ended a terrible year that saw economic turmoil, escalating wars, a massive refugee crisis and natural disasters.
Democracy experienced a recession in many parts of the world last year, creating huge challenges to genuine progress. However, there are many great opportunities ahead, which may translate into challenging public votes. Here are some of the major developments and trends in 2016 to watch closely:
People power vs super power
2016 will not be the year of Mssrs Xi, Putin or Obama, but will be a year when citizens in their countries get a chance to make their voices heard.
Ironically, it is voters in a much smaller country, Taiwan, who will start this superpower challenge this Saturday, January 16 when they elect a new president and parliament. For the first time since the retreat of the nationalist Chinese troops towards the island state in the late 1940s, the 23 million people of Taiwan could send the ruling Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) into opposition if they elect a female president with a democratic majority. This could create momentum for people power – not just in Taiwan, but also in neighbouring Hong Kong, China and Vietnam.
Later in the year, Russian citizens get their chance to make a difference by electing the 450 members of the Duma, the national parliament. However, it is unclear how free and fair the September 18 vote will be as the context for democracy has hardened dramatically since the return of Mr Putin as president in 2012.
The United States will elect a new president - and many more people and ballot measures - on November 8, concluding what is expected to be the most costly political campaign in history. It should shed some interesting light on the strong and weak points of one of the world’s oldest and most populous democracies.
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Windows of opportunity
Elsewhere, there are glimmers of hope in Iran after reformist President Hassan Rouhani called for a democratic renaissance in the country, which has a population of 75 million. ”Every voice shall be counted and heard”, declared Rouhani, when announcing the February 26 parliamentary elections last year. The big question for Iranians is if they want to keep the fundamentalist Islamic majority in the ‘Madschlis Schora Eslami’, the national parliament.
There may be changes in Uganda on February 18 when citizens decide whether to extend the rule of Idi Amin’s successor President Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
Many other regions and countries across the globe will also hold elections and referendums this spring, including Portugal (January 24, president), Switzerland (February 28, various issues), Samoa (March 31, parliament), Peru (April 10, president) and Scotland (May 5, parliament).
Europe: same procedure every year?
At first glance, it might look like just another popular vote on Europe (there have been 55 since 1972). But Britain's likely referendum on European Union membership next September stands out. Will voters in the United Kingdom choose to stay in the EU?
It is a huge question for Europe and Britain. A ‘Breixit’ would probably result in the most far-reaching changes to the EU’s processes of integration and development than in any previous No-votes to treaty changes in Europe. A ‘No’ would most likely lead to new attempts by the Scottish and the Welsh to become independent countries - but remaining in the EU.
2016 will also see increased attempts across Europe to make the first transnational tool of direct and participatory democracy more efficient, accessible and successful.
Fifty-five European Citizens’ Initiatives have been filed since the introduction of the new instrument in 2012. Only three have managed to gather enough support (one million signatures distributed across at least seven member states): on the right to water, the limitation of stem cell research and a ban on animal testing. Currently, five such initiatives are gathering support across Europe - on marriage, transport, cannabis, the environment and democracy.
Democracy cities: Going local across the globe
This year should also see some of the most interesting and encouraging progress at regional level – both in terms of socioeconomic development and of people power. Some bigger places around the world have devolved power away from national centres.
Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority country, is a good example.
While the state consists of over 6,000 populated islands that are home to 255 million people, more than half of the population lives on the island of Java (which is just three times the size of Switzerland) – and more than 30 million people live in the capital, Jakarta, from where I am writing this outlook piece.
Since the end of the dictatorship (and the unitarian state) in the late 1990s, Indonesia has become a vibrant democracy. Locally elected mayors like Joko Widodo (now president), Tri Rismaharini (mayor of Surabaya, a city of six million residents) or Ridwan Kamil (mayor of Bandung) have become powerful supporters and facilitators for active citizenship. Similarly, there are shining local examples in most countries across the globe, including nations with very weak democracies at the national level.
While 2015 unfortunately offered many bad headlines for our planet, the new year arrives with renewed hope and fresh tasks to make democracy a little more democratic.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch. The text was first published by the online global democracy platform People2Power.
Bruno Kaufmann, editor-in-chief People2Power