Forget about the backsliding autocrats in Beijing, Washington, Ankara and Brasilia. In 2019 billions of citizens in some of the world’s most populous democracies will make important decisions at the ballot box. And the prospects are also good for participatory and direct democracy at the local and transnational level.
Sometimes it feels like modern democracy has fallen on hard times. Especially at the national level, a host of “bad guys” have in recent years won elections as part of a global backlash against elitist, representative governments. Some commentators have misinterpreted these developments as proof of the weakness of democracy as such, while others have instead addressed the obvious defects. They’ve outlined proposed reforms to make our democracies more direct, digital, local and transnational.
In a series of countries this year – including Peru, Ethiopia, Armenia and Malaysia – people power delivered important and encouraging reforms through referendums and elections. This could be a harbinger of 2019 – a year of opportunity for democracy worldwide.
Interestingly even the European Union, often accused of a lack of interest in genuine people power, has shown some unusual forward-looking insight. Just before the end of the year the law-making bodies of the EU agreed to upgrade the “European Citizens Initiativeexternal link” (ECI) with a whole package of reforms by January 1, 2020. The “new” ECI will strengthen the agenda-setting powers of EU citizens by providing stronger support infrastructure, more flexibility and greater rewards. With this decision – which still must be approved by the European parliament and council this spring – Brussels is sending a powerful message in two directions: EU citizens, which are about to elect a new Parliament external linkand the United Kingdom, where a second popular vote on Brexit is becoming increasingly likely.
Ballots around the Baltic Sea
Otherwise most ballot box action across the continent will focus on northern and central countries. There will be a series of nationwide elections in Estonia (March 1), Finland (April 19), Lithuania (May 12), Latvia and Denmark (both before the end of June) and Poland (in autumn).
In Switzerland parliamentary elections will be held in October, while voters will decide on various issues throughout the year, starting on February 10 when they’ll go to the polls to decide on an initiative to halt urban sprawl.
Nationwide elections will also be held in Ukraine, Belgium and Portugal, while very public debates on democratic reforms will continue in many places including Italy (where a reform of the citizens´ initiative is in parliament), Spain (on the autonomy of many of its parts) and France (as a follow up to the ´gilets jaunes’ revolution´).
But the world’s attention could shift to the dynamic regions of South and East Asia, as well as Africa. In Indonesia – the world’s most populous Muslim country – more than 200 million people will be called to cast their votes for both president and parliament on April 17. The ballot will be another milestone in the transformation from a strictly anti-communist nationalistic autocracy into a modern participatory democracy of the extremely multi-faceted archipelago.
In another significant vote, the first election since Thailand’s military Coup d´Etat will take place on February 24, in what will be a first cautious step towards democracy.
The biggest democratic exercise in history, India’s general election, will go ahead in the spring. Almost a billion people are eligible to take part in the ballot for the 17th Lok Sabha, in a process that will take several weeks in April and May in the world’s second most populous country. It will be administrated by a powerful election commission employing more than 1.5 million election workers. The very fact that India is able to conduct reasonably well-organised and legitimate ballots for almost 70 years now (the constitution of India was ratified on November 26, 1949) is a very powerful democratic message to the whole world.
High noon in Nigeria and South Africa
There will be other important ballots in Asia and beyond in 2019, including the Japanese parliamentary elections (by mid 2019) and the November 2 ballot for the two chambers of the Australian parliament. In both countries there are also discussions to include a vote on constitutional referendum issues: on security in Japan and on indigenous rights in Australia.
Taiwan – a country of 23 million people – will see an intense second year of exercising it direct democracy practices after its 2018 landmark reform and mega-vote on November 24, featuring not less than ten substantive issues. As one of the world’s quick learners, the Taiwanese parliament is currently debating further reforms to the referendum act, including a decoupling from elections and electronic signature gathering and voting.
The two biggest democracies in Africa, Nigeria and South Africa will be tested at the ballot box. In conflict-ridden, oil-rich and super-young (with a majority of the population below 25) Nigeria the February 2 mega-vote (both chambers of parliament and president) will probably see a second peaceful change of power since the end of the nation’s dictatorship 20 years ago.
Such a development is less likely in more advanced South Africa, where the dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) will continue but new reform-orientated forces of president Cyril Ramaphosa will try to continue their work. There is some hope left for the most important post-apartheid political force, which has been weakened by continuous infighting and corruption since the departure and death of Nelson Mandela, the archetypical “good guy”.
2019 has everything to become a big year for democracy.
Bruno Kaufmann is swissinfo.ch’s global democracy correspondent and editor-in-chief of the democracy media platform, people2power.infoexternal link.