While some commentators offered their final obituaries on democracy at the end of 2016, we at P2P look forward to a new year full of opportunities, challenges and much hard work across the globe - with the ambition to not just defend what we have, but to develop democracy further.
Happy New Year, World.
After months of allergic reactions, complaints and at times outright defeatist judgment on the state of modern democracy, a new calendar has been put on our walls. It´s 2017 - with another 365 fresh days for all of us to report and support the values, practices and benefits of people power globally.
Here are some of the places to watch, people to assist and lessons to be learned:
January will see a first series of critical tests of democracy in Asia, Africa and America. One year after the impressive popular election of the first democratic leader in a Chinese-speaking country, Taiwan´s new president Tsai Ing-wen and her majority are about to liberate the political system of the island-state by reforming the country´s referendum and marriage laws. In Africa, the president-elect of Gambia, Adama Barrow, will take office on January 19 after a strong election victory. But the incumbent Barrow defeated, Yahya Jammeh, has threatened to not accept the power change after 22 years in office.
This is not an issue in the United States, where the loser of the popular vote (by nearly 2.9 million votes or a margin of 2,1%), Donald Trump won the electoral college against Hillary Clinton (by winning in 30 out of 50 states and 306 out 538 electoral votes). While the office of the presidency is equipped with far-reaching executive powers, the popular mandate for the new US president is very weak, as Trump failed to win a plurality, much less a majority of the votes, in an election that saw the lowest overall turnout (57,9%) in 20 years.
Popular votes, citizens’ initiatives and referendums
After all that, we will reach February, when presidential and parliamentary elections are coming up in Europe (Liechtenstein on the 5th), Asia (dictatorial Turkmenistan on the 12th) and Latin America (Ecuador on the 19th). Switzerland will see three nationwide votes on February 12 (on naturalisation of foreign citizens, a new model to finance road infrastructure and a mayor reform to business taxes). At the same time Swiss citizens currently are invited to sign seven nationwide citizens´ initiatives, dealing with such constitutional amendments as extended parental leave, disclosure rules for money in politics, and the prohibtion of artificial pesticides. Furthermore there is a popular referendum going on regarding the implementation of the controversial anti-immigration initiative of the far right. More nationwide voting days are scheduled in Switzerland in May (21), September (24) and November (26) this year.
2016 was a record year for nationwide popular votes, with almost 1 billion citizens in 133 countries participating in elections and referendums. And 2017 promises to offer yet another super-election year; democracy is far from dead, no matter what some people suggest.
Vive la France!
Major citizens decisions in spring 2017 involve the presidency in France. There, in contrast to the U,S., the popular majority will prevail as this election is done in two rounds, with a plurality vote in a first step (on April 23) and a decisive majority decision on May 7. The current socialist Head of State, Francois Hollande is not running, so the final decision is expected to be between the candidate of the Conservatives (Francois Fillon) and the Nationalistic Right (Marine Le Pen).
A victory by the latter would have strong consequences for the European Union as Le Pen would like to lead her country out of the Union. The French contest thus frames an overarching question about democracy in the new year: Is it possible to extend the principles, procedures and practices of modern democracy onto the transnational level?
Part of the answer will be given in spring, when the future of the European Citizens Initiative will be on the Brussels agenda, while the concrete steps to implement Britain's decision to give up its EU membership are scheduled to begin. Meanwhile, other electorates across the world will be called to make important decisions on the composition of their parliaments and their presidencies, and on major legal and constitutional issues. In Europe we face key elections in the Netherlands (March 15), Albania (June 18), Norway (September 11) and Germany (September), where long-term Chancellor (since 2005) Angela Merkel faces many challengers and challenges.
Across Africa the semi-official, but peaceful and multi-party state of Somaliland (a former British protectorate) is to elect a new parliament (March 27). More key African elections involve Kenya (August 8) and Rwanda (August 4), where a popular referendum approved changes in the constitution to allow incumbent president Paul Kagame to run for third term. This is all too typical in many countries, where elected (or unelected) heads of states rarely resign in a timely manner. A prize (the Mo Ibrahim Award), offered to former presidents who cede power peacefully, has found a viable prizewinner only two occasions since it was established in 2008. Tunisia, the only surviving democracy out of the Arab spring, is preparing for its first truly local elections later this year.
Tehran and Seoul
In central Asia, the Iranian presidential elections on May 19 will raise interest across the region and beyond. As in 2009 and 2013, the citizens of this hybrid-theocratic-democratic country will have to decide if they want a moderate (like the current president Rouhani) or hardliner (like former president Ahmadinejad) at the top.
In the Far East, the Koreans (of South Korea) will be called to elect a new head of state. Here the process of democratization has recently made great progress including strong movements for genuine direct democracy at the national, regional and local level. The date of this election is still unknown as the current conservative president Park Geun-hye is under impeachment by parliament and the courts, following a corruption scandal and strong social protests.
Across the Yellow Sea the People´s Republic of China will see major power transitions as half the members of the Politburo (the de-facto government) are to be replaced in fall. While democracy experiences some weak local progress across the Middle Kingdom, China´s "Special Administrative Region" of Hong-Kong enters a great struggle for its constitutionally enshrined freedoms. When London handed Hong Kong over to Beijing in 1997, it was agreed that a free election of the HK chief executive would be introduced by 2017at the latest. But now, as a non-partisan former judge runs against a Pro-Beijing representative on March 26, the people of Hong-Kong will have no say. An Election Committee controlled by China will make this decision.
Learning from failures
There will be thousands of other popular votes coming up this year, mainly in cities across the world, which more and more are becoming the true powerhouses of modern democracy. At the same time fundamental issues of democratic balances (for example between the protection of minorities and the decisions by majorities or issues related to judicial overview and independence) will be at stake in many world regions including Europe.
Swiss political scientist Claude Longchamp recently suggested that the gradual progress of democracy worldwide may have stagnated. To counter this, it will be critical to report and support democratic principles, procedures and practices globally locally, where active citizens often face hard struggles to protect and use their rights. Together with its partners – among them our hosting partner swissinfo – across the world, people2power. info will continue to offer a space for sharing and caring about (more) democracy. And so we invite all readers to become true participants in this work. Together we can make it possible to walk on the bright side of democracy in 2017!