OUTLOOK: After a horrible 2015, the new year offers new and fascinating democratic opportunities - on all political levels and worldwide. A preview by Bruno Kaufmann in Jakarta/Indonesia.
It was a genuine relief to see the fireworks of Perth in Western Australia to announce a new chapter in our history, 2016. A few hours ahead of most readers, colleagues and friends across the world, the first moments of January 1 ended a year with many bad developments globally, including economic turmoil, escalating war, massive refugee crisis and at least partially man-made natural disasters.
Even democracy experienced a recession in many parts of the world last year, creating huge challenges to genuine progress this year. However, there are also many great opportunities ahead, which may translate into challenging popular votes covering both big and small countries, regions and cities. In 2016 the the following developments and trends are to be watched very carefully:
2016 will not be the year of Mssr. Xi, Putin and Obama, but a year when citizens in their countries get a chance to make their voices heard. Paradoxically, it is the electorate of a much smaller country, Taiwan, that will start this superpower challenge on January 16, by electing 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 will dare to send the Kuomintang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) into full opposition - by electing a female president with a democratic majority. This could create momentum for people power - not only in Taiwan, but also in neighboring Hong Kong, China and Vietnam.
Later in the year, Russian citizens get a new 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 popular vote will be as the context for democracy has hardened dramatically since the return of Mr. Putin to the Presidency in 2012.
Finally the United States of America 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 world history - and offering more insight nto both the strong and weak points of one of the world´s oldest and most populous democracies.
Iran, Uganda and other unlikely places
Iran, long a "declared" enemy to most other countries, has recently become one possible light in the dark as reformist president Hassan Rouhani has called for a democratic renaissance in the country of 75 million. "Every voice shall be counted and heard", promised Rouhani, when announcing the February 26 parliament elections last year. The big question Iranians will have to answer is if they want to keep the fundamentalist islamic majority in the "Madschlis Schora Eslami", the national parliament.
And there may be more democratic momentum this year when the people of Uganda on February 18 get a chance to end the "eternal ruling" of Idi Amin-succesor President Musseveni.
Many other regions and countries across the globe will also hold elections and referenda this spring, including Portugal (January 24, President), Switzerland (February 28, Issues), Samoa (March 31, Parliament), Peru (April 10, President) and Scotland (May 5, Parliament) to name just a few.
Europe: Same procedure as every year?
At first glance, it might look like just another popular vote on Europe in Europe (55 since 1972). But the United Kingdom´s likely referendum on September stands out. Will the British choose to remain in the European Union? This is a huge question for Europe and the U.K. A "Breixit" would most proobaly change the EU´s processes of integration and development more comprehensively than all the previous no-votes to treaty changes in Europe. And a "no" would most likely also lead to new attempts by the Scottish and the Welsh to become independent countries - within the EU.
In the shadow of the UK path to the mid-september referendum (which, technically, shall be about a yet-to-be finalized agreement on reforms with Europe), 2016 will bring stepped-up attempts across the continent to make the first transnational tool of direct and participatory democracy more efficient, accessible and succesful. Fifty-five European Citizens´ Initiatives have been filed since the introduction of the new instrument in 2012, with just three managing to gather enough support (one million signatures distributed across at least seven member states) supporting the right to water, the limitation of stem cell research and the prohibition of animal testing. Currently five such initiatives are gathering support across Europe — on marriage, transportation, cannabis, environment and democracy.
Going local: the global democracy trend
2016 will be the year, when many of the most interesting and encouraging developments will happen on the subnational level - both in terms of socioeconomic developments and and of people power. Some bigger places around the world have devolved power away from national centers.
Indonesia, the world´s biggest Muslim-majority country, is a good example. While the country consists of more than 6,000 populated islands holding more than 255 million people, more than half of the population lives on the island of Java (which is just 3 times the size of Switzerland) - and more than 30 million people in the Capital area of Jakarta alone, 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 - where locally elected mayors like Joko Widodo (now president of the country), Tri Rismaharini (Mayor of Surabaya, 6 mill. Inhabitants) 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).
Many of these local democracies will come together to launch a new world league of participatory cities (and regions). The announcement is expected during the 2016 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in San Sebastian/Donostia in November this year.
While 2015 unfortunately offered many bad headlines for our planet, the new year arrives with renewed hope and and fresh tasks to make democracy a little more democratic - developments that we at people2power.info will help you follow closely.