BUDAPEST, Hungary, Dec. 26 (UPI) — “It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” a disgruntled Winston Churchill said in the House of Commons in 1947. He lost the elections of 1945 after leading Britain through the war but would return in 1951 for one last stint as prime minister, proving his belief in democracy.
In 2007 there were 19 presidential and 49 parliamentary elections, at least two notable referenda and several inner-party leadership fights. It would be impossible to cover them all in my column. So here is my personal and incomplete synopsis of the voting year.
January brought parliamentary elections in Serbia. August saw Cameron Munter take up his duties as U.S. ambassador in Belgrade, having served as deputy in Prague, Czech Republic. Alexandr Illic, a professor and former ambassador, used to joke sarcastically, “I was as student leader in Yugoslavia. I represented Serbia and Montenegro, and then I was ambassador of Serbia. Am I to assume that I will next represent the Kingdom of Serbia?” Tolerated by Tito, persecuted by Slobodan Milosevic, Illic knew that Serbia would go through a painful metamorphosis on its way to stabilization. Serbs have a remarkably dark self-deprecating sense of humor. May this humor give them strength to do the right thing — a first step would be turning over those hideous war criminals.
February saw presidential elections in Turkmenistan and parliamentary elections in Lesotho. Formerly Turkmenistan was a thriving maniacal dictatorship; now it is merely authoritarian. Lesotho, however, held free and fair elections. A hereditary monarchy and a stalwart against apartheid-era South Africa, it has some 2 million people. A proud Suthu, Noel Lehoko, who studied medicine in Germany and Czechoslovakia, was poisoned by the South African secret police and nearly died. When he was South African ambassador in Prague we regularly met and talked about Africa’s future. A deeply religious man who speaks fluent Czech, English, German and several African languages, he was protected by Lesotho during the days of apartheid.
March gave us contests in Estonia, Northern Ireland and Finland. Estonia is a high-tech wunderkind and home to Skype. The country nearly introduced the euro — as did Slovenia this year — but was forced to suspend the effort after being held to a double standard on inflation by other EU countries. Big issues include alcoholism, HIV and integrating the Russian minority. After a bitter — but peacefully concluded — fight, Northern Ireland finds itself with the strangest tandem of the Rev. Ian Paisley, the proud fire-and-brimstone Protestant, as first minister with his deputy being the Catholic former Irish Republican Army group-commander Martin McGuiness. Pragmatic Finland saw its government move center-right in a system that seeks consensus. The world might take notice that in addition to a female president, 12 of 20 ministers are women, as is 42 percent of the Parliament.
April to June found elections in France, Belgium and Scotland. It also presented theater in Romania. Conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, who I like, won in France; he has already managed to annoy half his Cabinet. Six months overdue, the Belgians formed a caretaker government only last week. Even King Albert was exasperated with the Flemish (Dutch) and Wallonia’s (French) inability to form a coalition because of nationalist tendencies. In Scotland, the National Party made huge gains, making it the largest party. In Romania, 44 percent of the electorate overwhelmingly refused to support the removal of President Traian Basescu. Regardless, he is a nightmare and has misused his position to go after political opponents. He should be unceremoniously dumped in the next election. There were also elections in Syria, which despite its draconian tendencies remains an underused asset in the Middle East.
July to September brought us India, Morocco, Japan and Turkey. India’s presidential election was no surprise, and outgoing Foreign Secretary Shyam Saran has joined Global Panel’s advisory board. Morocco had exemplary elections. Japan saw Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, elected in 2006, collapse, resign, disappear and reappear. Veteran politician Yasuo Fukuda came from behind to upset Foreign Minister Taro Aso in a leadership battle and thus become prime minister. Turkey kept the world on edge electing a traditional Muslim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, as president. He was initially blocked by Parliament and the military. Gul has promised to uphold Turkey’s secular laws.
October through December saw the toppling of Australian Prime Minister John Howard; Kevin Rudd’s steps have been steady; time will tell how he manages Howard’s economic legacy. Pakistan continues to be a country on the brink; it is anyone’s guess who will win the elections. In Denmark, Jens-Hald Madsen, vice chairman of the Defense Committee, was upset as the Rasmussen government nearly lost its majority. Ukraine brought back the Orange Revolution with Julia Tymoshenko becoming prime minister by one vote — but will it last? The Poles finally ousted the deplorable Prime Minister Kaczynski, while the Swiss dumped xenophobic Christoph Blocher — though his rightists remain a political force. South Korea has elected the scandal-plagued conservative former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak as president. He will mistakenly be less pro-engagement toward North Korea. I hope Global Panel will still have a working rapport with him.
In Venezuela, the people finally stopped megalomaniac Hugo Chavez in his tracks; he was trying to amend the constitution so he could remain in office forever — he miscalculated the number of votes needed to steal the poll. South Africa’s African National Congress elected Jakub Zuma party leader and Winnie Mandela to the National Council, leaving the impression that many ANC members have a strange understanding of criminal behavior.
Russia essentially anointed President Vladimir Putin as leader-for-life. We need to find a way to work with the Russians. But Mr. Putin, you have much to learn about democracy — even in its Russian form. It is imperative your successor understands the concept better.
The Qataris and Guinea went as far as to postpone their elections — whatever that means.
Gordon Brown will be remembered for the election that wasn’t.
And, finally, in the United States primaries will have Sen. Barack Obama eking out Iowa and New Hampshire among Democrats; former Gov. Mike Huckabee taking Iowa; and Sen. John McCain sliding by in New Hampshire among Republicans.
And that’s just the beginning, and it’s all far from being over.
(UPI Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society. A venture capitalist with seats in Berlin and Prague, he is a member of the National Advisory Board of the U.S. Democratic Party and a vice chair of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council.)