2012 was a great year for elections. But it wasn't a great year for democracy.
We often make the mistake of equating democracy with the freedom to choose our leaders. The mix-up is understandable, since it's impossible to imagine a democracy in which a government works without the consent of the governed. Free and fair elections are the central prerequisite of a free society.
But they also aren't enough to guarantee genuine freedom on their own. And if anyone needed any examples, 2012 has plenty to offer.
It was supposed to be a year when voters drove change. As my FP colleagues noted just over a year ago: "If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box." One-third of the world's nations held local, state, and national elections in 2012, and four out of five members of the United Nations Security Council (the U.S., Russia, China, and France) had leadership transitions on the agenda.
All this seemed to offer considerable potential for change (especially in the wake of the Arab Spring). Yet that expectation didn't really pan out. 2012 turned out to be a year that was kind to incumbents. Of those four leading UN countries, only France broke the mould, thanks to a solid victory for incoming President François Hollande. China, of course, prefers to get by without elections altogether -- even though the Communist Party does claim to enjoy the overwhelming support of the nation's citizens. (How it knows that with such assurance remains something of a mystery.) In any case, it was no surprise that the man who ended up on top in Beijing, Xi Jinping, was exactly the guy that most people expected to see in the job. In the United States, a long and rowdy election campaign ended in a triumph for President Obama -- but at least the result was far from preordained.
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Russia had a presidential election, too. But, as one might have expected, it turned out to be a bit of a joke. Old-new President Vladimir Putin still enjoys considerable popularity among Russians, and he might well have won (though somewhat narrowly, I suspect) even had the poll been truly free and fair. But he still made sure to exploit the prerogatives of his "managed democracy" -- such as control of the electronic media, crackdowns on protestors, and enormous financial and administrative resources -- to ensure that he got the result he wanted. There were, predictably, widespread allegations of vote fixing on election day. But that didn't stop Putin from claiming a mandate.
He had little to fear by doing so. The Russian opposition is a feeble force, bereft of credible leaders. In 2012 it showed that it was good at massing middle-class demonstrators in big cities, but poor at articulating a political program calculated to appeal to mainstream voters. The government still rules over a massive security apparatus and a tame judiciary. (Just witness the carefully choreographed trial of the political punk band Pussy Riot). Civil society is weak. And it's likely to stay that way, given the elaborate restrictions imposed on non-government organizations by the Putin administration last year.