By Ravi Agrawal, CNN
Editor’s note: Ravi Agrawal is a senior producer on Fareed Zakaria’s Global Public Square. The views expressed are his own. You can follow him on Twitter @RaviAgrawalCNN
At the start of the year, GPS billed 2012 as “the year of elections.” It was to be a rare alignment of the electoral stars: the year China, Russia, France, and the U.S. would elect new leaders. Together, these four countries represent 80 percent of the U.N. Security Council and account for 40 percent of global GDP. There were also elections scheduled in Venezuela, Mexico, and Egypt. Unlike 2011 – which unleashed the sudden churn of the Arab Spring – 2012 was meant to bring a different kind of people power: planned change.
Democracy at its core is about the rule of the people; it is about free and fair elections. Yet democratic countries fall under a fairly broad spectrum – some proudly enshrine a range of freedoms, others impose restrictions. One would think the world is moving inexorably towards the freer end of this spectrum, but the data shows the opposite. Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World survey scores countries on the political rights and civil liberties they offer. In each of the last six years, more countries have seen declines in their ratings than gains. On average, for every two countries that see an improvement, three fall back. Why is this happening? In part, it is because of the disproportionate importance we ascribe to elections. Fareed Zakaria predicted this trend in a 1997 Foreign Affairs essay, when he described illiberal democracy as a growth industry. “In the end,” he wrote, “elections trump everything. If a country holds elections, Washington and the world will tolerate a great deal from the resulting government … Elections are an important virtue of governance, but they are not the only virtue.”
That’s an important prism through which to look at 2012.
Let’s start with Russia. Vladimir Putin, quite predictably, moved back into his old job as President after a four year stint as Prime Minister. If he serves out his term he will have been his country’s most-powerful person for 18 years. Yet Russia’s iron man has never seemed as vulnerable as he did in the run-up to this year’s election. Emboldened opposition groups routinely rallied tens of thousands of demonstrators, some openly shouting “Putin is a thief!” This was previously unthinkable in Russia.
Defiance was also in evidence in Venezuela, home to the world’s greatest oil reserves, but also the land of frequent power outages and violent crime. President Hugo Chavez was widely expected to extend his 14-year rule, but in the end his challenger Henrique Capriles Radonski ran him very close.
To varying degrees, both Putin and Chavez are seen less democratic, more autocratic. The surprise of 2012, however, has proven to be how much both needed to court the electorate. Putin’s victory was especially expensive. According to Reuters, Putin promised public sector pay rises worth 1.5 percent of GDP. The total bill for election-related promises could be more than three times that amount. Even for the world’s top oil producer, that is a substantial credit allowance. The Kremlin’s “break-even” oil price – the price at which it needs to sell crude to balance its budget – is now as high as $117 a barrel, which is higher than this year’s average price. Citigroup estimates that if Putin’s spending promises are implemented, that break-even number could rise to as much as $150 – well above expected market levels.
Venezuela could be in trouble, too. After a year of heavy government spending and subsidies, it is estimated Chavez needs to sell crude at well over current market prices to balance his books.
The promises made by Chavez and Putin are unsustainable. As much as 2012 was the year of elections, it was also the year of largesse. Eventually, the enduring legacy of the Arab Spring may be people power, but for now, it has spurred the creation of a set of promises and subsidies by autocrats desperate to stay in power. It has often been pointed out that not a single oil-rich state was forced into regime change after the Arab Spring. Yemen, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were all net importers of oil.
2012 was also the year of populism. France elected a new president who promised a 75 percent tax rate for those earning more than a million euros a year. Francois Hollande didn’t make an empty stump promise; by all accounts, he is on track to implement his plan.
And what of America, which is hosting the most expensive election of all time? The Center for Responsive Politics says that in total, the 2012 election will cost upwards of $6 billion – on advertisements, organizing, and canvassing. A large chunk of that amount has been spent on attack ads, with both campaigns engaging in a seemingly never-ending cycle of chest-thumping to prove who is more pro-American. But what does that do to the people? In an insightful piece in The New York Times, Scott Shane points out that perhaps more than anywhere else in the world “Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.” (Try telling Americans that on child poverty, they rank 34th of 35 economically advanced countries, Shane notes. Or that the very cornerstone of the American Dream – social mobility – is greater in Europe, Australia, and Canada, he adds).
Of course, no citizens of any country like being told they’re lagging behind – this isn’t a uniquely American sentiment. But perhaps what is different now is that Americans, who have so often previously identified themselves as #1 on so many things, are starting to realize that on many indicators – education, infrastructure and healthcare, to name just a few – the United States is falling behind. Just browse any of a number of global lists – the new Legatum Global Prosperity Index, or the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness reports – and the signs of change are evident.
None of these reports emerged as issues on the campaign trail – Democratic or Republican, suggesting that 2012 was Washington’s year of waiting and watching for 2013.
If elections are meant to be about empowering people, then 2012 should have brought fresh powers to an unprecedented number of people. Instead, it seems publics have been pandered to rather than leveled with, perhaps to everyone’s detriment.
One country defies all categorization: China. It famously allowed an election to take place in the village of Wukan earlier this year. But that was a controlled experiment; instead of being a concession to democracy, it was a means to clamp down on corruption and manage a volatile situation. Beijing continues to keep power concentrated in the hands of a select few. In part, this is because its elites don’t perceive the need to comply with international definitions of fairness or democracy. It doesn’t need a national election to keep Washington happy. Instead, there is a sense of pride at a model of communism mixed with capitalism that has generated excellent economic results.
In the coming days, China will have what many are calling an election. In the strictest definition of the word, that is correct – a group of people will be elected to lead their country. The electorate, however, consists only of the upper echelons of China’s vast Communist Party. These elites have increasingly tenuous connections to the fears and aspirations of China’s 1.3 billion people. Quite rightly, China gets the lowest possible overall score in Freedom House’s rankings on political rights and civil liberties. Protests are almost always clamped down on – and yet thousands still take place every year. Unlike the world’s other “elections”, in China there’s less pandering, and more suppression.
So, what to make of 2012, the year of elections? I may have painted a dire picture of its effects: unsustainable largesse, populism, denial. But such is the human race’s complex relationship with freedom. Make of it what you will; some choice is better than none. As with democracy, the greatest accolade for the right to vote is that it is forever coveted by those who lack it.
Read other pieces by Ravi Agrawal here.