Winds of Change?

By year end, 24 nations will have new leaders

Obama, McCain, Obama, McCain. Headlines all around the world talk about the United States presidential and legislative elections this year.

But by the end of 2008, 24 countries will have elected new presidents, while 40 should have elected a new parliament and six more a new legislature, according to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES).

Georgia inaugurated the electoral year. President Mikheil Saakashvili, practically unknown before the war that broke out in late August and fought Russia through an intensive media campaign, was reelected with 56 per cent of the votes, a considerable decrease in comparison to the 2004 results, when he received 96 per cent of the vote.

Saakashivili had faced a tough election on Jan. 5. The early elections were held after the opposition had demanded he step down as he had brutally repressed political opponents, shut down a television station and declared a state of emergency on Nov. 7, 2007 that lasted over a week.

Serbians experienced a heated electoral process in January and February. After two voting rounds, the pro-European Democratic Part candidate Boris Tadic won with a narrow lead of about two points over Tomislav Nikolic of the Serbian Radical Party, which cashed in 48.81 per cent of the votes.

At the core of the democratic process lies the concept of change versus continuation. This year, Russia elected what Senator Barak Obama has called, in reference to his opponent’s political background, “more of the same” – Anatolyevich Medvedev, a disciple of former president Vladimir Putin, who didn’t fit Western ideas of ‘free and fair elections,’ but Andreas Gross, head of the observer mission of the Council of Europe, told Reuters that it reflected the will of the people.

The problem was that the opposition was effectively repressed, or sabotaged, according to the observers. If it hadn’t been for an inconvenient constitution, Putin would still be president, and he is still considered the de facto leader of the country.

Change is not always welcomed. Zimbabwe’s election rounds in March and June showed President Robert Mugabe’s intentions to remain in power as he manipulated the polls and launched a campaign of violence in his attempt to crush the opposition lead by Morgan Tsvangirai, of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

According to the International Crisis Group, it was the first time the Zimbabwe African National-Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF), the governing party, lost control of the parliament and Tsvangirai was barely three points away from getting the required 50 percent of votes to become president. After increased pressure from the international community, Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing agreement in September by which one would remain president and the second become prime minister.

Pakistan is another country trying to cope with needed change. The BBC reported that President Pervez Musharraf stepped down after the opposition parties threatened him with an impeachment process. His successor Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto, who was murdered during a public event earlier this year. A few hours after his first address to the parliament on Sep. 20, the Marriot Hotel in Islamabad was the stage of one of the worst terrorist attacks in the country.

Austrians too voted for change, but for some, not for the better. Two radical right-wing parties, Freiliche Partei Österreich (FPÖ) and Bündnis Zukunft Österreich (BZÖ) obtained incredible results in the Sep. 28 elections. Together, they got 30 percent of the votes. October will be a decisive month, deciding on the players in the next government

This electoral season is not over yet. The United States, Azerbaijan, Zambia, Dominica, Palau, Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and the Maldives are the next ones to vote for a new president, while Canada, Lithuania, New Zealand, Romania, Guinea and Bangladesh will hold parliamentary elections.

Will they vote for change, or for continuity? Perhaps the gap is not as wide as one would like to think. The revolutions of the 20th Century – beginning with the Bolsheviks – often only changed the concentration of power. Perhaps Hegel is right, and we are bound to the Master and Slave model.

Or maybe, just maybe, we can begin to think beyond.

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