Global electoral hotspots: Is democracy in retreat?

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The Independent Online

As Kenya's elections are disputed and Pakistan's delayed, it's been a bad start to the year for democracy. With 30 more countries around the world due to go to the polls in 2008, Claire Soares and Katherine Butler look at some of the places where the freedom of the people to choose their rulers at the ballot box could be compromised.

GEORGIA - 5 January

Mikhail Saakashvili was the West's post-Soviet poster boy – a young, Western-educated reformer who wanted to eradicate corruption and move the small country towards tighter co-operation with Nato and the EU. But last November, popular protests were brutally dispersed by riot police, and the West suddenly realised that Saakashvili was a reformer but not necessarily a democrat. Still, by the standards of the region he's an angel, and if returned to power in Saturday's elections will doubtless be working hard to regain his lost credibility.

LEBANON - 12 January

Gripped by the worst political crisis since the country's civil war ended in 1990, this failing state has been without a president since 23 November and the election of a successor has been postponed eleven times. There will be another attempt in parliament on 12 January. Nine Lebanese politicians have been assassinated in the past three years, widely assumed to have been murdered on the orders of Syria in an attempt to influence the outcome of the presidential vote.

SERBIA - 20 January

Progress has been made but the transition to democracy is incomplete, as shown by the failure to advance talks with the EU, Belgrade's refusal to arrest the biggest Balkans war crimes suspects and the crisis over the future of Kosovo. Elections on 20 January could be crucial: they will see the pro-Western President Boris Tadic up against a challenge from ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic. If Nikolic, a remnant of the Milosevic era, wins, the EU could wash its hands of Serbia, pushing it even deeper into the embrace of Russia.

BHUTAN - 29 January

The secluded Himalayan nation, which only got TV in 1999, has only just begun its transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. After holding mock elections so citizens could practice the hitherto unknown art of voting, the first poll for the new upper house was held on New Year's Eve, with a second round scheduled for 29 January. Most of the upcoming politicians are under 40, with two twentysomethings fresh out of college and starting their first proper job.

PAKISTAN - 18 February

Hopes for a transition from military rule were dealt a bitter blow with the assassination of Benazir Bhutto and elections have been postponed again until 18 February. Even if the poll does proceed, many question the position of President Musharraf. He has removed his military uniform but cemented his position by sacking the Supreme Court and jailIing his opponents. All the while, the military retains overwhelming influence. The feudal nature of Ms Bhutto's succession does not augur well for democracy either.

ZIMBABWE - March

Strongman Robert Mugabe will bid for a sixth term in office in March, which would see him in power until just short of his ninetieth birthday. There is little sign that the elections will be any freer or fairer than the previous presidential ballot in 2002, and the main opposition party is already threatening to boycott the polls. As Mr Mugabe clings to power, ordinary Zimbabweans continue to suffer with inflation running at a mind-blowing 8,000 per cent annually.

RUSSIA - 2 March

Vladimir Putin's “sovereign democracy" never looked much like anyone else's version of democracy, and last month's parliamentary elections only confirmed that things are not getting better. There'll be an election in March for president, but everyone knows already that Putin's choice, Dmitry Medvedev, will get all the votes. With Putin staying on as prime minister, there's likely to be even further bending of “democratic" norms. Putin is genuinely popular, but democracy in any normal sense it certainly ain't.

IRAN - 14 March

Iranians get a chance to vote for their lawmakers in March, but reformists fear a repeat of 2004 when thousands of moderates - those deemed by religious hardliners to fall foul of the principles of the 1979 Islamic revolution - were disqualified from standing and hardliners were able to regain control of the legislature. The Guardian Council's chief Ayatollah, an ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has warned that this time, too, unsuitable candidates will be barred.

IVORY COAST - 31 October

The last day of October is the latest deadline for this country, once the economic powerhouse of West Africa, to organise polls that have been repeatedly delayed. Ever since rebels attacked the main city, Abidjan, in 2002 trying to overthrow President Laurent Gbagbo, the political system in Ivory Coast has been paralysed. Although rebel leader Guillaume Soro and the President have overseen the start of disarmament and pledged their commitment to polls this year, it remains to be seen whether voters will actually get to cast their ballots.

UNITED STATES - 4 November

The world's biggest democracy chooses its leader in November and the season has opened with a bang in Iowa. Before most people in the 48 other states have started paying attention, the course of the 2008 presidential election will have been shaped, such is the disproportionate influence of the two tiny states where polling begins. There is anger that Iowa and New Hampshire, two overwhelmingly white, rural states, have such a loud voice in America's democracy.

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