Poll fever gallops around the globe

This year will see a bumper crop of elections. John Lichfield asks which ones will move the world

THEY are all at it. Australians, Spaniards, Beninese and South Caroliners are doing it this weekend The Comoros and Sudan on Wednesday; Iranians on Friday. The world is suddenly - or so it seems - awash with elections.

By the Independent on Sunday's reckoning no less than 40 states will be holding national elections of some kind this year. This is a bumper crop of polls, but not quite a record. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), there were 27 national elections in the second half of last year alone.

But this is, without a doubt, a high-water year for important elections. The United States and Russia, the two most powerful nations on earth, are choosing their leaders in the same year for the first time. There are potentially earth-moving elections in Israel, Taiwan, Australia, Spain and Italy.

Oddly perhaps, the hail of ballots coincides (in the developed world at least) with a democratic crisis: a gathering cynicism about politics and politicians, a suspicion that We The People have lost control of the real levers, or computer keys, of power. Variations of this refrain can be heard this year in the US, in Australia, in Italy - even in Russia, which only started voting properly six years ago.

But if you are tempted to believe that politics does not matter, consider this. By the start of next year, Pat Buchanan could be President of the United States and Vladimir Zhironovsky, President of Russia. Likud could have taken power in Israel and abandoned the Middle East peace process. The vote in Taiwan could have infuriated China enough to plunge Asia - and conceivably the world - into war.

By our estimation, at least 30 of this year's 40 polls offer some minimal degree of democratic choice. New, or renewed, entrants to the concept of people choosing leaders, and not leaders choosing themselves, include South Korea, Taiwan and Uganda.

The proliferation of elections over the last 10 years is explained simply enough: the world has many more countries now (post-Cold War) and there has been an epidemic of democracy, especially in Latin America, eastern Europe and, increasingly, Africa. (Much of Asia still clings stubbornly to other values.)

No less than 69 nations - one third of all the countries in the world - have shifted to some kind of multi-party system in the past 10 years. As a result, the IPU calculates, the number of parliaments in the world is at an all-time high. Of the 192 countries in the world, 179 operate under a parliamentary system, of some description.

The guide above provides brief notes on 15 of this year's most significant and interesting polls (sorry Iceland, Surinam and all the rest)

Of all the elections this year, which is the single most important?

There is no argument over which will attract the most ink, if only because it started last month and continues until November. The US presidential election - the most punishing, the most expensive, the most baffling, the most colourful, the most infuriating democratic exercise yet devised - will inevitably command attention across the globe. A win for the protectionist Pat Buchanan (unlikely) could have severe consequences; even a win for the low-tax guru Steve Forbes (not very likely) could (on the Reagan precedent) set a new economic fashion for the western world. But the most likely outcomes - a triumph for Bob Dole or a second Clinton term - would little disturb the course of world history.

Not so the Russian presidential elections, which will decide the fate of this moth-eaten superpower - and its relationship with the world - for decades to come. A win for the Communist Gennady Zyuganov will chill east-west relations and, arguably, reverse a process of economic reform which is just beginning to bear painful fruit. A win for Boris Yeltsin? Even this would hardly be reassuring.

If the Chinese bluster is to be believed, the single most explosive (literally) vote could be in Taiwan on 23 March. Peking regards President Lee Teng Hui, a leader putting himself before the voters for the first time in the island's history, as dangerously drawn to the concept of a permanent, political separation of Taiwan from the rest of China. It has implied it might take military action, even invade the island, if Lee wins. This seems unlikely, but...

Undoubtedly, the single most elemental choice faces the voters of Israel on 29 May. A victory for the Labour government would allow the movement towards Middle East peace - clumsy, unsatisfactory but real - to continue. A victory for a coalition led by Likud will not immediately undo all the work of the Oslo agreement but it would inevitably bring further peace progress to a halt. Last week's bombings in Jerusalem may be just the first of a series of attempts by extremists on both sides to influence an election which will, without hyperbole, determine the fate of two nations.

And who said electoral politics was boring?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
The 91st Hakone Ekiden Qualifier at Showa Kinen Park, Tokyo, 2014
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Manchester City's Etihad Stadium
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own