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?

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