Long before becoming a question of warring ideologies, of left and right, and of capitalism versus socialism, politics at its heart was about patrons and clients: rival camps vying for power to protect their interests. This politics of Ancient Rome remains the quintessential incarnation of that patronage aspect of politics, where personal networks and ambitions trump the ideological differences between the optimates and the populares.
The emergence of mass democracy somewhat overshadowed this core feature of politics, especially in western democracies. The emergence of socialism in the 19th century and the formation of political parties (that dwarfed the small elitist “clubs” of old mass media) all contributed to the perception of politics not only as a battle for positions, but also as a bat-tle of ideas.
Yet this transformation from clientelist politics to ideological politics was not always suc-cessful. Many emerging democracies divided among ethnic or religious lines struggle to build political parties that would not simply be the representative for their ethnic or reli-gious brethren.
Latin America is a particularly interesting case with politics being hyper-personalised around one or two ideologically amorphous figures. Peronism in Argentina remains to this day, even to Argentines, a headache to pin down politically. Across the continent, political parties are often a vehicle for one man’s ambitions rather than promoting consistent ideological posi-tions. At times they even take the initials of their leader: take “Peruvianos por el Kambio”, the party of the former Peruvian president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.
But even Europe, the cradle of modern ideological democratic politics, has caught up with the trend of hollow ideology. French President Emmanuel Macron followed the Latin Ameri-can trend of giving one’s initials to his party by creating En Marche, which critics deem an ideologically flexible structure to back its leader’s ambitions. Macron himself has shown himself to be remarkably ideologically flexible, evolving from a centre-left minister in a so-cialist government – who argued that Angela Merkel had saved Europe’s dignity by welcom-ing one million refugees in the 2015 refugee crisis – to a centre-right president whose rhet-oric on immigration and economic policies have sparked leftie uproar.
The election in Hungary provided another example of ideological politics taking the backseat. The opposition to Viktor Orban has little in common: it is a motley crew, a coali-tion made of socialists, liberals, conservatives and post-fascists united by a desire to topple the longest-serving prime minister in Hungarian politics. Orban has so far narrowly avoided the fate of Benyamin Netanyahou, the longest serving prime minister in Israel, who was ousted by a similarly patchworked alliance that included centrist liberals, conservatives, na-tionalists, socialists and catch-all Islamists.
Filipino politics have been similarly dominated by one ideologically flexible politician over nearly a decade. Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, a self-described socialist, has made international headlines for his brutal repression of illegal drugs, but also holds progressive views on healthcare and LGBTQ+ rights.
This is not to say that ideological oppositions are dead. Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil remains pow-erfully divided along political lines. Bolsonaro’s appeal cannot be understood in isolation with the strong rejection of the Workers party. Polarisation and violence in Brazilian politics have become staples of Brazil’s political life. Horrifyingly, Bolsonaro himself was nearly murdered during his 2018 campaign.
Staunch ideological oppositions can be full of vitriol. Ideologues are often accused of citing hatred, but the blurring of ideological lines does not necessarily pacify a society. Under Don-ald Trump, who shunned many of the traditional pieties of the Republicans, the American right has dabbled into areas historically associated with the left, namely on protectionism and through its Keynesian deficit spending during the pandemic. Nevertheless, the polarisa-tion between Democrats and Republicans has never been stronger, largely because Ameri-can politics has become so tribal. According to the Pew Research Center, the US ranks first on the political conflict chart, with 90 per cent of Americans believing that there are strong or very strong conflicts between people who support different political parties in stark con-trast with the global median of 50 per cent. The November midterms will likely illustrate America’s political tribalisation further. In France, Macron has not managed to shield him-self from the wrath of the gilets jaunes, leading many political commentators to argue that the fury that some parts of the French electorate feel towards Macron is unprecedented.
The modern politico should be careful not to attach too much importance to the apparent ideological differences between the premiership candidates. The wise will remember that politics is as much about clients and tribalism as it is about lofty ideological differences.
On 9 March, South Korea held its eighth presidential elections since democratisation. With the constitution restricting the president to a single five-year term, incumbent president Moon Jae-In of the Democratic Party was not in the running. After a rocky five years in of-fice, the ruling party suffered a tight defeat. The result was unsurprising given nearly all pre-election polls gave the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol an edge over the Democratic Lee Jae-Myung, Moon’s successor. Lee favored creating a universal basic income while Yoon ran a more traditional fiscally conservative campaign, although he mostly made headlines for his opposition to “radical feminism”. Other candidates tried to upend the race, unsuccessfully.
On 3 April, Prime Minister Viktor Orban easily brushed aside what on paper seemed possibly his toughest electoral challenge since he re-turned to office in 2010 The longest-serving prime minister in Hungarian democratic history outmatched Peter Marki-Zay and his motley alliance of Social Democrats, Greens, Liberals, Social-Democrat Conservatives and one post-Fascist party. Hungarians voted not only for their legislature but also vote on four referendum questions relating to the teaching of transgenderism and homosexuality in school or on gender-reassignment procedures. The electorate massively rejected a more liberal approach to LGBTQ matters. With Orban regularly criticised by EU institutions and European leaders for his stance on immigration or LGBTQ issues, the election was followed closely in other European capitals. Two days after the results, the European Commission launched new proceedings to suspend support payments to Hungary over allegedly EU rule-of-law standards.
The Philippines will hold its general election on 9 May, ending a nearly decade-long chapter of Filipino politics being dominated by the outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte. Best known for his brutal war on drugs, Duterte also initiated a geopolitical pivot away from the US and towards China. Duterte will run for a senate seat but is barred from running for another presidential term. With Duterte’s daughter, Sara, deciding to run for the vice-presidency in-stead of the presidency (both positions are elected simultaneously directly by the Philip-pines), the road seems clear for the return of the Marcos political dynasty with Ferdinand Romualdez “Bongbong” Marcos the overwhelming favourite. The son of the former presi-dent and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Marcos Jr. endorsed Sara Duterte in partnership that should secure both of their elections.
By 21 May, Australians will have elected their representatives and nearly two thirds of their senators. Incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison of the centre-right Liberal Party will aim for a fourth term for his ruling National-Liberal coalition, but will face a serious challenge as his slow roll out of the vaccine. The faltering response to 2020’s bush fires have massively weakened his standing. According to pollsters, the Australian Labour party, led by Anthony Albanese, seems poised to return to office for the first time since 2013. With environmental issues surging to the forefront of the political stage, Morrison’s pro-coal stance (Australia is the world’s leading exporter of coal) could become an Achilles heel. Determined to ignore the environment, he has focused his campaign on national security, championing the Aukus defence partnership with the UK and the US amidst deteriorating relations with Beijing.
2022 is proving a busy electoral year for the Colombian electorate, who have already en-dured bracing the polls on 13 March for the congressional elections. They will have to trudge back to the polling stations again on both 29 May and 19 June to cast ballots in two rounds of the presidential election.
The Congressional election made it clear that the country wants change: the left-wing His-toric Pact alliance of parties a lead in both the Senate and the Chamber of Representatives. Colombians held primaries simultaneously, with Historic Pact choosing former M-19 guerilla fighter and ex-mayor of Bogotá Gustavo Petro as its candidate.
The country has shifted considerably to the left since the 2018 election that propelled the centre-right Ivan Duque to presidency. He is barred from running for a second term and there is no clear heir to him on the centre right. The entire political landscape has frag-mented. The campaign has so far been dominated by Petro who has built a large tent coali-tion (not free from internal tensions) that includes socialists and progressives as well as feminists and environmentalists. In an attempt to keep the centre at bay, Petro has also moderated his stance on the economy, distancing himself from his previous support for Venezuelan regime.
Believe it or not, it’s a full four years since Brazil’s last presidential election. 2018’s chaotic contest saw such episodes as the near death of Jair Bolsonaro after being stabbed at a rally and President Lula’s eventual bar from running due to charges of corruption (he was the fa-vourite to win, and these charges have since been overturned).
Bolsonaro, dubbed by opponents and supporters alike as “the tropical Trump,” has been un-der heavy fire over his handling of covid. Brazil’s Senate has even accused him of crimes against humanity, as Brazil has recorded over 657,000 deaths. In contrast, Lula’s presiden-tial tenure between 2003 and 2011 is now remembered fondly by the electorate. Polls give Lula a comfortable lead over Bolsonaro, with a slay of centrist candidates far behind – so there’s not much hope for a third-way alternative. In an attempt to narrow Lula’s edge, Bolsonaro has proposed to increase substantially cash assistance to poor families, a stark turn-around from his well-documented opposition to welfare spending.
Whilst Joe Biden’s position as president is not at stake in the US midterms, his capacity to govern is: it could be significantly hampered (most likely), change little or be bolstered. These midterm elections have been especially tough on sitting presidents and the upcoming 8 November vote looks to be no different. Republicans look set to retake the Senate. The balance in the House of Representatives isn’t likely to come out positive for the Democrats either. Biden’s political honeymoon is a distant memory after his handling of the withdrawal from Afghanistan; concerns over his handling of the economy are rising in sync with the inflation rate. Biden will be facing an uphill battle. If he ends up without control of the Senate and House of Representatives, Biden’s early reformist drive will come to a grinding halt just like Barack Obama’s first term did after his substantial defeat in the 2010 midterms.
Key question: Will President Biden’s governing ability be hampered?
Sweden’s first female premier Magdalena Andersson will face her first electoral battle as Prime Minister, just months after her Social Democratic predecessor Stefan Lofven resigned last November. Andersson’s nomination seems to have largely stabilised the Social
Democrats, who looked within shooting distance of the liberal-conservative Moderate party and even the nationalist Swedish Democrats. Sweden’s parliamentary system means that An-dersson will have to build a coalition with various parties. She currently governs with the support of the Liberal Centre Party, the Left Party and the Green Party. Because of Lofven’s mixed messaging on Covid – Sweden had some of the laxest restrictions in Europe before tightening the screws in December 2020 – Andersson will look to move forward and rebuild trust, while attempting to impose her agenda (fighting gang-related crime, speeding up the green industrial revolution, and taking back control over the welfare system) in a traditionally left-wing country that has seen its agenda increasingly set by the right-wing Swedish Democrats.
On 9 August, Kenyans go to the polls in a general election. The Guardian has called this “the mother of all elections.” The two-term limit means President Uhuru Kenyatta will not be running but his deputy president and fellow Jubilee Party member, William Ruto, is currently the frontrunner to succeed him. He will be running against Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Movement. The last time these two ran for presidency was in 2007 and 2008 during a period of intense violence.
Kenya’s election history is smeared with violence. 2017’s election was contested and ended in a rerun. The re-run was suspended in 25 constituencies which are all opposition strongholds amid security fears. The election commission said those results would not affect the final outcome so it could proceed with its announcement.
Key question: Will Kenya conduct a peaceful and transparent election?