Comment: A bad election year for Howard and the Belgians

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

As 2007 has only weeks left, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on what has been a truly outstanding year for those of us who follow general elections around the world.

And as we gear up for an equally busy 2008 with high-profile elections in Iran, Pakistan (increasingly unlikely), Russia (unless Putin changes the constitution) and New Zealand, there is the added bonus that the biggest prize of all is now less than a year away: the race for the White House.

Indeed, the past twelve months have witnessed numerous elections across the globe – headlined by Nicolas Sarkozy’s monumental victory in France way back in May, which was quickly followed by the over-hyped yet relatively unexciting presidential run-off in Turkey which elevated Recep Erdogan from PM to President, despite concerns over his commitment to preserving secularism in the country.

Voting has also taken place in Ireland, Croatia, Denmark, Argentina, the Ukraine, Georgia, Guatemala, Japan, Poland and most recently in Kosovo, where independence from Serbia as early as next month has been promised as the result of the vote.

Something which should keep NATO and the EU busy for the next year or so.

Of course, we mustn’t forget the sham that was the presidential election in Pakistan, or the election than never was here in the UK.

And in light of a truly horrendous November for Gordon Brown, I’m sure he must have had second thoughts about bottling it earlier in the autumn.

I was lucky enough to be in Turkey on election day back in July, when virtually everybody deserted the beaches and headed back to the cities to vote, meaning a quiet day for me on the sand.

It was fascinating to see how swift all the election posters and banners were taken down literally overnight, just hours before the polling stations opened.

Equally, it was a joy to witness just how much people cared about the election, huddling around the TV sets in their shorts while drinking tea by the beach.

By contrast, I was unfortunate enough to be in Guatemala just as the presidential campaign reached a critical stage, with government supporters engaged in minor scuffles as I tried to navigate my way through Guatemala City.

However, the most bizarre place to be in this year undoubtedly has to be Belgium.

For those who don’t know, it’s coming to almost half a year now since the general election, and they still do not have a government.

Decades, or rather, a century and a half, of resentment between the Flemish-speaking population and their French-Walloon neighbours has resulted in a complete breakdown in the functioning of the Belgian government, which is strongly divided along linguistic lines.

Severe disagreements over the Flemish demand for a greater control of the national budget (with Flemish parties refusing to prop up the more impoverished Walloon region) as well as immigration, social security and the electoral boundaries of three Bruxellois regions mean that that while they’ve had a new Prime Minister since July, Yves Leterme has had no mandate to rule or govern.

With no breakthrough in sight, some are already saying this is the end of Belgium.

Personally, I find this all rather upsetting as I visit the country once a year, and I felt troubled to see bilingual road signs and billboards being defaced by an opposing linguistic group.

No such problems, thankfully, with the final big vote of the year in Australia a couple of weeks ago.

As we know, John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition suffered a humiliating defeat, and was replaced by the relatively useful and uncharismatic Kevin Rudd of the Labour Party.

There were rumours a few weeks ago that the final outcome would be challenged in the courthouse over illegitimate candidates, but these looks to be unfounded.

I guess that was just one of a whole series of nasty rumours and counter-rumours which made this campaign so fascinating.

Dirty tactics, underhand dealings, false leaflets, gay rumours, racism allegations, ageism claims … it’s a shame that the Australian federal election only comes round once ever three years!

But it is truly astonishing that John Howard, the 68-year-old conservative who’d led the Liberal Party since 1996, got such a beating by Kevin Rudd.

Howard not only lost the vote, but also the seat in Sydney he’d held for over 30 years.

The latter had achieved almost the impossible by dragging the Labour Party out of the political wilderness after over a decade in opposition.

And the 6% swing-vote to Labour is the culmination of an astonishing rise to the pinnacle of Australian politics for Rudd, within the space of just eleven months.

The 50-year-old bespectacled former diplomat only came to lead the party at the end of 2006 during a difficult period when Labour’s poll numbers languished.

His elevation to party leader was certainly helped by his predecessor, the brash and gaffe-prone Kim Beazley.

Beazeley’s fate was pretty much sealed when he made a monumental howler a year ago on chat-show host Rove McManus’s TV show, who at the time was mourning the loss of his actress wife, Belinda Emmett.

Instead of offering his condolences to Mr McManus, Beazley mistook him for Karl Rove, former aide to President Bush.

It is therefore rather ironic that Mr Rudd should’ve chosen Rove as one of the last stops on his election campaign.

The last time I watched Rove McManus was, curiously, exactly four years ago last week.

Then, I was sitting in Canberra having decamped there from a very soggy Sydney.

The day after, I went to watch a rather subdued Prime Minister’s Questions.

Unbeknown to me at the time, that particular PMQ was also going to be the then-Labour leader Simon Crean’s last appearance as leader of his party.

He resigned the very next morning owing to pressure within the party for failing to challenge Howard’s popularity.

And in between Messrs Crean and Rudd, two other men led the embattled party – Mark Latham (he who thumped a taxi driver) and Beazeley (who’d already lost two elections as leader during the late-1990s).

All of the above were interesting individuals, yet none matched the approval ratings enjoyed by Rudd.

One can’t help think that the Australian voters have taken a huge gamble by voting for a change in government when the current system isn’t exactly broke.

But interest rates are on the rise, reaching an 11-year high in November with an announcement on Melbourne Cup day, a classic case of burying bad news on a day when nobody takes notice of anything non-four-legged, but was that enough to get rid of the Howard government?


Keeping interest rates low was one of Howard’s main electoral promises during the 2004 campaign.

Add to that broken promise was the introduction of anti-union legislations which has caused considerable unease among the electorate.

What did it for Howard however, seemed to have been his rather out-of-touch, some say arrogant, attitude to the environment and Iraq.

Personally, I think it just boiled down to a simple fact that voters became sick of Howard, after over a decade in office.

Just like Thatcher, Chirac, Clinton, Bush and Blair, no matter who you are or how respected you are on the international stage, nationally, voters just want a change after hearing the same voice every day for ten years.

And, arguably John Howard, approaching his 70th birthday, was also the victim ageism.

But old or young, new leadership or not, one thing is for sure. The chances of a same-sex marriage taking place in Australia are looking as remote as ever.