By now, you’ve heard campaign speeches, commercials and commentators stress repeatedly how tomorrow’s American presidential election is one of the most important votes in U.S. history. They’re right, but whatever America decides and however chaotic the vote, this election won’t be the first inflection point in modern democracy. Votes have ended decades of systemic suppression of basic rights, brought down colonial empires and built nations after historic revolutions. Today’s Daily Dose looks back at the international elections that laid the groundwork for earth-shattering changes, at America’s most surprising vote results and the next global elections that could shape the world.
Charu Sudan Kasturi, Senior Editor
These countries set the template that the world followed.
1. New Zealand, 1893
Which is the world’s oldest democracy? Is it the U.S., which has had continuous, elected governments for more than two centuries, longer than any other nation? Is it Iceland or the Isle of Man, both of which have legislatures more than 1,000 years old? Or is it the country that first gave all its citizens the right to vote? While access to the ballot was still very much a privilege for wealthy, male, racial elites in America and Europe, New Zealand in 1893 held the first election where everyone — Maori or white, woman or man — could vote. Universal suffrage had finally arrived and would slowly be embraced by modern democracies around the world.
2. Sri Lanka, 1960
Known as Ceylon at the time, the country hadn’t yet reached its teens as an independent nation when it was thrown into turmoil by the assassination of Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike in 1959. His wife, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, was derisively dubbed the “weeping widow” because she would frequently break into tears. But she would have the last laugh. In the 1960 national elections, Sirimavo — as she was widely known — led her husband’s party to victory. She became the world’s first-ever female prime minister, paving the way for leaders like India’s Indira Gandhi, Israel’s Golda Meir and Britain’s Margaret Thatcher to follow. Sirimavo tilted the country toward a cocktail of democratic socialism and Buddhist nationalism, overcoming a coup attempt and a period of political exile to return to power again in the 1970s and in the 1990s. No one was mocking her by then.
3. Benin, 1991
The Berlin Wall had just fallen in 1989 when Mathieu Kérékou, the army major turned socialist leader of the small West African nation of Benin, decided to transition the country to a multiparty democracy. In the 1991 elections held after nationwide consultations, Kérékou contested, lost and calmly gave up power. The first democratic transfer of power in postcolonial West Africa set an example that the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Togo, Burundi, Rwanda and Niger would all follow in the 1990s. And unlike many such tectonic shifts that have been stained by civil wars, Benin’s transition was totally peaceful.
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The country had gained independence from Spain four decades earlier, but it was the landmark election of 1861 that sparked a chain of events that would allow Mexico to truly gain freedom from foreign intervention. Elected President Benito Juárez instituted a two-year moratorium on the payment of loan interest to France, Britain and Spain, triggering a France-led invasion that was backed by Mexican conservatives. After an initial military victory on May 5, 1862 — celebrated as Cinco de Mayo — Juárez and his cabinet had to flee Mexico City and the French-installed Austrian archduke Maximillian served as emperor of Mexico. But Mexican forces, supported by U.S. diplomatic pressure (yes, America was the good guy in Latin America this time!), eventually defeated the French. Juárez — often compared to Abraham Lincoln because of the two leaders’ pivotal nation-shaping roles at roughly the same time — returned to the capital victorious. If you visit Mexico, you’ll find streets, monuments, airports and cities named after Juárez. Now you know why.
Two elections within five months paved the way for the “democratic” rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to power. Their provocative and violent methods — including brutal street clashes with communists — had brought them prominence in the previous decade. But it was the Great Depression of 1929 that truly fueled their popularity. In the July elections of 1932, the Nazis emerged as the single largest party but were far from a majority. A November rerun saw them retain pole position — but with fewer seats. Using a combination of street violence, political blackmail and support from big German businesses, Hitler convinced President Paul von Hindenburg to appoint him chancellor. Germany never held truly free and fair elections again under the Nazis.
3. Egypt, 1950
Google “Suez Crisis” and the first name that’ll crop up is that of Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. But the seeds for one of the 20th century’s most pivotal moments were planted in an election six years before the actual 1956 war that shook the world. In Egypt’s 1950 elections, the Wafd Party of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Nahhas came to power. Desperate for more support from the Egyptian streets, Nahhas in October 1951 abrogated the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty that gave the British control over the Suez Canal. That set the stage for localized battles with British soldiers near the canal, and a full-fledged war after Nasser took over following the 1952 Egyptian Revolution. Israel, the U.K. and France invaded Egypt, eventually withdrawing thanks to American and Soviet pressure — the superpowers played peacemaker. Humiliated, British Prime Minister Anthony Eden resigned. Nasser was a hero in the Arab world, but perhaps it’s the mostly forgotten Nahhas who deserves some of the credit.
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Democracy can upset all predictions, rock regimes in power for decades and create a new path to the future.
1. United Kingdom, 1945
It was a shock that would reverberate throughout the British Empire. The ruling Conservative Party under World War II hero Winston Churchill was trounced in the parliamentary elections that saw Labour’s Clement Attlee emerge as prime minister. Attlee was sympathetic to the idea of India’s independence — Churchill, by contrast, recent research suggests, was willing to let millions of Indians die in the Bengal famine of 1943 as long as that stopped the march of Japanese forces. With India’s independence in 1947, the British Empire lost its crown jewel, and the U.K. would follow Attlee’s approach with most of its other colonies, including across Africa. The sun had set on the British Empire.
2. India, 1977
For three decades after independence, the Indian National Congress — the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru that led India’s freedom struggle — ruled the world’s largest democracy with little opposition. But in 1975, Nehru’s daughter and then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed a state of national emergency, suspending civil liberties, arresting opposition leaders and curbing press freedoms after a court ruled her election illegal on charges that she had misused government machinery for her campaign. That brazen act of authoritarianism galvanized and united a previously fractured opposition that in elections in 1977 — when the emergency was lifted — trounced the prime minister to form India’s first non-Congress government.
Like the Indian National Congress, the African National Congress has dominated South African politics for the past 26 years, increasingly drawing charges of corruption and economic and social mismanagement. It’s a far cry from the heady days of April 1994, when South Africa held its first free and fair elections where voters of all races were allowed to participate. Nelson Mandela was elected president, hammering the final nail in the coffin of apartheid. Days later, Mandela would build on his vision for a “rainbow nation” — picking his closest electoral rival, former Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk, as one of his deputy presidents, and another political opponent, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, as his minister of home affairs.
4. Brazil, 2002
It was fourth-time lucky for Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. The former trade unionist had established a reputation as the perennial bridesmaid of Brazilian politics, losing the presidential elections of 1989, 1994 and 1998. But 2002 would be different — a watershed for South America’s largest nation and for the broader continent. Lula won and ushered in some of history’s biggest social welfare programs, such as the Bolsa Famíliacash transfers for low-income families that reached more than 50 million Brazilians and spawned copycat initiatives in multiple nations. His win also strengthened the wave of left democratic wins across the continent that started with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998 and would go on to include Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador in the 2000s. By 2009, Lula had an unlikely fan — U.S. President Barack Obama, who described him as the “most popular leader in the world.” His popularity remains intact. He was expected to win in a landslide when he tried to run for president again in 2018, but was barred by a court verdict over a corruption conviction. Now 75 years old, his personality continues to dominate Brazilian politics.
5. Tunisia, 2014
Egypt. Libya. Syria. Yemen. Bahrain … the Arab Spring of 2011 spread across the region. But it started in Tunisia, and that’s the one country where that year of revolutions didn’t just unseat a dictator but replaced him with a democracy that has since been sustained. In 2014, Tunisia held its first free and fair elections after the Arab Spring, and successfully repeated the process in 2019, offering a template for the rest of the region.
Will the 2020 election join the ranks of these bizarre contests?
The ballot is one way to settle matters. The bullet was another. At 7 a.m. on the morning of July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot dead Alexander Hamilton, one of the country’s founding fathers, during a duel whose origins lay in years of bitter antagonism between the men that crystallized during the election of 1800. Burr was the vice presidential candidate running with Thomas Jefferson on a Democratic-Republican ticket against President John Adams. Under the rules at the time, all candidates — president or vice president — were voted on by the Electoral College. The winner became president, the runner-up the vice president. But Jefferson and Burr were tied at 73 votes, precipitating a constitutional crisis. Hamilton thought little of Burr and convinced enough of the Federalists — the party of Adams and Hamilton — to support Jefferson to make him president. The 12th Amendment was introduced to avoid a repeat of such a scenario. Burr and Hamilton repeatedly clashed politically in subsequent years before the duel brought their rivalry to a chilling end.
In 1864, Abraham Lincolnsought reelection in the middle of the Civil War, and for the first time rolled out voting by mail for soldiers in the field. It turned out to be a bit of a legal mess, and, as today, a political fight: Soldiers were more favorable to Lincoln, so mail balloting was pushed by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. In another wrinkle, pro-Lincoln Nevada was added to the Union just nine days before the election.
It’s arguably the most iconic headline in American political history — for getting it horribly wrong. The polls had predicted a comfortable victory for Republican Thomas Dewey against incumbent President Harry Truman in 1948. Two years earlier, the Republicans had grabbed control of the House of Representatives after 15 years. The Democrats had split, and Truman’s own former Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace was contesting against him on a third-party ticket. On the night of the election, the Chicago Tribune had to go to print early because of a strike. Confident that Dewey would win, they printed the erroneous headline. Truman won comfortably, and the headline made its way to Journalism 101 classes around the world.
It’s rarely a good idea in politics. Gary Hart was widely expected to win the Democratic Party nomination to take on then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 elections. Then he was caught in an extramarital affair — days after challenging journalists to prove that he was an adulterer. The Miami Herald broke the story (and unlike the Chicago Tribune in 1948, they got it right), after tracking down Donna Rice, a woman Hart allegedly was sleeping with, at his Washington, D.C., townhouse. Hart pulled out of the race and was replaced by Michael Dukakis, who was trounced by Bush. Watch little-known details of the Hart scandal and other pivotal U.S. elections in this two-hour special, The Campaigns That Made History, from OZY and HISTORY, hosted by OZY CEO and co-founder Carlos Watson, on Tuesday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m. ET and then again at 5 p.m. ET.
As Election Day looms, take a moment today to listen to a powerful story about voter suppression and a Black massacre exactly 100 years ago in the little town of Ocoee, Florida. In a special mini-series of OZY’s hit history podcast, Flashback, with guest host Eugene S. Robinson, hear from the descendants of some of the survivors of the worst incident of election violence in U.S. history — and explore how the massacre still haunts today.
When the dust settles on the U.S. election, it’ll be time to prepare for these next vital votes that could determine the future of America’s extended neighborhood, the Middle East and African democracies.
The strife-torn nation has been on a knife’s edge for so long that the wounds in its politics and society run deep. Parliamentary elections scheduled for December could give the world a key glimpse of what the future might hold for the country with the largest proven reserves of oil in the world. The opposition has a giant majority in the outgoing parliament but is fractured this time. Juan Guaidó, supported by the West as the opposition face against President Nicolás Maduro, has called for a boycott of the election. But veteran opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, who nearly defeated Maduro in the 2013 presidential vote, has opposed taking on the government head-on. Will Maduro allow even moderately free and fair elections like he did the last time around? Will the opposition win again? And will we see peaceful talks between the government and the opposition? December might bring us some answers.
Amid a cloud of chaos that has descended upon West Africa in recent months, Ghana has stood out as a beacon of hope. It has made headlines for its proactive handling of the COVID-19 crisis, while Nigeria grapples with police and military abuses and Mali adjusts to life after a coup. Those gains — and Ghanaian democracy itself — will be tested in December when the country holds its eighth straight national elections on schedule. President Nana Akufo-Addo faces former President John Mahama in what is round three between them: Mahama won in 2012 and Akufo-Addo prevailed in 2016. Each time, the loser accepted the result. This time too, Ghana could show the way to a region that needs a new direction.
The window is closing fast for a return to the nuclear deal with Tehran, or a renegotiated pact acceptable to both sides. The country’s hard-liners appear poised to take back the presidency at the end of President Hassan Rouhani’s second term when Iran votes in June 2021. Among the conservatives rumored to be planning a run is controversial former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whose tenure saw ties between Washington and Tehran sink to precipitously. The hard-liners already control the Iranian Parliament. If they take the presidency, renegotiating any deal with them will prove even harder for a President Trump or President Biden than it is now.