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The journalists from The Economist have selected the “country of the year 2023” that, according to them, demonstrated that elections can be won without resorting to populist approaches, even amidst challenging economic reforms. Although the choice may surprise some, the publication aims to acknowledge a nation that has shown the most improvement.
In reflecting on the global landscape of 2023, characterised by wars, the rise of autocratic regimes, and violations of laws and freedoms in numerous countries, The Economist explains the context for their annual country of the year award. If the award were based on the resilience of ordinary people in the face of adversity, there would be various contenders, ranging from the Palestinians and Israelis in their conflict, to Sudanese individuals fleeing their country’s collapse.
However, since the inception of the country of the year recognition in 2013, The Economist has sought to highlight a different aspect: the place that has demonstrated the most improvement.
The first category includes “places that have resisted intimidation from autocratic neighbours,” featuring Ukraine (last year’s awardee) and the Republic of Moldova (the 2021 country of the year). While life may not have visibly improved in Ukraine, the country has steadfastly continued its fight against Vladimir Putin’s war machine, despite some hesitancy from its Western supporters. Moldova has similarly resisted Russian intimidation. Also, Finland has joined the NATO alliance, and Sweden is poised to follow suit.
The second category highlights countries in Asia that have remained composed in the face of Chinese aggression, often collaborating with the United States. The Philippines has defended its maritime borders against larger Chinese ships, while in August, Japan and South Korea set aside historical grievances to enhance their cooperation. The small island nation of Tuvalu, with a population of 11,000, recently signed a treaty with Australia, providing insurance against climate change impacts and including a security guarantee to prevent Chinese control.
In Africa, the countries considered for recognition are those that defended democracy or liberal values on their home front. In this category, Liberia, a nation previously fragile and torn by war, drew attention for achieving a peaceful transfer of power. Similarly, East Timor maintained its reputation for upholding human rights and a free press. In medium-sized countries like Thailand and Turkey, there was a glimmer of hope as the opposition made significant efforts to unseat autocratic regimes, but these regimes managed to hold their ground, especially after elections tilted in their favour.
The Economist also points out three countries that stand out for returning to moderation after experimenting with extremism. Brazil, for instance, witnessed the installation of a center-left president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, following four years of divisive populism under Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro spread divisive conspiracy theories, supported practices harming the rainforests, refused to accept electoral defeat, and urged his followers to attempt an insurrection. Despite Brazil’s commendable achievements, The Economist notes that Lula’s associations with Putin and Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás Maduro, overshadowed the country’s impressive record, leading to its exclusion from the prize.
Poland experienced a remarkable year in 2023, according to The Economist. Despite the challenges posed by the war in the neighbourhood, the country’s economy demonstrated resilience. Poland continued to host nearly 1 million Ukrainian refugees and, in an effort to deter Russia, increased its defence spending to over 3% of GDP, setting an example for its NATO counterparts. However, the dominant presence of the populist-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party, in power for the past eight years, remained a significant concern. The PiS party was criticized for eroding the independence of the courts, influencing state media, and fostering crony capitalism. In October, voters opted for a change, moving away from the PiS party in favour of various opposition parties. The new coalition government, led by veteran centrist Donald Tusk, is in its early stages. If successful in addressing the damage inflicted by PiS on democratic institutions, Poland stands as a strong candidate for The Economist’s award next year.
The “country of the year” for 2023, as per The Economist, is Greece. A decade ago, Greece grappled with a crippling debt crisis and faced ridicule on Wall Street. Incomes plummeted, the social contract frayed, and extremist parties on both ends of the spectrum caused turmoil. The government, in desperation, turned to China and sold its main port, Piraeus, to a Chinese firm.
While acknowledging that Greece is not without flaws, with incidents like a railway accident in February revealing corruption and poor infrastructure, and a scandal involving wiretapping and mistreatment of migrants highlighting room for improvement in civil liberties, The Economist notes significant progress. After years of painful restructuring, Greece topped the annual ranking of rich world economies in 2023. The centre-right government was re-elected in June, adopting a foreign policy that is pro-American, pro-EU, and cautious towards Russia. The case of Greece serves as an example that, even on the brink of collapse, it is possible to implement tough and sensible economic reforms, rebuild the social contract, demonstrate restrained patriotism, and still succeed in elections. As half the world prepares to vote in 2024, The Economist concludes with a cautionary note for democrats everywhere to remain vigilant.
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