Russia is about to have its presidential election. Taiwan just finished one. Argentina, India, Indonesia, Iran, and Korea held elections not long ago. Mexico and Poland will have them shortly. And, of course, the U.S. has been holding primaries to select two candidates for President. The world is awash in free elections. The notable exceptions: China, the Arab Middle East, and most of Africa. Are there trends to glean from the way billions of people are voting? We think so.
Corruption is clearly something people are voting against. Not just gangster stuff, but state-based economic and political cronyism. In Taiwan, it was the Kuomintang that lost. In India, the Congress Party. In Mexico, the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is trailing. All took money in exchange for government favors and business. In Russia, Vladimir Putin is running on an anticorruption platform. And in the U.S., the surprising strength of Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) among independent voters was largely due to his demand for campaign finance reform. Among voters worldwide, corruption is out.
And nationalism is in. Given the chance to express themselves, Indians, Indonesians, Taiwanese, Ukrainians, and, it appears, Russians want to voice their ethnic, religious, historic, even imperial pride. The big, corrupt sectarian parties that united warring factions under one roof, subduing some entirely, are being voted out.
Democracy is proving to be a popular product. But the danger is that the nationalism it is unleashing will undermine the economic engine that is to a large degree generating it: globalization. The elections in Taiwan could destabilize North Asia if China overreacts. The elections in India have already produced a nuclear arms race. And Putin could destabilize the entire world scene if he wins and proceeds, as promised, to rebuild a strong state and military apparatus to exert Russian influence internationally.
The great challenge is to recognize that democracy unleashes complex forces. The U.S., Europe, and Asia must adopt policies that encourage the popular will to flourish around the world--while also promoting globalization.