Last year, The Economist picked Uzbekistan as its country of the year. The late despot Islam Karimov’s country had a long way to go, it said, “but no other country travelled as far in 2019”.
The year before The Economist picked Armenia. The “an ancient and misruled nation in a turbulent region” now has “a chance of democracy and renewal”.
And this year, The Economist has made another unusual choice. It picked from a shortlist of five: New Zealand, which was also in the running last year; Taiwan; the US; Bolivia and Malawi. (Read right the way through to the end and all will be clear).
The Economist decided the year’s most-improved country was “one where people stood up for democracy”. That’s all very well but it did throw up quite a few options from the shortlist.
Might it be the US, saved from Trump’s despotic intentions by ordinary election officials and others of both Republican and Democrat political persuasion?
Or how about Bolivia, where the people insisted on political accountability and transparency and chose a technocratic president after a peaceful election do-over in October?
Or Taiwan, which had a pre-pandemic election (in January), returned Tsai Ing-wen as president and thereby continued to assert itself against China. Ms Tsai’s government has been sheltering democracy activists from Hong Kong, The Economist pointed out.
Then there was New Zealand, which also had an election and gave a landslide – a real blue-moon moment for the country – to Jacinda Ardern.
And finally, there was Malawi, which reaped the rewards of mass protests against an unfair 2019 election that incumbent President Peter Mutharika claimed to have won. In February this year, Malawi’s constitutional court ordered a re-run and in June, a peaceful poll was held. Mr Mutharika was forced to leave office. His rival was installed as president. “Malawi is still poor, but its people are citizens, not subjects,” wrote The Economist. “For reviving democracy in an authoritarian region, it is our country of the year”.
That’s an impressive commendation. However, before we get too carried away, it’s worth considering how time-limited some of the praise can be. Two years after Armenia was heaped with praise as the most improved country of 2018, consider how it’s ending 2020.
Armenia is convulsed with grief and political upheaval, as it mourns those killed during the recent conflict with Azerbaijan. And Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is increasingly unpopular because of his handling of that conflict and shock announcement of a peace treaty that ceded swaths of land formerly controlled by ethnic Armenian forces back to Azerbaijan.
In 2018, The Economist was hailing Mr Pashinyan as a “charismatic” former journalist and MP, who “swept into power, legally and properly, on a wave of revulsion against corruption and incompetence.”