An international crowd gathered at a conference in Vienna late last month to discuss recent developments in global finance. Having long-since been struck Sick of Brexit (SOB), let alone Bored of Brexit (BOB), I was grateful the coffee break conversation skirted the subject altogether. Everyone was far too concerned with the two important elections that took place the Sunday before.
In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian, took poll position in the country's first round of presidential elections with around 30% of the vote. The political party Zelensky founded is called Servant of the People, named after a TV show in which he stars as a crusading anti-graft president (available to view, for anyone interested, on Netflix).
Zelensky is an unknown quantity, his policies largely a mystery. The only thing people agree on is that the surprise frontrunner is most probably in the pocket of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. While hard evidence of a link between the two is scant, Zelensky appears frequently on Kolomoisky's TV station '1+1'. As one conference attendee told me: nothing goes on-air without Kolomoisky's say-so – it is absolute control. Other delegates recalled, perhaps hopefully, the cautionary tale of another president assisted to power by a powerful oligarch: Russia's Vladimir Putin, who ultimately laid low his former mentor and sponsor Boris Berezovsky in ruthless fashion.
Zelensky's competition in the second round of elections is incumbent president and confectionary king, Petro Poroshenko. The current president, having stripped Kolomoisky of his prize asset, ownership of Ukraine's largest bank, following an alleged multi-billion dollar fraud, is a bitter rival of the oligarch. Poroshenko took around 16% of the vote.
The stakes are high and the unknowns many. Would a Zelensky-led Ukraine lose the support of the International Monetary Fund, on which the country has relied since financial crisis struck nearly five years ago? Will punishment be meted out to firms that worked closely with Poroshenko? Will hard-won anti-corruption reforms be unwound?
On the same day Ukrainians took to the polls, Turkey – another country that, until recent years, harboured ambitions of European Union membership – held its local elections. With the Anatolian economy in decline since the local currency spiralled last year, the vote was widely seen as a test of confidence for strongman president Recep Erdogan and his AKP party.
The results left the authoritarian leader with a bloody nose; the AKP lost the mayorship of numerous leading cities including, for the first time in 25 years, Istanbul, as well as capital Ankara, long seen as an impregnable party stronghold. Erdogan's response so far has been to petulantly demand recounts, in another election that poses more questions than provides answers.
Turkish delegates at the conference tried their best to shed light on what it all means for their non-Turkish colleagues, but uncertainty was the plat du jour. Will Erdogan's son-in-law, finance minister Berat Albayrak, be removed from post in favour of a 'market friendly' candidate? Will waning support for Erdogan push him further toward the economic self-harm of populism?
I describe the above events not just because these distant dramas – full of intrigue and big, unsavoury personalities – are far more exciting than our domestic political telenovela. Shambolic, corrupted and touched by the ubiquitous pull toward populism though these elections may be, democracy has shown itself to be alive and kicking in two countries often written-off as politically compromised.
One of the risks arising from the Brexit fatigue so many of us are suffering is that we forget democracy is also very much alive and kicking in the UK – albeit a little frayed around the constitutional edges.
The current debate over the merits of referendums versus representative democracy has elements on both sides who claim the other has undermined democracy in the UK. There are the Brexiteers, who regard anything other than No Deal as a betrayal of the 'will of the people'. And there are the Remainers, who argue that the plasticity of public opinion renders any referendum a fundamentally flawed means by which to operate a democracy.
But today's seemingly interminable deadlock – torturous as it is – is symptomatic of a successful democracy, not a failed one. Look past the political noise, and we see a parliament (effectively, if pompously, corralled by head prefect, John Bercow) debating and dismissing proposals; MPs committed, either by sense of duty or re-election prospect, to balancing the instruction of the demos with their democratically bestowed mandate to use their best judgement to steward the country.
In its recently published 'Audit of Political Engagement', the Hansard Society found that 54% of those polled said Britain needs a 'strong leader who is willing to break the rules', and that 42% felt 'many of the country's problems could be dealt with more effectively if the government didn't have to worry so much about votes in parliament'.
No doubt there are kleptocrats and oligarchs in Turkey and Ukraine who take much the same view of their respective home countries. And no doubt, there are electorates in both countries thankful that the democratic bulwark, besieged as it may be, remains just about intact.
The mounting perception of parliament as fundamentally 'broken' provides the perfect stage on which authoritarianism may flourish. As Hansard Society director Ruth Fox is quoted as saying: 'Unless something changes, this is a potentially toxic recipe for the future of British politics'. Remembering that democracy is not useless, even if our politicians often are, may just be the antidote.
David Graves is a journalist from Edinburgh, living in London. His reporting is mainly focused on finance in emerging markets