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By James M. Lindsay
2019 will see important and consequential elections. Some of those might come as a surprise. Rumors already abound that some parliamentary systems might call snap elections. But many elections are already on the calendar. Here are ten to watch.
Millions of people around the world voted in 2018. Russian President Vladimir Putin earned his fourth term in office, though the contest was far from free and fair. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán won a parliamentary majority that will enable him to change Hungary's constitution as he sees fit, likely continuing the country's de-democratization. Eurosceptic populists triumphed in Italy's elections. Imran Khan, a former cricket player, was elected prime minister of Pakistan. Mexicans in a landslide elected Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as "Amlo," as their new president. Brazilians voted overwhelmingly to give far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called Trump of the Tropics, the keys to the Palácio da Alvorada. In the United States, Republicans picked up two Senate seats. Meanwhile Democrats took back the House of Representatives, gaining forty seats in their best showing since the Watergate class of 1974.
Next year will see equally important and consequential elections. Some of those might come as a surprise. Rumors already abound that some parliamentary systems might call snap elections. But many elections are already on the calendar. Here are ten to watch.
Nigerian General Election, February 16
Roughly 60 percent of Nigeria's 190 million citizens were born after 1990, but many of its leading politicians were born before Nigeria's independence in 1960. A "Ready to Run" campaign is supporting young people seeking seats in the federal and state legislatures. "Ready to Run" follows on the "Not Too Young to Run" campaign, which helped persuade President Muhammadu Buhari, who is seventy-five, to sign a law lowering the age requirement for presidential candidates from forty to thirty-five and for gubernatorial candidates from thirty-five to thirty. So far, though, the change hasn't remade the field of presidential candidates. Buhari is seeking reelection under the banner of the All Progressives Congress Party (APC). It is not clear, however, that he enjoys the party's full support; nearly five dozen legislators have defected from the APC in recent months to protest his leadership. Nigeria's major opposition parties have backed Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president who is seventy-two. A lot is at stake. Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, its largest economy, and its largest oil producer. It continues to be plagued by internal violence, however, and its unemployment rate hovers around 19 percent. Falling oil prices are only intensifying those troubles.
Ukrainian Presidential Election, March 31
Ukraine's 2014 presidential election raised hopes that the country had turned an important corner in its short, troubled history. But sadly, Ukraine remains plagued by corruption, political and economic uncertainty, a Russian-sponsored insurrection, and disagreement over whether its future lies with the West or Russia. The two leading contenders this time around are familiar faces: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who finished second in 2014. The public doesn't seem keen on either candidate. Poroshenko is taking a nationalist line with slogans like "Army! Language! Faith! We are Ukraine." Tymoshenko proposes turning Ukraine into a parliamentary republic. A long-shot candidate is Anatoliy Hrytsenko, a former defense minister. He hopes to unify several small opposition parties. Looming over the election is Russia. It seized three Ukrainian naval vessels in the Azov Sea in late November, raising fears it plans to intensify direct and indirect military pressure on Ukraine. Even if the guns remain silent, the Kremlin might find other ways to meddle. Ukraine has established a body to identify and hopefully prevent Russian interference. Whoever wins in March will face an old set of problems.
India's Lok Sabha, or Lower House, parliamentary election in April or May
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rode an electoral landslide into power back in 2014, ending decades of coalition government in Delhi. Modi is hoping to recapture that magic in 2019. But his popularity has waned among some of his core voting blocs, like farmers, as he has been slow to deliver on his many big promises. An effort to overhaul India's healthcare system to increase access and reduce costs has bogged down, and he hasn't been able to improve India's relationships with either China or Pakistan. Just this week the BJP lost three state elections. The big winner in those votes was the Congress Party, which hopes that 2019 will mark its comeback election on the national level. To reclaim control of the Lok Sabha, which it once routinely dominated, the Congress Party is promising to help farmers and create jobs. The party's leader, Rahul Gandhi -- the son, grandson, and great grandson of Indian prime ministers -- is also building alliances with regional parties with an eye toward building a coalition government. Regardless of which parties carry the day when all the votes are counted, the Indian election remains a wonder. More than 850 million people are eligible to vote -- that's more than twice the entire population of the United States -- and they will cast their ballots at some 800,000 polling stations, using some 1.3 million voting machines.
Indonesian Presidential Election, April 17
The upcoming Indonesian presidential election will look a lot like the 2014 vote. Incumbent President Joko Widodo, or Jokowi, is set to square off against the man he defeated, former Lieutenant General Prabowo Subianto. Expect the mudslinging that characterized the 2014 election to resurface. But more is at stake than personal differences. Indonesia is the world's third largest democracy. It's also a young democracy, grappling with the challenges of knitting together the interests and perspectives of more than 260 million people spread across more than 17,000 islands. Jokowi remains popular, even though he has failed to deliver on many of his promises to improve governance and protect human rights. He has named a conservative Muslim cleric, Ma'ruf Amin, as his running mate. Amin has been accused of promoting intolerance of ethnic, religious, and social minority groups. Prabowo has formed strong bonds with Islamist groups that hold considerable sway over public opinion. His stances on democracy and human rights draw comparisons to those of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines. Appeals to sectarianism and cries of "fake news" will likely dominate the headlines as the election nears.
Afghanistan Presidential Election, April 20
Afghanistan's forthcoming presidential election hardly calls for optimism. October's parliamentary elections were held three years late and were hampered by electoral fraud. Making matters worse, Taliban attacks killed more than one hundred thirty people trying to cast their votes. That didn't stop President Ashraf Ghani, who wants a second term, from calling the elections a "historic success." More broadly, Afghanistan's security situation has worsened in recent years. The Taliban effectively controls as much as 70 percent of Afghanistan, even with fifteen thousand U.S. troops in the country. The Trump administration is trying to pursue peace talks. Ghani is onboard with the idea, even showing a willingness to accept the Taliban as a political party. But with their advances on the ground, Taliban leaders may prefer to wait the United States out. While Afghani powerbrokers are still jockeying over who will square off against Ghani for the presidency, the more important question will likely be whether Afghanistan can hold a free, fair, and safe election in 2019 -- or any election at all.
European Parliament Election, May 23-26
Not too long ago the European Union (EU) was projected to run the twenty-first century. Now serious people talk about whether it might collapse. It certainly faces a long list of problems: a growing rift with the United States; rising illiberalism in central Europe; an increasing possibility of a "hard Brexit"; a brewing budget confrontation between Rome and Brussels; mounting political unrest in France; and declining enthusiasm to rejuvenate EU institutions. All of those trends could tip the outcome of the European Parliament (EP) elections. The EP has been around since 1952, though it remains the perhaps the weakest of the EU's institutions. But it does have the ultimate say in selecting the new president of the European Commission, the EU's real powerhouse. The incumbent European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker says he will not seek reelection. With many of Europe's mainstream parties foundering in recent years and with populism on the rise across the continent, the EP elections may catapult what were once fringe parties to center stage. A critical question is how many Europeans will vote. Some 500 million EU citizens are eligible, but turnout has averaged less than 50 percent since 1999. And because the United Kingdom is (presumably) leaving the EU in March, the EP will have fewer seats in 2019, 705 instead of 751.
South African General Election, Between May and August
Will the African National Congress (ANC), the party of Nelson Mandela, lose its hold on power in 2019? A year ago that seemed possible. Incumbent President Jacob Zuma faced a long list of corruption allegations and had failed to deliver on promises to make South Africa a safer and more equal society. Although the ANC's lead role in the fight against apartheid had enabled it to dominate South Africa's post-apartheid politics, Zuma's performance had taken a toll on the party's reputation. Support for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had increased, though both still lagged lag far behind the ANC nationally. Then in February 2018, the ANC pushed out Zuma in favor of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. The move looks smart in retrospect. The ANC's popularity has rebounded as the result of what's been called "Ramaphoria," making Ramaphosa the odds-on favor to win a term on his own. If that happens, he will have a full inbox. One immediate problem is South Africa's ongoing economic recession, which he is seeking to end in part by soliciting billions in foreign direct investment from countries like China and Saudi Arabia. And Ramaphosa and South Africa will continue to grapple with problems of inequality, racism, and corruption that have endured well past the end of apartheid.
Argentine General Election, October
Bill Clinton's slogan, "It's the economy, stupid," fits the mood in Argentina these days. Unemployment is nearly 10 percent, inflation is expected to surpass 30 percent, interest rates top 60 percent, and the overall economy is shrinking. President Mauricio Macri recently secured a $57 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the largest in IMF history, in a bid to ease the economic pain. Macri isn't the first Argentine president to turn to the IMF for help, but Argentines thought they were escaping economic hardship when they elected the businessman-turned-politician back in 2015. Not surprisingly, Macri's public approval ratings have sunk as Argentina's economic woes have mounted, raising doubts that he can win a second term. The question is, who will emerge as his main challenger? He or she will almost certainly to be a Peronist or Peronist affiliate, the political force that has dominated Argentine politics for seven decades. Former President and current Senator Cristina Kirchner is eyeing a return to the Casa Rosada, but she helped create the economic mess Macri was elected to clean up and she has been charged with accepting bribes when she was president (though she can't be imprisoned even if convicted as long as she holds elected office). Whoever Argentines pick in October won't lack for problems to fix.
Canadian Federal Election, October 21
Justin Trudeau won a stunning victory in 2015. His Liberal Party gained 150 seats, the largest turnaround in Canadian history, and with it a parliamentary majority. Three years later, both Trudeau and the Liberals have seen their approval ratings fall; nearly 60 percent of Canadians say they want a different party in power. Those poll numbers don't necessarily mean the Liberals are headed back into the political wilderness. Canada, like the United States, uses a first-past-the-post voting system, so vote shares don't translate directly into parliamentary seats. The Liberals won their current parliamentary majority with just 39.5 percent of the vote. But opposition parties see an opportunity and are seizing it. The Conservatives won elections in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, this summer, ending fifteen years of Liberal rule. Meanwhile, a new center-right party took power in Quebec this fall. The Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, will likely make the Liberals' proposals to deal with climate change a central part of their platform. Maxime Bernier, a former foreign affairs minister who narrowly lost the race to be Conservative leader, founded a new political party in August. His People's Party of Canada may become a footnote in history, or it could split the conservative vote, to the benefit of the Liberals.
Israeli Legislative Election, Before November 5
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has until November to call for elections. But a vote could come sooner. Just last month Israel narrowly avoided early elections after one party quit the six-party governing coalition, and another almost did, over disagreements about how to respond to attacks launched from Gaza. And that's just one of several issues dividing the coalition. Netanyahu's Likud Party currently holds just thirty of the 120 seats in the Knesset, so keeping the government together requires a delicate balancing act. Further complicating matters, Israeli police have recommended that the country's attorney general charge Netanyahu in three separate corruption cases. The threat of prosecution hasn't dimmed the prime minister's optimism; he thinks Likud could gain seats in a new election, saying that "35 is possible, 40 is the goal." But Netanyahu doesn't lack for challengers. He is a divisive, polarizing figure in an era where Israeli politics is being defined by a shift to the right and a weakening of the Israeli left. Whenever elections are called, expect Netanyahu to highlight his national security experience and close ties to President Donald Trump, who moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem earlier this year.
Corey Cooper, Angela Peterson, Patrice Narasimhan, and Sofia Ruiz assisted in the preparation of this post.
Photo: A man casts his vote at a polling station in Milan during Italy's election. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
Article: Courtesy Council on Foreign Relations.
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