The World's Most Crucial Elections

The World's Most Crucial Elections

The Gambian president Yahya Jammeh. Image by © Jason Florio/Corbis

Why you should care

Because this year the world of politics will turn — far beyond America’s ballot box. 

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Will the president defy the constitution and change the White House locks? Pundits worldwide have already begun taking aim at America’s Democratic and GOP front-runners ahead of this year’s presidential election. Yet for all the moaning over their stances on everything from gun control to refugees, Americans are at least assured of two things: a fair vote and a peaceful transition of power.

But serious concern is brewing in other parts of the world, including Taiwan, where a major vote could ruffle diplomatic feathers after eight years of relative calm. Current front-funner Tsai Ing-wen’s policies, according to Richard Bush of the Brookings’ Center for East Asia Policy Studies, would be seen as “less China-friendly” than her predecessor’s, “creating at least the possibility that China will overreact and create a downward spiral of new tensions.” The year ahead is also likely to see Portugal’s newly formed opposition cabinet comprising an uneasy alliance between the socialists and communists facing the litmus test of a new and likely center-right president. Meanwhile, the great African democracy that tested several nations throughout last year continues as we dive deeper into 2016.

Europe

Austria will hold a presidential vote this year, as will Iceland, where President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has just bowed out of a run at a sixth term. This is good news for democracy in the land of fire and ice, where there are no constitutional term limits, which is a point of contention for those who felt burned by Grímsson’s anti-European fervor or frozen out of politics by his prior refusal to leave. Grímsson saw himself as “the voice of the democratic will of the people,” says University of Iceland history professor Guðmundur Jónsson, but was really just continuing to “cause division” in his country. His departure allows for fresh faces to pop up on the political landscape before the June vote.

When presidents go for a third term and they don’t have a lot of public support, it can lead to real problems.

 

Hard hit by economic reforms and debt, many feared Portugal would follow Greece down the dark path of anti-austerity politicking, possibly sending shocks through markets or economies elsewhere. There were sighs of relief when the center right won the legislative election in October … followed by gasps when opposition socialists, determined not to keep warming the back benches, formed their first-ever coalition with what University of Lisbon professor António Costa Pinto calls Portugal’s “orthodox” communists to secure the cabinet. A presidential election this month will likely see another center-right candidate win, but there’s a big threat to the socialists in this coalition: They’ve gone to bed with those demanding steep increases in the minimum wage and some recovery for salaries and pensions trimmed by economic reforms. While their ability to deliver will depend on Europe’s beleaguered market and economy, it also leaves experts like Pinto predicting a divorce between the socialists and commies in about a year.

Africa

First, the good news: The opposition in Ghana has a great “window of opportunity” to ascend this year, says associate professor of African politics at Oxford Nic Cheeseman, and it’s expected to continue a democratic tradition begun in 1992. But that isn’t the case for all the presidential elections set to take place across the continent this year. While African populations needn’t worry as much about military coups as they have in the past, experts say, those clinging to power have simply found another way to stick around: by changing the constitution to suit their needs.

In Uganda, we may see less violence than the last election only because President Yoweri Museveni’s cronies have better controlled the process leading up to elections, says Cheeseman. The 71-year-old leader has been in charge since 1986, having changed the constitution a decade back, and is expected to “win” again in February — despite a number of opposition candidates — owing to the worrying and “incredible power of the incumbent,” says Maria Burnett, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division.

The Gambian president Yahya Jammeh is pursuing a fifth term, having ruled since a bloodless coup in 1994. During the last vote, regional West African observers refused to even go, says HRW researcher Felicity Thompson, noting that Jammeh has declared he’ll “rule forever.” Meanwhile, in the Republic of the Congo, 72-year-old Denis Sassou Nguesso is the most recent African leader to seek an extended tenure legislatively, with a referendum in October that extended term limits to three five-year terms while doing away with the age limit for candidates, which was 70.

In the nearby and similarly named Democratic Republic of the Congo, this could be a banner year for the country — if it democratically elects a new leader. But it’s also “deeply concerning,” warns Cheeseman, who says the 80-million-strong country could prove the riskiest of the bunch in terms of civil strife. Joseph Kabila, in looking to assure himself a third term, tried amending electoral law last year, which resulted in deadly Kinshasa protests. This prompted Kabila to ease off, but now he’s threatening to delay elections while calling for a “dialog.” As in Burkina Faso and Burundi, Cheeseman says, “When presidents go for a third term and they don’t have a lot of public support, it can lead to real problems,” with protests turning violent, possibly leading to military coups.

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