This Year's Most Crucial Elections

Opposition supporters gather under a billboard of Movement for the Liberation of the Congo (MLC) leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo before a rally organized by political opposition parties in Kinshasa on July 31, 2016.

SourceEduardo Soteras/Getty

Why you should care

Because some votes count more than others.

Half of America may wish that President Barack Obama would say to hell with that pesky tradition of the peaceful transition, but the reality is that 2017 is going to usher out America’s first Black president, capping a year that brought a populist-fueled Brexit and President-elect Donald Trump. It’ll be a happy new year for protectionism, beefed-up borders and immigration crackdowns, but one thing is certain: Americans will enjoy a peaceful transfer of power.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for all lands. As the flames of election fervor finally die down in the U.S., they are being whipped up around the globe. International results largely will be characterized as either pro- or antiglobalization and, in some cases, by a lack of democratic street cred. Here are the main contests that may shape our world in 2017 and far beyond.

Europe

The big one? Whether France says “Oui” to the National Front’s Marine Le Pen or Republican François Fillon, the party’s first conservative candidate in decades who is both economically liberal and socially conservative. These are the choices on the right for the first round of the presidential election in April, but first we are likely to see the demise of the French left. Unpopular president François Hollande’s French Socialist Party is holding a primary later this month to determine whether ex-PM Manuel Valls can clinch the nomination amid a scrum of candidates. “Valls is the most experienced,” says Laurent Bouvet, professor of political theory at the Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. But “all the other candidates are ready to fight him. It’s called tout sauf Valls — all except Valls.” Whoever prevails must face Le Pen, Fillon and independent leftist candidates Emmanuel Macron and Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The left is so “profoundly divided,” says Bouvet, that it’s likely no left candidate will win a spot in Round Two, leaving French voters to choose between Le Pen and Fillon. In either case, it’ll be a new era in French-Russian relations: Le Pen is rumored to be funded in part by Russian banks, and Fillon is a personal friend of Vladimir Putin.

In federal elections this autumn in Germany, voters will decide whether to continue steering the pro-European ship with Angela Merkel at the helm. Most pundits back Merkel, but Kai Arzheimer, a professor of political science at the University of Mainz, warns that “winning is a relative concept in a multiparty system with a coalition government.” He believes Merkel’s Christian Democrats will “suffer considerable losses compared to 2013,” but he’s also “sure that they will still emerge as the strongest party,” re-electing Merkel for a fourth term as chancellor. Current polls show the far right’s Alternative for Deutschland winning about 15 percent of the vote, which could translate to 90-plus seats in the Bundestag. If that happens, it would probably spell the end of the CDU/CSU–FDP (libertarian) majority in parliament that’s been in place for much of the postwar era, says Arzheimer, making the course ahead even murkier for Merkel as she tries to navigate Europe through its populist storm.

What matters more than perhaps who wins [the Kenyan election] is that the process is credible.

Nic Cheeseman, associate professor of African politics, Oxford University

Africa

In Rwanda, the Patriotic Front has the vote locked up because “Paul Kagame runs a very tight machine,” says Gérard Prunier, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, noting that Marxism-Leninism has bequeathed to African politics “the art of the well-controlled political party state. … Mr. Kagame will be duly re-elected,” Prunier says, giving him a “realistic” 65 percent of the vote in August.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Joseph Kabila’s governing People’s Party for Reconstruction and Democracy has made no progress in updating national registrations, so recently officials announced that the 2016 elections, rescheduled for 2017, would now be held in April 2018. The only possible 2017 vote, says Kevin Amirehsani, senior analyst at Global Risk Insights, is a referendum on whether Kabila should remain in power. And that one is likely to spark mass protests. Prunier says Kabila may try to work out a graceful exit strategy similar to the one José Eduardo dos Santos is preparing in Angola, where he’s stepping back but plans to oversee a successor.

Kenya has scheduled an election for August, but a few pieces of the democratic puzzle are missing: an electoral commission, rules on how to run the election and an opposition coalition. “The election timetable is already incredibly difficult,” says Nic Cheeseman, associate professor of African politics at Oxford. While incumbents tend to win African elections, Cheeseman says it’s too early to assume that Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta will prevail. If efforts to form a National Super Alliance with candidates like Raila Odinga coalesce, Cheeseman says it could “have the capacity to make the elections very competitive.” Noting the ethnic violence that followed the 2007 vote and the controversies surrounding the legitimacy of the previous two election cycles, Cheeseman says that “what matters more than perhaps who wins is that the process is credible.”

Iran

Despite internal opposition, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei signed the nuclear deal to bring Iran out of the shadows and has distanced himself from hard-liners, including former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, barring him from running in the May election. Basim Al-Ahmadi, consultant on the Middle East at SET Advisory and co-founder of Global Risk Insights, expects current President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate, to win, but even if an ultraconservative prevails, “it will prove very difficult to completely reverse the momentum toward economic modernization and integration with the world.”

Hong Kong

After 20 years of mainland rule, Hong Kongers still don’t get to elect their chief executive. A pro-Beijing committee will soon nominate candidates and then choose a winner in March. Making predictions is tough, says Richard C. Bush, director at the Brookings Center for East Asia Policy Studies. “The situation is very fluid right now, and we don’t even know who the candidates will be.” What is certain: The winner is unlikely to excite the 7 million citizens of the autonomous territory.

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