Why you should care

These elections will impact the future of a third of the world’s population.

As America recovers from a brutal midterm election cycle, the world enters 2019 on the cusp of some of the most important global elections in years. More than a third of the world’s population will vote in national elections this year.

India, the world’s largest democracy, and Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority nation, will both hold national elections amid contentious internal battles between secularism and more extreme religious identities they’ve traditionally shunned. Africa’s two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa, will elect presidents at a time when both their economies are struggling.

In Israel and in Ukraine, an old conflict and a new one will shape elections this year. South America’s second-largest economy, Argentina, will choose a leader for the next four years in the middle of an economic crisis. And the European Union will elect a new Parliament amid the ruins of the bloc’s biggest rupture yet: Brexit. OZY offers you a glimpse of what to expect in these elections and explains why they matter.

Nigeria

The February elections to the presidency and National Assembly follow protests by the oil-rich country’s youth that forced legal changes allowing younger candidates to compete for political office. When President Muhammadu Buhari first served as president between 1983–1987, more than half of Nigeria’s 190 million citizens weren’t even born. “This generation of under-30s did not experience the benefits of Nigeria’s oil boom,” says Sola Tayo, an associate fellow at London-based Chatham House. They want “a seat at the table” and “to hold their leaders to account,” Tayo adds. Three women are also contesting for the presidency, a job no woman has ever held.

Israel

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, will seek yet another term when the country — a rare, stable democracy in the Middle East — elects its Knesset. Officially, the elections are scheduled for November. But many experts believe Netanyahu could call elections as early as March. Despite corruption charges, Netanyahu remains popular. After pandering to Israeli hardliners on Palestine for years, he has turned to a more centrist line after clashes in November in Gaza. Also at stake is the future of President Trump’s Middle East plans, which count on Netanyahu as a vital pillar.

These [Indian] elections will be about the future direction of the country, and whether India is to stay a plural society.

Sudha Pai, political scientist

India

More than 600 million voters are expected to elect their next government between March and May in what will be the world’s largest democratic exercise. It’s effectively a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist government’s policies that many fear are changing the character of the secular nation, says Sudha Pai, a political science professor at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. “These elections will be about the future direction of the country, and whether India is to stay a plural society, where minorities too can thrive,” she says. The elections will also serve as a vote on Modi’s economic policies, some of which — like his decision in 2016 to ban high-value currency notes overnight — have backfired badly, hurting hundreds of millions of people.

Ukraine

Five years after the ousting of Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych, a Ukraine divided on his successor, President Petro Poroshenko, will elect its national government with the economy and Moscow on its mind. Most Ukrainians now want peace, and the country is “deeply integrated into the West,” says Balázs Jarábik, a Kiev-based scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Poroshenko had promised to liberalize the economy, but internationally is viewed as not having accomplished “nearly enough reforms,” says Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia will try to influence the elections, says Wilson. “The only question is how,” he notes. Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko is currently leading polls to replace Poroshenko.

Indonesia

With key wins in provincial elections in 2018, President Joko Widodo appears to have turned the tide against a rising wave of extremism that saw a radicalized family kill 14 churchgoers in May. But when the country votes in April, religious identity will still play a role, says Josh Kurlantzick, an Indonesia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. Widodo’s antidote to radicalism is controversial too. He has nationalized oil, gas firms and mines previously owned by foreign companies to buttress his populist credentials.

European Union

The European Union will elect its next Parliament in May, two months after the scheduled Brexit. While euroskeptic parties are expected to gain seats, their rise is “exaggerated,” says Alberto Alemanno, professor of EU law at HEC Paris business school. Traditional parties are likely to remain dominant, he says, even though their politics are far less pan-European than the economic and regulatory norms that bind the EU. But longtime populists and a new wave of little-noticed, progressive transnational parties may make a mark in these elections. “They are opening up alternative and competing new ideas about what Europe should be about,” says Alemanno.

South Africa

With its economy in tatters and its youth frustrated, South Africa will decide in May whether to give the African National Congress (ANC) another term. “To say that this election comes at an explosive time is an understatement,” says Thomas Koelble, a political science professor at the University of Cape Town (UCT) Graduate School of Business. President Cyril Ramaphosa and the ANC are distancing themselves from the Jacob Zuma–era corruption scams, says Koelble. But that isn’t easy because Ramaphosa was Zuma’s deputy. The extremist Economic Freedom Fighters are expected to gain votes demanding land “expropriation without compensation” from richer farmers, says Anthony Butler, a political science professor at UCT. But he expects “many electors will give the ANC one last chance” under Ramaphosa.

Argentina

President Mauricio Macri rode to power in 2015 on “voter frustration with public corruption and rising crime,” says Benjamin Gedan, director of the Wilson Center’s Argentina Project and a former South America director on the National Security Council. Leading up to the November 2019 elections, it’s Macri who is on the defensive after he sought a record $56 billion IMF bailout amid the collapse of Argentina’s peso. Austerity measures may “hobble Macri’s re-election prospects,” says Omar Encarnación, professor of political studies at Bard College. Macri will likely face off against Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who he had displaced as president. The investor optimism that greeted Macri’s pro-market reforms “will not survive” a return of Kirchner, “seen as hostile to trade and foreign investment,” says Gedan.

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