Why you should care

Because democracy itself will be tested in a manner never seen before.

The rise of populist politicians the world over has sparked a debate on the future of democracy. But the tests of 2016 and 2017 pale in comparison with those democracy faces this year.

Welcome to 2018, when five of the world’s 10 most populous countries will hold national elections critical for their domestic politics and international relations. Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia and Mexico have a collective population of 800 million, two and a half times that of the U.S.

These elections are a subset of an unprecedented phenomenon: More people will vote for national leaders between Russia’s elections in March 2018 and polls in India and Indonesia the following March than ever over a similar span in humanity’s history. That’s nearly 2.5 billion people — a third of the world’s population. Many of the world’s biggest hot spots will vote in 2018 too. OZY brings you a sample of what to expect.


The March elections will likely serve as “reconfirmation” of Vladimir Putin’s presidency, says Andrei Kolesnikov, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. Putin’s lead over his two major rivals — far-right populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Communist Gennady Zyuganov — is widening. Alexei Navalny, a lawyer turned activist seen as a potential threat to Putin, has been barred from contesting the polls. The question, says Kolesnikov, is how Putin will use his likely victory to address Russia’s many challenges — sanctions, isolation and an economy in crisis.


The U.S., worried about Iraq’s growing proximity to Iran, is distancing itself from the long-standing Kurdish demand for independence, though the Kurds have been staunch American allies. Iraq’s May polls are likely to see heightened rhetoric against Kurdish independence, and could set the movement for separation back indefinitely, says Kiran Nazish, journalist and expert at the Washington-based Global Institute for Democracy and Strategic Studies. “It’s a turning point for Iraq,” Nazish says. “I don’t think it looks good for the Kurds.”


The May elections will test the commitment of both the Colombian government and FARC to their historic 2016 peace deal, suggests Aila Matanock, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley. Matanock, who specializes in post-conflict political participation and follows developments in Colombia closely, expects the elections to “help engage the international community to hold both sides to the terms of the deal.”


The two traditional ruling parties, the center-left PRI and the center-right National Action Party, are both trailing 63-year-old silver-haired Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Morena party. And Obrador has made clear where he stands on Trump’s deportation threats and border wall. “What we will do is demand our sovereignty — sovereignty with respect,” he told the Woodrow Wilson Center in September 2017.


Pakistan is to many Afghans what Trump is to Mexico, says Nazish — and Kabul’s relations with Islamabad first, and with Washington and New Delhi second, are expected to emerge as key campaign issues ahead of the July elections. “The first is seen as a negative relationship. The second is a positive relationship,” she says. The stakes are high for the U.S., which has decided to double down on its presence in Afghanistan.


The September elections will be post-independence Zimbabwe’s first without Robert Mugabe as a candidate after he was removed in a “soft coup” in November. But the ruling Zanu PF “still effectively dominates the party-state institutions” and will be difficult to dislodge, says Lloyd Mambo Sachikonye, professor of international studies and development at the University of Zimbabwe. Opposition leader and ailing former Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai is unable to campaign much. But public sentiment remains strong against Mugabe-era corruption. Current Zanu PF leader Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has never run for president before, lacks Mugabe’s charisma. His fate may hinge on whether he can help Zimbabwe’s economy recover by the elections, says Sachikonye.


The country is widely viewed as effectively run by the military establishment, though the ruling PML-N party of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is expected to complete its term on paper. The corruption charges that forced Sharif to quit in 2017 won’t be a key issue in the September elections, says Nazish, because “people know all sides are corrupt.” Instead, she says, relations with the U.S. and India, and the controversial China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which many fear could make Pakistan China’s vassal state, will figure prominently. So too will the rise of the religious right, under the military’s patronage.


The race appears to be between leftist former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro from the right. Though Lula has been convicted on charges of corruption, “people are saying that under Lula, at least our lives were better,” says Lorena Valente, associate director at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Bolsonaro has pitched himself as against the political establishment, a posture that is earning him support. But much can change before the October elections, cautions Valente. If Lula is barred from contesting because of his conviction, all bets are off. “It’s an open race right now,” says Valente.


President Nicolás Maduro has barred key opposition parties from contesting the October elections after they boycotted recent mayoral polls, and major opposition leaders have been arrested. “This means there is no one to rally the opposition right now,” says Sanjay Badri-Maharaj, a Trinidad and Tobago–based strategic affairs expert. Maduro does have support, he says, but has undermined the judiciary and parliament. “If the democratic process is subverted,” Badri-Maharaj says, “then the country would have become a de facto dictatorship.”


The country has in recent years witnessed unprecedented economic growth and political stability. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also elevated her international profile by sheltering nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees in 2017. The one hole in her armor? The opposition, led by former Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia, boycotted the 2013 elections, denting the credibility of Hasina’s victory. Bangladesh needs all parties to participate in the 2018 elections, says Gyasuddin Molla, a political science professor at the University of Dhaka. “Credible elections will encourage foreign investors to come to Bangladesh,” he says, “and build on the country’s recent successes.”

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