Why you should care
Some of America’s closest allies and most hardened rivals will chart out their futures in 2020.
Primary season is upon us, but as candidates wend their way from state to state, a series of crucial votes will unfold in other countries too. Their outcomes will shape the world that the winner of the U.S. presidential election will face.
Global votes this year will offer a rare look at the state of global democracy, as some of Washington’s closest allies and bitter opponents, as well as important but fledgling democracies, chart their futures. OZY gives you a preview of what to expect.
President Tsai Ing-wen will seek reelection in January, facing off against the Kuomintang’s Han Kuo-yu, mayor of the island’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung. Tsai has taken China on aggressively, while the Kuomintang has traditionally favored closer cross-strait ties, though Taiwan’s independence is nonnegotiable for both. But Tsai — a close ally of the United States in checking China’s rise — is leading by a slimmer margin than in her 2016 landslide victory. Her party lost key municipal elections in 2018 and looks vulnerable in the parliamentary elections that will accompany the presidential vote.
The country’s economy — battered by U.S. sanctions — and the future of the nuclear deal with the West, Russia and China will be key themes when Iranians vote in February parliamentary elections. The country’s relatively moderate president, Hassan Rouhani, lost political capital with his handling of the recent protests over fuel price hikes, says Mehrzad Boroujerdi, director of the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. “[Rouhani] promised that his administration will not engage in filtering the internet, but this is exactly what he did,” says Boroujerdi. With the Iranian state’s credibility down, Boroujerdi expects a low voter turnout. That would help hard-line conservatives “because they have a much more organized constituency and can easily mobilize them,” he adds.
[These elections] will be the most important political event in Bolivia since Evo’s win in 2006.
Jim Shultz, Democracy Center
The country is in turmoil after former president Evo Morales fled Bolivia amid mass protests following an election that the Organization of American States said was manipulated. The fresh elections set for March “will be the most important political event in Bolivia” since Morales came to power in 2006, says Jim Shultz, founder of the San Francisco–based Democracy Center, calling it a “genuine fork in the road.” Under Morales — who can’t contest this time — Bolivia was fiercely anti–United States. If a right-wing government comes to power, that would change. But though Morales was Bolivia’s first president from an indigenous community, the country’s “social movements predate Evo and will continue to remain strong” without him, says Shultz. The centrist former president, Carlos Mesa, and the conservative, Bible-quoting leader of the anti-Morales protests, Luis Fernando Camacho, will face off. But the credibility of the election itself will be tested too.
The country will hold its third election in less than a year after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party and the opposition Blue and White alliance failed to form a governing coalition. Neither had a majority on its own, and that’s likely to remain the case after the next election. Polls show more Israelis blame Netanyahu — who faces indictments on charges of corruption — for the political stalemate than Blue and White. But Bibi, as he is known, has built a formidable reputation as a political survivor.
Ethiopia’s long-ruling EPRDF coalition of four ethnic parties broke down in November. Three of them formed a united Prosperity Party under Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed. But the fourth party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, which had dominated the EPRDF before Abiy, has refused to join. Coupled with opposition from some of the prime minister’s former allies, this means that the outcome of Ethiopia’s parliamentary elections — expected in the first half of 2020 — “is uncertain” for the first time in decades, says Tobias Hagmann, an expert on Ethiopia at Roskilde University. Abiy’s landmark peace deal with Eritrea won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019, but the election will be fought on bread-and-butter issues — the economy, land and the EPRDF’s legacy.
President John Magufuli will seek reelection claiming he has taken on corruption and foreign mining firms — he has demanded they renegotiate contracts, accusing them of shortchanging Tanzania. But Magufuli has also “overseen a radical curtailment of civil and political freedoms,” including a ban on political rallies and laws that have been used to target journalists, points out Dan Paget, a Tanzania expert at University College London. Unless that changes, “Tanzanian elections simply cannot be free or fair,” Paget says. It’s unclear just how popular Magufuli actually is, because opposition parties boycotted recent local elections after most of their candidates were barred from contesting.
The country’s presidential elections in 2020 will serve as an important test for the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) that won reelection in October but lost its majority in the upper house of Parliament, says Michael Zeller, a researcher at the Central European University. “The loss of the presidency would provide a further hindrance, since the president is able to veto legislation,” he says. The PiS is expected to continue with its conservative, polarizing agenda, says Zeller. President Andrzej Duda of the PiS is currently the front-runner, expected to win.
President Nana Akufo-Addo and former President John Mahama look set to face off for a third time when the country holds elections in December. From a distance, Ghana has long been seen as a bastion of stability, with peaceful transfers of power. But its democracy remains fragile and susceptible to vigilante political violence, cautions Alex Frempong, a political scientist at the University of Ghana. The economy will “play a critical role” in determining Akufo-Addo’s fate, Frempong says. Ghana is among the fastest-growing economies in the world, but critics say that growth hasn’t filtered down to ordinary people.