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Millions of people around the world voted in 2019. Nigerians opted for the tried and true when they reelected Muhammadu Buhari, as did Canadians in reelecting Justin Trudeau. Ukrainians opted for a fresh face when they elected Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a newcomer to politics who played a president in a television comedy. Narendra Modi and his BJP Party won an even bigger majority than in 2014, freeing him to pursue his Hindu nationalist agenda. South African voters weren’t as kind to the African National Congress, returning it to power with a reduced majority. Some elections weren’t on the books when 2019 started. Boris Johnson called a snap election for December and British voters rewarded him for it. And some elections left everyone scratching their heads. Israelis went to the polls twice, but the winners couldn’t form a government. Afghanis went to the polls three months ago and the results remain unknown.
Next year will see equally important and consequential elections. Some of those might come as a surprise, just as Britain’s snap elections did this year. But many elections are already on the calendar, though the specific dates could change. Here are ten elections to watch.
Taiwanese Presidential Election, January 11. One 2020 election with potentially significant geopolitical consequences is Taiwan’s presidential race. It pits incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) against Han Kuo-Yu of the Kuomintang Party (KMT). China forms a main dividing line between the two parties. The DPP contends Taiwan is an independent country, though Taipei has never formally declared independence. The KMT favors strengthening ties with China. Han argues that Tsai has damaged relations with China and that the election is about Taiwan’s “life and death.” However, he has toughened his tone toward China in the wake of the Hong Kong protests. In September, Beijing warned that if Tsai is reelected, Taiwan will lose all of its diplomatic allies, presumably because of Chinese pressure. Just sixteen countries currently maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Tsai accuses China of interfering in Taiwan’s elections, calling it “a brazen challenge and detriment to the international order.” President Xi Jinping likely isn’t deterred. He said at the start of the year that reunification of Taiwan with China remains a “historic task.” He pointedly added: “We make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of taking all necessary means.”
Guinean Elections, February 16 and October. Guinea looks to be a case study in democratic disappointment. Alpha Condé’s victory in the country’s 2010 elections was seen as breaking the country’s fifty-year history of dictatorship and ushering in a new democratic era. A decade later, that optimism looks misplaced. Guinea’s 2013 parliamentary elections fell short of being free and fair, and the January 2019 parliamentary elections have been pushed back to February 2020. Condé hasn’t ruled out being on the ballot for the October 2020 presidential vote, even though Guinea’s constitution bars him from seeking a third term. Suspicions that he is trying to rewrite the country’s election rules has triggered protests that have turned deadly. The United States has encouraged the eighty-one year old president to retire; in September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted that he had told Condé about “the critical need for regular, democratic transitions of power for a thriving democracy.” Russia, however, is encouraging Condé to seek a third term. Why is the Kremlin interested in a West African country of thirteen million people? Guinea possesses the world’s largest proven bauxite reserves, the ore used to make aluminum. Russia gets a quarter of its bauxite from Guinea.
Israeli General Election, March 2, 2020. Will the third time be the charm? Israelis went to the polls twice in 2019. Neither vote produced a clear-cut winner. In the April vote, incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and former army chief Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance both won thirty-five seats. Securing control of Israel’s 120-member Knesset requires sixty-one seats, however, and neither Netanyahu nor Gantz could build the required coalition. Things didn’t change much when new elections were held in September. Likud won thirty-two seats, while the Blue and White alliance won thirty-three. Once again, neither Netanyahu nor Gantz could assemble a coalition; they also couldn’t agree on forming a national unity government. So Israelis will head back to the polls in March. One thing different this time around is that Netanyahu was indicted in November on charges of fraud, bribery, and breach of trust. He will remain as prime minister through the next election—assuming he survives a challenge for leadership of the Likud Party set for later this month—because the Israeli law that requires public officials to resign when they are charged with a crime exempts the prime minister.
South Korean Legislative Elections, April 15. What happens when a democracy is still debating the rules for allocating seats in its national legislature four months before election day? South Koreans are about to find out. Electoral reform has long been a topic of debate in South Korea. Earlier this year, South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) reached agreement with several smaller parties on a specific reform proposal. Among other things, it would increase from forty-seven to seventy-five the number of seats in South Korea’s 300-member National Assembly that are allocated by proportional representation. However, the conservative Liberal Korea Party (LPK) opposed the plan and used a range of parliamentary tactics to block any changes. The LPK ended its filibuster this week, finally enabling the National Assembly to move forward on a reform bill. If it passes, the DPK may have an easier time winning what it currently lacks, a working majority in the National Assembly. However, Moon’s personal popularity has fallen to new lows because of slowing economic growth, high youth unemployment, and growing income inequality. If the elections don’t give the DPK a working majority, Moon could find himself a lame duck with two years still left in his presidency.
Ethiopian General Election, May. One of the good news stories of recent years has been Ethiopia. Under the leadership of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, Africa’s second-most populous country has been experiencing a political opening. Ahmed broke with Ethiopia’s traditional strongman tactics upon assuming office in 2018. He freed thousands of political prisoners and initiated peace talks with Eritrea. He was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize for the latter effort. Now he hopes to make good on his pledge to bring Ethiopia free and fair elections. Next May’s vote will determine who holds the 547 seats available in the House of People’s Representatives. Abiy faces significant challenges in making good on his promise. Among them is Ethiopia’s history of ethnic tensions, which have killed 1,200 people over the past year and displaced more than a million others. Media mogul Jawar Mohammed, who like Abiy hails from the Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, has criticized Abiy for the violence. Mohammed encouraged demonstrations in late October that left at least sixty-seven people dead and saw protestors burn copies of a recently published book Abiy wrote outlining his political philosophy. Mohammed’s popularity is rising and he has joined the race for prime minister.
Singaporean Parliamentary Elections, May (projected). Could this time be different? Singapore is a textbook example of political stability. Its People’s Action Party (PAP) has won every election since the country’s independence in 1965. Heng Swee Keat, who is expected to become prime minister should the incumbent, Lee Hsien Loong, step down as planned before 2022, hopes the PAP will maintain that victory streak. The odds are good that it will; the PAP currently holds eighty-three of the eighty-nine seats in parliament. However, the PAP can expect to face increased criticism from the Worker’s Party (WP) and the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP). The WP, the only party besides the PAP to hold parliamentary seats, doesn’t expect to win a majority. Its goal is to serve as a check on the PAP. The SDP dreams of a more fundamental challenge to Singaporean politics. The party’s leader, Chee Soon Juan, argues that Singapore badly needs reform because democracy is essential for innovation, change, and progress. That view is popular with many members of Singapore’s intelligentsia. But most voters are more worried about how the U.S.-China trade war might hurt Singapore’s economy, and as a result, they are expected to vote to keep the PAP in power.
Hong Kong Legislative Council Elections, September. It’s an open question whether Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections will take place as planned. The city has been gripped by protests since last March, when opponents of a controversial extradition bill first went to the streets. The protestors initially objected that Beijing was violating the one country, two systems pledge it made when the United Kingdom handed control of the city back to China in 1997, thereby undermining the Basic Law that assures Hong Kong’s special status through 2047. As the protests continued, and as Chief Executive Carrie Lam failed to address the protestors’ demands, those demands grew to include making Hong Kong’s government more democratic. Pro-democracy candidates swamped pro-Beijing candidates in Hong Kong’s November district council elections. Beijing might be tempted to block the far more important Legislative Council elections, though that would likely trigger global criticism. Beijing might decide instead that it can control the election outcome. Only half of the seventy seats on the legislative council are chosen by popular vote; the remainder are elected through mechanisms Beijing can influence. And Beijing has shown itself willing to keep candidates it doesn’t like off the Hong Kong ballot.
Myanmar’s General Election, November. Next November’s elections could be pivotal for Myanmar. The country held its first free elections in a quarter century back in 2015. The National League for Democracy Party (NLD) won a majority of seats in both houses of parliament even though 25 percent of the seats were reserved for the military. The victory created an odd situation. The NLD had the votes to make its leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, president. However, the Burmese constitution bars her from being president. The NLD circumvented that rule by making her “state counsellor,” a new position with wide-ranging powers. Suu Kyi’s job performance has disappointed people both inside and outside of Myanmar. She has been harshly criticized for insisting against all evidence that there hasn’t been a genocide against the Rohingya. She is also under fire for failing to curb other ethnic violence—the Burmese government recognizes 135 different ethnic groups—and for not doing more to improve the country’s economic performance. To better challenge the NLD, several ethnically-based political parties merged this summer. The NLD formed an Ethnic Affairs Committee in response to address the concerns of minority ethnic groups. Some political activists have dismissed the move as a ploy to win votes.
Burkina Faso’s Parliamentary Elections, November 2020. Can a fledgling democracy succeed when faced with terrorist violence? Burkina Faso may soon find out. The country formerly known as Upper Volta held its first competitive elections in decades in 2015. The elections came on the heels of mass protests against Blaise Compaoré, who had ruled for twenty-seven years and had no plans to retire. The new president, Roch Marc Christian Kabore, soon faced a surge of terrorist violence conducted by al Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups. The violence had partly spilled over from neighboring Mali, but the growing weakness of the Burkinan state helped it flourish. The attacks have displaced hundreds of thousands of people and raised fears of a famine. Many terrorist attacks have targeted foreign nationals, seeking to disrupt overseas aid and commercial activity. Burkina Faso’s prime minister and entire cabinet resigned in January 2019 because of their failure to curb terrorist attacks. The change accomplished little, however. Last month, for example, gunmen attacked a convoy affiliated with a Canadian mining company, killing thirty-seven people and injuring sixty more. Kabore has signaled that he plans to run for reelection. Former prime minister Kadré Désiré Ouédraogo has also thrown his hat into the ring.
U.S. General Election, November 3. Can an impeached president win reelection? Donald Trump will find out, assuming—as seems likely—the Senate doesn’t remove him from office. Trump has reason to be optimistic: four of the last five presidents won reelection; Republicans are solidly behind him; and unemployment has hit record lows. Democrats also have reason to be optimistic: they won big in the 2018 midterm elections; a majority of registered voters supported impeachment; and national polls show Trump trailing his main Democratic rivals. Of course, U.S. presidents aren’t elected by the national popular vote but by the Electoral College. That means a handful of battleground states will likely decide the race. Trump could potentially win the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by an even larger margin than he did in 2016. Just as important next November as the presidential race is what happens down ballot. Thirty-four Senate seats are being contested; Republicans currently hold twenty-two of them. Republicans hope to regain control of the House, but twenty-four House Republicans have already decided to retire rather than seek reelection. The outcome of gubernatorial and state house races will determine which party will have the advantage when it comes to congressional redistricting.
Brenden Ebertz, Caroline Kantis, and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.
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