Ten Elections to Watch in 2021
Millions of people around the world voted in 2020. Taiwanese voters reelected Tsai Ing-wen as president. Burmese voters returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s party to power. Guineans protested before and after Alpha Conde won a disputed third term despite the country’s two-term limit. Singapore’s People’s Action Party saw its popularity drop but still extended its sixty-one-year hold on power. South Koreans turned out in record numbers to give President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party a landslide victory in National Assembly races. The United States saw its highest voter turnout in more than a century when Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for president. Some elections weren’t on the books when 2020 started. Bolivians put former president Evo Morales’s party back into power. And some elections slated for 2020, including Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections and Ethiopia’s general election, were postponed.
Next year will have its share of consequential elections. Some of them might come as a surprise as governments fall, whether through routine parliamentary maneuvers, as happened yesterday in Israel, or because of protests in the streets, which could happen in a place like Belarus. But many elections are already on the calendar even if specific dates have yet to be determined. Here are ten elections to watch in 2021. Some of them will be free and fair. Others will be elections in name only.
Ethiopian Parliamentary Elections, 2021. Ethiopians were supposed to go to the polls this past August. That vote was postponed, however, ostensibly because of COVID-19. If the vote is held in 2021, it will take place amid considerable turmoil. In late 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed merged the ruling government coalition into a single political party. It includes nearly every major ethnic party except for the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). The TPLF, which dominated Ethiopian politics before Abiy took office, refused to join. In September, Tigray, which accounts for 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, defied the federal government and held regional elections. Two months later, Abiy claimed that Tigrayans had attacked a military base. He ordered military retaliation in response and quickly claimed that federal control had been reestablished over Tigray. Fighting has continued, however, and some 50,000 Tigrayans have been displaced. Meanwhile, ethnic violence is rising elsewhere in Ethiopia. Abiy was once seen as a leader who would bring stability and prosperity to Ethiopia—he was awarded the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize. Now he looks to have turned in an autocratic direction by detaining opposition leaders and suppressing political freedoms. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee went so far as to rebuke him, saying it was “deeply concerned” by the situation in Tigray.
Ecuadoran General Election, February 7. Ecuadorans will head to the polls to elect a new president and National Assembly. Unpopular incumbent President Lenín Moreno has opted not to run for reelection. He took office in 2017, reversed many of former president Rafael Correa's populist left-wing policies, and prosecuted him on corruption charges. That conviction bars Correa from running for president again; he now lives in exile in Belgium. Moreno has come under fire for violently suppressing protests that erupted in October 2019 after he cut a $1.3 billion gasoline subsidy. Like many other countries, Ecuador’s economy has been hard hit by COVID-19. Early polls give a slight lead to center-right CREO Party candidate Guillermo Lasso. He lost the 2017 presidential race to Moreno by 3 percentage points. A banker by profession, Lasso wants to create jobs by opening up Ecuador’s markets. The other leading candidate is Andres Arauz, a thirty-five-year-old economist who served in Correa’s cabinet. He favors returning to Correa’s populist policies. Ecuadorans don’t care much for their country’s politics. A recent survey found that nearly 67 percent had little or no interest in the upcoming election. Nearly 60 percent said they wouldn’t vote at all if it weren’t mandatory. Not the signs of a healthy democracy.
Dutch General Election, March 17. Dutch voters head to the polls next year to elect the 150 members of the Tweede Kamer, the lower and more powerful of the country’s two legislative chambers. Prime Minister Mark Rutte and his People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) have been in power for ten years and are expected to have another strong showing. The centrist VVD’s coalition partners are currently predicted to lose a few seats. This center-right coalition took a record 208 days to put together in 2017 but lost its narrow majority in both houses in 2019. It will be up against the populist Freedom Party (PVV) and its leader Geert Wilders, who favors taking the Netherlands out of the European Union and closing all mosques. Rutte refused to partner with Wilders after the PVV won the second most seats in parliament in 2017. The recent collapse of another far-right party that did surprisingly well in 2019 midterm elections has solidified Wilders’s claim to the populist right, and the PVV is expected to maintain its second-place status in the Tweede Kamer. Rutte, who could become Europe’s longest-serving leader after Angela Merkel steps down, will likely face another tricky coalition-building process to keep the prime minister’s job.
Peruvian General Election, April 11. Peruvians are set to elect a new president, 130 members of Congress, and 25 regional governors. The country hopes political stability will result. Peru went through three different presidents in one week just last month. It all started when President Martín Vizcarra was ousted over what were likely false corruption allegations. His successor lasted just five days before resigning in the face of mass protests. Finally, the Peruvian Congress chose Francisco Sagasti, a centrist politician, as interim president. Sagasti faces a daunting agenda. COVID-19 has run rampant in Peru. At the end of the year, only a handful of countries had a higher death toll per capita. The Peruvian economy has also been devastated—GDP could decline by as much as 14 percent in 2020. That’s one of the highest projected contractions anywhere in the world. Sagasti said he is focused on ensuring that the elections take place. But they may solve little. Peru has a weak party system and many voters do not support any of the current candidates. Moreover, despite the turmoil it triggered, Vizcarra's ouster may only encourage lawmakers to use corruption charges to impeach future sitting presidents they dislike. Consider Peru an example of the broader global trend of democratic decay.
Iraqi Parliamentary Elections, June 6. Iraqis will vote, a year ahead of schedule, to elect a new parliament, formally known as the Council of Representatives (COR). The newly elected COR will then choose the country’s president and prime minister. Why the early vote? Well, in October 2019, nearly 600 people were killed protesting widespread political corruption and a perceived failure of the government to put Iraqis’ interests first. The protests led then-prime minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign. Six months later, former Iraqi National Intelligence Service director Mustafa al-Kadhimi became interim prime minister. He vowed to combat corruption and reform the electoral system. Although the protests stopped once COVID-19 hit, Kadhimi proposed moving national elections from June 2022 to June 2021. The COR has enacted some electoral changes, but these only partly meet the protestors’ demands. Critics say that Kadhimi has not pushed reform hard enough and flubbed the response to the pandemic. Plunging oil prices only made things worse. Oil accounts for 60 percent of Iraq’s economy and 90 percent of government revenue. Iraq’s election likely won’t overcome the country’s deep divisions, which go far beyond Shia versus Sunni and Arab versus Kurd. If past form holds, it could take months for the COR to agree on a prime minister.
Iranian Presidential Election, June 18. Term limits bar President Hassan Rouhani from running for reelection. It might be for the best. Although he is not entirely to blame, he has presided over a failing economy, skyrocketing inflation, and one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in the region. Rouhani won reelection in 2017 in good part because of his promises to ease political repression and use the sanctions relief obtained through the 2015 nuclear deal to stimulate economic growth. However, his poor performance has given hardliners plenty of ammunition and denied fellow “moderates” a clear path to victory. The hardliners won big in last February’s parliamentary elections, which were held just after massive suppression of protests that had spread across the country. That victory was aided by the mass disqualification of so-called reformist candidates and record low voter turnout. Rouhani might be able to undercut hardliners if he can quickly hammer out an agreement to bring the United States back into the nuclear deal. But any such agreement requires the approval of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. He favors the hardliners, making it unlikely Rouhani succeeds unless Washington gives Tehran what it is asking for. If a conservative candidate does prevail, the Biden administration will face an even less amenable negotiating partner.
Zambian General Election, August 12. President Edgar Lungu of the ruling Patriot Front party is seeking his third term in office. His main opponent will be Hakainde Hichilema of the United Party for National Development, who is making his sixth run for the presidency. The two will likely compete over who is better qualified to repair the economy and the country. This year, Zambia became the first African country to default on its debt repayments during the COVID-19 pandemic. The default wasn’t a complete surprise. The country’s economy was in bad shape before the pandemic. Zambia is Africa’s second-largest copper producer and copper prices have fallen sharply over the last three years. One question is whether the election results will prompt protests as they did in 2016 when Lungu won with just over 50 percent of the vote. Hichilema disputed the count, citing polling irregularities. Tensions between the two escalated in 2017 when Hichilema was charged with treason after his convoy failed to give way for Lungu’s motorcade. Hichilema spent four months in prison before the charge was dropped. His arrest, as well as the arrest of several of his fellow party members, suggested that the country might be drifting toward authoritarian rule.
Hong Kong Legislative Council Elections, September 5. Hong Kong officials postponed the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, originally scheduled for September 2020, until September 2021. The official reason was the COVID-19 pandemic, even though the city has done an admirable job containing the virus and other places worse hit still held elections. Many Hong Kongers saw the decision as another step in Beijing’s effort to suppress the city’s democracy movement, which posted decisive wins in the 2019 district council elections. That suppression effort picked up steam this fall when Beijing had several pro-democracy lawmakers booted off the LegCo. Fifteen of their colleagues quickly resigned in protest. The result is that the body no longer has any pro-democracy lawmakers. This could allow pro-Beijing lawmakers to pass legislation that advances the Chinese Communist Party’s agenda. One example is expanding the right of Hong Kongers living in mainland China to vote in city elections. Approximately half of the seventy seats in the LegCo are chosen by popular vote, with the remainder chosen through mechanisms Beijing influences. Unable to put its preferred candidates on the ballot or to convince Beijing to chart a different course, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement faces a perilous future in 2021.
German Federal Election, September 26. Germans will be electing the first government in sixteen years that won’t be headed by Angela Merkel. She is retiring. Her hand-picked successor as head of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, lost an intra-party struggle and resigned in February. CDU delegates will be voting next month on a new leader. The three leading candidates are: Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state; Norbert Roettgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee; and Friedrich Merz, a corporate lawyer. Despite the uncertainty about its head, the CDU leads in the polls, in good part because Merkel has earned high marks for her handling of the pandemic. The Social Democratic Party (SPD), traditionally Germany’s other main political party and the junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government, trails well behind. Its candidate for chancellor will be Finance Minister Olaf Scholz. The Green Party is actually outpolling the SPD for now and could emerge as Germany’s second main party. The popularity of the far-right party Alternative for Germany, which surged in 2017, has sunk in recent months into the high single digits. Whoever succeeds Merkel will have big shoes to fill, not just in Germany but also in Europe.
Nicaraguan General Election, November 7. Seventy-five-year-old Daniel Ortega is seeking his fourth consecutive term as president, three years after violently suppressing antigovernment protests. He resisted calls at that time to move the national elections up to 2019. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) controls the legislature, judiciary, and much of the media in Nicaragua, but he is not leaving his electoral hopes to chance. He has ratcheted up his crack down on political dissent and intensified his efforts to limit free speech. Just this week the National Assembly passed a law empowering Ortega, who also ran Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, to ban opposition candidates from running. So any election that takes place won’t be free and fair. None of these moves, however, can hide the fact that Nicaragua’s economy has sputtered during the pandemic amid allegations that the extent of the disease is being covered up. A poll conducted by the Inter-American Dialogue last July found that the approval ratings for Ortega and the FSLN had dipped below 20 percent. That doesn’t mean the opposition is popular. Not only does Ortega control most levers of power, 70 percent of survey respondents didn’t express a preference for any political party.
A Bonus Election to Watch—Israel’s Knesset Election, March 23. Israel’s unity government of Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz is history, meaning Israelis now face their fourth election in two years. The first two votes produced virtual ties between Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White alliance. Neither could build a governing coalition in Israeli’s 120-member Knesset, so Israelis headed back to the polls last March. Netanyahu picked up some seats but not enough to form a government. With COVID-19 wracking the country, he agreed in late April to join Gantz in a unity government. That solved an immediate problem for Netanyahu: He can’t be prosecuted on fraud and bribery charges filed against him last year as long as he remains prime minister. Netanyahu and Gantz’s marriage of convenience never took, however, and a squabble over a government budget led to the divorce. A caretaker government will run things until the election is held and a new government is formed. That could be some time. Gantz alienated many of his supporters by joining the unity government. Netanyahu may be no better off. He faces a major threat from Gideon Saar, who bolted from Likud earlier this month to set up the New Hope Party. A tough, and perhaps nasty, campaign lies ahead.
Margaret Gach, Kara Jackson, and Anna Shortridge assisted in the preparation of this post.
Other posts in this series:
Ten Elections to Watch in 2022
Ten Elections to Watch in 2020
Ten Elections to Watch in 2019
Ten Elections to Watch in 2018
Ten Elections to Watch in 2017
Ten Elections to Watch in 2016
Ten Elections to Watch in 2015