Ten Elections to Watch in 2017

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This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) on 9 December 2016.

Millions of people around the world went to the polls this year. The results provided plenty of surprises. British voters defied the pollsters and voted to leave the European Union. Colombians did much the same in rejecting their government’s peace deal with FARC, though Colombia’s president found a way to complete the deal a few months later without a vote. The biggest electoral surprise of all might have been in the United States, where Donald Trump defied the political experts and defeated Hillary Clinton. Perhaps 2017 will produce similarly surprising results. Here are ten elections to watch.

The Netherlands’s General Election, March 15. Is a “Nexit” in the cards? Controversial Dutch politician Geert Wilders has vowed to withdraw the Netherlands from the European Union should his far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) win the March elections. Wilders just might get the chance to make good on his promise. The PVV has surged in the polls recently and is now running ahead of the party of the current Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. The PVV is gaining because Wilders adroitly used his just-concluded trial for hate speech—he was convicted but not punished on the lesser charge of inciting discrimination for saying he wanted to see fewer Moroccan immigrants—to portray himself as a defender of free speech and a victim of political correctness run amok. (Wilders made his name in Dutch politics with anti-Islam, anti-immigration stances. He has proposed outlawing the Quran, placing a tax on headscarves, and banning the construction of mosques.) But the race has been neck-and-neck, with the lead changing frequently. Should the PVV maintain its lead, other Dutch parties will likely try to form a coalition government that shuts Wilders out of power. That could leave the Netherlands with a shaky and immobilized political leadership at a time when the EU faces major challenges.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Election, March 26. Hong Kong and China have co-existed for the past two decades in relative harmony under the “one country, two systems” framework. That harmony looks to be fraying. In 2014, Hong Kong students led the Umbrella Revolution protests after Beijing moved to change the city’s electoral system to give it more say over who runs Hong Kong. The city is headed by a Chief Executive who has wide-ranging powers. An Electoral Committee of 1,200 individuals appointed by Beijing decides who gets the post, and as you might guess, they pick the candidate Beijing prefers. The protestors want Hong Kong voters to elect the Chief Executive directly. The issue has split Hong Kong politics ever since. The incumbent, Leung Chun-ying, who has sided with Beijing since he took up the post in 2012, just announced he will not seek re-election. With Leung out of the race, the new favorite is Regina Ip, Hong Kong’s former secretary for security and the current leader of the pro-Beijing New People’s Party. She might not be the person that people in Hong Kong want, though, if they had their way. Finance Secretary John Tsang, who called the protests a potentially “strong and constructive force,” leads in the most recent poll with 28 percent support. Ip, by contrast, stood at 8 percent. But Beijing could block Tsang from running because it fears where the protest movement might be headed. Just last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Leung that he was “very worried” about Hong Kong and explicitly warned against the possibility of Hong Kong’s independence.

France’s Presidential Election, First Round on April 23, Second Round on May 7. Is France next? Three days after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidency on a populist platform skeptical of elites and experts, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right Nationalist Front, boasted that she will be France’s next president. The polls suggest that is unlikely. However, most French political experts think she is a virtual lock to be one of the two candidates to make it to the election’s runoff round. If she makes it that far, anything could happen. Le Pen has been helped by having enthusiastic supporters and divided opponents. Incumbent President François Hollande looked at his 4 percent approval rating and decided against running for reelection. The French Socialists now need to find a candidate. Members of the center-right party, Les Républicains, have chosen former prime minister François Fillon to be their nominee. A Le Pen victory would upend French politics, energize far-right parties elsewhere in Europe, and leave Chancellor Angela Merkel as the only European leader forcefully advocating for a unified EU. But even in a loss, Le Pen could pull France further to the right as her opponents look to defang her tough talk on immigrants, terrorists, and the EU by talking tougher themselves.

The World Health Organization’s Director-General Election, May. National elections aren’t the only ones that matter. So too do elections at international organizations. Take the case of the World Health Organization, which needs to select a new director-general. Outgoing Director-General Margaret Chan has come under sharp criticism for her leadership of the WHO and its slow and ineffective response to the Ebola crisis. Stung by the criticism, the WHO has changed the way it selects its leader. In the past, the WHO’s executive board put forth a single candidate for an up-down vote by member states. But this time around, there is real competition. Six countries have submitted candidates to compete in the first ever election for the role. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the former Ethiopian health and foreign minister, has attracted the most attention because of his support among African members. His main rival is former French health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, who is campaigning on proposals like universal health care and lower drug prices.  Each of the more than 190 members of the WHO has a single vote, regardless of size or financial contribution to the organization. As with elections at most international organizations, regional solidarity and political horse-trading will play a big role in the final vote.

Iran’s Presidential Election, May 19. Can Hassan Rouhani shock the world a second time? He first surprised the world back in 2013, winning the Iranian presidency in a landslide, defeating a slate of hard-line candidates along the way. Critical of his controversial and combative predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he promised to improve ties with the West, revitalize the economy, and implement a civil rights charter. He soon learned that governing is tougher than campaigning. He negotiated a nuclear deal with the West, freeing Iran of many of the sanctions that it faced. But with Donald Trump’s victory that success now looks precarious. At the same time, the Iranian economy continues to limp along, the relaxation of sanctions has yet to generate tangible results, and the civil rights charter has received mixed reviews. Fortunately for Rouhani, Iran’s hard-line faction has yet to coalesce around a popular alternative. Ahmadinejad hinted at another run for the presidency, but Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei tacitly disqualified him from running. So for now, Rouhani is favored to win a second term.

Rwanda’s General Election, August. Should presidents observe term limits, even if they are not legally obligated to do so? George Washington certainly thought so. But not Paul Kagame. In 1994, Kagame led the Rwandan Patriotic Front, which overthrew the government that launched the Rwandan genocide. He then exchanged his military uniform for a suit and began running the country. At first he did so from his positions as vice president, minister of defense, and commander-in-chief of the army. In 2000 he became president when the incumbent resigned because he had so little authority. Kagame then ran for the post for the first time in 2003. He apparently likes the job. He recently declared that he will run for a third five-year term. He certainly is allowed to do so. Last year, Rwandans voted overwhelmingly to approve a constitutional referendum that allows him to remain in power until 2034. An ally of the United States, Kagame has been criticized for an array of human rights abuses. No other political party has nominated a candidate, and Kagame is expected to win the election in a landslide. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, has said that Kagame should step down when his term ends in 2017 to set an example for other African rulers. He doesn’t appear to be listening.

Germany’s Federal Election, September or October. Angela Merkel apparently likes being the German Chancellor. She just announced she will run for a fourth term. She has held the post since 2005. In her eleven years on the job, she has put her personal stamp on European politics and economics. She has pushed austerity measures to deal with the eurozone’s debt crisis, welcomed more than one million refugees to Germany, and led Europe’s effort to present a unified front against an aggressive Russia. The betting money says that Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Party will win, though it will likely lose seats in the Bundestag. Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democratic Party has failed to gain traction among German voters and trails Merkel by ten percentage points in recent polls (34 percent to 24 percent). The wild card in the election is the Alternative for Germany Party, the upstart, right-wing, anti-immigrant, anti-Islam, Eurosceptic party. It has done surprisingly well in Germany’s state and local elections—it upset the Christian Democrats in Merkel’s home state back in September—and it is up to 13 percent support. It could gain more support if opposition to Merkel’s migrant policy grows. If the unthinkable happens and Merkel loses, the EU could be in big trouble.

China’s Politburo Selection at the 19th National Congress, October or November. Some critical elections have no secret ballots, very few voters, and decisions shrouded in secrecy. Case in point, next fall’s decisions on who gets to sit on the Chinese Politburo and the even more important Politburo Standing Committee. Chinese President Xi Jinping emerged from this year’s plenum of the Communist Party with his power enhanced. His colleagues named him a “core leader,” a designation denied to his immediate predecessor Hu Jintao but bestowed on previous leaders Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin. That’s good news for Xi heading into next fall’s National Congress meeting. It will determine the twenty-four members of the Politburo and the nine members of the Standing Committee. Both bodies should undergo considerable change because many of their current members are hitting mandatory retirement age. Xi is a shoe-in to be nominated for a second term. The big question is whether the National Congress will follow tradition and designate the person who will succeed him in the top job. Speculation has been rampant that the sixty-three-year-old Xi is angling to stop that from happening, either so he will have more time to place his allies in positions of authority and thereby guarantee he gets a successor he likes, or so he can arrange to serve a third term. Should the National Congress go smoothly, no one outside of China will notice. If it reveals deep divisions at the top of the Chinese government, it could roil the global economy.

South Korea’s Presidential Election, December 20. For many South Koreans, a new presidential election cannot come soon enough. The South Korean National Assembly just voted overwhelmingly to impeach current President Park Geun-hye. She has been under fire since October for her part in a corruption scandal involving her friend of four decades, Choi Soon-sil, who has been called a Korean Rasputin. Soon-sil is the daughter of the leader of a religious cult who was close to Park’s father, President Park Chung-hee, and who befriended the younger Park after her mother was assassinated in 1974. Park is accused of allowing Soon-sil to act as a sort of shadow president, making decisions on government matters and extorting contributions to two foundations she controls. Park is now suspended as president while South Korea’s Constitutional Court reviews the National Assembly’s vote. Even if the court overturns the impeachment, South Korea’s constitution bars her from running for reelection. Not surprisingly, the scandal has thrown South Korea’s presidential election into turmoil. Outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has considered running for president on the ticket of Park’s Saenuri party, but his popularity has plummeted in polls since the scandal erupted. The charismatic leader of the main opposition party, Moon Jae-in, currently leads in the polls. However, support for Lee Jae-myung, who has been nicknamed “the Korean Trump,” has been rising. With twelve months to go until Election Day, South Korea’s presidential race could still see plenty of more ups and downs. Meanwhile, the threat posed by a nuclear North Korea continues to grow.

Thailand’s General Election, late 2017. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. That could be the motto for Thailand’s democracy. The Thai military has overthrown the country’s government twelve times since 1932. The last time was in May 2014, when the military tossed out Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. The junta claimed it was acting to protect the country and restore order after Shinawatra’s December 2013 decision to dissolve the lower house of parliament triggered months of political infighting and violence. The junta, led by General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, declared it would restore democratic rule only after it had enacted much needed political reforms. In August 2016, Thais voted by a margin of 61 to 39 percent to approve the constitution the military drafted. The victory was largely guaranteed; the military barred anyone from campaigning against their handiwork. The new constitution is Thailand’s twentieth since the 1930s. It cements the military’s privileged role in Thai politics. It gets to name all 250 of Thailand’s senators and it can impose martial law at any time without parliamentary consent. The October 2016 death of the beloved Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who blessed the coup, added fresh complexity to Thailand’s politics. While new Thai elections may produce an ostensibly civilian government, it likely won’t solve the country’s fundamental problem: a deep split between the urban middle class and the far more numerous rural poor.

Bardia Vaseghi and Jonathan Levitt assisted in the preparation of this post.

About the Author

James M. Lindsay is the is senior vice president, director of studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg chair at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Dr. Lindsay has also served as the inaugural director of the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas at Austin, deputy director and senior fellow in the foreign policy studies program at the Brookings Institution, and a professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

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