10 Elections to Watch in 2018
Millions of people around the world voted in elections this year. The French elected Emmanuel Macron president, while South Koreans elected Moon Jae-in president. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani won reelection with a much wider margin of support than his first time around. Turkey voted to expand President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s constitutional authority. Britain’s Theresa May gambled and lost her parliamentary majority, whereas Japan’s Shinzo Abe gambled and came away with a big victory. German Chancellor Angela Merkel led her party to a first-place finish but is struggling to form a coalition government. A disputed independence referendum in Catalonia triggered a constitutional crisis in Spain, and a similarly controversial independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan raised political tensions in Iraq. Next year will see equally important and consequential elections. Here are ten to watch.
Egypt’s Presidential Election, Sometime Between February and May. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power in July 2013 by ousting his predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, in a military coup. Sisi was then elected president in May 2014 with roughly 96 percent of the vote, which seems suspiciously high for a free-and-fair election. The odds are good that Sisi will enjoy continued electoral success, even though he has failed to deliver on his promises to jumpstart economic growth, has been accused of widespread human rights abuses, and has had Egyptians living under a state of emergency since April 2016. The Trump administration, which isn’t much troubled by autocrats, has been so unimpressed with Sisi’s government that it cut nearly $100 million in military and economic aid to Egypt back in August. Sisi’s popularity at home has slipped, though he has a few advantages as the incumbent. Khaled Ali, a prominent opposition leader who announced his presidential candidacy last month, said back in June, “If we had fair elections, anyone could defeat Sisi.” Ali’s reward? He was convicted of “violating public decency” and sentenced to three months in prison. That sentence will likely end Ali’s candidacy; the Egyptian constitution prohibits any candidate who has been convicted in any “public indecency” cases form running.
Russian Presidential Election, March 18. Like President Sisi, Vladimir Putin is a good bet to win reelection. In Putin’s case, victory would mean his fourth term as president. He served two four-year terms as president between 2000 and 2008 and then won a third term for six years in 2012. The former KGB agent enjoys approval ratings around eighty percent, despite an underperforming economy and Western sanctions. An assertive foreign policy, especially in Ukraine and Syria, undoubtedly contributes to his popularity. But despite the high poll numbers, Putin isn’t leaving anything to chance. He has restricted press freedom and jailed political opponents, which limits the pool of opposition candidates. Alexei Navalny, one of Russia’s most prominent opposition leaders, has been told that he can’t run because of his conviction for “economic crimes.” Ksenia Sobchak, who has been called Russia’s “Paris Hilton” and is the thirty-year-old daughter of Putin’s political mentor, has thrown her hat into the ring. She may just be a Kremlin-approved critic; she reportedly met recently with Putin and had said she would not criticize him on the campaign trail. Pro tip: It’s hard to win an election by refusing to tell voters why the incumbent should be sent packing.
Hungarian Parliamentary Election, April or May. Hungarians longed for decades for democratic rule. They got their wish in 1989. But over the past seven years, Hungary has become an “illiberal democracy” under the leadership of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party. Orbán does not value an independent judiciary, the free press, or fair election laws; he has had his disdain for these bedrock democratic principles enshrined in Hungary’s constitution. As a result, journalists and diplomats alike have taken to calling him a “dictator,” and the U.S. State Department recently set aside up to $700,000 to “increase citizens’ access to objective information about domestic and global issues in Hungary.” Orban dismisses his critics out of hand. He can do so because Fidesz dominates Hungarian politics; it currently holds roughly two-thirds of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. Things look good for Fidesz going into next spring’s election. The party is polling at 40 percent—a six-year high. Wresting power away from Orbán requires a unified opposition. Alas, Hungary’s political left is fractured. Orbán and Fidesz are aggressively courting votes from ethnic Hungarians who live in neighboring countries but are eligible to vote in Hungary. These voters could end up tipping the election result, and with it, the future of what’s left of Hungary’s democracy.
Iraqi Parliamentary Election, May 12. Assuming that Iraq’s parliament approves the recommendation of its electoral commission, Iraqi voters will head to the polls next spring to choose a new parliament. They have a lot to ponder. Nearly fifteen years after the U.S. invasion, Iraq remains in a perilous place. ISIS has lost its caliphate, but it remains a potent threat. The September vote by Iraqi Kurds to create an independent Iraqi Kurdistan raises the question of Iraq’s continued territorial integrity. The splintering of the two major Shia-dominated parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrist Movement, adds layers of complexity. Iraq’s neighbors, and not just Iran, can all be expected to work behind the scenes to push the election in the direction they favor. Even if the vote goes smoothly, Iraq’s politicians may end where they have been before, struggling to put together a stable coalition government. And whoever emerges on top from that bargaining gets the privilege of trying to heal a country with far too many fractures and far too many problems.
Italian General Election, no later than May 20. Italians must love government; they have had sixty-five of them since Italy became a republic in 1945. That’s almost one new government a year. As Italian voters mull over government number sixty-six, polls show the 5 Star Movement neck-and-neck with Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni’s center-left Democratic Party. Could a right-wing, Eurosceptic, populist party do surprisingly well, as has happened elsewhere in Europe recently? It’s possible. The ingredients are there. Italians are upset over high unemployment, large government debt, and the ongoing refugee crisis. However, the 5 Star Movement casts itself as a populist party, so it is competing for the votes of the end-politics-as-we-know-it crowd. Should M5S finish first, Luigi Di Maio would be its candidate for prime minister. The thirty-one-year-old would face an immediate challenge, and it’s not the fact he has never held a professional job. Gentiloni pushed through a new election law this fall that makes it harder for any party to win an outright majority. But the 5 Star Movement says it will not give cabinet seats to another party to form a coalition. Other parties aren’t likely to enter a coalition government on those terms, so Di Maio and his colleagues could find themselves on the outside looking in even if they win the most votes.
Pakistani General Election, within 90 days of June 5. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned in July after Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified him for improper financial dealings that came to light with the release of the Panama Papers. Before the scandal broke, Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League, looked to be well positioned for the 2018 election. Now, however, the party’s future is unclear. The main opposition party is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice), which is led by the former cricket player Imran Khan. It looks to be in a stronger position than it was a year ago, but that might not be saying much. The Pakistan People’s Party, the country’s oldest democratic political party, could also be a factor. Whichever party wins likely won’t change the fact that the army dominates the Pakistani government; little of significance gets done without its concurrence. Many Pakistanis would take the point even further, arguing that whichever party has the blessing of the army and the United States will win the election. However accurate that perception is, a lot is at stake in the election. Two thousand thirteen marked the first democratic transition of power in Pakistan’s history. That means 2018 would be just the second.
Mexican Presidential Election, July 1. Mexico figured prominently in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, thanks to Donald Trump. The United States will likely figure prominently in Mexico’s 2018 presidential election. President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is constitutionally barred from running for reelection, has trodden carefully in dealing with Trump. That has gone over poorly in Mexico and generated a crowded electoral field. The frontrunner is the former mayor of Mexico City, Andres Manual Lopez Obrador. “AMLO,” as he is called, finished second in the last two presidential elections, and lost the controversial 2006 election by less than a percentage point. As the leader of the left-wing National Regeneration Movement(MORENA), he vows to fight Trump’s “poisonous, hateful, xenophobic” policy toward Mexico. But like Trump, AMLO is a NAFTA critic, though MORENA’s platform talks about improving the trade deal rather than ditching it. Another contender is Margarita Zavala, the wife of former President Felipe Calderon, the man who beat AMLO back in 2006. Sometimes called the “Mexican Hillary,” Zavala recently split with her husband’s party, the right-of-center National Action Party(PAN), to run on her own. The PAN’s Ricardo Anaya is trying to lead a “broad coalition” with the left-of-center Democratic Revolutionary Party. Meanwhile, Peña’s Nieto’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) will likely nominate José Antonio Meade, a former finance minister. With four major candidates running in a first-past-the-post race, Mexico’s next president could move into Los Pinos with the support of a third or less of the Mexican electorate.
Cambodian General Election, July 29. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the head of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in power since 1985. He shows no interest in letting anyone take his place. The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the country’s largest opposition party, had been making serious gains, winning 44 percent of the vote in June’s commune election. So how did Hun Sen’s government respond? It sued to ban the CNRP after police arrested its main leader, Kem Sokha, for treason. Last month, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled in Hun Sen’s favor and dissolved the CNRP, essentially turning Cambodia into the world’s newest single-party state. Sokha’s arrest comes after the passage of a law barring political parties from running candidates convicted of a crime. That move was widely seen as an attempt to prevent opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has been effectively exiled to France, from campaigning for the CNRP from abroad. The United States and the European Union criticized the decision, while China (no surprise) supported it. The brazen 2016 public killing of Kem Ley, a Cambodian political activist, is also fresh in the minds of the Cambodians. If you doubt Sen’s willingness to keep power, consider this: he warned this summer that “War will happen if the CPP does not control the country anymore.”
Brazilian General Election, October 7 and October 28. It has been a tough few years for Brazil. The economy has tanked, with unemployment now at a twenty-year high. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached last year, former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva was convicted of money laundering this past summer, sitting president Michel Temer has been formally accused of racketeering and obstruction of justice, and a festering corruption scandal has enveloped Brazil’s political elite. Not surprisingly, a recent poll found that 87 percent of Brazilians say it is “very important” that candidates not be tainted by corruption. That said, Lula, the long-time leader of the leftist Workers’ Party, leads in the polls. However, if he loses his appeal, he will be headed for the penitentiary and not the presidency. Candidates who might be competitive if Lula departs the race include Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right congressman, known for his homophobic and sexist outbursts, who has called himself a “threat to the stubbornly corrupt.” Another possibility is Marina Silva, who many thought might win the presidency back in 2014. Whoever does win will inherit a political inbox full of problems and a public deeply cynical about what its politicians are doing.
U.S. Midterm Elections, November 6. Midterm elections don’t go well for the president’s party. Over the past seven decades, the president’s party has, on average, lost twenty-five House seats in the midterms. Sometimes the results are much worse than that. President Obama saw House Democrats lost sixty-three seats in the 2010 midterms. Does this mean that 2018 will be a terrible year for Republicans? Not quite. True, President Trump’s public approval rating is south of 40 percent, the GOP has recorded few major legislative victories despite controlling both the White House and Congress, and voters tell pollsters that they prefer a generic Democratic candidate over a Republican one by the widest margin in over a decade. But the gerrymandering of House districts means that the Democratic candidates could win many more votes than Republicans and still end up with fewer seats. As for the Senate, Democrats have to defend twenty-three of the thirty-three seats at stake in 2018. To make matters worse for Democrats, they are defending ten seats in states that Trump won in 2016; only one Republican senator hails from a state that Hillary Clinton won. Of course, the election is still eleven months away. Events could help, or hurt, either party. What remains true is that the dynamics in Washington would shift dramatically if Democrats take back either house of Congress.
James M. Lindsay