While 2014 was the year of elections in emerging markets (Brazil, India, Indonesia, and South Africa come to mind), in 2015 more than half of the countries in Africa will cast a vote. Many of these elections will carry consequences for regional and international peace and security. Generally portrayed as a benchmark for disengagement by the international community in post-conflict countries, elections have shown their destabilizing effects too often by reigniting conflict and instigating civil unrest. On other continents, a few elections in 2015 are also likely to impact their countries’ foreign policy, stability, and paths toward political and economic change.
Incumbent president Goodluck Jonathan will likely be re-elected in February, but will have to face a more aggressive opposition, which is united behind one candidate, a former general, a Muslim from the north.
Why it matters: Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country and plays an important role in the continent’s economic and political dynamics. While Jonathan’s second term will be politically weaker, he will have to address formidable challenges, both in security, with the violent insurgency by the Islamist group Boko Haram, and in the economy, due to the global drop in oil prices, from which the government draws almost 70 percent of its income.
2) South Sudan (and Sudan)
South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir has announced his country will hold elections in May. Meanwhile, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, in power since a 1989 coup and wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes, is guaranteed an electoral victory in April, extending his 25-year reign.
Why it matters: South Sudan, the youngest African country, plunged back into civil war last year when long-simmering disputes within ethnic factions exploded into a war within forces loyal to President Kiir and those loyal to his former vice president, Riek Machar. Peace talks have made little progress, and holding elections in such an environment risks adding fuel to the fire. Peacekeepers should brace for more rough times ahead. In Sudan, the opposition parties are refusing to participate in the elections, saying the environment is not conducive to fair and free polls. The African Union has decided to deploy an election observation mission.
The elections in June will be monitored by the newly established UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi. Incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been in charge since the end of the civil war in 2005, has still to declare whether he seeks a third term.
Why it matters: This election will be a crucial test in determining whether the country is on the path of democracy or authoritarianism. There is a provision in Burundi’s constitution which could be interpreted as allowing a third term. At the same time, using this provision would be a breach of the Arusha Accords, the agreements which brought to an end Burundi’s civil war.
4) Côte d’Ivoire
President Alassane Ouattara, who came to power in the first post-civil war elections in 2010, will run again in October and likely win.
Why it matters: The presidential elections will be a critical time to assess the role of the peacekeeping mission in Côte d’Ivoire and the sanctions regime in place since the 2004 armed conflict.
5) Burkina Faso
In 2014, President Blaise Compaoré was forced to flee the country after civil unrest set fire to the parliament in protest of his attempt to extend his 27-year rule. The country is now under the rule of military appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Zida, who agreed to elections in November.
Why it matters: The country is going through a delicate transition, after social protests got rid of long-time autocrat president Compaoré. If the democratic transition succeeds, Burkina Faso can become a beacon of hope for a “Sub-Saharan Spring.”
6) Central African Republic
The country’s authorities have yet to set firm dates for the legislative and presidential votes and to launch a voter registration drive to allow 1 million refugees and displaced citizens to take part. However, the UN has warned that postponing the parliamentary election beyond August could plunge the country back into violence.
Why it matters: Elections in this troubled country are seen as a crucial step toward a return to peace and development. At the same time, elections could reignite the violence that displaced half a million people and killed thousands since December 2013 and create additional challenges to the international peacekeepers who are taking the place of French troops.
7) Sri Lanka
Current President Mahinda Rajapaksa called voters to the polls for early January, two years ahead of the scheduled elections, as he felt a decline in support. He will probably win, but with a narrower margin than in the past.
Why it matters: After 26 years, the Sri Lankan military defeated the Tamil Tigers in 2009, bringing the civil war to an end. President Rajapaksa capitalized on the victory, which got him re-elected to a second term in 2010. Still, Sri Lanka has been facing many challenges since then: ongoing human rights violations, rising authoritarianism, militarization of society, pervasive nepotism, and corruption. Even if Rajapaksa’s new mandate is weaker, the long journey of Sri Lanka to normalization and democracy appears to be far from over.
The world will pay close attention to parliamentary elections in October or early November in Myanmar. However, these elections should be seen as another step in the transition process from 50 years of military rule and civil conflicts.
Why it matters: That change in Myanmar is not easy should not come as a surprise. This year’s parliamentary elections should be seen as one more step toward reforms, rather than a pivotal event. Aung San Suu Kyi, the leading opposition figure, is seeking to revise the Burmese constitution, including the provision that bans her from running for president. But, no change will happen until after the elections. The international community needs to stay the course and remain engaged as the country continues the bumpy road toward peace, modernization, and change.
President “Bibi” Netanyahu has surprised many when he fired two of his own ministers (more centrists in his coalition government led by the conservative Likud party) and called for elections in March, two years early. The fighting in Gaza last summer might have shifted Israeli public opinion further to the right. This is, at least, Netanyahu’s hope in his attempt to consolidate power with a conservative Knesset that fully supports his agenda.
Why it matters: Early elections mean that there will not be any initiative toward peace talks with the Palestinians. And given the likely results, there will not be any significant attempts after the elections either, despite US Secretary of State John Kerry’s hope to restart the talks after a new government is formed.
Parliamentary elections in Egypt, already postponed and now tentatively scheduled at the end of March, will further consolidate President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s power.
Why it matters: Although a Sisi-dominated parliament is a certainty, the Salafists may take more seats than expected (in the last elections, they won over 25 percent, second only to the Brotherhood). If there is still an Islamist current in Egypt, it should likely manifest itself in this election with support to them. With that said, Egypt is navigating very troubled waters. How can the economy improve and jobs be created? How can Sisi stop Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and other radical Sunni jihadist organizations in northern Sinai that pledged loyalty to the so-called Islamic State? How can society move toward the path of reconciliation? These questions are critical but will hardly be addressed during the elections.
The June parliamentary elections will be a referendum on the newly elected President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who gave up his position of prime minister to become the first popularly elected president of Turkey.
Why it matters: Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is likely to cooperate with Erdoğan to maximize the ruling Justice and Development Party’s performance, using nationalist rhetoric to appeal to the party’s base. But, after the elections, the two leaders will compete for executive power, with Davutoğlu seeking to prevent Erdoğan from augmenting the constitutional powers of the president. The country’s policymaking process will suffer, and probably also its regional and global standing.
12) Saudi Arabia
In 2015, Saudi Arabia will hold municipal elections. Local councils have little power in determining policies, and only half of the seats are elected.
Why it matters: For the very first time, women will be permitted to stand as candidates and vote. This could provide consequential momentum for Saudi Arabia if the ailing King Abdullah’s reforms move forward. At the same time, conservative elements of Saudi society bitterly oppose the change.
Europe and the Americas
13) Europe’s parliamentary elections
Over the coming year, populists and nationalist parties in the EU are projected to fare quite well in the upcoming eight parliamentary elections to be held in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Greece, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and the UK.
Why it matters: The votes are shaping up as a referendum on the economic policies and performance of Europe. The nationalistic election campaign in Greece is already reviving fears that the country could leave the euro. Incumbent parties will also be tested over the growing popular concerns about immigration, with Europe still incapable of fixing its broken migration policy. In the UK, there is an additional twist. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on British membership in the EU, should he be re-elected. The political momentum for a British exit could become unstoppable. All these factors will probably leave a more divided Europe with no certain leadership, at a time when the external environment is particularly challenging. Europe’s relationship with Russia hasn’t been this fraught in two decades, and the terrorist threat posed by Islamist militants is particularly serious in Europe, given the number of European citizens fighting in Syria and Iraq for ISIS and the size of Muslim communities inside Europe.
Elections are scheduled in Canada for October and will determine if the Conservatives have changed the country at heart by continuing to hold power (they have been governing since 2006), or whether the Liberals will come back at the helm, where they had been for much of the last century. Polls show that Prime Minister Stephen Harper faces a tough re-election.
Why it matters: If the Liberal Justin Trudeau—son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the 70s—wins, Canadian foreign policy will change dramatically. Harper’s government has been a staunch supporter of Israeli President Netanyahu’s policies, of confronting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and of confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine.
The National Assembly of Venezuela is up for re-election in December. Assuming the elections are held, the opposition will need to overcome its historic fragmentation.
Why it matters: Venezuela is suffering from rising inflation, food shortage, and social unrest. With falling oil prices, the economic situation can only get worse. President Nicolás Maduro’s popularity is below 25 percent, and his government is reacting with authoritarian measures. Opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez is in detention and Maria Corina Machado, a former member of the National Assembly and pre-candidate to the 2012 presidential elections, has been charged with conspiracy to assassinate President Maduro. A good performance of a united opposition could set the stage for a recall of President Maduro in 2016.
Also of interest:
In October, Argentinians will elect a new president, when President Cristina Kirchner steps down after her second term. The front-runner in most polls is Daniel Scioli, current governor of the province of Buenos Aires, and fellow party member in her Peronist Frente para la Victoria (FPV). Other candidates include Sergio Massa, a FPV defector, and Mauricio Macri, a non-Peronist and mayor of Buenos Aires. President Kirchner has still not endorsed any of the candidates.
Why it matters: The global financial world will closely watch this election in the hope that a new leader will address the current debt crisis and promote a more transparent economic administration of the country. The election’s results will be particularly meaningful for the future Latin American regional economic equilibrium.
Presidential elections are scheduled for September to replace current President Otto Pérez Molina who reached the end of his term. Manuel Baldizón, who lost to Molina in 2011, is the front-runner, but there are a few more candidates in the running, although none with the needed 50 percent of votes to avoid a second round.
Why it matters: Guatemala, with an average of 101 murders per week, remains one of the most violent countries in the world. Every election in such a violent context can be consequential. In 2011, Baldizón ran on a populist platform, proposing to bring back the death penalty and to introduce a month’s extra pay every year for each worker. The Economist reported that “Baldizón does have business interests in Petén, a northern department that is widely considered to be a lawless wilderness awash with drug money. But no one has been able to demonstrate any links between criminals and Mr Baldizón.”