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The List: Five Elections to Watch in 2008

Election mania is gripping the United States, where Americans are turning out in droves for one of the most exciting primary seasons in memory. But elsewhere in the world, voters are looking at their own electoral contests with a dollop of trepidation and, in some cases, a healthy dose of dread.

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Taiwan
Parliamentary elections on Jan. 12 and presidential elections on Mar. 22

The contenders: The ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and its presidential candidate, former Prime Minister Frank Hsieh, square off against former Taipei Mayor Ma Ying-jeou and his opposition Kuomintang Party (KMT), which supports improved relations with mainland China.

Why it matters: The stability of the Taiwan Strait hangs in the balance. Since losing power for the first time in 2000, the KMT has watched nervously as President Chen Shui-Bian repeatedly provoked the mainlands wrath in his quest for independence. Most analysts expect the KMT to increase its majority in parliamentbad news for Taiwanese nationalists. But Chen cleverly set up a referendum, to be held during the presidential contest, asking voters to allow the government to apply for U.N. membership as Taiwan rather than the Republic of China. That could boost turnout in the DPPs favor, tilting the elections to Hsiehand prompting a few thunderbolts from Beijing.

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Pakistan
Parliamentary elections on Feb. 18

The contenders: Four major political parties will be vying for a share of power: President Pervez Musharrafs faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (known as the PML-Q), former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharifs party (the PML-N), the Pakistan Peoples Party of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, and the Islamist Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, which allied with Musharrafs party during the last legislative elections in 2002.

Why it matters: Do you even have to ask? Pakistan today is a combustible brew of worsening political instability, increasing repression, and growing Islamic militancyin a state with a history of nuclear proliferation. When rioters burned down election offices in Sindh Province after Bhuttos assassination, the government postponed the elections for six weeks. Speculation is rife that the security services will use the extra time to rig the elections in favor of Musharrafs party, a fear underscored by the fact that Pakistans Dawn newspapers published the leaked official results of the electionsall the way back in December. Musharraf has promised free and fair contests, but his word isnt exactly golden in Pakistan these days. Assuming he isnt willing to share power, bet on blood in the streets on February 19, and a coup cant be ruled out.

MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images

Russia
Presidential election on Mar. 2

The contenders: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev

Why it matters: In a word, succession. Ever since current President Vladimir anointed his protg as the chosen one back in December, its been a foregone conclusion that Medvedev would assume the presidency. Medvedevs subsequent promise to make Putin his prime minister cleared up another mystery: just how the outgoing president planned to spend his retirement. But Russia doesnt have a reassuring history when it comes to transitions of power, and the relationship between the presidency and the premiership is now uncertain. What if Putins mini-me turns out to have a mind of his own?

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Zimbabwe
Presidential, legislative, and council elections Mar. 9-10

The contenders: Robert Mugabe, in power since 1980, and the ruling Zanu-PF face the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), which is split into two factions.

Why it matters: Zimbabwes on the brink. Its economy wracked by hyperinflation, crop failures, and widespread shortages of basic goods, the country is a tinderbox just waiting for a match. MDC leaders accuse Mugabes ruling party of rigging the elections by manipulating the registration process. Since its a virtual certainty that Mugabe will cheat his way to victory, the MDC has threatened post-election protests. The opposition is weak and divided, but the 83-year-old president does have rivals within Zanu-PF who may see a disputed election as an opportunity to oust him. A far more likely scenario, however, is that the ailing Mugabe wins reelection, clamps down on his critics, designates a successor, and retires partway through his sixth six-year term. Whenever he goes, one things for sure: It wont be soon enough.

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Iran
Legislative elections on Mar. 14

The contenders: The 12-member Guardian Council decides which candidates may participate based on their fealty to the principles of the Islamic Revolution. Given recent comments by hardline council chief Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, its likely reformist candidates will be disqualified en masse, as they were in 2004.

Why it matters: Its a key test for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. These are legislative elections, so Irans president is not in the running. But with the threat of a U.S. attack receding, the countrys soaring inflation rate is now the top political issue. Accordingly, emboldened reformists and pragmatic conservatives are stepping up their attacks on Ahmadinejads economic policies and his singular talent for provoking international opprobrium. Hardliners still control access to the ballot, of course, but it would take incredible chutzpah to keep all of the presidents critics out of the race. If his allies suffer a setback at the polls, Ahmadinejad may find his room to maneuver severely curtailedand he can forget about being reelected in 2009.

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