From the U.S. midterm "shellacking" to the sham vote in Belarus, elections provided some of the most memorable moments of 2010. And 2011 promises to be no different, with contentious polls coming up in ascendant Turkey, stagnant Egypt, fractious Sudan, and more.
- By Max StrasserMax Strasser is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Prior to joining FP, he lived and worked in Cairo from 2009 to 2012 and was the news editor at Egypt Independent, an English-language newspaper. He has been a freelance writer, covering everything from the fishing business in Turkey to international arms fairs in London to Islamist militancy on the Egypt-Gaza border. His writing has appeared online or in print in The Nation, The New Statesman, The London Review of Books, Foreign Affairs, The Atlantic, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Max is a proud New Jersey native and has a BA in History from Oberlin College and an MSc in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics.
Date: Jan. 9
What to watch: Citizens of semiautonomous Southern Sudan are preparing to vote on whether to remain a part of Sudan. The long-awaited referendum is a stipulation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the 22-year-long civil war between the north and the south. If the majority of Southern Sudanese vote for independence, which they are expected to do, it would create the world’s newest nation-state.
That’s not to say that everything will go swimmingly. Some analysts predict that the referendum will lead to chaos — a very real possibility considering the buildup of military forces from both sides near the border and Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s recent suggestions that the upcoming vote might not be valid. The issue is complicated by the fact that most of Sudan’s oil lies along the contested north-south border. Bashir has also suggested that if the primarily Christian and animist South does secede, Khartoum will adopt a much stricter form of sharia law.
Type: Presidential and legislative (runoff)
Date: Jan. 16
What to watch: Between the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that killed a quarter of a million people last January, an ongoing cholera epidemic, riots throughout the country, and a government defined by its total ineptitude, 2010 has been a crippling year for the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Haiti held the first round of legislative and presidential elections on Nov. 28, though these were marred by fraud and incompetence — even Jude Celestin, the candidate endorsed by Haiti’s president, found when he tried to vote that he wasn’t on the list and was forced to vote by provisional ballot. Due to widespread allegations of fraud, the election was followed by rioting.
At this point, three candidates are still competing for the two runoff spots: Celestin, former first lady Mirlande Manigat, and popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly. The latter, who came in third place in the first round of voting, suggested recently that rather than holding a runoff, the whole country should just revote on the 19 candidates from the Nov. 28 election, with the largest vote-getter taking the presidency. But procedural matters are the least of Haiti’s worries. Haiti has had 34 coups in its history, an average of one every six years, and dictatorship is still more the norm than democracy.
What to watch: After months of denying that Ireland would need a bailout, Prime Minister Brian Cowen formally requested a $100 billion rescue package from the IMF and European Union on Nov. 21. Just two days later, Cowen’s government fell apart after the Green Party, blaming Cowen’s poor handling of the economy for the property bubble and banking crisis that left the country billions of euros in debt, pulled out of a coalition government with his centrist Fianna Fail party.
The Irish parliament eventually accepted the bailout, though opposition parties Sinn Fein, Fine Gael, and Labour voted against the package in hopes that they can capitalize on it during the election. Cowen’s party is deeply unpopular due to its handling of the financial crisis and will likely be voted out of office in the upcoming elections. IMF officials have been publicly worried about whether a victory by Labour, which has been the party most critical of the bailout, will put the rescue plan in jeopardy.
Another factor to watch is the nationalist Sinn Fein party, formerly the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, which has traditionally concentrated its efforts in Northern Ireland but is hoping to find support in the republic for its populist, leftist message in the wake of Ireland’s financial crisis.
Date: Jan 13 and April 9
What to watch: A year ago today, no one was quite sure who was in charge of Nigeria. The country’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, had left the country in November for Saudi Arabia, where he was receiving treatment for a heart and liver condition. When it became clear that the president was incapacitated, then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan tried to take the reins — but he found himself hampered by Yar’Adua’s inner circle, hesitant to yield its influence. It took the president’s death in May for the situation to resolve and for and Jonathan to finally, officially become president.
Now Jonathan, just half a year in office, will have to stand in a presidential election. And the hardest constituents to win over will be in his own political tent. The ruling People’s Democratic Party, which has held office since the country became a democracy in the 1990s, has a gentlemen’s agreement to rotate the top office by region — two terms for a southerner, followed by two terms for a northerner. Yar’Adua was a northerner, but Jonathan is a southerner. And many in the north feel that the presidency is due to return to a northerner in the next election. As a result, some ruling party members in the north are backing Atiku Abubakar, a former vice president, as their candidate.
A primary is slated for January 2011. This will be the real contest — not the general election in April. Nigeria’s opposition has never managed to muster more than a fraction of the votes in the country’s heavily rigged elections. And despite Jonathan’s promise to reform the electoral system before the poll, few expect a non-PDP candidate to surge to victory. That hasn’t stopped one interesting opposition leader from putting his name into the hat, however. International favorite Nuhu Ribadu, the former head of the country’s national anti-corruption commission, is making a run as underdog.
What to watch: Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) won the majority of votes in Zimbabwe’s 2008 presidential election. But President Robert Mugabe refused to give up power and was forced, after widespread demonstrations and international intervention, to accept Tsvangirai as his prime minister. Unsurprisingly, the partnership has been an uneasy one, with the two rivals disagreeing over everything from economic policy to political appointments to the jailing of Tsvangirai’s political allies.
Now, Mugabe is pushing for new parliamentary elections by June 2011. The 86-year-old president hopes he can unseat his nemesis Tsvangirai as prime minister. The MDC opposes holding new elections, arguing that there’s no way the country can hold a credible poll by 2011. Credible or not, an election in which Mugabe retains power has the potential to throw Zimbabwe back into chaos and violence.
What to watch: Turkey’s national elections will be largely seen as a referendum on the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), which after eight years in power remains popular thanks, at least in part, to a strong economy. Nonetheless, analysts anticipate that voters may be looking for a change and that AKP has less to show for its second term than it did after its first, particularly in terms of progress toward EU membership. It’s quite probable that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party will see its grip on power weakened — and might even be forced into a coalition government.
To stem the losses, the AKP plans to shake up its list of candidates and is dropping dozens of deputies considered unpopular or low-performing. The opposition Republican People’s Party, the secularist party that dominated Turkish politics during the period of single-party rule, has been trying to shake up its image by bringing new blood into the party leadership. Erdogan, who was accused by U.S. diplomats in the WikiLeaks cables of having an “authoritarian streak,” has said that 2011 may be his last run, but that could simply be code that he plans to run for the presidency later, succeeding his longtime ally Abdullah Gul.
What to watch: President Hosni Mubarak has held power for almost three decades and, at age 82, shows no sign of letting go. Mubarak, who once promised to stay in office “until the last breath in my lungs and the last beat in my heart,” is widely rumored to be in failing health, but most analysts still expect him to run for reelection in September. Mubarak has held power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. In 2005, he was reelected in what were officially called the first multiparty elections of his presidency, but reports of fraud were widespread and the country’s most popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, was prohibited from fielding a candidate.
The most recent parliamentary elections in November were again marred by fraud and were boycotted by prominent opposition leaders including former International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who has also urged a boycott of next year’s presidential vote.
With little in the way of credible opposition, attention is mostly focused on the Mubarak family itself. A high-ranking member of Mubarak’s party said in November that the president will run for reelection “unless he chooses otherwise.” Meanwhile, his son Gamal, who is being groomed as a possible replacement, is running a popular street campaign — with his father’s blessing, of course. But if the elder Mubarak runs again and wins, the real question becomes who will take power should he die in office. The answer, at least so far, is unclear.
What to watch: Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sailed into office in 2007, succeeding her husband Néstor, who served only one term before stepping down with a high approval rating. It was widely expected that he would pick up where he left off after his wife’s four-year stint. (The couple stated that one of them would run in 2011.) But that plan fell apart in October, when Néstor died of a heart attack.
Many believed that Néstor was the real power behind the power couple and that Cristina never really delegated responsibility to her cabinet because her husband was still largely managing the government. With the general election in October and primaries scheduled for August, it is unclear whether Cristina will run again or who her opponents might be. Argentina’s economy has improved since the beginning of the Kirchner era, but Cristina never demonstrated much interest in economic issues and largely left those tasks to her husband. That’s not to say that she’s a mere figurehead — she was an influential senator while her husband was still an obscure governor — but if she chooses to run again she will have to demonstrate that voting Kirchner is still a worthwhile bet, even without the two-for-one deal.
What to watch: This October’s parliamentary election will be Poland’s first since a plane crash in Russia in April killed President Lech Kaczynski and dozens of the county’ s top political leaders. A special presidential election in June put the right-wing Civic Platform candidate Bronislaw Komorowski in office, and local elections in November reaffirmed the party’s popularity. As Poland is the only country in Europe to avoid a recession in the last few years, the election in October will likely confirm the mandate of the current government.
The main competition faced by Civic Platform and Prime Minister Donald Tusk will likely come from former Prime Minister Jarslaw Kaczynski, twin brother of the late president. Kaczynski challenged Komorowski for his brother’s old job in the special election in June and despite coming up short, said he viewed the defeat as a “great rehearsal” for the parliamentary contest.
What to watch: With opposition parties largely restricted or marginalized, the only thing in question in Russia’s parliamentary elections is the margin by which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party will win. (The party currently holds 75 percent of the seats in the Duma, and the rest are held by political allies.) United Russia seems to be a bit nervous, though, after the Putin-Medvedev duo’s botched handling of the drought and subsequent wildfires that ravaged western Russia over the summer. In August, United Russia announced changes to the party’s electoral strategy, favoring candidates with strong local connections rather than party loyalty.
A coalition of opposition parties calling itself For Russia Without Lawlessness and Corruption has formed in the hopes of contesting the election, but there’s little reason to think that the group, composed almost entirely of longtime opposition figures, will have any more success this year than in the past.
It will be interesting to watch how active a role Putin will play in campaigning for United Russia, of which he is bizarrely chairman but not technically a member. And, of course, Russia observers will be watching closely to see whether Putin will use the parliamentary election platform to set himself up for a return to the presidency in 2012.