It’s Not Just Obama

Twenty elections that could change the world in 2012.

SIOUX CITY, IA - DECEMBER 15: Republican presidential candidates (L-R) former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum (R-PA), Texas Gov. Rick Perry, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr.are introduced during the Fox News Channel debate at the Sioux City Convention Center on December 15, 2011 in Sioux City, Iowa. The GOP contenders are in the final stretch of campaigning in Iowa where the January 3rd caucus is the first test the candidates must face before becoming the Republican presidential nominee. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box. A third of the world's nations will be holding local, state, or national elections; a number of Arab Spring countries will be putting their democratic aspirations into action; and four out of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China and France -- may retreat from the world stage as they undergo leadership transitions, with major implications for international affairs. Let's take a look at the races that will make headlines in the year to come.

If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box. A third of the world’s nations will be holding local, state, or national elections; a number of Arab Spring countries will be putting their democratic aspirations into action; and four out of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China and France — may retreat from the world stage as they undergo leadership transitions, with major implications for international affairs. Let’s take a look at the races that will make headlines in the year to come.


Type: Presidential, legislative

When: Nov. 6

What to watch: With the Iowa caucuses — the first nominating contest of the presidential campaign — only days away, Ron Paul is surging, Newt Gingrich is sliding, and Mitt Romney is, well, proving to be the steady-as-he-goes Republican frontrunner that he’s always been. President Barack Obama‘s approval rating is hovering in the low 40s, while the struggling U.S. economy remains by far the top issue for voters. The focus may be on the next leader of the free world, but which party controls the U.S. legislative branch — which, in turn, controls U.S. fiscal policy — is also up for grabs in 2012.

Scott Olson/Getty Images 


Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: President (unclear); Parliament: Jan. 3-4 (round 3, lower house), Jan. 29-30 (round 1, upper house), Feb. 14-15 (round 2, upper house), March 4-5 (round 3, upper house)

What to watch: All eyes are on Egypt to see how the standard-bearer of the Arab Spring will navigate the dicey transition from dictatorship to democracy. So far, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and, to a lesser extent, the more religiously conservative Salafi al-Nour party, both repressed under Hosni Mubarak, have dominated Egypt’s first free elections in recent memory, which have generally gone smoothly but often been overshadowed by violent clashes between protesters and security forces near Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, has been governing the country since Mubarak’s ouster and plans to continue to do so even after voting for the lower house of parliament concludes in January. But he agreed to speed up Egypt’s staggered electoral process and hold presidential elections by July 2012 in response to demonstrations this fall demanding greater reforms and an end to military rule.



Type: Presidential

When: March 4

What to watch: Vladimir Putin’s decision in September 2011 to nudge Dmitri Medvedev aside and seek a third six-year term as president, after a stint as prime minister, may not have been all that shocking. But what was surprising were the mass protests that erupted in Moscow and other cities three months later to condemn alleged fraud during parliamentary elections that still managed to deal a blow to Putin’s United Russia party. Putin has responded fitfully to his eroding support and the largest protests since the fall of the Soviet Union, rejecting calls for a review of disputed election results while reassigning the architect of his centralized political system, Vladislav Surkov. Putin, who will face a challenge from billionaire New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, is still expected to win the presidential election in March, but he’ll likely face more domestic dissent than he has in the past. Nobody’s predicting another Russian revolution just yet, but we have a sense that this story isn’t over.

Alexander Aleshkin/Epsilon/Getty Images


Type: Communist Party’s 18th Congress

When: October

What to watch: This fall, China will reveal its new rulers for the next decade in what admittedly is more of a backroom leadership transition than a popular election (according to the Wall Street Journal, the order in which leaders march on stage during the Communist Party’s conference will signify their rank in the new government). Xi Jinping will almost certainly replace Party Secretary and President Hu Jintao, and many believe Li Keqiang will succeed Premier Wen Jiabao. These new stewards will confront a sputtering economy and growth model, signs of social unrest online and in places like Wukan, political transition in North Korea, and territorial and resource disputes with other neighbors as the United States lavishes more attention on the Asia-Pacific region. And while Hong Kong’s chief executive race features two pro-Beijing candidates, the election, scheduled for March 25, is shaping up to be more colorful than usual, which must have China on edge.

LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images


Type: Presidential, legislative

When: July 1

What to watch: Mounting discontent over President Felipe Calderón’s war on drug cartels — which has claimed roughly 45,000 lives since 2006 — and Mexico’s furtive economic recovery could pave the way for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled the country for much of the 20th century, to reclaim the presidency, rallying behind its dashing, charismatic candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. Mexico’s drug-related violence is fundamentally political in nature, and elections in 2010 witnessed a leading gubernatorial candidate gunned down by assassins disguised as soldiers, a severed head dumped near the house of a mayoral candidate, and bulletproof vest-clad candidates casting ballots with security entourages in tow. There’s no doubt that the cartels will continue to play a role in this year’s elections. During the last presidential vote in 2006, Calderón bested left-wing leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador (who’s running again this year) by a razor-thin margin, with the fiercely contested outcome ultimately decided in court. Look for more theatrics in 2012.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: President: April 22 (round 1), May 6 (round 2); Parliament: June 10(round 1), June 17 (round 2)

What to watch: The deeply unpopular French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who spent the past year working with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to resolve the European debt crisis and spearheading the international military intervention in Libya, will be facing off against Socialist candidate François Hollande, who has never campaigned for a national office and wasn’t planning on running until former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn dropped out after his arrest on sexual assault charges. The far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, centrist François Bayrou, and former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin have also thrown their hats into the ring, in an election that will hinge on how well the presidential aspirants persuade voters that they have the answer to the country’s incipient economic crisis (already France is struggling to keep its AAA credit rating). Hollande, who’s generally considered the frontrunner, has promised to renegotiate the tax-and-budget deal that European leaders agreed to at a December crisis summit and advocate for European Central Bank intervention in Europe and a new Eurobond — measures Germany opposes. In other words, not just France but Europe and, for that matter, international markets have a lot riding on who becomes France’s next president.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: Unclear

What to watch: President Robert Mugabe has called for elections in 2012 to replace the country’s power-sharing government, forged in 2009 after a bitterly disputed contest between the Zimbabwean strongman and the Movement for Democratic Change’s Morgan Tsvangirai, who is now prime minister. But it’s unclear if and when the elections — let alone a long-delayed constitutional referendum stipulated in the 2009 unity deal and championed by Tsvangirai — will happen. Some observers believe the 87-year-old Mugabe, who has ruled Zimbabwe since independence in 1980, wants to hold elections as soon as possible because he’s worried about being too frail to campaign again. A messy election could stall Zimbabwe’s economic recovery, and political tensions are already flaring over the government’s jailing of an MDC legislator over Christmas for allegedly suggesting that Mugabe, who has said in the past that gay people “destroy nationhood,” had engaged in gay sex. In a land where a toilet paper roll costs $145,750 and the leader believes only God can remove him from power, the situation threatens to get bleaker and more bizarre before it gets better.



Type: Presidential

When: Oct. 7

What to watch: Parliamentary elections in September 2010 revealed a split in Venezuela between supporters and opponents of Hugo Chávez, and the country’s empowered opposition now senses an opportunity to unseat the cancer-stricken Venezuelan president. Still, polls in early December showed Chávez defeating Henrique Capriles Radonski, the current favorite to win an opposition primary in February. Chávez’s enduring popularity in Venezuela suggests that his reelection may hinge on his health. In an effort to prove that he has the strength for what will likely be the toughest campaign of his 13-year rule, the leftist leader has rapped on television and jogged with military cadets. Given that Chávez is a close ally of Fidel Castro and Latin America’s leading opponent of the United States (he recently called Barack Obama a “clown” after the U.S. president criticized Chavez’s human rights record and ties with Iran and Cuba), his fall would have a major impact on the region.



Type: Parliamentary

When: June (tentative)

What to watch: Under Muammar al-Qaddafi, elections for the General People’s Congress were a farce. Now, with Qaddafi overthrown and Libya’s National Transitional Council in charge, parliamentary elections are scheduled for the summer in a country that has had scant electoral experience over the past four decades. The plan is for the interim assembly elected in 2012 to draft a constitution and then hold new parliamentary polls in 2013, but Libya’s transitional leaders have come under fire for not yet compiling an election register or making any announcements about how the elections will work, let alone the format of the new assembly. Critics say that in the absence of these preparations, the vote is bound to be delayed.



Type: Parliamentary

When: March 2

What to watch: One of the major stories in Iran this year was the power struggle between Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. This coming year’s parliamentary race — the first polls since the disputed 2009 presidential election that sparked the Green Movementwill pit hard-line candidates loyal to Khamenei against Ahmadinejad’s supporters, with the country’s major reformist groups boycotting what they feel are sham elections. More than 1,000 candidates have already registered, according to Iranian media, but they’ll first be vetted by a council of conservative clerics for fealty to the regime and Islam before they can run. Ultimately, of course, Khamenei wields the power in Iran. But the election could expose political divisions in the country as tensions with the West over Iran’s nuclear program mount, with Iran most recently threatening to retaliate against U.S. economic sanctions by closing the Strait of Hormuz.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: President: Dec. 19; Parliament: April 11

What to watch: South Korea’s presidential and parliamentary elections are occurring in the same year for the first time since 1992, with income inequality and the political transition in North Korea following the death of Kim Jong Il likely to be the dominant issues in the busy campaign season. The surprise victory of an independent candidate, Park Won-soon, in Seoul’s 2011 mayoral race has strengthened the hand of the opposition, which is angered by outgoing President Lee Myung-bak’s tough stance on North Korea (the progressive Labor Democratic Party also strongly opposed South Korea’s recently ratified free trade agreement with the United States). If the left-leaning opposition wrests power from the conservative ruling party, South Korea may soften its policies toward its northern neighbor. Restive South Korean voters are eyeing unconventional candidates: Anti-virus software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo, who hasn’t yet declared any interest in running for president, is polling ahead of his nearest rival, Park Geun-hye, a member of the ruling party who has her eye set on becoming South Korea’s first female president.

PARK JI-HWA/AFP/Getty Images 


Type: Presidential

When:  Jan. 15

What to watch: And you thought Belgium’s 541-day run without a government was bad. The ex-Soviet republic Moldova, it turns out, has been without a president for more than two years. Worse, there are currently no candidates for the impoverished Eastern European country’s presidential election, which takes place in parliament rather than by popular vote and is only weeks away. The sole candidate, parliament speaker and interim President Marian Lupu, withdrew in December after he failed to garner the parliamentary majority necessary to assume the office — a problem that has plagued past aspirants. The political paralysis is preventing Moldova from implementing much-needed trade and judiciary reforms and resolving its conflict with the breakaway Transdniestria region, which — in a development that’s not likely to make Moldova feel any better — elected a new president on Dec. 25.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: Jan. 14

What to watch: The outcome of this election could have major implications for Taiwan’s relationship with China, which still claims sovereignty over the island even though Taiwan has ruled itself since 1949. President Ma Ying-jeou, who has opened up diplomatic channels with China and forged a bilateral trade pact with Beijing, will likely continue this rapprochement if he wins reelection. But if the Democratic Progressive Party’s candidate, Tsai Ing-wen, assumes power, tensions could mount across the Taiwan Strait, threatening stability in the region. China has warned the opposition that closer ties could be at risk if the DPP doesn’t change its pro-independence stance.



Type: Presidential

When: Feb. 21

What to watch: After numerous false starts, Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh finally agreed last month to a U.S.-backed Gulf deal to end his 33-year rule and cede power to his vice president after nine months of protests that brought Yemen to the brink of civil war. The country will hold early presidential elections this winter, and Yemen’s new leader will immediately have to contend with the corruption, poverty, separatist movements, and pockets of Islamic extremism that Saleh left behind. On the last Friday of 2011, tens of thousands of people poured into the streets of the capital, Sanaa, to demand that Saleh face prosecution for the deaths of hundreds of anti-government protesters, as the outgoing Yemeni leader seeks permission to travel to the United States for medical treatment.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: President: Feb. 26; Parliament: June

What to watch: In July, Senegal’s aging President Abdoulaye Wade reengineered the country’s constitution so that he could run for a third term, win the election with only 25 percent of the vote, and transfer power to his son Karim Wade, already a government minister. Wade backed down from many of these proposed changes in the face of riots, but he is still planning on running this February. In September, Wade doubled the fee required to be a candidate in the election (it’s now $145,000). More volatility in Senegal — long a stabilizing force in western Africa — could have broad repercussions for the region.



Type: Parliament

When: Jan. 25

What to watch: Given that President Nursultan Nazarbayev won a new five-year term in April with 95.5 percent of the vote and that his party, Nur Otan, won all the seats in parliament in 2007, one wouldn’t expect elections in Kazakhstan to mean much. But deadly clashes in December between police and protesters supporting workers in the country’s oil-producing province have made the upcoming elections more interesting. The polls, which were brought forward after parliament was dissolved in November, will be the first since the passage of a law in 2009 requiring two parties to enter parliament. “A heavy-handed police crackdown, information blackout, mass arrests, and a refusal to acknowledge the grievances of the oil workers is a recipe for future unrest,” a regional analyst tells Bloomberg. Of course, the opposition may choose to boycott the polls, as it did during the last presidential election.



Type: Parliamentary, Presidential

When: Aug. 14

What to watch: After 2007’s bloody disputes between incumbent Mwai Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinga, which left 1,500 people dead and some 300,000 homeless, Kenya was able to curb ethnic violence by forming a coalition government. But the two-headed leadership hasn’t worked out so well, and a constitutional referendum last August called for checks and balances, a separation of powers, and new elections. In a worrying sign, the date of the election itself is proving contentious, ping-ponging between the courts and the parliament as the electoral administration seeks to move the elections back to December.



Type: Parliamentary

When: Oct. 28

What to watch: Ukrainian politics have been rocky ever since 2004, when opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko was poisoned with dioxin and a disputed presidential election sparked popular protests known as the “Orange Revolution.” Now Yulia Tymoshenko, who accused Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych of fraud when she ran against him in 2010, has been sentenced to seven years in prison for allegedly paying too high a price to Russia for natural gas. Last week, Tymoshenko was moved to a prison camp 300 miles from the capital. Whether or not she will be able to launch a campaign from there remains to be seen.



Type: Presidential, parliamentary

When: March (tentative)

What to watch: For the last 10 years, politics in Madagascar have been ugly. In the last two years alone, self-proclaimed President Marc Ravalomanana was deposed and tried in absentia for abuse of office, and interim leader Andry Rajoelina set a timetable for a constitutional referendum and elections that never came to fruition. In 2011, eight political parties launched a new attempt at forming a government by announcing a plan to hold elections this coming March. But the coalition never specified an electoral timetable and Ravalomanana’s supporters, many of whom have fled to South Africa, have refused to participate. Small businesses are struggling with the instability, and the prospect of success for this latest round of political flailing appears slim.



Type: Presidential

When: July 23

What to watch: Albania still ranks as one of the poorest countries in Europe, and for the last two years the government has battled fraud and political crises. In 2009, the Democratic Party’s Sali Berisha barely cobbled together a coalition with the Socialist Party, while fighting claims of election fraud. This year, four people were killed during an opposition rally on Jan. 21 — whether it was murder or the government preventing a coup from people with “guns disguised as umbrellas and pens” depends on your political persuasion. The political turmoil has hurt Albania’s assimilation into the European Union, and Brussels will be closely monitoring the upcoming presidential elections.


Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy. She has also worked as a web producer for the Atlantic. A graduate of Middlebury College, she's written about her travels to Antarctica, Cuba, and the Emirates. Her writing and photography have been published at the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Washington Post, and Grist, among others. Twitter: @loisparshley

Uri Friedman is deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Before joining FP, he reported for the Christian Science Monitor, worked on corporate strategy for Atlantic Media, helped launch the Atlantic Wire, and covered international affairs for the site. A proud native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he studied European history at the University of Pennsylvania and has lived in Barcelona, Spain and Geneva, Switzerland. Twitter: @UriLF

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