Elections to Watch in 2023
From Pakistan to Poland, here are this year’s biggest presidential and parliamentary races.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is being inaugurated on Jan. 1 as president of Brazil, capping off an exhausting political cycle in a country whose elections had been among the most closely followed of 2022. The showdown between Lula and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro last October captured global attention not only because Brazil is Latin America’s largest country and the steward of the Amazon rainforest but also because the contest followed a well-trodden electoral format: a far-right leader pit against a political opposition intent on taking him down.
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is being inaugurated on Jan. 1 as president of Brazil, capping off an exhausting political cycle in a country whose elections had been among the most closely followed of 2022. The showdown between Lula and incumbent President Jair Bolsonaro last October captured global attention not only because Brazil is Latin America’s largest country and the steward of the Amazon rainforest but also because the contest followed a well-trodden electoral format: a far-right leader pit against a political opposition intent on taking him down.
French President Emmanuel Macron had just a few months prior narrowly warded off a challenge from the extremist Marine Le Pen. Populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban embarrassed a disjointed coalition that thought it had a chance of weakening his grasp on power. And in the Philippines, the son of a former dictator won a landslide victory.
Unlike 2022’s, this year’s elections are less clear-cut—and instead overlap in surprising ways. This may be in part because they are overwhelmingly parliamentary as opposed to presidential, which makes term limits much less of a factor. In fact, the only two countries that will certainly see new leadership, due to constitutional prohibitions on their sitting presidents’ reelection, are Nigeria and Guatemala.
Elsewhere, in Estonia, Finland, Singapore, Bangladesh, and New Zealand, female leaders are vying for another term in office—though the democratic bona fides of Singapore’s president and Bangladesh’s prime minister are questionable at best. In Thailand and Turkey, the military’s quotidian role in political life is due to face a reckoning as those countries’ autocratic leaders consolidate power; Pakistan could face similar turmoil instigated by its ousted prime minister.
In Turkey and New Zealand, meanwhile, parties representing ethnic minorities—Kurds and Maori, respectively—could play kingmakers in parliament; in Finland, debates around Indigenous Sami rights could bring down the incumbent government. In Argentina and Pakistan, both in the throes of economic turmoil, populist political movements are appealing recent political bans on their figureheads. In Guatemala, Turkey, Poland, and Bangladesh, ruling parties’ consolidation over the media and judiciary have observers concerned about fair competition. And in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, most are just hoping for a peaceful transfer of power.
It should also be said that Russia’s war in Ukraine has impacted every country on this list—and could yet determine the political livelihoods of many leaders the world over. The prime ministers of Estonia and Finland, which both border Russia, have seen their global profiles rise with the conflict, while the ruling party in Poland—NATO’s front line—has attempted to remain in the West’s good graces despite its democratic regression. Turkey and Spain have also become indispensable—the former for its diplomatic muscle and the latter for its expertise in all things liquefied natural gas. And as far away as Bangladesh, rising fuel prices are beginning to spell all-out chaos.
In normal circumstances, Ukraine itself would also be due to hold parliamentary elections this fall. But it is unclear whether these will take place amid an enduring state of emergency, near-daily aerial attacks, and Russian occupation of broad swaths of the country. The parliament in Kyiv has been a critical complementary force to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s leadership during the conflict so far, instituting martial law and sending legislators to travel the world to rally financial and military support for their country. A return to normal operations, however, seems a long way off.
In the meantime, here are 14 presidential and parliamentary elections to watch in 2023, from Pakistan (population 225 million) to Estonia (population 1.3 million).
Nigeria | Feb. 25
Young people under the age of 30 make up a whopping 70 percent of Nigeria’s population, bringing the median age in Africa’s largest economy to just 18.1 years. But as FP’s Nosmot Gbadamosi, the Lagos-based writer of Africa Brief, wrote last year, the country has traditionally been run by an all-male gerontocracy. Incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari is 80 years old, and only 3.6 percent of seats in Nigeria’s parliament are currently held by women.
By these standards, 61-year-old Peter Obi—the current front-runner in Nigeria’s Feb. 25 presidential election—is just beginning his middle age. Obi, who represents the social democratic Labour Party and is a former governor of Anambra state, is seeking to wrest power away from the two partisan heavyweights who have governed Nigeria since its 1999 return to democracy: Buhari’s center-left All Progressives Congress (APC) and the opposition center-right Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Buhari himself is ineligible to run for reelection due to term limits, and the APC has instead tapped former Lagos Gov. Bola Ahmed Tinubu, 70, to succeed him. Former Nigerian Vice President Atiku Abubakar, 76, earned the PDP’s nomination.
Obi, who left the PDP for Labour in May 2022, has connected with Nigeria’s traditionally apathetic youth and seems poised to capture the lion’s share of their vote next month. Though he lacks the institutional support base enjoyed by Tinubu and Abubaker, Obi has instrumentalized social media and grassroots campaigning to appeal to young Nigerians. His adherents call themselves “Obidients” and have compared the candidate’s improbable rise to that of former U.S. President Barack Obama. Youth voter registration soared in 2022, perhaps in response to Obi’s candidacy. In a September 2022 poll commissioned by Bloomberg, 72 percent of decided voters—of all ages—said they planned to vote for Obi. Just 16 and 9 percent of that cohort backed Tinubu and Abubaker, respectively. (92 percent of respondents considered themselves decided.)
Last October, Pelumi Salako argued in Foreign Policy that Obi’s “selling points are his relative youth … his enchanting speech … and his ethnic identity.” Obi is a former banker who earned a reputation for commitment to educational reform during his tenure as Anambra’s governor. If elected, he would also be Nigeria’s first Igbo president since 1966. While ethnic resentment may turn off some voters—Igbos are the smallest of the country’s three main ethnic groups—younger Nigerians tend to view this added diversity as a plus. (Tinubu, for his part, is Yoruba, while Abubakar is Fulani.)
Still, much of Obi’s appeal may lie less in what he has to offer and more in disillusionment with Nigeria’s entrenched political elite—and Buhari in particular. Under Buhari, “[i]nsecurity has peaked at an all-time high, and governance and respect for human rights are at all-time lows,” Idayat Hassan and Kehinde A. Togun wrote in Foreign Policy in 2021. Former U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell has gone so far as to call today’s Nigeria a failed state.
While Buhari’s eight-year tenure has seen an uptick in attacks perpetrated by bandit herders and terrorist groups such as Boko Haram, it has also featured increased abuses by the military and state security forces. The 2020 #EndSARS protests against a notorious Nigerian police unit saw at least 56 civilians killed and many more injured, according to Amnesty International. Months later, Buhari temporarily banned Twitter—a key organizing tool—after the platform deleted one of his tweets seen as incendiary. Meanwhile, Buhari’s military has been accused of gross human rights violations while fighting insurgencies in the country’s north. (The United States granted tacit approval to these alleged abuses with a record $1 billion arms sale to Nigeria last year.) And corruption and economic woes have only grown.
Tinubu and Abubaker are unappealing alternatives to many Nigerians because they are seen to be abetting the status quo. Tinubu has blamed some of those killed by security forces during the #EndSARS protests for their fate, while Abubaker retracted his condemnation of the killing of a female student for alleged blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. Abubaker also faces allegations of corruption and was financially ensnared with former U.S. President Donald Trump.
Though it is perhaps less jarring, Obi’s record is not squeaky clean. The 2021 Pandora Papers investigation revealed that the popular politician held numerous offshore assets, and this past December, his campaign manager was convicted on charges of money laundering.
Overall, Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún concluded in Foreign Policy last year, “in a country of about 200 million people … the choices available in the next election are two undesirable candidates with shady or complicated reputations and a young(er) populist candidate with a vision and visibility, but with no stable political base.”
This triad of competing—yet unsatisfying—forces means that Nigeria may see its first runoff presidential election since the end of its military dictatorship. A second round of voting is required if no candidate obtains a majority of the national vote in addition to at least 25 percent of the vote in at least two-thirds of Nigeria’s states, though in the de facto two-party system this rule has never been invoked. Voters on Feb. 25 will also cast their ballots in races for Nigeria’s House of Representatives and Senate; in March, they will return to the polls to vote for governorships and state assemblies.
Though Obi seems to hold a commanding lead in the polls, public opinion is far from the only factor influencing the election’s outcome. Past Nigerian contests have been marred by violence and vote buying; SBM Intelligence estimates that 626 people were killed during the 2019 presidential election cycle. If there is hope for this contest, it is in an electoral reform bill that Buhari signed in February 2022 aimed at increasing transparency, which has been welcomed by civil society. The race to capture the votes of Nigeria’s disenchanted youth will be its first big test. Full List
Estonia | March 5
Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine changed the small Baltic nation of Estonia. The former member of the Eastern Bloc knew firsthand the traumas of Russian aggression and quickly assumed a leading role within the European Union and NATO in pushing for solidarity with Kyiv and sanctions on Moscow. The face of this effort has been Prime Minister Kaja Kallas.
At times, the 45-year-old Kallas has seemed hawkish—unafraid to anger not only Russia but also EU and NATO allies. She has been critical, for example, of French President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to maintain a line of communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin and called for Russian tourists to be banned from the EU amid Russia’s “genocidal war”—a proposal against which countries such as Germany and France chafed. Last summer, Kallas told Foreign Policy in an interview that “peace [in Ukraine] can’t be the ultimate goal if it means that you give away territories.”
Kallas’s newfound stature within Western leadership is both predictable and surprising. She is the daughter of a former Estonian prime minister, but herself was not elected to the job—instead taking over in 2021 after her predecessor resigned amid a scandal. In some ways, it seems as though she was made for this moment.
This March, Kallas’s leadership will be put to the test in Estonia’s regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, which are held every four years to elect all 101 members of the country’s legislature. Candidates are elected via open-list proportional representation, and parties must pass a 5 percent threshold to enter parliament.
Lucky for Kallas, her rising international profile has been accompanied by a surge in popularity for her liberal Reform Party at home. Since Russia’s invasion, Reform has moved from polling within range of its competitors to leading them by as many as 14 percentage points, according to Politico.
Kallas’s governing coalition with the Social Democrats teetered briefly in June 2022, when it swapped as its third member the center-left Centre Party for the conservative Isamaa party after disagreements over domestic policy and spending priorities. Kallas viewed the dissenters as hampering the country’s united front against Russia. In courting Isamaa, Kallas sought to stem any potential influence from the far-right EKRE party, which is skeptical of the EU and NATO.
As of Dec. 19, 2022, Reform was polling at 32 percent among likely voters, with EKRE at 25 percent and Centre at 15 percent. Kallas’s coalition partners are performing less well. Both Isamaa and the Social Democrats stand at 7 percent—just above the electoral threshold. While Kallas will almost certainly remain prime minister, the finer details of her agenda may yet be beholden to the politicking of coalition-building. Full List
Finland | April 2
Similar dynamics are at play in an election taking place one month later just to the north of Estonia, in Finland. Both countries are European Union members governed by relatively young women who first gained power when their predecessors resigned in controversy and now confront their first elections as prime minister. Like Kallas, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin—who took office in 2019 at the age of 34—has also seen her tenure inflected by the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s war in Ukraine. The conflict has fundamentally changed how Finland, which shares an 830-mile border with Russia, approaches security and defense. Marin has spearheaded this rethink.
Finland—and Sweden—last summer signed a protocol to join NATO, but they are not yet full members of the alliance. All existing NATO members must ratify their accession, and Hungary and Turkey have stalled the normally ceremonial procedure in an attempt to extract political concessions from the two Nordic countries. Marin’s political career has in many ways already been defined by the move, which overturned almost a century of stalwart Finnish neutrality. FP’s Michael Hirsh wrote in April 2022 that “Helsinki joining NATO is [Putin’s] worst nightmare—apart from losing Ukraine.”
Though the Finnish public overwhelmingly supports NATO accession, Marin’s Social Democratic Party (SDP) has not seen this enthusiasm reflected in its poll numbers. The ruling party has trailed the center-right National Coalition Party (KOK) in polling since July 2021, following a KOK win in June 2021 local elections. The KOK has mostly run on a platform of lower taxes and fiscal restraint and is in step with the SDP on matters of national security and foreign policy.
As of Dec. 16, 2022, 19 percent of voters said they planned to vote for the SDP, about 5 percentage points fewer than earned by the KOK, according to Politico. The far-right Finns Party was a close third, with a smattering of smaller parties—including members of Marin’s five-party coalition—clocking in at 10 percent or less.
If this trend continues, Marin would likely lose her mandate to form a government come April’s election, which will see all 200 seats of the Finnish parliament up for grabs via open-list proportional representation. There is no electoral threshold to enter the legislature, and a record 24 parties have already expressed their intention to field candidates.
Marin’s coalition has experienced its fair share of infighting in recent months, particularly around taxation, environmentalism, and the rights of Finland’s Indigenous Sami minority. The latter issue in particular—which involves defining who qualifies as Indigenous and can serve in the Sami Parliament—has even threatened to break apart the government. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination accused Finland in June 2022 of violating Sami human rights.
While Finland’s opposition has many legitimate critiques of Marin’s policy, a good deal of blowback against her leadership has been plainly sexist and ageist. She has been slammed for wearing a revealing blazer, enjoying elaborate breakfasts, and partying with her friends. In August 2022, a leaked video of Marin dancing prompted the opposition to call for the prime minister to take a drug test, which came back negative. Their outrage may have backfired: Scores of women in positions of political prominence, including former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, took to Twitter to post photos and videos of themselves dancing in what became a viral moment of solidarity. The ordeal launched a broader global debate about whether heads of government can have—and should be entitled to—a work-life balance.
In her short time in office, Marin has changed the conversation around women in politics in both Finland and around the world. That will likely continue after April, whether she remains as prime minister or is the leader of Finland’s opposition. Full List
Thailand | May 7
Thailand has officially been a constitutional monarchy since 1932, but in practice, the country’s military and monarchy remain the most powerful forces in public life. The monarchy is one of the last in the world to be shielded by lèse-majesté laws, and military coups—often backed by the crown—are a recurrent feature of politics in Bangkok. The most recent such takeover occurred in 2014, when then-army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha installed himself as prime minister.
The Thai electorate can roughly be divided into older royalist and younger non-royalist factions. There are those who view the monarchy-military complex as a guarantor of stability and tradition—Thailand’s economic growth has not been hampered by its frequent coups—and those Thais urging for democratic reform, often at great personal risk.
Since 2020, young Thai activists have been engaged in ongoing anti-government protests. The movement was initially triggered when a court dissolved the Future Forward Party, a new opposition group that sought to curb the military’s influence and had performed well in parliamentary elections a year earlier. But demonstrations grew to encompass general outrage with King Maha Vajiralongkorn, who ascended the throne in 2016. Though the monarch spends most of his time luxuriating in the Bavarian Alps, he has nevertheless found ways to consolidate power from afar—bringing under his unilateral control two new army units and an estimated $40 billion in royal assets.
As Jasmine Chia reported in Foreign Policy in August 2022, social media-savvy activists have developed creative ways to skirt Thailand’s speech restrictions in their work. But the government has still arrested and prosecuted hundreds within the pro-democracy cohort—if not for lèse-majesté, then on trumped-up charges including disobeying COVID-19 measures and violating a computer crime law. Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the co-founder of Future Forward, is among those who have been indicted.
Pro-democracy activists don’t feel particularly hopeful about Thailand’s May 7 parliamentary elections. They will be only the second such contest since 2017, when the military rewrote the Thai Constitution—the 20th charter since 1932—to grant itself greater influence. Thailand’s legislature is bicameral, and the new document stipulates that all 250 members of the Senate be appointed by the military while the 500-member House of Representatives be popularly elected. The two chambers together appoint the prime minister, giving an inherent advantage to military-backed candidates, who automatically have at least 250 votes.
The 2019 election was the first since the 2014 coup and was initially viewed by many as a potential path to redemocratization. But the ramifications of the new constitution quickly became clear. The Asian Network for Free Elections’ mission to Thailand wrote in a subsequent observer report that “[a]ll stages of the electoral process, from its inception to the announcement of results and beyond, were influenced to secure an electoral outcome that would not be too disruptive to the ruling establishment.”
A case in point: The top three performers in the 2019 election were the opposition Pheu Thai Party, Prayuth’s pro-military Palang Pracharat Party, and Future Forward. But because of the military-appointed Senate, pro-democracy forces were sidelined and Prayuth retained his post as prime minister. Many also regarded a new system of party-based seat allotment as benefiting the military, and observers reported glaring irregularities.
“I knew that the junta running Thailand wanted to stay in power, but I cannot believe how far it has gone to manipulate the general election on Sunday,” former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and now lives in exile, wrote in a New York Times op-ed at the time.
The junta has gone even further since then. Thailand’s 2017 constitution stipulates an eight-year term limit for prime ministers, and pro-democracy activists say this means Prayuth’s time is up. But Thailand’s Constitutional Court decided in September 2022 to support Prayuth’s claim that his mandate in office only officially began with the enactment of the 2017 charter, meaning that he could theoretically remain in power until 2025.
Prayuth is unpopular, and his tenure in office has been marred by more than just his harsh crackdown on protests. He has also struggled to manage the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and rebuild Thailand’s vital tourism sector in the wake of the pandemic. Overall, writing in World Politics Review, Joshua Kurlantzick characterized Prayuth as a “policy disaster.” The opposition has launched numerous—failed—no-confidence votes against the prime minister.
As in 2019, Pheu Thai leads polls heading into May’s vote, according to Bloomberg. The Move Forward Party, which has emerged as the successor to Future Forward, is a close second. But Kurlantzick and other observers are not optimistic that they will prevail. Instead, they surmise that the most likely election scenario will involve the military-monarchy complex once again finding a way to further dilute the will of the people—and wrest power from those parties the majority of Thais support. Full List
Turkey | June 18
A month later, another controversial leader with fraught military ties—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan—will face what could be his final electoral test. One would be forgiven for forgetting that Erdogan is not an inevitable fixture of Turkish political life: He triumphed in 2002 elections, became prime minister in 2003, and has been the top man in Ankara ever since. A more colorful statistic is that Erdogan has ruled Turkey longer than Starbucks has owned coffee shops in the country.
Much of Erdogan’s staying power over the past two decades has been the result of his own reforms. When Erdogan first took office, Turkey was a parliamentary democracy with a prime minister who served as head of government and a parliament-appointed president who served as a ceremonial head of state. But four years into his term, in 2007, Erdogan introduced a referendum to elect the president by popular vote. It passed, and in 2014, he became Turkey’s first-ever popularly elected president. This move would become the linchpin for the power consolidation and democratic backsliding that followed in 2016 and beyond, when he transformed Turkey into a super-presidential system after a failed coup attempt against his government.
Because of how his tenure has spiraled, it bears remembering that, for most of his first decade in office, Erdogan was well-liked the world over. He had risen through the political ranks as a populist yet moderate Islamist force in a country whose model of top-down nationalist secularism and Westernization—known as Kemalism—had for decades left poor, rural, and religious voters feeling both disenfranchised and disrespected. In many ways, Erdogan made Turkish society more equitable—for example, by nixing a hijab ban in state institutions and allowing Kurdish to be taught in schools. He also oversaw high GDP growth and poverty reduction, moving Turkey firmly into the ranks of upper-middle-income economies.
In Western capitals, Erdogan was greeted as a groundbreaking leader who could toe the fine rhetorical and diplomatic lines between Western and Islamic contexts. Most critically, he proved to the global public that overtly Islamic societies were just as modern, dynamic, and innovative as their Western counterparts. Turkey was a committed member of NATO and at one point even appeared poised to join the European Union.
It was at home that public opinion was less uniformly rosy. As an openly religious head of government, Erdogan was operating in uncharted territory: While Turkey had had Islamist leaders before, they had all been quickly deposed by the military, which is considered a guardian of Kemalism. When, in 2007, the wife of Turkey’s then-president, an Erdogan ally, donned a hijab, it was seen by many in Turkey’s Kemalist elite—particularly within the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP), the main opposition group—as a national emergency. Erdogan allegedly faced numerous coup threats or plots from the military during his early prime ministership, and he responded to each by eroding the military’s power—claiming that doing so was a requirement for EU accession.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when this Turkish identity crisis between secular and religious forces morphed into full-blown democratic erosion. But I’d say it began roughly around 2013. By then, Turkey’s economic miracle of the early 2000s had been hampered by the 2008 recession, and scrutiny instead turned toward abuses within Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP). That summer, activists demonstrating against the destruction of Istanbul’s Gezi Park were met with extreme police violence and state repression. Months later, dozens of people linked to the AKP were detained in what was then the largest corruption scandal in Turkey’s history. “The Gezi Park protests … are seen as an inflection point in the AKP’s anti-democratic turn,” Erin O’Brien wrote in Foreign Policy in September 2021.
Things escalated after July 15, 2016, when Erdogan and his supporters thwarted the most successful coup attempt against his rule to date. In response, Erdogan called a two-year state of emergency that suspended the rule of law and launched an all-out purge of governmental and government-adjacent institutions. Human Rights Watch estimates that 130,000 public sector officials were kicked out of their jobs. And almost 80,000 members of the government, judiciary, and media were arrested for alleged links to terrorism. After the coup attempt, Amnesty International reported that Erdogan had closed 180 media outlets in Turkey and that one-third of all jailed journalists in the world were held in the country.
Erdogan’s approval ratings soared in the aftermath of the coup attempt and during the ensuing purge, in a rally-around-the-flag effect similar to that experienced by U.S. President George W. Bush as he launched the global war on terrorism following 9/11. Cleaning house became a convenient justification for Erdogan’s 2017 referendum to transform Turkey into a super-presidential system, which proposed getting rid of the post of prime minister and granting the president expansive executive powers while eliminating many checks and balances. Observers warned that the measure could spell the end of Turkish democracy, yet it managed to pass with the narrowest of margins.
Since the end of the state of emergency in July 2018, Erdogan’s political life has remained chaotic. In contrast to his early days as prime minister, he has become notorious for his mismanagement of the Turkish economy and peculiar aversion to interest rate hikes. (Turkish voters overwhelmingly pinpoint the economy as their top concern.) He has also aggressively intervened in regional military conflicts and picked fights over Mediterranean maritime boundaries in what some decry as revisionist, neo-Ottoman foreign policy. All the while, as Erdogan has consolidated control over the media and judiciary, Turkey’s Freedom House ranking has dropped from “partly free” in 2013 to “not free” in 2022.
Despite this regression, Erdogan has shown reluctant Western leaders that Turkey’s position as a bridge between East and West is indispensable—no matter how unpalatable its leader may be. The EU has relied on Turkey as a buffer against the influx of migrants into its territory despite human rights concerns, and the country has proved to be a critical mediating force between Russia and Ukraine, securing the landmark deal that allowed Ukrainian grain exports to be shipped through the Black Sea. Erdogan has also flexed his muscles within NATO as he aims to extract concessions from prospective members Finland and Sweden, which he claims harbor militants tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
That last bit has broad geopolitical ramifications in the Middle East. The PKK has waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara in an attempt to secure concessions for Turkey’s long-oppressed Kurdish minority, and Erdogan recently ratcheted up attacks against PKK-linked groups in northern Syria (which are U.S. allies fighting Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic State) after a November 2022 terrorist attack in Istanbul.
Attacking Kurds—whether rhetorically or militarily—has always been a reliable electoral strategy in hyper-nationalist Turkey, and it could mean that Erdogan is nervous about this summer’s presidential and parliamentary votes. “[T]here is evidence that Erdogan and the AKP have overstayed their welcome among large numbers of Turkish voters,” FP’s Steven A. Cook wrote in November 2022. “Consequently, the Turkish leader has begun to pull as many levers as possible … to whip up nationalist sentiment and gain political advantage.”
The evidence in question is recent polling that shows that Erdogan’s political career could soon be over. Per his own 2017 reform, a Turkish president may serve a maximum of two five-year terms, the first of which Erdogan has nearly completed. To win the presidency again, he must win an outright majority—if not on June 18, then in a runoff election on July 2. (Erdogan attained a majority in the first round of the last presidential election in 2018.)
Erdogan’s problems lie in this runoff. An August to November 2022 survey by Al-Monitor and Premise showed the AKP earning a narrow plurality among voters at 28 percent, with the CHP a close second at 24 percent. Though many other parties polled in the single digits, six of them—led by the CHP—have formed a coalition known as the “Table of Six” and announced in February 2022 that they planned to field a joint candidate in an attempt to unseat Erdogan once and for all. The group also wants to revert Turkey to a parliamentary system and institute new constitutional checks and balances.
The Table of Six has not yet announced its presidential pick, but polls show that potential matchups between one of its candidates and Erdogan do not bode well for the incumbent. Notably, the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)—a leftist anti-nationalist party that comprises the third-largest bloc in the parliament—has not joined the Table of Six, which is still deeply rooted in Turkish nationalism.
Based on early chatter, it seems that the Table of Six presidential candidate will most likely hail from the CHP. Party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu appears to be an early favorite. Other names that have been floated include Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. But the race faced a twist in mid-December 2022, when a court sentenced Imamoglu to two years in prison on dubious charges of “insulting public figures.” Though Imamoglu plans to appeal the ruling, if confirmed it could bar him from running for and holding public office. Another former presidential candidate, the HDP’s Selahattin Demirtas, is also languishing in jail.
Imamoglu’s and Demirtas’s cases show that Turkey’s elections may not be completely free and fair. While Turkey is by most accounts still a functioning representative democracy once voters reach the polls, experts agree that current election and campaigning rules benefit the AKP. Erdogan’s control over the media and judiciary has only made things worse. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s observer report on the 2018 elections concluded that they “offered voters a genuine choice despite the lack of conditions for contestants to compete on an equal basis.”
In addition to voting for president, Turks will also elect 600 members of the country’s unicameral legislature to five-year terms via proportional representation on closed party lists. Parties must obtain at least 7 percent of votes in order to enter the parliament. It is conceivable—though unlikely, given Turkey’s persona-based politics—that Erdogan retains the presidency and the AKP loses the parliament or that he loses the presidency and the AKP retains the parliament. Given the presidency’s expansive powers, the first scenario would be preferable to Erdogan. The second would be awkward—essentially rendering Erdogan a party leader without political office.
What does appear notable at this point is that the HDP is poised to be kingmaker in the parliament. If polling holds, Table of Six parties may have to make concessions on minority rights to gain a majority and keep power out of the hands of the AKP and its ultranationalist allies in the Nationalist Movement Party. In a country where identity has long been based on a hegemonic Turkish ethnonationalism—for secular and religious Turks alike—this would be significant. On the other hand, a growing Kemalist anti-immigrant movement under the banner of the newly formed Victory Party could poach votes from the CHP and other secular parties but fail to reach the 7 percent electoral threshold, creating a net gain for the AKP in the parliament.
It is arguably too early to make full-blown predictions about an election in six months’ time, especially since we don’t yet know whom Erdogan’s main presidential opponent will be. But Turkish voters clearly feel Erdogan has gone too far—and that his regression in recent years has dwarfed the innovative leadership of his first decade in office. Erdogan is the type of leader who might have had a very different legacy had he been less attached to retaining power and stepped down earlier, on his own accord—rather than waiting to be shoved out in what promises to be an electoral bloodbath. Full List
Guatemala | June 25
In June 2021, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris became an unwitting internet meme when she traveled to the Central American country of Guatemala and gave a speech directed at would-be migrants, flatly telling them “do not come” to the United States. Harris’s words were derided by many for their crass nature as well as their failure to acknowledge that seeking asylum is a fundamental human right. But she was only stating directly what has long been the central goal of U.S. immigration policy concerning the Americas: keeping migrants out.
The Biden administration has claimed that its approach to migration will be based on fighting its so-called root causes rather than relying on the punitive approaches of the Trump era, though some of these have persisted. The White House considers reducing corruption in Central America to be critical to stemming the northward flow of migrants and has identified the government in Guatemala City as a key partner in this effort.
Guatemalans rank among the largest demographic groups encountered by authorities at the southwest U.S. border, and U.S. and Mexican authorities in 2022 deported tens of thousands of Guatemalans despite the fact that there “there are no state-led policies in Guatemala to support returning migrants,” Jeff Abbott reported in Foreign Policy in September 2022.
Many experts consider Washington’s anti-corruption efforts in Central America to be myopic and misguided, and in Guatemala, they have proved to be an utter failure. Since Harris admonished his government, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has dismantled democratic institutions and curtailed the work of journalists and civil society. This past summer, Giammattei’s attorney general—who is sanctioned by the United States—fired eight prosecutors who were investigating corruption and human rights abuses. They are only a fraction of the prosecutors and judges who have been jailed or forced into exile throughout Giammattei’s tenure.
Giammattei is a term-limited incumbent, however, and his time is nearly up. Guatemala will hold general elections on June 25 that will see the country elect a new president, all 160 seats in its legislature, and members of local government. To win, a presidential candidate must obtain a majority; if nobody attains this on June 25, the vote will proceed to a runoff on Aug. 27. Legislators are directly elected.
Given Giammattei’s consolidation of power, observers are nervous about whether the vote will be free and fair. Though the president cannot run for another four-year term, he could significantly intervene to keep his conservative Vamos party in power, Oliver Stuenkel warned in Americas Quarterly last month. What’s more, “[t]he country’s ban on presidential reelection also helps candidates roughly aligned with the administration nonetheless portray themselves as meaningful alternatives.”
Campaigning doesn’t legally kick off until this month, but a number of politicians have already declared their candidacy for president, according to the Latin America Risk Report. Vamos and Giammattei have backed conservative Congressman Manuel Conde, while conservative Zury Ríos—the daughter of a notorious general during Guatemala’s civil war—has also thrown her hat in the ring. (Ríos was barred from running in past elections due to this familial link but is widely considered to be the most popular politician in the country.) Populist Roberto Arzú, who has sought to define himself in the Trumpian mode with pledges to “make Guatemala great,” is running, too.
The left has been less organized. Former Vice President Sandra Torres is widely expected to launch a third bid for the presidency; she leads the center-left National Unity of Hope party but has sought common ground with Giammattei in the past. Other anticipated candidates include the Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera of the Movimiento para la Liberación de los Pueblos party (MLP). However, MLP has been reluctant to form coalitions with other left-leaning groups in the past, making a united front against the right unlikely.
According to a September 2022 poll by J. Napolitan y Asociados, Ríos leads a crowded field of presidential candidates with 16.4 percent. Torres and Arzú follow with 14.9 and 11.2 percent, respectively. Conde did not appear in the survey, and Juan Luis Font wrote in Con Criterio that “he will need to apply shock therapy to potential voters to make himself known and … dissociate himself from the animosity he inspires for being the heir of Alejandro Giammattei.”
In addition to his escalating repression, Giammattei has built his brand on extreme social conservatism in moves that often mirror the trajectory of the U.S. right. The Guatemalan president has declared his country the “pro-life capital” of Latin America, though he surprised many in March 2022 when he vetoed a bill that would have imposed 10-year prison sentences on people who have abortions and prohibited gay marriage after the measure received condemnation from international observes and human rights watchdogs. (Guatemala still bans abortion in almost all cases, and gay marriage is not legal.)
This lockstep with U.S. conservative movements has also extended into international affairs. In 2018, under Giammattei’s predecessor, Jimmy Morales, Guatemala became the second country to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem after the United States. (Then-U.S. President Donald Trump had threatened to block foreign aid to countries that did not adopt Washington’s controversial position.) Since then, Giammattei has proudly flaunted his pro-Israel stances and refused to meet with Palestinian leaders.
More recently, Guatemala—one of the few countries that enjoys diplomatic relations with Taiwan rather than China—has portrayed itself as being at the vanguard of the island’s struggle. Last month, Giammattei announced that he would host a summit of “Taiwan-friendly” countries in March. The meeting may act as a form of pressure against neighboring Honduras, where President Xiomara Castro in 2021 campaigned on switching diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing but has yet to do so.
As more and more countries recognize Beijing, Taiwan may be paying to keep its relationship with Guatemala City going. FP’s Catherine Osborn, the writer of Latin America Brief, reported in January 2022 that Taipei had paid for a Trump-linked lawyer to act as a pro-Guatemala lobbyist in Washington.
The funky Washington-Guatemala City-Taipei triad is emblematic of Guatemala’s awkward positioning in U.S. foreign policy. Guatemala and the United States are dependent on each other in many ways—even if they often perceive each other as annoyances. That dynamic will remain regardless of who succeeds Giammattei later this year. Full List
Singapore | by Sept. 13
Singapore’s president does not have many political powers, but the mostly ceremonial role has tremendous symbolic importance. Incumbent President Halimah Yacob is the first woman to head the city-state in its history, and the first person of Malay ethnicity to do so in nearly five decades.
It’s a stretch to say Halimah was elected, though: In 2016, a Constitutional Commission called by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong decided that the 2017 presidential election should be open only to Malay candidates. Malays are the second largest of the island’s three main ethnic groups—the other two are Chinese and Indian—and the commission determined that it had been too long since a Malay had last been head of state. Multiracialism has been a core part of Singapore’s constitution and national identity since the country gained independence from Malaysia in 1965, and the government takes active steps to promote all groups as equal in its policy and public provisions.
In this case, however, the commission’s requirement raised eyebrows because it appeared designed to narrow the field of potential candidates and hand the presidency to the preordained Halimah. The ethnicity provision was accompanied by an oddly specific rule that candidates hailing from the private sector must have been the senior executive of a company valued at no less than the equivalent of about $370 million. This did not apply to Halimah, who at the time was the speaker of Singapore’s parliament, but it did boot two other Malay contenders. One of them had previously indicated he would have “zero tolerance” toward corruption when asked by the media whether he would open a corruption investigation into Lee if presented with credible allegations.
Singapore is ranked by Transparency International as the fourth-least-corrupt country in the world as of 2021, and there are no clear signs of alleged corruption by Lee. But Singapore is not a free country: Members of Lee’s family and his People’s Action Party have ruled since independence in what is effectively a one-party state. Rights groups have warned about efforts to stymie the opposition, and freedoms of speech and assembly are severely restricted. As Kirsten Han wrote in Foreign Policy in July 2020, “Singapore doesn’t rank 158th on the World Press Freedom Index for nothing.”
Singapore is poised to pick another president again by Sept. 13. And the country—where voting is mandatory—may actually witness an election this time. Halimah’s term is six years, and she is not restricted by term limits. Authorities have also made clear that this election will be open to all ethnic groups. No potential candidates have so far indicated they will run. The only peep has come from former lawmaker George Yeo, who has said he will not stand for the contest.
Despite the limited powers Singapore’s next president will enjoy, they are poised to represent the city-state to the world at a time when it is being courted by great powers and attempts to strike a balance between relations with China and the United States. Though Singapore’s economic growth is set to slow significantly this year, it remains a leading economy and key source of U.S. military influence in East Asia. The country will likely continue to punch above its weight—no matter its next president. Full List
Pakistan | by Oct. 12
2022 was not kind to Pakistan. When the country was not facing an immediate political or economic crisis, it fell victim to environmental catastrophe. Biblical floods triggered by monsoon rains pummeled the country from June to October 2022, submerging an area the size of Italy. The United Nations estimates that 33 million people were affected by the disaster.
But as Pakistan’s largely impoverished population struggles to rebuild, former Prime Minister Imran Khan has decided to make everything about himself. The cricketer-turned-populist politician assumed the top job in Islamabad in 2018 after his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) triumphed in that year’s parliamentary elections and led a tumultuous government that former Pakistani Ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani described in Foreign Policy as a “one-man show.” In April 2022, Khan was ousted in a no-confidence vote, and Shehbaz Sharif of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League (PML) was tapped as prime minister until this year’s elections.
While Khan’s tenure was tumultuous—he broke Pakistan’s commitments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) amid an economic crisis; he was seen by many as accommodating to the Taliban in neighboring Afghanistan; and he had a poorly timed photo-op with Russian President Vladimir Putin the day Russia invaded Ukraine—that is not what distinguishes him from other Pakistani leaders, most of whom have also seen their careers marked by chaos. Nor are Khan’s short time in office and ouster particularly noteworthy: No Pakistani prime minister in history has ever served for Parliament’s full five-year term.
What does make Khan unique is his willingness to challenge the Pakistani military. It’s an open secret that Pakistan’s armed forces pull the strings in Islamabad, and Khan’s 2018 ascent was fueled by their blessing and behind-the-scenes politicking. Four years later, the April 2022 no-confidence vote came only after the military publicly withdrew their support for Khan’s government. As FP’s Azeem Ibrahim wrote in August 2022, “No one can rise to power [in Pakistan] without military support or keep power without the armed forces’ say so.”
Ibrahim was still opining about Khan at that point because the former prime minister did not go quietly. After the no-confidence vote, Khan began attacking the military and claimed without evidence that his removal from office was a coup orchestrated by the United States. His supporters and base within the PTI latched on, staging mass rallies and demonstrations across the country in support of their ousted leader. (Khan tempered his critiques of Washington in a November 2022 interview with Foreign Policy.)
In August 2022, Khan began to face consequences from the establishment he had antagonized. Police charged him with terrorism for threatening law enforcement officers and a judge. Then, in October 2022, authorities charged him with violating campaign finance rules and later banned him from politics and holding elected office for five years. Things escalated the next month when Khan survived an assassination attempt during a rally that was part of an anti-government march he and his followers planned to make to Islamabad.
“This much is clear,” FP’s Michael Kugelman, the author of South Asia Brief, wrote at the time. “Pakistan’s political environment, supercharged for months, has reached a pivotal and potentially explosive point.”
Khan and his lawyers have appealed Khan’s politics ban in court, and Khan is currently campaigning as though he’s still a contender in this year’s elections. The beleaguered ex-prime minister would prefer they be held sooner, though. The PTI dominated October 2022 by-elections, indicating that it is the leading political force in Pakistan, and Khan has sought to pressure Sharif into calling a full-scale vote by threatening that the PTI will dissolve legislatures in regions it controls.
Sharif, however, has held firm, and confirmed that the contest will be held sometime after Parliament is dissolved in August following its usual five-year term. Pakistanis will elect all 342 members of the legislative body—most in single-member constituencies and others through a proportional, party-based allocation system.
Sharif knows that his government is on shaky ground. To oust Khan, the PML formed a marriage of necessity with the center-left Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, whom Foreign Policy interviewed in September 2022. The parties—family affairs for generations of Sharifs and Bhuttos—are traditional rivals and have dominated Pakistani politics since Partition. Despite their differences, the PML and PPP both have an openly testy relationship with the military yet have accepted its dominance as a pragmatic reality of Pakistani politics. That the armed forces would resort to backing their unity government reflects how much it had soured on its erstwhile avatar, Khan.
Reliable polling is hard to come by at this point, but it appears that Khan continues to be the darling of public opinion—and a thorn in the side of Pakistan’s security establishment. Given the military’s antipathy for the PTI, PML, and PPP, it is unclear how it will position itself ahead of the vote.
Ibrahim thinks this is the beginning of a genuine revolution around the military’s role in Pakistani politics. But Haqqani, an advocate of civilian rule, is less sure. “The former prime minister’s cult followers might believe he is the only patriotic and honest political leader in Pakistan, but the military seems to have moved on,” he wrote.
For now, Haqqani said, Khan’s base will continue to provoke—and most likely “follow him to the gates of hell.” Full List
Argentina | Oct. 29
Argentina’s victory at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar last month was a salve for a country otherwise beset by a series of seemingly never-ending economic problems. The country has battled high inflation for decades and has long been de facto dollarized. But COVID-19 only made things worse. Today, Argentina’s inflation rate of over 90 percent is one of the highest in the world, and year-over-year figures for 2022 are expected to reach 100 percent. Buenos Aires is also straining to meet its commitments under a reworked IMF deal as more than 36 percent of Argentines live below the poverty line.
Things are so bad that the government last year introduced industry-dependent exchange rates in a desperate attempt to shore up capital reserves; Argentines who wanted to travel abroad to see soccer superstar Lionel Messi play, for example, were subject to a higher rate known as the “Qatar dollar.” A notable time the government did successfully intervene to avert an all-out crisis? When Argentine children faced a shortage of World Cup stickers. (I’m sensing a pattern here.)
Most of Argentina’s presidents since the end of its military dictatorship in 1983—including incumbent President Alberto Fernández—have hailed from the big-tent populist Peronist movement, named for the late Argentine President Juan Péron. Peronism “prioritizes popular economic welfare in the short term at the cost of long-term economic development,” FP’s Anusha Rathi wrote in August 2022, and the movement has gifted Argentina one of the most generous welfare states in the world while also becoming the source of much of its chaos.
Not all Peronists are created equal, and a good deal of the political and economic squabbles of Fernández’s administration are the result of the president’s tricky alliance with Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (no relation), who is herself a former Argentine head of state. The two are known to have a long-running feud but ran together in 2019 under the banner of the left-leaning Frente de Todos coalition to unite disparate Peronist groups against then-President Mauricio Macri of the center-right Juntos por el Cambio coalition. Kirchner, who is politically to the left of Fernández, is the more popular—but also the more polarizing—of the two figures. She has been publicly critical of Fernández’s economic policies and his handling of the IMF deal in particular.
Now, the two may be united once more by the grim prognoses for their respective political futures as Argentina gears up for general elections on Oct. 29. That day, Argentines—who are legally required to vote—will elect their next presidential ticket in addition to regional governors and a sizable chunk of lawmakers in Argentina’s bicameral legislature. In the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, 130 seats are up for grabs, and 24 are open in the Senate. To win the presidency, a ticket must win at least 45 percent of the vote in the first round—or score 40 percent but hold a 10-point lead over the next-closest contender. If neither of these criteria are fulfilled, the race proceeds to a runoff.
Fernández’s approval rating is among the lowest of any major Latin American head of state, though poll numbers vary widely. As of Dec. 22, 2022, Americas Quarterly pegged his approval at 33.2 percent, while Reuters has alluded to figures “around 20%.” Some pollsters have attributed this discrepancy to in-person polling being more favorable to Fernández than online polling.
Fernández in May 2022 told a reporter when asked that he would “definitely” stand in this year’s election, but experts seem skeptical he will follow through. “Fernández’s chances of winning reelection seem so small he may not even run,” Oliver Stuenkel wrote in Americas Quarterly last month.
Until recently, that seemed to spell another presidential candidacy for Kirchner, who survived an assassination attempt in September 2022 that shocked and energized her supporters. Given Fernández’s sagging approval rating and Kirchner’s personal ambitions, many observers had considered Kirchner to be Frente de Todos’s most likely candidate in 2023. But things changed in December 2022, when a court handed Kirchner a six-year sentence for corruption that also bars her from holding future political office. Though Kirchner plans to appeal the ruling (and would not be jailed until her term is over), she has confirmed that she will not seek the presidency again.
This leaves the Peronists in a bind ahead of an election they desperately want to win. The coalition has already been sputtering since November 2021, when it lost its Senate majority for the first time in decades. With Kirchner out, and a Fernández run looking perilous, the last obvious remaining contender to head Frente de Todos appears to be Economy Minister Sergio Massa. Massa, who has served in his role since July 2022, can boast that the economy has at least not gotten worse during his tenure—more of an accolade than it might seem in Argentina. But he has also said his family wants him to retire from politics, making his next steps unclear.
In theory, Juntos por el Cambio could profit from this Peronist dysfunction. The center-right bloc has yet to decide on a candidate, and Macri appears to be tussling with Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta and former minister Patricia Bullrich in an attempt at a comeback. But the polls show another story. As the center-right lags, a far-right populist libertarian has surged in popularity.
Federal Deputy Javier Milei describes himself as an “anarcho-capitalist” and has been compared to former U.S. President Donald Trump and outgoing Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, both for his crude persona and fringe beliefs. He says he wants to “kick Keynesians and collectivists in the ass” and raffles off his monthly salary in an attempt to counteract a government he claims “steals” from everyday Argentines. Milei has leaned into Argentina’s economic madness in the freakiest of ways, and it seems to be working.
Milei appears likely to run for president and head the La Libertad Avanza coalition. An October 2022 survey cited by AmericaElects saw him earn the support of 24 percent of respondents, to Frente de Todos’s 16 percent and Juntos por el Cambio’s 8 percent. Critically, the poll was conducted when Kirchner still seemed positioned to run with the Peronist coalition; with her out, Milei’s relative lead will likely increase.
The contours of Argentina’s election will become far clearer once coalitions officially announce their candidates. But it’s hard to imagine anyone eliciting broad excitement—let alone quelling the country’s deep-seated woes. As one Argentine soccer fan told the Financial Times before the World Cup final, “[n]o one is going to take the trophy up to the presidential palace when we win.” Full List
Poland | October or November, Date to Be Confirmed
Like Estonia and Finland, Poland has also seen life shaken by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The country has absorbed almost 1.4 million Ukrainian refugees, according to UNICEF, and even suffered some of its own civilian casualties. On Nov. 15, 2022, two Poles died after a Ukrainian air defense missile went astray in eastern Poland. FP’s Robbie Gramer, Jack Detsch, and Amy Mackinnon reported that it was “a near miss for a full NATO-Russia military confrontation.”
One thing the conflict hasn’t yet changed about Poland, however, is its government. The right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS) has ruled the country without interruption since 2015 and controls both the presidency and the lower house of Parliament—known as the Sejm—as part of a big-tent coalition of conservative parties called the United Right. President Andrzej Duda is officially an independent but was previously a member of and is still backed by PiS.
PiS is controversial yet popular. The party has provoked the European Union’s ire by infringing on judicial independence, forcing the bloc to withhold pandemic relief funds to Poland over what it considers to be a rule-of-law violation. PiS has also consolidated control over the press, either buying up private media outlets or forcing them to close. And it has overseen a rollback of LGBTQ+ and abortion rights, promulgating so-called family values instead. The ruling party has infringed on speech and broadcast a revisionist version of history, too. In 2018, Duda drew rare U.S. condemnation when he signed a law that banned implicating Poland in the Holocaust.
Yet despite its overt democratic erosion, PiS has for years polled well ahead of its next-closest rivals in the liberal centrist Civic Platform (PO) led by Donald Tusk. Tusk was prime minister from 2007 to 2014 and later served as president of the European Council; his European institutionalism is a stark foil to PiS’s antipathy for all things Brussels.
This fall, Tusk will vie for his own job back against incumbent PiS Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki. Though Morawiecki is Poland’s head of government, PiS remains guided by its co-founder, Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Kaczynski is a hard-liner who “formally holds the position of deputy prime minister but is on his way to concentrating all state power in his hands,” Anna Wojciuk wrote in Foreign Policy in May 2022.
Duda used to cater to Kaczynski’s every whim, but a fissure between the two emerged in response to the war in Ukraine. While Duda is a pragmatist who may be willing to dial down his populism so as not to endanger EU and NATO security guarantees, Kaczynski has often been unwilling to compromise. It is yet unclear whose platform will win out as PiS campaigns later this year, though Wojciuk sees Kaczynski as more powerful than Duda.
Already, Kaczynski has sought to solidify PiS control over the elections, which will see all 100 Senate seats and 460 Sejm seats up for grabs via open-list proportional representation. Parties must secure a 5 percent threshold to enter either body; for coalitions, this hurdle is 8 percent. Kaczynski, presumably fearful that opposition will aim to force a coalition to oust him, has taken a page out of the Trumpian playbook and preemptively warned of mass voter fraud, vowing that a PiS member will be present at every polling station as an observer. The PO has countered that it will dispatch an “army” of its own monitors.
Tusk reportedly wants opposition parties to form a united front against PiS, though many of these groups are still engaged in tense debates about the merits and potential pitfalls of forming a big-tent coalition that markets itself chiefly through its opposition to an incumbent. They point to the failure last year of a similar grouping in Hungary to oust Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a close PiS ally.
If such a coalition were to take shape, it would most likely include PO, the new centrist party Poland 2050, the Left, and the agrarian-centrist Poland Peasant Party. Together, they could be within range of ousting PiS and its United Right. As of Dec. 27, 2022, PiS led national polls at 37 percent and PO followed at 29 percent, according to Politico. Poland 2050 and the Left followed with 10 and 9 percent, respectively. The gap between PiS and PO has narrowed by about 2 percentage points since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
It’s not hard to do the math and see how an opposition coalition could win. But, as many of these parties have themselves recognized, observers who said the same about Hungary were roundly humiliated. What’s more, Duda will still be president—and the Sejm needs a three-fifths majority to override his vetoes. That’s a much taller order than securing a simple majority.
Attempts to game a political system through addition and subtraction can have trouble standing up to cults of personality. Kaczynski has been a fixture of Polish politics for decades, and it is unlikely he and his cadre will go quietly. Full List
Spain | by Dec. 10
Spain is set to take over the European Union’s rotating, six-month presidency on July 1. It might be a bit awkward: Just as the country seeks to guide the bloc, it could experience a fair bit of political turnover at home. Regularly scheduled parliamentary elections, which are held every four years, are due to be held by Dec. 10, and could oust Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s ruling coalition.
Sánchez, who heads the center-left Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), came to power in 2018 after a no-confidence vote booted a scandal-ridden prime minister from the center-right People’s Party (PP). The next year, Sánchez survived not one but two parliamentary elections, in April and November (the latter after the April coalition talks failed and forced a new vote). He begrudgingly agreed to form a coalition with the far-left Podemos party following the November elections, a possibility he had previously foreclosed. It was the first coalition government since Spain’s 1978 re-democratization.
The PSOE-Podemos coalition still leads a minority government, which means that the two parties rely on support from the opposition to get laws passed. Spain’s legislature, known as the Cortes Generales, is bicameral: There are 350 seats in the lower house, or Chamber of Deputies, and 266 in the upper house, or Senate. Almost all members of the Chamber of Deputies are directly elected via closed-list proportional representation, and parties must meet a 3 percent threshold to enter the body. At least 40 percent of party lists must be women. 208 Senate seats are also directly elected via open lists, and the rest are appointed by each of Spain’s regions. Currently, the government claims 115 seats in each forum.
Unsurprisingly for someone who has first popularly elected in late 2019, Sánchez’s tenure in office has been defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. But amid the health crisis, he has also been able to develop his own signature style of governance. Sánchez has emerged as a staunch proponent of the EU and, in the past year, he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz—who is also a social democrat—have even seemed to be in the throes of what Politico dubbed a “budding bromance.”
To be sure, Sánchez and Scholz still don’t see eye-to-eye on all EU matters. The Spanish prime minister favors more relaxed funding rules while the German chancellor wants strict fiscal constraints. Until recently, they also had their differences on whether the EU should institute a bloc-wide cap on the price of natural gas. But what has otherwise appeared to be a general policy convergence is significant for two countries that have historically found themselves resentful of each other when it comes to all things EU finance—and, it should go without saying, soccer.
Spain has gained much more leverage within the EU since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unlike many countries in the 27-member bloc, Spain was never dependent on Russian gas. Instead, Spain has historically gotten the bulk of its gas delivered through undersea pipelines from Algeria. The rest comes via liquefied natural gas (LNG) shipments; Madrid has long been a leader in LNG regasification, with six import terminals that provide for about 35 percent of the EU’s total LNG storage capacity. As other EU members seek alternatives to Russian products and LNG diversification, “Spain is pushing to become a hub that carries natural gas to the rest of Europe,” Albert Guasch wrote in Foreign Policy in April 2022.
There are two hiccups in this plan, however. The first is that Madrid may have jeopardized its reliable North African energy sources in March 2022 when Sánchez recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in response to Morocco threatening to overwhelm Ceuta and Melilla, Spanish enclaves in North Africa, with migrants. Algeria—which enjoys a bitter dispute with Morocco and is the biggest champion of Western Sahara’s liberation—was incensed, as were many Sahrawis, who had previously enjoyed close relations with their former colonizer.
The second asterisk is that, in Guasch’s words, “the Iberian Peninsula is an effective island when it comes to energy.” Spain lacks a high-capacity pipeline that could transfer gas from Algeria or terminal-regasified LNG to the rest of the European continent, and a plan to build one through the Pyrenees has been stalled for years because regulators found it too costly. Now, Sánchez wants to revive the proposal—known as MidCat—and has earned Scholz’s enthusiastic support. The albatross keeping it from being approved? French President Emmanuel Macron, who has a variety of reasons he claims the pipeline would not be a good deal for France.
Domestically, Sánchez has proudly championed progressive causes. He has legalized assisted suicide and passed a wide-ranging transgender rights law. In 2021, Sánchez even sought to outlaw prostitution, framing the issue as a question of feminist liberation. While no one doubted the prime minister’s convictions, others saw the measure as equally political. The far-right Vox party is on the rise in Spain and has taken a particular pride in defining itself as anti-feminist. That means “[w]omen have become the country’s most sought-after electoral constituency,” Omar G. Encarnación wrote in Foreign Policy in November 2021.
Another contentious issue Sánchez has faced is a perennial one in Spain: that of Catalan independence. Catalonia voted for independence in a 2017 referendum that Madrid’s PP-led government considered illegal, and police raided polling stations and beat voters. The ordeal sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades.
Sánchez has chosen to confront the matter by charting a middle path but has angered both unionists and separatists in the process. The prime minister’s minority government needs votes from the Republican Left of Catalonia party to pass legislation, and has granted them concessions like pardoning jailed Catalan secessionists and amending the Spanish penal code so that Catalan activists are not charged with sedition. In a September 2022 interview with FP’s Clara Gutman-Argemí and Amy Mackinnon, Catalan President Pere Aragonès expressed an explicit interest in the latter change, which Sánchez subsequently made official in December 2022.
Many Catalans consider these token measures, and are frustrated that Sánchez will not engage when it comes to their larger ask: the possibility of full autonomy. The PP, on the other hand, has called Sánchez “the biggest villain in Spain’s democratic history” for his actions.
Going into this year’s elections, Sánchez can at least claim to be more nuanced on Catalonia than most of his rivals. While Podemos supports regions’ right to secession, the liberal Ciudananos Party, PP, and Vox are all vehemently unionist. The incumbent will need Catalan support to confront sagging poll numbers against a rising PP. Politico shows the PP with a 5-point lead over the PSOE as of Dec. 23, 2022, with the parties boasting 31 and 26 percent support, respectively, among likely voters. Vox earned 15 percent, and Podemos 10 percent. Other minor parties all registered in the single digits.
The PP first overtook the PSOE in May 2022 and was further burnished by a June 2022 regional election in Andalusia. If the PP earns a plurality of votes, one key question is whether it would form a coalition with Vox. The two have done so in one regional government, but the specter of such an alliance may be too incendiary on a national level—and could actually strengthen cohesion within the left. The PP is led by Alberto Núñez Feijóo, who would be its likely choice for prime minister. In some remarks, Sánchez has treated Feijóo as though the two were already on the campaign trail.
Still, many observers note that the PP’s lead over the PSOE is narrowing. Local elections, which will be held on May 28, will be an important barometer ahead of the general election later this year. It’s not too late for Sánchez to make a comeback. Full List
Democratic Republic of the Congo | Dec. 20
The last general election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018 was the first to witness a peaceful transfer of power since the country—previously known as Zaire—gained independence from Belgium in 1960. Five years later, incumbent President Félix Tshisekedi is expected to vie for re-election in December general elections that will also see the country’s 500 parliamentary seats up for grabs primarily via direct election. Tshisekedi leads the Union for Democracy and Social Progress party.
Those concerned about democracy in Congo might want to temper their enthusiasm, however. Just because the 2018 election didn’t see accompanying violence does not mean it was free and fair: Ahead of the vote, Tshisekedi courted his predecessor Joseph Kabila and ultimately tapped a politician favorable to Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) party as prime minister in a power-sharing arrangement that enabled the peaceful transition. The agreement, now defunct, collapsed in December 2020.
Tshisekedi’s main rival for the presidency in 2018, Martin Fayulu, also alleged vote rigging. Presidential candidates in Congo need only a plurality to be elected, and Tshisekedi received just a few percentage points more than Fayulu in the multi-candidate contest, according to official results.
Fayulu’s claims were well substantiated, and an analysis of voting data by the Financial Times found that Fayulu likely won the election. The Carter Center also wrote in its observer report that “the electoral process does not appear to have fulfilled the most basic tenet of democratic elections—to reflect the genuine will of the people.” Stephen R. Weissman reminded readers in Foreign Policy in April 2021 that it was the Trump administration that urged the international community to accept Tshisekedi’s victory despite the overwhelming evidence of fraud. Fayulu’s Twitter bio still describes him as Congo’s “president-elect,” and he told the Atlantic Council in September 2022 that he intends to stand again in this year’s election.
Tshisekedi has governed during a turbulent time in Congo. While some of that is his own doing, Congo’s astronomical poverty rates have long hindered its economic development. The country is among the five poorest in the world, according to the World Bank, and has struggled to capitalize on its natural resource wealth. Belgium’s notorious colonial plunder is of course the root cause of Congo’s poverty, and Tshisekedi has sought to remedy ties with Brussels despite its refusal to offer Congo reparations.
But looting in Congo isn’t just a historical phenomenon: Eastern Congo has long remained beyond the grasp of the state, and more than 120 rebel groups are active in the region. In late 2021, one of the largest of these militias—M23—resumed armed conflict with the government in Kinshasa. A previous M23 rebellion ended in 2013.
The mostly ethnic Tutsi M23 is an outgrowth of militias that have been active in the area since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, during which Hutus murdered Tutsis. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken claims there are “credible reports” M23 has received Rwandan support, and FP’s Nosmot Gbadamosi wrote in August 2022 that “Congo’s neighbors have for years used those armed groups as proxies to gain influence and profit from the smuggling of Congo’s vast mineral wealth, which includes diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt, and coltan.”
Last July, Mélanie Goby reported in Foreign Policy from the front lines of the conflict in eastern Congo that M23’s “resurgence has led to escalating tensions among Rwanda, Uganda, and Congo.” Tshisekedi has allowed Ugandan troops to fight an Islamic State affiliate in Congolese territory, and U.N. peacekeeping forces are also present. Over 5.6 million people have been displaced due to the crisis, according to the U.N.
After Blinken visited Congo and Rwanda in August 2022, the two countries agreed to resume talks. Both Kenya and Angola have mediated negotiations, and the East African Community has deployed a Kenyan-led force to eastern Congo. However, many Congolese are skeptical that foreign intervention—which has long been the source of their country’s ills—can end the conflict.
Meanwhile, China has also taken a keen interest in Congo’s resources. Congo is home to 70 percent of the world’s reserves of cobalt—a mineral key to electric batteries—and 80 percent of its industrial cobalt mines are either funded or owned by Chinese companies, according to a database at Michigan State University. China coaxed mining deals out of Congo under Kabila in part by promising to build infrastructure projects throughout the country, but it has not yet delivered on its promises. Tshisekedi has criticized the mining agreements and vowed to amend them to better benefit Congo.
Congo’s above-ground resources are also important to the future of the planet. Congo is one of the world’s three largest rainforest nations, together with Brazil and Indonesia, and forms a critical carbon sink. In November 2022, the three countries agreed to launch an alliance for forest preservation—an idea Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva finalized during his transition into office as a form of “south-to-south” diplomacy.
Though candidate registration for Congo’s election this year doesn’t officially open until June, several candidates in addition to Tshisekedi and Fayulu have already announced their intent to run. They include businessman and former governor Moïse Katumbi as well as former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon. Neither has elaborated much on their platforms, and the contest is widely expected to be a rematch between Tshisekedi and Fayulu.
Two things will make the 2023 election different from 2018, however. The first is that Tshisekedi is an incumbent and therefore has an inherent advantage. The second is that he no longer has Kabila’s support. Kabila and the FCC remain power brokers in Congo, and the Africa Report writes that “Kabila is maintaining suspense about his intentions” vis-à-vis the campaign.
During the U.S.-Africa Summit in Washington in December 2022, U.S. President Joe Biden discussed holding free and transparent elections with Tshisekedi, according to a White House statement. One hopes that Biden can one-up his predecessor by actually respecting their results. Full List
Bangladesh | by Dec. 31
Bangladesh’s next elections are a year out, but the country is already embroiled in turmoil surrounding the terms of the contest. In recent weeks, protesters have taken to the streets to demand that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina step down immediately. Like many people around the world, Bangladeshis are angry about the state of their economy—which before the COVID-19 pandemic and supply shocks of Russia’s war in Ukraine was heralded as a success story. Some have seen eerie parallels between the developing situation in Bangladesh and the recent history of South Asian neighbor Sri Lanka.
Since the turn of the millennium, Bangladesh’s economy has experienced impressive GDP growth averaging around 6 percent annually, according to World Bank metrics. The country—population 166 million—has also dramatically reduced poverty and moved from being categorized as a low-income country to a lower-middle-income country in 2015; it is on track to reach upper-middle-income status in 2031. Since its 1971 independence from Pakistan, “Bangladesh has shown astonishing performance on various social development indicators,” Salil Tripathi wrote in Foreign Policy in April 2021 on the occasion of the country’s semi-centennial.
But that boom has masked—and sometimes seemed to justify—other, more troubling developments in Bangladesh’s democratic institutions. Hasina, who was first elected in 2009 and has served as prime minister ever since, has often ruled with what FP’s Michael Kugelman called an “iron fist”: arresting political opponents, clamping down on critical media, and sanctioning brutal police tactics that include shooting protesters dead. Now, with inflation around 9 percent, fuel prices soaring, and foreign debt ballooning, “a government that staked its legitimacy on economic success finds itself on the defensive,” Kugelman wrote. Protesters have called attention to not only bread-and-butter demands but also the government’s growing authoritarianism.
Hasina’s Awami League, which leans to the left, is one of the two main political parties in Bangladesh. The other is the conservative Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), led by former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who was the country’s first female head of government. Zia has not been immune to Hasina’s crackdown on rivals: Since 2018, she has been jailed on corruption charges many see as politically motivated. An additional 2,000-plus BNP affiliates have also been arrested by the Awami League government, and one of BNP’s most prominent members is exiled in Malaysia. The BNP has latched onto and supported the protests subsuming the country, and has been joined by the Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s third-largest party, which also has a troubled relationship with the Awami League.
So far, Hasina has not budged, instead focusing on the upcoming parliamentary elections. Most observers suggest they are due to be held by the end of this year, as a government’s term lasts five years and the last elections were held in December 2018. But in a December 2022 rally that took place amid the protests against her government, Hasina announced that the vote would be held in the first week of January 2024, which appears to be in line with a September 2022 Bangladeshi Electoral Commission decision that the elections be completed no later than January 29, 2024.
At this point, it’s hard to know how binding, likely, or feasible Hasina’s delay is; aware of public opinion, she is probably seeking to put off any sort of electoral reckoning for as long as possible. It is still plausible that the contest will be held this year, however, as Hasina could theoretically call a vote if and when the mood shifts in the Awami League’s favor by dissolving parliament. Elections must be held within 90 days of such a move.
Whenever the vote does take place, all of parliament’s 350 seats will be up for grabs. Bangladeshis will directly elect 300 members, whose parties will then proportionately choose 50 women to fill the body’s remaining spots in a unique quota system designed to promote gender equality.
Hasina has not yet made clear whether she will once again head the Awami League’s ticket. While she hinted toward the start of this term that it might be her last, the opposition’s protests may embolden her to hang on and avoid an apparent concession to their demands. No candidates for any party have been officially announced, and the BNP and Jaamat might have trouble fielding their own with so many of their members arrested, exiled, or imprisoned. The BNP has boycotted past local and national elections and are now demanding a neutral caretaker government to oversee a free and fair vote.
Bangladesh’s last parliamentary election in 2018 was marred by allegations of ballot stuffing, voter intimidation, and other irregularities that Human Rights Watch said demanded an independent investigation. It’s unlikely that the next vote will be much different. Full List
New Zealand | Date to Be Determined
For a long time during the bruising early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed New Zealand was living in a parallel universe. The isolated island country, known also by its Maori name Aotearoa, largely managed to keep the virus out by shuttering its borders until 2022. As the rest of the world social distanced, Kiwis mostly lived very normal lives.
The country’s idyllic image as a global refuge of sorts was only burnished by its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern. Since being elected in 2017 as the world’s then-youngest female leader, the now 42-year-old Ardern has gained rockstar status in global politics. In 2018, she became only the second elected head of government in history to give birth while in office. That year, in a profile in Vogue, FP’s Amelia Lester called Ardern the “anti-Trump.”
Ardern’s rise was quick. Just two months before New Zealand’s 2017 parliamentary elections, she was tapped to lead—and hopefully rejuvenate—the center-left Labour Party. She did just that, managing to oust the incumbent conservative National Party government and form a new one with other parties. In the next parliamentary elections in 2020, Labour earned a resounding victory.
New Zealand’s constitution specifies that parliamentary elections be held every three years, setting the country up for another vote later this year. An exact date will be determined after parliament is dissolved following the end of its term this fall. All 120 legislative seats will be in contention via proportional representation in single-member constituencies and from party lists.
While in office, Ardern has been hailed for her compassionate leadership in response to the 2018 Christchurch mosque massacre, which saw a white supremacist gunman murder 51 worshippers and injure dozens more. She has also made bold moves like ditching GDP for happiness indicators and banning cigarettes for young people in an attempt to eradicate smoking once and for all. On the internal stage, she has taken an assertive yet pragmatic stance toward a rising China and formed innovative partnerships with leaders like Sanna Marin, the Finnish prime minister to whom she is often compared.
But Ardern has her fair share of critics, too. Though the Ardern government was initially hailed for its inclusion of Maori in high-level ministerial posts, a growing cohort is frustrated with the government’s inability to move the needle on everyday Maori’s poor social outcomes. New Zealand’s Indigenous people face far higher rates of incarceration, poverty, and drug abuse and a lower life expectancy than their white counterparts.
As New Zealand reopened its borders and urged its citizens to get vaccinated against COVID-19, the country also began to face anti-vaccine protests that at one point became violent. Threats against Ardern almost tripled from 2019 to 2021, according to police, largely as a result of vaccine-conspiracy theories that were traced back to the U.S. QAnon movement, which is led by former U.S. President Donald Trump’s supporters and played a central role in the 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
In recent months, Ardern has struggled even with mainstream voters, many of whom are wrestling with economic anxiety. Kiwis face high inflation and a cost-of-living crisis as well as newfound concerns about rising crime. Ardern’s December 2022 approval rating of 29 percent is the lowest of her entire tenure as prime minister. A Kantar 1News poll dated Dec. 5, 2022, showed the Nationals leading Labour by 38 percent to 33 percent, with the libertarian Act party at 11 percent. The Greens and the populist New Zealand First party followed at 9 and 4 percent, respectively.
Ardern’s challenges have only piled up since then. On Dec. 10, 2022, Labour lost a parliamentary seat to the Nationals in a by-election in what many observers considered a dark omen for this year’s vote. Then, just three days later, Ardern was caught on a hot-mic calling David Seymour—the leader of Act and a presumable rival in the race for prime minister—an “arrogant prick.”
With elections yet to be called, it’s hard to know how all these factors might become interlinked to decide New Zealand’s future. The Nationals and Act seem likely to seek a coalition, giving them possible fuel to overpower Labour. Meanwhile, the small Maori Party looks poised to be kingmaker in New Zealand’s next parliament—granting the Indigenous group potentially valuable leverage to secure concessions for their oft-maligned communities.
Aware of her apparently waning fortune, Ardern has for the moment reneged on some of her earlier policy ambitions in an attempt to tame New Zealand’s economy. Despite Labour’s sagging poll numbers, she remains voters’ top choice for prime minister, so far beating out Nationals rival Christopher Luxon and Seymour in surveys. The disconnect between the party- and personality-based polling for Labour and Ardern perhaps captures just how much Ardern has endeared herself to Kiwis over the past five-odd years—and adds a touch of suspense to a vote that could cement or cut short the legacy of a leader who is bound for the history books either way. Full List
Allison Meakem is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @allisonmeakem
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