Two thousand and thirteen won’t go down in the history books as a banner year for globally significant elections. True, the election of Hassan Rouhani changed the tone in Tehran and possibly opened the door to a lasting diplomatic solution to the confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program. But the outcome of most of the elections held in 2013—and there were a lot of them—mattered primarily to the people who cast the ballots. In contrast, 2014 is shaping up as a year in which the choices voters make could reverberate well beyond their country’s borders. So for those of you eager to peer ahead, here are ten elections to watch for in 2014.
1. Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday, April 5. There is no shortage of reasons to be concerned about Afghanistan’s presidential election. Despite attempts to reform the electoral system after the 2009 election, the 2014 elections are likely to be plagued by corruption, lack of security, and voter fraud. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally prevented from running for a third term. Who is likely to succeed him is unclear. The Independent Election Commission has disqualified sixteen of twenty-seven nominated candidates, leaving eleven on the approved candidate list. Potential frontrunners include 2009 candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as well as Hamid Karzai’s older brother Qayum. However, the field remains wide open and includes several influential warlords. With international forces scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of next year and Taliban forces still powerful in many parts of the country, the new president faces a difficult future.
2. Iraq’s parliamentary election on Wednesday, April 30. Iraq’s democracy may not be exemplary, but it continues to plug along in the face deep political and sectarian divisions. Incumbent prime minister Nouri al-Maliki has his eyes set on a third term. That is a possibility now that the Iraqi Supreme Court has overturned a law that limited him to two. The bad news for Maliki is that the 2013 provincial elections didn’t go well for his coalition, State of Law. It now controls fewer than half of the provinces with Shiite majorities. Maliki has one thing going for him, however. Rival parties may decide that seeing him continue as prime minister is preferable to opting for a political transition that could increase instability. Sectarian violence is surging in Iraq to levels not seen since 2006-2007 before the U.S. “surge.” The future of Iraqi democracy will likely depend on whether Iraq’s leaders can check the actions of extremists on both sides of the country’s sectarian divide.
3. India’s Lok Sabha, or Lower House, parliamentary election in April or May. Indian elections are remarkable. More than 700 million people will head to more than 800,000 polling stations and use more than 1.3 million voting machines to cast votes for more than 1,300 political parties. (No, not all parties are on every ballot. Most of them are local or regional rather than national in reach.) The 2014 Lok Sabha election could bring the Congress Party’s ten-year hold on power to an end. The political party that the Gandhi family has long dominated faces potentially big losses with voters growing increasingly discontent in the face of slowing economic growth, inadequate infrastructure, and rampant corruption. The politician attracting the most attention is Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, and the leader of India’s main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi is India’s most charismatic politician even though he is dogged by accusations that he did little to stop anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 that killed more than 1,000 people. The BJP routed the Congress Party in assembly elections that were just concluded in five Indian states. Even with this momentum, the BJP and its allies may not win an outright victory in the Lok Sabha election. India hasn’t had a single-party government since 1989. So one possible outcome is an unwieldy coalition government that can’t tackle the challenges that brought it to power.
4. South Africa’s national assembly election, which will likely be held sometime between April and June. South Africa marks the twentieth anniversary of the end of apartheid in 2014, and South Africans will head to the polls for the country’s fifth democratic election. They will elect the National Assembly which will in turn elect the president. The African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since 1994, should remain in power. However, it will almost certainly lose seats. South Africa is plagued by a slow economy, high unemployment, and government corruption. In addition, many young people born after the end of apartheid are less attached to the ANC than older generations. The ANC’s main opposition is the Democratic Alliance, which might try to impeach President Jacob Zuma, and a new party, the Economic Freedom Fighters, which vows to “restore the dignity of the black majority.” That said, look for Zuma and the ANC to remain in power.
5. European Union parliamentary elections from Thursday, May 22 through Sunday, May 25. Europe responded to the Great Recession with a heavy dose of austerity. The results so far are unimpressive. Unemployment is at record levels. Many European economies continue to contract. And public pessimism is growing. So don’t be surprised if May’s parliamentary vote produces a record performance for the populist and nationalist parties that typically operate on the fringes of European politics. That would change the conversation in Strasbourg and Brussels, and potentially scramble the subsequent decisions over who gets which high-level EU posts. But if parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party, True Finns, and Front National do well, the bigger impact may be on national governments as mainstream political parties decide that future electoral success lies in populism and not austerity. After all, politicians naturally gravitate toward issues and policies that are popular with voters.
6. Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday, May 25. The drama surrounding Colombia’s presidential election isn’t about the outcome. President Juan Manuel Santos is favored to win reelection. Rather, the drama involves his feud with his predecessor and former ally Álvaro Uribe Velez. Their relationship began crumbling when Santos abandoned Uribe’s hardline policies and began negotiating with FARC rebels. The move prompted Uribe to found his own political party, the Democratic Center, which has nominated Oscar Ivan Zuluaga for president. Zuluaga probably won’t win, though he might force a run-off election. Meanwhile, Uribe is seeking a seat in the Colombian Senate in the hope that it will position him to block Santos’s policies.
7. Indonesia’s presidential election on Wednesday, July 9. When I was in Indonesia last June, everyone I met told me the same two things about the country’s 2014 presidential election. First, Joko Widodo, the governor of Jakarta and the man many Indonesians call Jakarta’s Obama, will win easily if he enters the race. Second, Widodo will not run if his party’s leader, former president and two-time losing candidate, Megawati Sukarnoputri, throws her hat in the ring. Whoever wins the race to replace outgoing two-term president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will have a full inbox. Growth has slowed, politically popular fuel subsidies are draining the treasury, and corruption remains rife. Indonesia’s April parliamentary election isn’t likely to produce a legislature eager to enact much-needed reforms.
8. Turkey’s presidential election in August. Turkey’s first ever direct election for president has many Turks wondering whether Prime Minister Recep Tayğyip Erdoğan will run. Why would he give up the prime minister’s job for the largely ceremonial role of president? The answer is term limits. The rules of Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) limit him to three terms as prime minister, and he reaches that deadline in June 2015. Erdoğan’s supporters have talked of rewriting Turkey’s constitution to give the presidency greater powers. Nothing has happened yet, in part because Erdoğan’s heavy-handed response to urban protests in 2013 and his domineering ways more generally have alarmed not just his rivals but also many of his supporters. If the AKP does well in Turkey’s local and provincial elections in March, the odds increase that Erdoğan will be a candidate in August.
9. Brazil’s presidential election on Sunday, October 5. Incumbent president Dilma Rousseff looks likely to keep her job. Indeed, the main question in Brasilia these days is whether she can do well enough in the first round to avoid a run-off election. Just a few months ago, things didn’t look so rosy. Dilma’s approval ratings took a tumble last summer when complaints about higher ticket prices for buses and trains exploded into broader protests about inflation, inequality, and poor government services. She has slowly regained popularity, however. Her opponents’ lack of a galvanizing message and their missteps have helped; one of her main challengers, the environmentalist Marina Silva, failed to get her political party registered in time to be on the ballot. She is now running as the vice president on the Socialist Party ticket.
10. U.S. congressional elections on Tuesday, November 4. The American news media are already debating who should be favored in the 2016 president election. Before Americans choose their next president, however, they have to vote in the 2014 congressional midterms. Both Democrats and Republicans have high hopes for November, and they will be positioning themselves throughout 2014 with an eye toward gaining an advantage. The Senate has thirty-five seats up for election, seven of which won’t have an incumbent. There is no shortage of interesting races. Republicans need to pick up only six seats to win a majority, and they could pull it off. Democrats need to pick up eighteen seats in the House to become the majority. That doesn’t sound like a lot. But no president in the past one hundred years has seen his party regain a majority in the House in his second midterm election. And if Obama’s approval ratings continue to sink, he probably won’t break that trend. It won’t help that the turnout out in 2014 is likely to be lower than in 2012, as well as older and whiter. Those demographics favor the GOP.
There is one more vote that I’ll be following closely. On Thursday, September 18, Scotland decides whether to leave the United Kingdom and become an independent nation, something that hasn’t been the case since 1707. Polls show that pro-independence forces face an uphill battle. In a bid to change that dynamic, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond has just published a blueprint for independence describing his vision for an independent Scotland. He will get a boost come June when Scots celebrate the 700th anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn. That was an iconic moment in Scottish history: Scots led by King Robert the Bruce crushed a much larger force led by English King Edward II. (Mel Gibson’s Braveheart is a great movie, but its depiction of Robert the Bruce is mostly rubbish.) The nationalist emotions that the Bannockburn celebrations stir up will probably fade by the time the polls open three months later. Scots will compare the costs of leaving the United Kingdom, which will be substantial, with the many plums the British political parties will offer them to stay in the fold. Expect the plums to win. None of that will stop me from donning my kilt on September 18, wearing a shirt sporting the Lindsay clan motto Endure Forte, waving a Saltire, and hoisting a glass of Lagavulin single malt scotch whisky (not whiskey).