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Thirteen Elections to Watch in 2021

2021 boasts its share of important elections. From rising tensions in Ethiopia to hope for political stability in Peru-- which churned through three different presidents in one week last year-- to the end of an era in Germany, some elections will be free, transparent and fair. Others will not. Here is a look at some key contests.

Albania April 25

Albanian voters face a choice between the ruling Socialist Party (PS) and an opposition coalition comprised of the Democratic Party and the Socialist Movement for Integration Party. PS is seeking a third term after eight years in power marked by sharp political polarization and dysfunction. These elections are important not only for the country’s political stability, but also as an indicator of whether Albania can manage to hold free and fair elections after decades of a mixed record in this area. The international community is watching the electoral environment closely as evidence of sporadic and isolated incidents are already being reported.

Ethiopia June 5

In Ethiopia, voters are scheduled to go to the polls for national parliamentary and regional elections in June. In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali merged the ruling government coalition into a single political party, with multi-regional representation, though excluding the previously dominant party in the previous coalition, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Following delays to the original election schedule due to COVID, Tigray, a northern region comprised of an estimated 6 percent of Ethiopia’s population, defied the federal government’s elections postponement and held local elections in September 2020. In November, the Abiy administration claimed that the TPLF had attacked a military base and ordered a military response. Fighting continues, with significant humanitarian repercussions with April figures from UNOCHA (the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) indicating more than two million in need of aid in the region, and evolving numbers of those displaced and killed.

Abiy won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 "for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his decisive initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring (sic) Eritrea,” according to the Nobel committee’s statement. Ethiopian voters face rising insecurity due to ethnic tensions across the country, a weak media and an increase in disinformation, opposition parties failing to field candidates and boycotting elections, and low turnout for ongoing voter registration. Despite these considerable challenges, there is still an opportunity for the elections to be a step forward and to potentially serve as the foundation for more credible processes in the future.

Peru June 6

In Peru, the presidential election is headed for a runoff after first-round voting in early April. Pedro Castillo, a left-wing former union activist and teacher, is in the lead. But the election is mostly about voters’ frustration with the country’s political system. In the April general election, Peruvians cast their ballots for a new president, 130 members of Congress, and five representatives to the Andean Congress, but voters seem fed up with the country’s entire political class. One challenge is electing a president who can stop years of political churn and instability by having, at least, a working legislative majority. The country has had four different presidents over the past two years. There is no shortage of presidential candidates—18 people competed for the presidential ticket— and whoever wins faces a daunting set of issues. COVID-19 has run rampant in Peru. According to Johns Hopkins, the mortality rate is among the highest in the world. The economy has been devasted— Peru's gross domestic product fell a whopping 30.2 percent in the second quarter of 2020, the biggest decline of all major global economies. Years of instability and corruption have left many voters unhappy with all options, and in-fighting and arrests of ousted leaders underscore Peru’s turmoil as a sign of a broader global trend of democratic decay.

Mongolia June 9

Mongolia’s presidential election takes place after a one-month campaign period starting May 2. The election is particularly consequential, as the Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) holds a supermajority in the parliament and aims to consolidate power through its probable candidate, Ukhnaagiin Khurelsukh, a popular former Prime Minister. Meanwhile, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party (DP), is in disarray and fracturing in the wake of last year’s losses in the parliamentary and local elections. The DP’s most prominent and popular politician is current President Khaltmaagiin Battulga, but the Constitutional Court recently declared him ineligible to run for a second term. Following the court’s announcement in April 2021, Battulga issued a directive to disband the MPP “to safeguard the sovereignty and democracy of the country.” Although the directive has no legal basis, Battulga is a popular president and the only politician from the DP with nationwide support that rivals former PM Khurelsukh. Due to Battulga’s disqualification, analysts expect protests and unrest in the lead up to the election which sees Khurelsukh as a frontrunner whose win would further solidify the MPP’s hold on power. But much can change between now and the election, so watch this space.

Iran June 18

Iranians go to the polls for a key presidential election. Iran’s current president, Hassan Rouhani, is term limited from running again, so the field is open, except that the ultimate power in the country is in the hands of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iranians are coping with a slowing economy, rampant inflation and the stalled nuclear accord that the country signed in 2015, though talks on the treaty are beginning again with the change in the White House. Iran also has one of the highest COVID rates in the Middle East. Iranian political hardliners did well in last February’s parliamentary elections, which came just after a crackdown on country-wide protests over the economy and government. Low voter turnout and the fact that many reform candidates were disqualified from running helped put hardliners in power. If this signals a move toward a more conservative government in June, that makes life harder for those in the Biden administration who are pushing for a return to the nuclear agreement. Also, in an unstable neighborhood, these elections could play a vital role in determining the level of unrest in the region in the coming years.

Zambia August 12

As Zambians head to the polls in a general election this August, tensions between President Edgar Lungu and his main opponent, UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema (HH), could signal further backsliding toward entrenched authoritarianism. While Zambia’s economy is suffering, and the increasing malign influence from China in almost all facets of Zambian society is concerning, it is the history between Lungu and HH that worries democracy advocates. The 2016 elections were highly contested and marred with election-related violence, restrictions on media perceived to be aligned with the opposition, misuse of public resources by the ruling party, and use of the Public Order Act to restrict opposition rallies. Lungu was narrowly reelected for a second term and won, with just over 50 percent of the vote, defeating HH. HH questioned the count due to electoral discrepancies. In 2017, the government charged HH with treason after his motorcade failed to give way for Lungu’s motorcade, resulting in a four month prison stint before the charge was dropped and he was released. While Lungu and the ruling Patriotic Front have talked about ensuring elections are peaceful this year, it remains to be seen whether they will abide by their own words, and it is also not clear that elections will be administered fairly. This will be essential for Zambia, as the country looks to turn its economy around, work to get out from under its huge debt to China, and address a myriad of socioeconomic challenges that have been compounded by COVID-19.

Russia September 19

Russians vote in parliamentary elections in September. Despite a weak economy, President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia is expected to win a firm majority. What’s more interesting is whether these elections will trigger protests against Putin, either for jailing his political opposition, including Alexei Navalny, or if voters think the process was rigged, a la Belarus. Putin’s grip on political power in Russia remains fairly absolute, but opposition to his leadership has been rising after years of economic stagnation.

Germany September 26

Germany—and Europe, as well—faces the end of an era as it votes on September 26 for the first government in 16 years that won’t be led by Angela Merkel, who is retiring. A Germany without Merkel could create a power vacuum in European politics. Her party, the center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union, is leading in the polls, despite that fact that Merkel’s chosen successor lost an intra-party fight and resigned last year. The Green Party could emerge as Germany’s second main party, while the far-right party Alternative for Germany, which did well in 2017, has fallen sharply recently. Whoever succeeds Merkel will have a tough act to follow, not just in Germany but also in Europe and the world.

Iraq October 10

Iraqis vote in parliamentary elections currently scheduled for October, setting off a government formation process likely to extend to 2022. Though Iraq has been one of the most volatile countries in the world for the past few decades, it has successfully held competitive national elections regularly since 2005. This set of elections comes after protests over widespread government corruption that peaked in late 2019 and early 2020, before slowing because of public health measures around COVID-19. Voters in these elections will use a new single non-transferable voter system, allowing Iraqis for the first time to choose individual representatives, instead of party lists, and to vote for a representative within a geographic constituency. Sectarian divisions will be a factor in the election, and forming a stable government will again be a challenge. The U.S. has long considered Iraq to be a strategic country in the Persian Gulf region, but its instability, Iran’s role in the country, and the plight of the Iraqi people since the American-led invasion remain long-term issues.

Kosovo October TBD

In the wake of Kosovo’s national parliamentary elections held this past February, in which the established parties ceded a large share of the vote, Kosovars will again head to the polls in October to cast votes for local elections. The election might prove to be a referendum on the performance of the new Self-Determination Movement-led government.

Nicaragua November 7

Nicaraguans vote in a general election in November. The 75-year-old Daniel Ortega is running for a fifth term as president, three years after he brutally put down anti-government protests. Ortega is continuing to crack-down on his political opponents and free speech, even though his Sandinista National Liberation Front already controls the legislature, judiciary, and much of the media in Nicaragua. Ortega is not leaving anything to chance, or to democracy. The National Assembly recently passed a law allowing Ortega to ban opposition candidates from running. The National Assembly also passed a law which requires individuals and groups that receive funding and support from foreign entities to register as “foreign agents” and similarly bars them from running for public office. In a step that democratic actors denounced as Ortega’s shameless effort to silence the opposition, the National Assembly also adopted a cybercrime law that severely punishes anyone found guilty of publishing or disseminating what the government deems as false or disruptive information. So, any election that takes place won’t be free and fair, unless the government allows opposition candidates to run, agrees to significant electoral reforms and allows international observers – all actions that seem unlikely at this time. This all comes against a sputtering economy and allegations that the government has covered up the extent and impact of COVID-19.

The Gambia December 4

In 2016, The Gambia became a “democratic example” in sub-Saharan Africa after voters peacefully ushered out 22 years of dictatorship through the ballot box. Activists all over the continent have since looked to The Gambia as a model for what is possible when the power of citizens is harnessed for democratic change. Since the 2016 vote, respect for democratic freedoms has improved significantly, opening the space for political parties to compete, for citizens to participate in government, and for civil society to hold the government accountable without fear of retribution. But concerns have emerged in the leadup to the presidential vote about the government and political party leaders’ commitment to continuing the country’s democratic trajectory. President Adama Barrow did not respect an agreement to step down after three years. The president later formed a new political party, the National People’s Party, to rally support against the leading United Democratic Party and build a campaign for a second term. In addition, the draft constitution was rejected by the National Assembly in September 2020, eliminating the possibility of much needed electoral reforms before the 2021 vote. The next presidential election, in December, will test this progress, revealing if political elites, the electoral commission, security forces, and civil society are in fact committed to putting the interests of citizens first and solidifying The Gambia’s place among the continent’s best democratic performers.

Hong Kong December 19

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections were originally slated for early September 2020, before being postponed, ostensibly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Amid large-scale pro-democracy protests that brought millions to the street, a victory for the pro-democracy camp—which clearly won the 2019 district council elections—was a real possibility. This March, the elections were postponed once more to December 2021, as part of a package of electoral law amendments to ensure that elected positions in the territory are held by pro-Beijing “patriots” only. Directly elected seats in the LegCo were reduced from 45 to 20 out of 90, and extensive government vetting is required before any candidate can run. In addition, pro-democracy local advocates’ ability to influence the selection of Hong Kong’s leader, the Chief Executive, was basically eliminated. Currently, there are no pro-democracy legislators in LegCo, giving the Council the ability to rubber-stamp further degradations of Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the upcoming election, rigged against any candidate Beijing does not support, is unlikely to improve the situation. This election will be less significant for its result—which is preordained—than for how willing the world is to openly condemn this showcase of Hong Kong’s democratic decline.

All these elections come against a backdrop of profound social and economic change. The pandemic may be easing in the world’s richest countries, but the economic impacts for the world’s poorest are still shaking out. The pandemic has driven protestors off the streets, but the issues that brought them out have not been addressed. Technology is shaping the way people communicate and vote, as well as how governments monitor their citizens. All of the elections listed above—only a fraction of those held in 2021—underscore the challenges facing democracy advocates and institutions in the years to come.