The Most Important Elections of 2017

Following the great electoral surprises of 2016 – Brexit, Donald Trump’s victory – what can we expect from 2017?

Earlier this year, the Dutch election was seen as something of a barometer for the political winds in Europe. There were a few notable trends from that election. One is obvious: the dramatic increase in the vote for the right-wing populist Party for Freedom and its controversial leader, Geert Wilders. But Wilders brand of politics seemed too extreme for Dutch voters, and though his numbers increased over the previous election, the big winner was the mainstream conservative candidate, Mark Rutte, the incumbent Prime Minister.

The left in the Netherlands collapsed during the election, with the Labor Party taking a staggering hit. The party won only nine seats, down 29 from the previous election. Rutte has multiple potential coalition partners. Both the Christian Democratic Appeal and the Christian Union are members of the mainstream right and could work with Rutte, as would the Democrats `66, a centrist, liberal party. The Green Party has also been mentioned as a potential coalition partner.

The election made its mark on the European political landscape. The other elections that will shape the conversation in 2017 merit our attention.

Today, Ecuadorians go to the polls to determine their next president. One of the most interesting political stories of the 2000s decade was the “pink tide” of leftist candidates that swept Latin America. Led initially by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez, the wave swept leaders like Dilma Rousseff and Lula in Brazil, the Kirchners in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa into power.

But, as they often do, the political winds are shifting. Argentina elected a pro-business conservative president in 2015, ending decades of populist rule. Dilma Rousseff was impeached following a corruption and budgetary fraud scandal. Peru rejected populists from the left and right and elected center-right technocrat Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, who so far is proving to be a capable leader in the Americas. Looming over all of this is the deepening crisis in Venezuela. It would be laughably unrealistic to call Venezuela a democracy in 2017. Everyday life for Venezuelas is marked by misery, food shortages, violence, and political repression.

Ecuador’s socialist government has been far more successful economically than its counterpart in Venezuela. Though the economy has slowed in Ecuador in recent years Correa remains relatively popular. But the tide across South America is turning against the left. Lenin Moreno, a likable and compared to Correa soft-spoken figure, still seems to be the favorite (Moreno is the candidate of the ruling PAIS Alliance). But Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and conservative candidate, managed to force a second round to the election, and stands a chance of upsetting Moreno. If Lasso becomes the next president of Ecuador, the pink tide will truly be in massive, long term decline, and the Maduro regime in Venezuela will lose a critical ally at a critical time. It will have reverberations across the continent and the hemisphere at large.

France is holding a presidential election, and right-wing populist Marine Le Pen has a strong chance. Mainstream candidates have faced serious problems. Incumbent President François Hollande declined to run for reelection in the face of single-digit approval ratings. His party’s new candidate seems to be missing in action. Mainstream conservative nominee François Fillon has been hurt by allegations he used his influence to give jobs to family members. And Emmanuel Macron, an insurgent liberal candidate, has made a strong showing but has made some missteps along the way.

A majority of French voters seem to be opposed to Le Pen. But she is highly likely to make it to the second round, where she will either face Macron or Fillon. Both have flaws that Le Pen can exploit. Fillon is seen by many in France as a member of a corrupt, self-enriching political elite, and he has fallen to third place following allegations of corruption. Macron is seen as inexperienced and by many conservative French citizens, far too soft on immigration. A Le Pen victory is unlikely but it is by no means unthinkable. Polling shows her losing, but polling failed to predict Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the last British election, and in France opinion polls dramatically underestimated Fillon’s support during the primary.

The French election will be held on April 23, with the second round occurring on May 7. It is looking likely that the election will be a race between Macron and Le Pen, with Fillon perhaps capable of making a run for it in the first round. Either way, Le Pen’s presence on the French political scene will be a test for the European Union. If Macron or Fillon emerges as the next President of France, the European Union and the European project as a whole will have received a lifeline. If Le Pen wins, Europe will never be the same again, and a French exit from the European Union would be a very real possibility. And the new President would strongly support such a move.

Similarly, the German election, held this September, will be a test for the EU. Angela Merkel has been Chancellor for ten years, and has seen strong economic growth during that time. However, her refugee policy alienated many Germans, and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany has begun to gain ground on Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. Meanwhile, the Social Democrats are hungry for a return to power, and their new leader Martin Schultz is mounting a campaign to return to the majority in the Reichstag building.

Polls show the SPD and the CDU in a dead heat, which would make coalition building a major factor. The CDU’s traditional coalition partners, the libertarian and classical liberal Free Democratic Party, was shut out of parliament the last time Germans went to the polls in 2013, and though its poll numbers are better this year it is conceivable they will fail to meet the threshold. The SPD seems willing to work with the Left, the former East German ruling communist party, though this prospect alarms many moderate German voters. The Alliance `90/Green Party may be a coalition partner for the SPD, or even for the CDU.

Of course, polling is not everything. A recent local election in Saarbrucken handed a massive victory to the CDU in defiance of polling. It is still early, and this story will be developing greatly over the summer.

Sometimes elections are a test as to whether a country remains a democracy. Such a campaign is happening in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to pass a constitutional referendum giving him sweeping new powers. The No campaign has faced intimidation and repression throughout the process, and Erdogan’s government has cracked down on both the Gulenist movement that he blames for a failed military coup d’état attempt last summer as well as Kurdish groups. The largely secular Kurds of Turkey stand in the way of Erdogan’s goal of a nationalist, Islamic Turkey.

If the referendum passes, and especially if it appears to have been rigged, Turkish democracy will have suffered. Turkey can probably forget about joining the European Union any time soon, and Europe would be foolish to admit Turkey anyway. The referendum is highly likely to pass, fairly or not. If it does, large scale protests against it are possible, and Erdogan’s profile in the international community may take a significant hit.

Finally, the South Korean presidential election will have reverberations across Asia. Park Geun-Hye, the conservative president, has been impeached, and new elections have been called. The center-left Democratic Party stands a strong chance of taking the Presidency. What may result is a less aggressive stance toward North Korea, which could deter the Trump administration from taking military action. The candidates for all of the parties have yet to be formally nominated, so it is difficult to say a great deal about the nature of the election.

These votes are occurring in vastly different parts of the world, but each has the potential to affect politics in countries near and far. Watching each play out will be a fascinating political story of 2017.

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