The numerous elections that took place in 2016 will likely come to be remembered as some of the most consequential in recent history. Many of last year’s elections will leave a lasting mark on the states of their countries, regions, and the world. Countless observers around the world reacted to the Brexit referendum and the United States presidential election with horror, and many will likewise view the coming of 2017 as a welcome riddance of the dreadful 2016. But like 2016, the year that lies ahead of us will bring more than a few elections that have the potential to continue disrupting the global political order. So which elections should you be paying attention to in 2017? Let’s find out.
In 2016, multiple African leaders attempted to extend their stays in power. Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo amended his country’s constitution to allow himself to run for a third time. Ultimately, he won the questionably conducted election. Burundi’s president also sought to amend his country’s constitution, as did Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda. In 2017, this trend is set to continue. While Kagame has already amended Rwanda’s constitution, his real test comes in August of this year when he will stand for reelection. If Kagame wins, as he almost certainly will, the defining trend of 2016 will stretch into 2017.
Another African country that is set to go to the polls is Angola. Despite being conducted under a de facto one-party state with weak democratic institutions, this election is nonetheless important because the current president of Angola, José Eduardo dos Santos, has promised to step down after 38 years in power. Not one to cede control easily, however, dos Santos has handpicked a former defense minister named João Lourenço as his successor as party leader. The question, then, is this: will Lourenço do the bidding of his predecessor, or will he forge a new path forward for Angola?
In 2014, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took the streets after their government introduced electoral reforms that would affect the 2017 election of Chief Executive, the Special Administrative Region’s highest office. The reforms effectively required that any candidate for Chief Executive would have to be approved by the central government in Beijing. Hong Kong’s democratic culture has become increasingly incompatible with the mainland’s one-party rule since the former British Crown Colony reunited with the People’s Republic in 1997. This incompatibility flared once again when 5000 marched in a pro-democracy protest on New Year’s Day. As a result, the election this March, whose procedures caused so much controversy in 2014 and are once again beginning to draw ire, is likely to be very tense.
Iran is also preparing to hold polls for its highest elected office, that of the President. While many in the West view Iran as an ultra-conservative theocratic pariah, most don’t realize that it has a large reformist bloc within its government. In fact, the current president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, is a moderate, and the Iran nuclear deal would never have passed if the government had been controlled by more conservative lawmakers. In 2017, however, Iran’s moderates are under threat. First of all, their promise of immediate economic gains following the removal of Western sanctions failed to live up to the hype. Furthermore, one of Iran’s former presidents and arguably the most influential figure behind the Iranian moderates, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, passed away last week. As a result, Rouhani and the moderates have lost a crucial ally, weakening their prospects for the May 2017 elections and increasing the likelihood of an Iran that is once again isolated from the international political scene.
Of all the elections that will be affected by the trends of 2016, none will be more heavily influenced than those in Europe. The very same forces that gave rose to Brexit and Trump are still on the rise across Europe, and they have been empowering far-right nationalist parties who will be seeking electoral gains in 2017. The Netherlands, France, and Germany are all holding crucial elections, and each could have a significant effect on the fate of not only their own countries, but the European Union as a whole.
In the Netherlands, the anti-immigrant and Eurosceptic Party for Freedom is riding on the momentum of the very same backlash against globalization that helped boost Trump and the Leave campaign. In France, Marine Le Pen’s ultra-nationalist Front National is widely expected to advance to the second round of the presidential election. In Germany, Angela Merkel will struggle to remain in power after her openness to refugees proved wildly unpopular with the German people. At a time when far-right parties are actively advocating for the dissolution of the EU, the outcome of these elections will determine the future of the organization. Like the elections of 2016, they will, in many ways, force voters to choose between two conflicting worldviews: one of internationalism and another of nationalism.
Ultimately, as much as we may want to make 2016 disappear forever, the forces that affected elections last year will continue to do so this year. In Africa, a handful of authoritarian leaders will continue attempting to use flawed elections to gain legitimacy. In Asia, rival factions in Hong Kong and Iran will continue to quarrel. In Europe, national elections will be fought between internationalists and nationalists. As consequential as 2016 was, 2017 will likely be the same. For this reason, we must diligently follow each of these elections. They will come with implications for everyone, not just those who are casting the ballots.