WASHINGTON – In 2012, the world witnessed an unusual number of high-profile elections. Between the U.S. battle royale, Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency and the once-in-a-decade leadership transition in China, it seemed like the entire world was in flux. But don’t be fooled by this year’s quieter tempo: Everything from the European debt crisis, to Iran’s nuclear program, to the stability of Africa will be influenced by voters at the ballot box in 2013. Here’s a look at eight of the most consequential elections coming up.
Date: March 4
Five years after a presidential election ended in tragedy, voters are headed back to replace incumbent president Mwai Kibaki and to fill the newly established Senate and regional governorships. In late 2007, following an ethnically polarized campaign, presidential runner-up Raila Odinga refused to recognize the results, touching off a wave of ethnic violence that left more than 1,100 people dead. This year, ethnic tensions are as high, if not higher, and two of the presidential candidates – Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyetta and Minister of Higher Education William Ruto – have been indicted for their role in the 2007 violence. Odinga, who has been prime minister since 2008, and Kenyetta are currently considered the front-runners.
From an ideological perspective, there isn’t a lot riding on the election – the policy platforms of the leading candidates are all virtually identical – but a peaceful and fair balloting couldn’t be more important. In addition to stunting Kenya’s democratic development, more violence could send the country’s economy into a tailspin, knocking as much as 1.3 percent off of this year’s projected growth, according to the World Bank.
Date: Within two months
Now that Egypt’s contentious constitutional referendum is in the rearview mirror and legislative power has been transferred to the country’s historically ceremonial Shura Council, Egyptians are looking ahead to their second parliamentary election in a little more than a year. (The country’s military rulers dissolved the previous parliament after the Supreme Constitutional Court invalidated the election.) The new polls will pit the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies against a broad spectrum of more secular and leftist parties that campaigned for a no vote in the constitutional referendum.
The smart money is on the Brotherhood, which dominated last year’s parliamentary election and recently secured the presidency, but the coming election also gives the opposition a second bite at the apple. Instead of threatening to boycott, the opposition National Salvation Front plans to participate and is hoping its recent push to vote down the constitution – though unsuccessful – will pay electoral dividends this time around. So far, the opposition has proved remarkably inept at reading public sentiment, however, and could easily find itself trounced at the ballot box by Islamists once again.
Date: June 14
With only six months left in Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s lame-duck presidency, the race to succeed him is starting to heat up. Until recently, many thought Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff and chosen successor Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei was the president’s most likely replacement, but the souring of relations between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei last year seems to have poisoned his candidacy. According to analysts, the Guardian Council, which vets candidates in Iran, would most likely block Mashaei if he decides to put his name forward. Without anyone close to Ahmadinejad, the election will likely feature a bland group of pragmatic and hardline conservatives, such as Khamenei confidant Ali Akbar Velayati, parliamentary speaker Ali Larijani, and Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s nuclear negotiation team. Another Khamenei loyalist being bandied about is Tehran Mayor Mohammad Qalibaf, who ran unsuccessfully in 2009. All would likely advance Khameni’s push to consolidate political power.
Date: Jan. 22
With the polls less than a month away, the Israeli general election is turning out to be more interesting than previously forecast. Although Ehud Olmert’s possible run proved to be a flash in the pan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is all but guaranteed re-election, the emergence in recent weeks of Naftali Bennett as a serious political force on the right has the potential to affect the governing coalition. Bennett, a charismatic tech mogul and former Netanyahu aide, surged to prominence in recent weeks with a series of controversial remarks – including one quip about his unwillingness to evict Jewish settlers, even if ordered to do so by the military. Bennett appears to have benefited from the controversy, and his Bayit Yehudi party is now expected to form the third-largest bloc in parliament after Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance and the centrist Labor party. As a result, Netanyahu is under pressure to include his former protégé in whatever government he forms, although he has reportedly met with representatives of Tzipi Livni’s new Hatnua party to explore the possibility of an alliance. Bennett’s inclusion in the next government would represent a significant blow to the two-state solution, which his party opposes in no uncertain terms.
Date: Feb. 24-25
Italy’s general election, precipitated by the resignation of technocrat Prime Minister Mario Monti, is shaping up to be one of the murkiest contests of 2013. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi has thrown his hat in the ring, but his People of Freedom (PDL) party is polling at an abysmal 13-18 percent and a mere 25 percent when combined with the far-right Northern League, a likely coalition partner. Monti, meanwhile, has offered to lead an alliance into the election. As a senator for life, Monti cannot officially run in the polls, but can serve as prime minister if asked to do so by the winning coalition. His candidacy, if made official in the coming weeks, would throw a wrench into the race between Pier Luigi Bersani’s center-left Democratic party, Berlusconi’s center-right PDL, and the Five Star Movement, led by former comedian Beppe Grillo. Opinion polls suggest that Monti, whose austerity measures and structural reforms arguably steered Italy away from the brink of financial disaster, has little chance of defeating Bersani, the current front-runner. Nonetheless, the caretaker prime minister could conceivably supplant Berlusconi as the leader of Italy’s center-right.
Date: April (expected)
If Pakistan holds national elections this year, it will be the first time the country’s civilian government completed its five-year term and transferred power democratically. The vote, which has not been scheduled, is shaping up to be a showdown between Pakistan’s two largest parties, the center-left Pakistan People’s Party and the center-right Pakistan Muslim League. Earlier this year, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, led by former cricket icon Imran Khan, looked like it could be the kingmaker, but a spate of defections has left the upstart party crippled going into the election.
If the election were held today, analysts say, the PLM-N would have a slight upper hand, meaning that party chairman Nawaz Sharif would likely succeed Raja Pervez Ashraf as Pakistan’s next prime minister. But the race between the PLM-N and the PPP, which has yet to coalesce around a replacement for Ashraf, is still neck and neck. Moreover, it’s possible that the PPP could form the next government even if it fails to win a plurality because the PML-N has in the past found it difficult to play nice with the Islamist parties it will need as coalition allies.
If that happens, the race for prime minister is wide open, with candidates from Makhdoom Amin Fahim to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari being rumored to be in the running. Zardari, the 24-year-old son of President Ali Zardari and former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, is too young to run in the elections if they’re held on schedule. But his recent speech commemorating the fifth anniversary of his mother’s assassination has Pakistanis ruminating about the possibility of a third-generation Bhutto premiership – now or in the future.
Date: Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 27
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union look poised to continue their reign in the Bundestag next fall, but they may need to dump their current coalition partner, the Free Democrats. Recent polling showed the CDU at 41 percent support, the highest since 2006. The FDP, meanwhile, fell to 4 percent, below the 5 percent threshold required for a party to be allocated seats. According to political analysts, the most likely electoral outcome is a grand coalition between Merkel’s CDU and the center-left Social Democrats (SDP), a repeat of the alliance that led Germany from 2005-09 (though a CDU-Greens coalition is not out of the question). Peer Steinbrück, the leader of the SDP, is challenging Merkel, but few think he has a realistic shot at toppling the chancellor, whose handling of the eurozone debt crisis has won her a nearly 70 percent approval rating.
The political future of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner could well be determined in this year’s legislative contest – not because she’s running, but because she needs a two-thirds majority in parliament to amend the constitution so that she can run again in 2015. To strengthen her ruling Victory Front, de Kirchner, who enjoys wide support among young people, in October threw her weight behind a bill that lowered the voting age to 16. But the country as a whole remains sharply divided over de Kirchner, whose heavy spending and liberal use of the printing press have resulted in record inflation even as the economy slows. Whether Queen Cristina’s bid to widen the franchise will be enough to keep her in power after 2015 is anyone’s guess, but you can bet your boots she’ll be out there stumping for her allies.