UPDATE: On Jan. 26, after this article went to press, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. peace envoy to Afghanistan, announced that “significant progress” had been made with the Taliban during negotiations in Qatar aimed at ending the 17-year war in Afghanistan.
The draft of a framework agreement reportedly included an understanding regarding the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO from the country, along with a pledge by the Taliban to prevent Afghanistan from being used a staging ground by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
It remains to be seen if the Taliban will agree to a ceasefire for the plan to be implemented or if it will engage in direct talks with the Afghan government, which so far the group has refused to do.
Correction: This article originally stated that 25,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have been killed since late 2014. That figure has been updated to 45,000, based on a recently announcement by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
The world is headed for some major transitions this year, with critical elections taking place in all corners of the globe, from Africa to Asia to Europe.
This month, Nigerians go to the polls in the hopes of electing a leader capable of tackling the sectarian violence and endemic corruption that have plagued Africa’s most populous country for decades. The following month, another potential hotspot, Ukraine, will hold its own closely watched presidential vote amid mounting tensions with rival Russia.
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called snap elections for April, the same month that Indonesian President Joko Widodo will try to fend off hardline conservative challengers seeking to run the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Also in April, Narendra Modi is widely expected to be re-elected prime minister in India, but an uncertain outcome in Afghanistan’s presidential election could further forestall peace negotiations with the Taliban.
And with Brexit looming in March, citizens in the European Union will hold their first election for the European Parliament in May without the U.K. The contest is widely seen as a barometer of populist movements in Europe, and the election of anti-establishment, nationalist parties could create a more dysfunctional decision-making process for an already-battered EU.
Here are the five key elections to watch in 2019:
Nigeria will hold its presidential election on Feb. 16. Incumbent Muhammadu Buhari, 76, is seeking re-election against Atiku Abubakar, 72, a business tycoon who served as vice president from 1999 to 2007.
After riding into office on a wave of optimism, Buhari will have to convince over 80 million voters that he is still up to the task of curbing religious and communal violence, eradicating corruption and improving the country’s sluggish economy — all while debunking persistent rumors about his health. (Buhari had to stand before an audience in December just to prove that he’s still alive and hasn’t been replaced by a body double.)
As John Campbell, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nigeria from 2004 to 2007, told The Diplomat this month, elections in Nigeria have steadily improved in recent years. After gaining independence in 1960, Nigeria endured decades of civil strife and military rule until 1999, when Olusegun Obasanjo became president, although the election that ushered him to power was widely seen as rigged.
Umaru Musa Yar’Adua won the presidency in 2007 but died in 2010, leaving his vice president, Goodluck Jonathan, in charge. Jonathan was re-elected in 2010 but lost to Buhari in the 2015 elections, which marked the first time an incumbent president handed over power to an opposition candidate.
“The hope is that the 2019 elections will build on 2015,” Campbell said, “but that remains to be seen.”
Despite the peaceful transfer of power, the country is still wracked by turmoil. Boko Haram continues to wage a brutal campaign that has killed tens of thousands in its quest to establish an self-declared Islamic caliphate. Clashes between nomadic herders and farmers over land have also left thousands dead. Armed banditry is common, and Biafra separatists in the south still agitate for independence.
Above all, tensions are widespread in a country split roughly between a Muslim-dominated north and Christian-dominated south —a legacy of British colonial rule that forced together hundreds of different ethnic groups.
Compounding the inertia is a political system run by elites and driven by personalities and patronage over issues.
However, a number of young Nigerians are running to change how elections work in the country. Chike Ukaegbu, a 35-year-old New York-based tech entrepreneur; Adamu Garba, the 36-year-old CEO of an IT company; and Eunice Atuejide, a 40-year-old lawyer, are all running for president, according to an Oct. 25 report by Segun Akande for CNN.
It remains to be seen, however, if the February vote will run smoothly. In 2011, over 800 people were killed when violence broke out after Jonathan, a Christian southerner, beat Buhari, a northern Muslim, to win the presidency.
This time around, both Buhari and his main opponent, Abubakar, are Muslims. But the potential for violence remains high in this deeply divided nation of nearly 200 million people, especially if the outcome is inconclusive. The election in 2015, for instance, was marred by violence when Boko Haram fighters killed at least 39 people and threatened voters to abandon their polling stations.
Ukrainians will head to the polls on March 31 for another presidential election. As it did during the 2014 election, Russia already seems to be gearing up to influence the result.
In November, Russia’s navy seized three Ukrainian vessels and their 24 crew members following clashes in the Kerch Strait. Both sides blamed the other for the incident. Moscow accused the Ukrainian vessels of crossing into Russian territorial waters and escalating tensions to get additional sanctions slapped on Moscow. Kiev counters that Russia attacked and illegally seized its boats to provoke a military confrontation that Ukraine would likely lose.
Russia also blocked access to the Kerch Strait, a vital waterway that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Moscow recently built a land bridge over the strait to link the Russian mainland with Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Some have speculated that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ultimate aim is to consolidate control of Crimea and cut Ukraine off from the strategic shipping chokepoint to further weaken its economy.
In response to the maritime standoff, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko imposed martial law for 30 days. Observers wondered if the declaration was a cynical ploy by Poroshenko, who has been trailing in the polls, to rally voter support ahead of the March election, although the decree has since been lifted.
Poroshenko still lags in the polls behind frontrunner and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who visited Washington in December to meet with a number of American policymakers and think tank experts.
Poroshenko initially came to power in 2014 after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by protesters calling for closer ties to the EU. In response, Russia fomented a civil war by supporting Ukrainian separatists in the east, throwing the country into turmoil that continues to this day.
Five years later, the battle between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels has largely faded from the headlines, but the war is far from over. Fighting in the eastern Donbass region has claimed over 10,000 lives, including 3,000 civilians, and displaced an estimated 1.5 million people. Sporadic clashes continue and with no resolution in sight, the region’s latest “frozen conflict” could heat up at any moment.
In addition to the stalemate in the east, Poroshenko is struggling to deliver on promises to reform the country’s entrenched system of corruption and fix an ailing economy dominated by oligarchs and battered by war.
A Reuters poll in January found that a new $3.9 billion loan package from the IMF and other international lenders will help keep Ukraine’s economy stable during the uncertain election period. At the same time, the Reuters report said that any political upheaval could further weaken the country’s economy.
Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu populist prime minister, will face his first electoral test since taking office in 2014. More than 875 million Indians will go to the polls between April and May, with the process of electing national and local representatives completed by May 15.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is expected to win, despite losing three recent state elections to its rival party, the Indian National Congress. But Modi could face an unexpected challenge now that Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the popular daughter of India’s Gandhi family dynasty, took a key position in the Indian National Congress.
“She is a sharp and charismatic orator, bearing a distinct resemblance to her paternal grandmother, Indira Gandhi — India’s only female prime minister,” wrote Niha Masih and Joanna Slater in a Jan. 23 article for The Washington Post.
Gandhi Vadra’s entry into the race could be a game-changer for the demoralized Indian National Congress, the country’s oldest political party. She is considered a natural orator and a skilled politician who has not shied away from confronting Modi.
The prime minister, however, remains popular with his Hindu base. At the same time, Modi’s heated rhetoric has been blamed for stoking Hindu nationalism, which has led to mob attacks on India’s Muslim minority. Despite the criticism, Modi is likely to continue pandering to his Hindu base heading into the May elections.
“Identity politics still works in India, as it does in many other parts of the world, including the West,” Aparna Pande, director of the Hudson Institute’s Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, told The Diplomat. “So populist and religious rhetoric, but also caste- and ethnicity-based rhetoric, will continue to be used to energize and attract voters.”
Beyond appealing to hardline Hindus, Modi also won a landslide victory in 2014 on pledges to reform India’s economy. On that note, his track record is mixed. Modi presided over impressive economic growth, including a high of 7.9 percent in 2015. He instituted a nationwide sales tax to replace a byzantine system of local taxes; created a more business-friendly environment; attracted record foreign investment; overhauled archaic bankruptcy laws; invested in infrastructure; and jumpstarted high-profile projects like Clean India.
At the same time, he has shied away from unpopular reforms such as revamping the country’s rigid labor laws and curbing costly farm subsidies. He has failed to deliver on the ambitious job growth he promised in 2014. And his electoral promises to boost spending on health care and the rural poor threaten to strain the country’s precarious finances.
In 2016, Modi introduced an overnight ban on high-value bank notes (which constituted nearly 90 percent of the cash in circulation) to curb the country’s illicit black economy, but the move led to widespread chaos and pain for ordinary Indians and small businesses.
Despite the setbacks, Pande says Modi could enact stronger economic reforms depending on the mandate voters give his party. She pointed out that India is governed by a parliamentary system, meaning that Modi’s party will have to build political alliances to push through its economic agenda.
“There is an understanding within the Indian political establishment that economic reforms are important. However, there is still a tendency to choose the path of populism and limited marginal reforms over critical deep-seated reforms,” she told us via email. “Whether or not Modi’s government will bring about economic reforms if they win elections in 2019 will depend on electoral math (how many seats BJP wins versus its allies) and BJP’s own perception of its popularity. The more dependent the BJP is on allies and the more it senses that it needs economic reforms to remain popular, the more likely economic reforms will be.”
Although Modi’s popularity has declined from a high of about 65 percent approval in 2017 to just below 50 percent in 2018, he remains India’s most popular politician, according to a Dec. 13 Bloomberg article.
Pande agrees, saying that BJP “remains the party to beat.”
In 2014, she said, Modi and the BJP “won because there was a wave in their favor. In my opinion, 2019 will not be a wave election. It will be a normal election where people will vote based on their priorities — local, regional, caste, ethnicity, economic issues, etc.”
Afghanistan’s next presidential election, originally set for April 20, was postponed to July 20 so that technical problems that occurred in the October 2018 parliamentary elections can be fixed.
As Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, previously told The Diplomat, October’s election was positive in that “a lot of Afghans came out to vote.”
Administratively, however, Neumann called the elections “chaotic.” Final results have yet to even be announced.
The presidential election is expected to be even more consequential. President Ashraf Ghani is seeking a second five-year term at a critical juncture for the war-torn nation. Several former officials have also thrown their hat into the ring, most notably Mohammad Hanif Atmar, a longtime respected figure in Afghan politics who served Ghani’s influential national security advisor until his resignation last August. Other candidates include Rahmatullah Nabil, a one-time intelligence chief, and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
In December, President Trump announced that he was pulling 7,000 U.S. troops from the country, roughly half the number in Afghanistan, signaling his desire to end America’s longest war. The announcement surprised both American and Afghan officials, especially because it came just as reconciliation talks with the Taliban appeared to be inching forward.
Days before the announcement, America’s envoy for those talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had concluded talks with the Taliban, vowing that the U.S. remained committed to supporting the Afghan government.
Trump’s critics say that by declaring an imminent U.S. troop withdrawal, the president deprived Khalilzad of a key bargaining chip to extract concessions from the Taliban, which has long insisted on a timeline for foreign troops to leave the country as a precondition to peace.
The Taliban has also strengthened its hand on the battlefield. Despite a barrage of U.S. airstrikes, the war exacted a higher death toll in 2018 than at any time since the Talban were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion 17 years ago. According to the U.N., more civilians were killed in the first half of 2018 than at any other point over the last decade. In addition, 25,000 Afghan soldiers and police are estimated to have been killed since late 2014. Taliban fighters now effectively control perhaps half the country.
As a result, some fear that the Afghan government is on the brink of collapse yet again, with a divisive presidential election setting the stage for violence and the potential for an inconclusive outcome.
In a recent column for the Asia-based Diplomat magazine, Gul Maqsood Sabit, former Afghan deputy minister of finance, argued that the presidential election should be delayed again and an interim government put in place to complete peace negotiations with the Taliban before the next election.
“In 2014, the presidential elections worsened the situation when two major contestants, current President Ashraf Ghani and current Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, did not accept the election results. Then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry intervened and the national unity government that included both men was formed, creating the post of CEO to accommodate Abdullah in addition to the president’s office that went to Ghani. This carelessly arranged, deal-based government triggered the resurfacing of unmanageable conditions, putting Afghanistan on the brink of current failure,” Sabit wrote.
“Holding presidential elections, now scheduled for July 2019, will mean the continuation of the above and probably further deterioration of the security, economic, and political situation, leading to the catastrophic collapse of the Afghan government and state,” he added, noting that a peace settlement would “pave the way for transparent elections and stable future Afghan state.”
From May 23 to 26, voters in each of the 27 EU member nations will vote for parties that will send members to the European Parliament (EP), the bloc’s only directly elected institution, which governs spending plans and various EU laws and regulations. Voter turnout in past EP elections has been lackluster. But this will be the first EU election without the U.K. as a member, and it is widely seen as a bellwether for the populist tide that has swept the continent.
In recent years, anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties have amassed significant political powers, fueled in part by a backlash to the 2015 refugee crisis. In 2017, Austria’s far-right Freedom Party won enough seats to become a junior partner in a coalition government with 32-year-old Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. In traditionally liberal Sweden, a far-right, anti-immigrant party called the Sweden Democrats became the country’s third-largest political party after September elections.
Last year, Italy’s right-wing League party surged in national elections, becoming a member of the ruling coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. In June, League leader Matteo Salvini shut the country’s borders and ports to refugees.
Meanwhile, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to ride a wave of popularity for his policy of zero tolerance for accepting Muslim migrants. And Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) continues to defy the EU’s entreaties to reverse laws that the bloc says are eroding judicial and media freedoms.
Long relegated to the fringes of the EU bureaucracy, these anti-establishment parties may win enough seats to derail — or at least delay — legislation in the EU Parliament. However, while far-right populist parties have been gaining ground across Europe, experts do not expect these euroskeptic parties to gain an outright majority in the EP.
“Euroskeptical parties, both on the far left and the far right, are likely to gain in terms of number of seats in European Parliament. Whether they internally can create a unified bloc remains much more questionable,” Erik Brattberg, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The Diplomat.
“I think there’s still a lot of internal disagreements between these various populist groups representing these 27 European countries. So the likelihood that they can get together and form a cohesive bloc is still quite uncertain,” Brattberg said.
Salvini, who serves as Italy’s interior minister and a deputy prime minister, is spearheading an effort to form such a bloc. He met in January with Poland’s ruling party chief, Jarosław Kaczyński, to woo the PiS leader into a nascent anti-EU group to counter what Salvini calls “the Franco-German axis with the Italo-Polish axis.”
For years, the EP has been dominated by a grand coalition between the center-right European People’s Party and the center-left Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. While the two mainstream parties could retain large numbers of seats, they are likely to lose some ground to an influx of new outsider parties, whether anti-EU or not. La République En Marche!, the independent party founded by French President Emmanuel Macron, could be “an influential new player,” according to Stefan Lehne and Heather Grabbe, writing for Carnegie Europe. Macron has said that the EP election is a vote for or against Europe.
But Brattberg stressed that because these elections happen simultaneously in 27 countries, they are treated by many voters as a referendum on each country’s national issues rather than as a referendum on the European project itself. Indeed, despite the rise of anti-EU parties, a survey conducted in September by the European Parliament found that 62 percent of the European public believe their country’s EU membership is a good thing and a record 68 percent say their country has benefited from EU membership.
“Having euroskeptical governments doesn’t necessarily mean that the population, the citizens, will turn against the EU,” Brattberg said.
However, having more anti-EU populists in the EP will give them greater influence over the bloc’s decision-making, resulting in unwieldy coalitions and possible paralysis. Brattberg predicts that the “EU is in for some tough times in the coming years.”
“The possibility of having a European Parliament that is more obstructionist and dysfunctional means that probably the key decisions in Europe will be made at a national level or between the leaders of the national governments rather than within Brussels.”
About the Author
Ryan R. Migeed (@RyanMigeed) is a freelance writer based in Boston.