It’s not just Australia: 2019 is going to be a big year for elections worldwide, with four of the seven biggest democracies going to the polls. After a mixed year for democracy in 2018, this could be a critical time for the world to get its act together and resist the rise of the authoritarian right.
So here’s my list of the top 10 elections to watch this year.
Nigeria (16 February)
It’s a particularly big electoral year in Africa, with voting in Senegal, Algeria, South Africa and many others. But Nigeria is the big one; President Muhammadu Buhari is seeking re-election, having defeated incumbent Goodluck Jonathan four years ago. Nigeria is still plagued by a fundamentalist insurgency and other problems, but the unexpected strength of its democracy has set a positive example for West Africa.
Israel (9 April)
Israel is only a small country, but as the centre of a zone of apparently unending conflict its politics exert disproportionate influence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in office since 2009, has
taken the country to the right, scuttling peace efforts and offering comfort to authoritarian leaders in Europe and elsewhere. But none of his main rivals seem to be offering a significant change of direction, and although there may again be a long process of coalition building, it’s unlikely that the result will look very different.
Indonesia (17 April)
Australia’s near neighbor is having a rerun of the 2014 presidential election, when Joko Widodo (known as “Jokowi”) beat General Subianto by a relatively narrow margin. Subianto is the candidate of the authoritarian old guard, so a win for him would be bad news for the future of democracy in the region. But although Widodo’s performance in office is seen as fairly lacklustre, at this stage he is well ahead in the opinion polls.
India holds the world’s biggest election, staggered over several weeks; Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has taken his centre-right BJP further to the right, is seeking a second term. Polls suggest that the BJP is likely to remain the largest party, but it could lose its parliamentary majority, forcing Modi to compromise with smaller parties in order to stay in office — which would probably not be a bad think in terms of curbing his authoritarian tendencies.
An early election is still possible, but mid-May seems the most likely date for Australia’s federal election. It looks like being a major defeat for the hard right, which, having asserted control of the
Coalition last year with the knifing of Malcolm Turnbull, finds that its platform is increasingly out of step with Australian voters. Unless something unexpected turns up, Labor’s Bill Shorten seems set for victory, although whether he will actually change much in government remains to be seen.
European Union (23-26 May)
The last elections for the European Parliament, in 2014, set alarm bells ringing, with far-right parties topping the poll in both Britain and France. With elections held across 27 or 28 different countries (Britain may or may not be still in), the result will again be a mixed bag, but it seems that in most places the pendulum has swung back against euroscepticism. Belgium will hold its national election on the same day, and a number of other northern European countries will vote in the first half of the year, including Denmark, Estonia and Finland.
Canada (21 October)
Liberal prime minister Justin Trudeau is seeking a second term, but his government has been steadily losing popularity over the last two years and could be in trouble. The opposition Conservatives are nowhere near winning a majority of the vote, but that need not stop them winning government — Trudeau may pay the price for having reneged on his promise of electoral reform.
Argentina (27 October)
The biggest setback for liberal democracy in 2018 was the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil. Neighboring Argentina sees President Mauricio Macri, a more mainstream centre-right figure, seeking a second term; his election in 2015 was a major milestone in Latin America’s swing to the right. Early indications are that he faces a close race. Elections in Bolivia and Uruguay will also test the political climate of the region.
The forces of democracy in Europe have the chance for a counter-attack in Poland, whose hard-right government has been losing ground in the polls and may have difficulty retaining its majority. The recent assassination of the opposition mayor of Gdansk seems likely to work against the government.
Probably not on most people’s watch lists, but as the most populous country in central Asia, Uzbekistan has long been a bulwark of authoritarianism in the region. That started to change in 2016 with the death of long-serving President Islam Karimov; his successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, has engaged in significant liberalisation. A big test will be whether he allows genuine opposition in scheduled parliamentary elections. If he does, it could be a sign of big things.