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5 most important elections of 2018

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (L) holds a dental borer as he jokes with Governor of Belgorod region Yevgeny Savchenko at a dental room of a local hospital in the village of Golovchino in Belgorod region November 15, 2011. REUTERS/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Pool

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Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos (R) talks to the media, next to Carlos Castaneda acting as Colombia's fictional coffee icon Juan Valdez, during the World Coffee Producers Forum, in Medellin, Colombia July 11, 2017. REUTERS/Federico Rios

As incumbents leave their posts more disliked than ever—and previous controversial but popular ones fight against corruption convictions—these five elections of 2018 will test the limits of forgiveness and the appetite for retribution.

As incumbents leave their posts more disliked than ever—and previous controversial but popular ones fight against corruption convictions—these five elections of 2018 will test the limits of forgiveness and the appetite for retribution in Russia, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, and Brazil.

Brazil (October)

Despite his indirect involvement in what many have called the ‘largest corruption scandal in human history,’ the increasingly controversial but once universally renowned former president Lula still leads in the polls for Brazil’s October 2018 elections—should he win his appeal against a 9.5-year prison sentence.

As in Pakistan, the great political unknown in Brazil is whether former leader Lula da Silva will be allowed to run in next October’s presidential elections.

Convicted in July 2017 and slapped with a 9.5-year sentence for what supporters claim are politically motivated charges for his roll in the USD5 billion “Operation Car Wash” corruption scandal, his case is now awaiting appeal in a higher court.

President from 2003-2010 and chief political mentor to his handpicked successor Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016), the former union leader and most dominant politician of the Brazilian 20th century is still nearly 20 points ahead of his nearest competitor heading into a crucial election year.

Trailing him by nearly 20 points with 17% of respondents is far-right former army captain and congressman Jair Bolsonaro.

Best known for his sexist and homophobic tirades, the self-styled “Donald Trump of Brazil” is hazy on economic policy but hard on “pro-family” and “law-and-order” issues. Baptized in the River Jordan last year, he also appeals to the country’s growing evangelical base.

In third with 14% of voting intention is two-time presidential contender Marina Silva and former Minister of the Environment under Lula (2003-8).

A former maid who grew up hunting and tapping rubber in the Amazon (and was illiterate until the age of 16), the former senator received 19.33% of the presidential vote in 2010 and 21.32% in 2014, first on the Green party ticket and second on that of the Socialists.

The first the first Afro-Brazilian to seriously contend for the presidency in the nation’s history, this also devout Evangelical and experienced politician enjoys a large crossover appeal and stands to gain the most should her former mentor Lula’s conviction stand.

Russia (March)

As Russians go to the polls in March, Vladimir Putin seems destined to reap the benefits of his dangerously successful overseas adventures since last standing for office in 2012.

Vladimir Putin leads in the polls by a large margin, followed by “I don’t know who I would vote for,” “I would not vote,” and “I do not know whether or not I would vote.”

In fifth place is the Liberal Democratic Party’s Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a firebrand nationalist army colonel who once promised men free vodka and women better underwear if they elected him prime minister.

Second to Zhirinovsky in the polls is Gennady Zyuganov, the 73-year old leader of the Communist Party, second largest in the Russian duma with 42 seats (to the ruling United Russia’s 340). Though he retracted his own candidacy within 24 hours of making it in November, a (presumably much younger) Communist Party replacement has yet to be announced.

The real challenger, as many know, is Alexei Navalny, the lawyer, anti-corruption blogger, and activist shareholder in various Russian energy companies that has been a thorn in Putin’s side since 2009.

Placing second in the 2013 Moscow mayoral race to the Putin-affiliated incumbent, he organized the largest protests the country had seen in half a decade in June 2017, six months after launching his presidential bid in December 2016.

Though Navalny has opened nearly 80 campaign offices everywhere from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, in October he was arrested and charged with embezzlement.

Thus Putin seems all but set to win his fourth presidential election since taking over from Yeltsin on New Year’s Eve 1999, and the stream of state-sanctioned candidates in opposition more likely to divide and distract than unite and conquer.

Colombia (May)

Despite ending the country’s 50-year civil war with a controversial peace deal, the jury is still out on whether a pro or contra candidate will best capture the country’s mood. With most major parties discredited, a perfect storm is brewing for an unconventional candidate to seize the mantle of this awkward but thankfully peaceful transitional period.

Juan Manuel Santos is leaving office with remarkably low approval ratings and no named successor.

Much of this has to do with the moral logistics of ending a half-century long conflict; whatever the agreement, a great many people will feel their pain has gone unpunished.

Thus the irony of seeing FARC leader Rodrigo “Timochenko” Londoño run for the presidency on the rebranded Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) ticket is only met by Santos’ vice president Germán Vargas Llera’s hard veer to the right in an effort to pick up Uribista anti-peace deal voters.

The leading candidate in the polls so far is the center-left former mayor of Colombia’s second city, Medellí­n, and former governor of the hugely important province of Antioquia (2012-16), Sergio Fajardo.

With a PhD in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the much-loved fop-coiffed Fajardo is running as the ‘Colombian Macron’—a handsome, independent, and charismatic technocrat with no strong political party affiliation.

The latest polls had Fajardo leading some eight contenders with 18.7% of voting intention.

But Vargas Llera, a veteran Colombian politician, is now doing his best to distance himself from the peace deal and poach as many Uribista votes as possible.

Though Fajardo seems the favorite at this juncture, it is Vargas Llera’s election to lose; for all its experimentation with colorful mayors and even governorships, the presidency seems always to cave under the weight of Colombia’s more trenchant conservatism, caudilloism, and clientelism.

Mexico (June)

As Mexico’s incumbent leaves office with historically low approval rates and other prominent politicians abandon their parties for independent runs, the field is open for perennial leftwing populist Obrador to ride a wave of populist anti-American rage right into Los Pinos.

Mexico’s restriction of presidential tenures to a single six-year term means the field is yet again wide open for the presidential elections of June 2018.

As the ruling PRI’s Enrique Peña Nieto prepares to step down with less than a 30% approval rating, the endorsement of the golden baby-faced incumbent will count for less than the ruling party may care to admit.

The PRI’s replacement candidate, José Antonio Meade, an economist with a PhD from Yale, has clocked an impressive 23.2% of votes—within eyeshot of the frontrunner, the leftwing “Mexican Messiah” Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at 28.7%.

The 64-year-old former Mexico City mayor has as good a chance as any to win. Called the ‘tongue-in-milk’ strategy by American political scientists that frequent Mexican restaurants, Meade’s candidacy is the PRI’s cold and pasteurized answer to the hot populist chilli of Obrador’s presidential bid.

The party is banking on Mexicans too weary of stirring the pot with their northern neighbor casting their lots with Meade, the unknown ‘safe bet’ who quickly became the FT and Economist favorite.

Long-time political rivals, PAN and PRD have joined together in an attempt to forge a broad centric-oppositionist alliance to ward off the populist threat from Obrador.

While the coalition decides which candidate to throw against the dual threat of Obrador and the PRI, other players such as Margarita Zavala, wife of former president Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and longtime member of PAN, have broken ranks with their party to try their hand at taking home the presidency on their own.

Thus does Mexico find itself in the curious conundrum of parties without leaders fending off leaders without parties in the run-up to July 2018. Turns out they’re not so different from their northern neighbor after all.

Pakistan (September)

Sacked for his role in Panamagate, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has opened the floodgates for fresh political faces to emerge in Pakistan’s 2018 elections.

Rarely are Panama, Iceland, and Pakistan uttered in the same breath, but in July 2017 veteran Pakistani politician Nawaz Sharif became the second head of state after Iceland’s Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to be forced from office as a result of the Panama Papers scandal (dubbed “Panamagate” in Islamabad).

If the by-election for Sharif’s Punjabi seat was anything to go by, his ruling Muslim League (PML-N) will have an uphill battle to retain control of the government in the September 2018 elections.

Within the ruling PML-N, it is unclear whether Sharif’s temporary ban will force the larger party structure to crumble, as it did after he was first forced to resign in 1993 on corruption charges, or whether it has ‘matured’ enough in Pakistani parlance for another able leader to emerge.

It is even less clear what chance Imran Khan’s left-liberal PTI stands of gaining power merely as a result of dethroning Sharif.

Though nationally popular—a September poll by Global Strategic Partners put him as the favorite of 47% of Pakistanis to assume the premiership next year—he does not have the patronage networks outside of his native Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to defeat the PML-N in its Punjab stronghold (which possesses 57% of the country’s population), and whoever wins Punjab tends to take the country.

Down in Karachi, the nation’s largest city, rival parties MQM, the traditional party of muhajirs (Muslim refugees) who fled India after partition, and PSP, a party that broke away from the MQM in 2016, have agreed to set aside their differences to combine forces in 2018.

The party of Benazir Bhutto has vowed it will form alliances with any and all parties necessary to prevent Khan’s PTI from assuming power in 2018, even if that includes their old rivals PML-N or MQM.

None of this means Sharif is definitively out. A skillful mediator with India and deft at balancing his country’s schizophrenic relationship with Washington, Pakistanis may just go for the devil they already know too well.