Hong Kong – legislative council (Sept. 4)
Voters in Hong Kong recently sent a resounding message that they want greater democracy and autonomy from China’s Communist Party government in Beijing. Since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it has maintained a partially democratic local government that possesses a good deal of autonomy and civil liberties unavailable to those living in mainland China.
However, Beijing still tries to keep a tight leash on this metropolis of over seven million people. Although voters directly elect 40 members of the city’s legislative council using proportional representation, various industry and civic groups hand-pick the other 30 members, called “functional constituencies.” And to further cement control, the mainland government gets to appoint Hong Kong’s chief executive.
Parties are broadly divided into two camps, a pro-Beijing bloc and a pro-democracy faction. In every election since reunification, the pro-democracy bloc has won a majority of votes and directly elected seats in the legislature, but pro-Beijing forces dominate the functional constituencies and therefore have maintained an overall majority.
Still, this month’s elections were a landmark event following the “umbrella movement” of mass protests in favor of greater democracy in 2014 after an attempted crackdown on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the Beijing government. Importantly, several candidates seeking outright self-determination gained seats, including radical young protest leaders such as 23-year-old Nathan Law. The pro-Beijing forces, meanwhile, lost three seats, and while they still have 40 total (and thus a majority), the opposition has the ability to block certain legislation.
In accordance with the agreement between China and Hong Kong after the United Kingdom returned the territory to mainland rule almost 20 years ago, Beijing governs the city under the principle of “one country, two systems.” This arrangement is enshrined in law until 2047, but after that, the future of the relationship is unknown. And just as the mainland government increasingly tries to assert greater dominance over Hong Kong, its residents are seeking greater freedoms and an elected chief executive. Some are even agitating for outright independence, a red line few had previously crossed.
Indeed, Beijing went so far as to bar several candidates from even running in this election because it claimed they supported independence, which allegedly violates a pledge that candidates must sign in favor of the “one country, two systems” doctrine. But the move seems to have backfired, as record turnout showed the electorate is fed up with mainland meddling in its local affairs and infringing on its civil liberties—and now independence has become a real topic of discussion.
Interestingly, Hong Kong’s recent round of voting mirrors last January’s election in Taiwan. Although Taiwan effectively is an independent country, it is still nominally a part of China, and the mainland government has sought closer ties to what it still regards as a renegade province. But voters swept out the incumbent conservative government earlier this year after it had sought to cultivate tighter links with Beijing. Fearing increased dominance by their vastly larger neighbor, Taiwan instead elected the country’s first-ever center-left, pro-independence majority government. While neither Hong Kong nor Taiwan is likely to declare formal independence anytime soon, voters are clearly dissatisfied with Beijing’s creeping influence over their local affairs.
● Croatia – parliament (Sept. 11)
Croatia holds early parliamentary elections this month, less than a year after its last election in 2015. The governing coalition between the right-of-center Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the centrist Most party collapsed this summer amid an impasse over political disagreements and a scandal that brought down HDZ’s leader. Polling shows those two parties poised to lose seats while the coalition led by the center-left Social Democratic Party is gaining, but the SDP might have trouble cobbling together a majority with minor parties. HDZ drew sharp criticism during its time in government for catering to right-wing extremist elements, but itshifted toward the center when it selected a new party leader heading into this election.
● France – presidential primaries (Nov. 20, Jan. 22)
French politics tends to freeze to a halt in the summer, but with presidential primaries right around the corner, the campaign accelerated in August. On the right, former President Nicolas Sarkozy made it official last month: He is running for his old post, under the banner of a newly rechristened party, the Republicans. This primary features about as many candidates as the 2016 U.S. Republican presidential contest, but all eyes are on Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Alain Juppé.
Juppé has taken more moderate positions on the hot-button issue of immigration, while Sarkozy has seized headlines with his hardline rhetoric toward French Muslims. In June, for instance, Sarkozy called on the “people of France” to “wake up” and defend “national identity” and the country’s Christian roots, to which Juppé responded that he “refuses to have a fearful, anxious, neurotic identity.” A German paper in turn branded Sarkozy “Trump à la française” when he joined the race. Polls have shown Juppé with a slight edge. The primary will be heldNov. 20, with a runoff on Nov. 27 if no one takes a majority in the first round.
On the left, it remains to be seen whether deeply unpopular incumbent President François Hollande will run for a second term. But if Hollande had any hope of coasting through the Socialist Party’s primary, those were dashed in August. First, Arnaud Montebourg and Benoit Hamon—both former members of Hollande’s cabinet whom Hollande dismissed because they criticized his economic policies as too accepting of austerity measures—announced their candidacies. Montebourg is already looking like a strong candidate: A leaked poll conducted for the Socialist Party in August showed Montebourg narrowly leading Hollande in a primary runoff.
Second, Emmanuel Macron recently resigned as economy minister, a move that presages a presidential run of his own. It is unclear whether Macron would even choose to run in the Socialist Party’s primary, though, as the former investment banker has positioned himself as a critic of the left, one intent on pushing the Hollande cabinet rightward. Macron’s course of action may depend on Hollande’s ultimate decision, which is still not expected for several months. The Socialists’ primary will take place on Jan. 22, with a possible runoff on Jan. 29.
In our coverage of German state elections earlier this year, we covered the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right anti-refugee and anti-Muslim party. This surge continued in elections for the German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania (MWP), where AfD soared to 21 percent and edged out Prime Minister Angela Merkel’s center right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for second place. But while the results were embarrassing for Merkel and her party, the election will likely not change who leads the state.
The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) stayed in first place with 31 percent of the vote, down somewhat from its 36 percent in 2011. It will be able to choose a coalition partner between the third-place CDU, which took 19 percent, and the fourth place Die Linke (a far-left party whose name translates as, well, “the Left”), which finished with 13 percent. Since no other party passed the 5 percent threshold necessary to win seats, together the SPD and the Left could form a narrow majority. But while SPD and the Left have joined forces in MWP in the past, it’s more likely that we’ll see a continuation of the SPD-CDU grand coalition, since such a coalition would hold a much more comfortable majority.
Either way, AfD will get locked out of governing, but while MWP isn’t necessarily representative of the country as a whole—it’s one of the smallest states in Germany by population and has some of its highest poverty rates—these results confirm the continued rise of AfD, which is expected to do well in Germany’s federal elections next year.
There’s also one more upcoming state election in Germany this year, in the capital city of Berlin, which historically is one of the country’s most left-wing states. AfD has enough support to win seats in the state parliament, though not at the level it has in other areas of Germany. But with potentially five parties earning double digit support (the four previously mentioned and the center-left Greens) and a sixth (center-right classical liberal FDP) polling on the edge of the 5 percent threshold, it’s not clear what sort of governing coalition will result.
If current polling is correct, no two parties will be able to form a majority together, forcing a potentially unstable three-party alliance. Most likely is a left-wing coalition led by SPD (which is favored to come in first with over 20 percent) along with the Greens and the Left. That trio currently runs the show in Thuringia in eastern Germany, the only state with a three-party governing coalition. In Berlin, SPD leads a grand coalition with the CDU, but current polling would leave those two parties short of a joint majority.
● Spain – parliament (likely Dec. 25)
Following June’s early elections, Spain’s political parties failed to form a governing coalitiononce again, which produced a hung parliament with no natural coalition majority. That will likely pave the way for yet another round of early elections, possibly in December. If that happens, this would constitute an extremely rare but not unprecedented third straight election, since voting in December of last year also produced a hung parliament.
The crux of the problem is that neither of the two logical major-party formations amount to a majority. An alliance of the center-left Socialists and left-wing Unidos Podemos would hold just 156 of 350 seats, while a coalition of the center-right Citizens and the more conservativePeople’s Party amounts to 170 seats. At the same time, the large parties have refused to work with several smaller regional parties in Catalonia and the Basque Country that have demanded various degrees of greater autonomy or even secession. As a result, the right fell six seats shy of a majority.
Now the Socialists, as the second-largest party, will get a chance to form a government, but unless they can miraculously convince Unidos Podemos and Citizens to work together, that effort will also fail. Spain’s King Felipe VI would then dissolve parliament before the end of October and formally call for new elections, with a likely date of Dec. 25 unless the parties can agree to change it.
Spanish voters undoubtedly won’t relish having to go to the polls for the third time in the span of a year, especially if the election falls on Christmas Day. Even if the date is moved, it’s very possible that turnout will drop and minor parties will suffer because of this fatigue. Opinion pollsshow the conservative Popular Party has increased its support and it could possibly win a majority with the support of the smaller, more reform-minded Citizens.
Spain is still recovering from a deep depression following the 2008-09 financial crisis and unemployment that had skyrocketed to over 20 percent. And with only a caretaker in charge, Spain’s governance has in many ways ground to a halt, as Parliament hasn’t passed any laws since last year. However, the economy has finally started seeing significant growth and adecline in unemployment. That could benefit incumbent People’s Party Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who previously governed with a single-party majority prior to last December’s election.
● São Tomé and Principe – president (July 17, Aug. 7)
After Evaristo Carvalho, the nominee of the centrist Independent Democratic Action, barely missed out on a first round victory with 49 percent of the vote, he was expected to easily win the runoff on Aug. 7. However, no one expected it would be quite as easy as it ended up being. The second-place candidate, independent Manuel Pinto da Costa, decried the initial results as fraudulent and boycotted the runoff, allowing Carvalho to win unopposed. This will result in the country’s first single-party government since democratization in the early 1990s.
● South Africa – municipal elections (Aug. 3)
Since apartheid came to an end in the early 1990s, South Africa has been essentially a one-party state. Despite a relatively fair and open democratic system, the center-left African National Congress (ANC) has dominated elections in the country since Nelson Mandela first led it to power in 1994. But after disappointing results in local elections held across the nation last month, a real multi-party system could be coming, a positive step in the country’s development.
The ANC still won a majority of the vote, but its 54 percent share represented a drop of 8 points from its previous take in 2011. It also lost three of the seven major cities it had previously controlled (out of eight total). The Democratic Alliance (DA) improved its result by 3 percent and did particularly well in urban areas, adding three more to Cape Town, where it was already in charge. The DA has historically done well in the Western Cape, where Cape Town is located, but its success in areas in other areas is unprecedented. Notably the DA, historically a white anti-apartheid party, is now led by a black man, Mmusi Maimane.
The other breakout party of the recent local elections was the Economic Freedom Fighters(EFF). The party is a leftist offshoot of the ANC and was competing in local elections for the first time. The party has aggressively attacked the ANC and South African President Jacob Zuma’s corruption issues as well as the country’s economic problems (unemployment is north of 25 percent). The EFF won 8 percent of the vote and was able to eat into ANC strongholds in rural areas where the DA is viewed with hostility.
For the first time, it’s now possible to conceive of the ANC failing to win a majority in the next general election in 2019. That would usher in an unprecedented situation in South Africa, where any policy the ANC internally decided on has become law for more than two decades. But as almost every democratic nation has seen, parties that stay in power for too long tend to grow corrupt and insensitive to the concerns of the people they’re supposed to represent. The ANC isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, but anything that forces it to genuinely compete tolead South Africa is a good thing.
● Zambia – president and legislature (Aug. 11)
Zambia held its second presidential election in nineteen months, this one regularly scheduled after the death of president Michael Sata forced a special election in January 2015. The result was the same as last time, though, as incumbent Edgar Lungu won a full five-year term after winning the special last year. The election was close but definitive as Lungu won just over 50 percent to opponent Hakainde Hichilema’s 47 percent.
Lungu is from the same party as Sata, the left-wing Patriotic Front, which also won a majority in the legislature. Hichilema’s centrist United Party for National Development won the second-most seats and was the only other party to make substantial gains. The Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, which was the main left-wing party and governed the country from 1991-2001, lost all but three of its seats and is no longer a major party in the country. Patriotic Front was a breakaway party formed by Sata after he was not nominated for the presidency in 2001 and has now entirely supplanted its predecessor.
● Brazil – president and legislature (Oct. 2018)
Brazilian democracy experienced a major setback when its Senate finally ousted President Dilma Rousseff, who’d been the target of impeachment proceedings that began last year. While the legislature nominally removed Rousseff for manipulating budget numbers to hide unauthorized spending, its deeper reason concerned the massive “car wash” corruption scandal involving the state oil company Petrobras, which Rousseff oversaw as energy minister prior to her becoming president in 2010.
Rousseff’s vice president, Michel Temer, will take over and serve until the regularly scheduled 2018 elections. However, he faces corruption allegations of his own and could have been barred from running for a full term over campaign finance law violations if he hadn’t already announced he wouldn’t run.
Oddly, though political corruption is endemic in Brazil, Rousseff herself had never personally been implicated in any corruption scandals. Instead, most of the legislature has, including key leaders of the impeachment effort. So while corruption served as a scapegoat, the real motive for removing Rousseff was simple politics.
Brazil faces its deepest recession in over a century, thanks to slumping Chinese demand and the global downturn in commodities prices starting in 2014 that ravaged Brazil’s export sector. Riding high a years-long commodity boom allowed Brazil to support government spending that it no longer can maintain since the bust began two years ago. This economic malaise and the corruption scandals roiling much of Brazil’s government have left Rousseff and her leftistWorkers’ Party deeply unpopular.
Right-wing forces and corrupt pro-business centrists like Temer realized they had the political capital to remove Rousseff and exercised it accordingly, justifying their abrogation of democratic norms with incoherent arguments in favor of impeachment. And now, the new government has set about implementing painful budget cuts, rolling back environmental andworker protections, and curbing measures to promote racial equality that Rousseff and her predecessor, Lula da Silva, put into place. In one telling sign, Temer’s appointed a cabinetcomposed entirely of white men—right after Brazil deposed its first woman president.
Brazil reached this low point in large part because of its disastrously designed political institutions that foster fragmentation and corruption. Like nearly all of Latin America, it uses a presidential system of governance, which creates winner-take-all political contests that incentivize polarization and frequently lead to a breakdown in the democratic order. Thanks to Rousseff’s opponents, Brazil got a massive change in party politics that the electorate didn’t vote for—as though Republicans had impeached Barack Obama in 2010 simply because he was unpopular and the economy was in poor straits.
Fortunately that didn’t happen here, but Brazil’s in much worse shape, thanks to an odd variant of proportional representation that results in an array of tiny parties that merely peddle their influence for power regardless of ideology. Indeed, while Rousseff and the Workers’ Party are leftists, they lacked a legislative majority and had to govern in a coalition with parties like Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, which can’t be said to have any ideology at all beyond holding power for its own sake. Furthermore, legislators enjoy immunity from prosecution, which has led to criminals running and winning office expressly to obtain that privilege. It subsequently shouldn’t be surprising when corruption runs rampant among people who can’t even be prosecuted for it.
Still, some Brazilians believe there’s reason for optimism about the country’s future. This so-called “parliamentary coup” was far less extreme than the military coups and dictatorships that used to plague Latin America during the Cold War, including in Brazil itself. Indeed, no one has questioned that Brazil’s regularly scheduled elections will proceed as usual in 2018. Furthermore, many lasting achievements from the 13 years the Workers’ Party held office will probably remain in place, such as the Bolsa Familia, a cash assistance social welfare program that has pulled tens of millions of Brazilians out of poverty.
But Rousseff’s removal marks a resounding ebb of the Pink Tide of left-wing populist politics that swept through South America over the last decade. In just the last year, leftists have lost the presidency in Argentina, Brazil, and Peru, as well as the legislature in Venezuela, and they face further political peril in several countries in the region today.
● Colombia – peace agreement plebiscite (Oct. 2)
Colombians will go to the polls next month and be asked to sign off on a peace accord between the government and the left-wing rebels known as FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), who have been fighting a civil war for five decades. If the agreement passes, it will mark the final end of the last ongoing armed struggle in the Americas.
Not all are on board, though. Conservative former president Alvaro Uribe is leading the opposition to the deal. He claims that the government is appeasing FARC by allowing its leaders to avoid jail time and guaranteeing the organization 10 seats in Congress. Most polls have shown the agreement passing, but they’ve been all over the place. Some are showing huge majorities in favor while others have found only small pluralities in support, though one Ipsos poll had opponents winning.
The Daily Kos International Elections Digest is compiled by David Beard and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from Taniel Nichanian and Daniel Donner, and is edited by David Nir.