International Election Rundown | Alex Reinsch-Goldstein
Here in the United States, it feels like we’re still recovering from the psychedelic roller coaster that was the 2020 election. But in countries around the world the electoral process is just heating up, and, in a world as interconnected as ours, the outcome of elections in other nations can reverberate with global consequences. Here’s a rundown of some of the upcoming foreign elections taking place in the coming months, and what they could mean for the world.
Elections to the Scottish parliament were held on Thursday May 6; however, results have yet to be released at the time this article was published. The stakes are high in Scotland: this election may well decide whether Scotland moves towards independence from the United Kingdom. Following the narrow defeat of an independence referendum in 2014, pro-independence sentiment has been bolstered by Britain’s chaotic departure from the European Union: Scots are overwhelmingly pro-EU, and fear being dragged down by the negative economic effects of Britain’s exit from the European market. Nationalist feeling is on the rise, with many polls now showing majority support for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. If the pro-independence parties win a majority when all the votes are counted, it would provide a seal of approval for a new independence referendum to go ahead–with the breakup of the UK being a very possible result.
The two main pro-independence parties — the Scottish National Party and the smaller Scottish Green Party — are seeking to secure a majority and deliver on their promise of Scottish independence. If they succeed, the ramifications may be felt well beyond Scotland: Wales and Northern Ireland both have substantial independence movements, and the further weakening of the UK by Scotland’s departure could further aid these groups. The ultimate result could be the complete disintegration of the UK.
Germany is set to hold elections for its parliament, the Bundestag, this September. Chancellor Angela Merkel has led the country for sixteen years, but is declining to seek another term — meaning that, for the first time in almost two decades, Germany will have a different figure at the helm. Who it will be is an open question.
Germany’s parliamentary system operates fairly differently than our government in the US. Germany has a president, but this role is entirely ceremonial — one of the president’s ceremonial duties being to appoint the chancellor, who wields the real power. The president appoints the chancellor based on which party or group of parties controls a majority of seats in the parliament — if a party or coalition has that necessary majority, then the president will appoint its chosen candidate as chancellor. The parties usually designate a specific chancellor candidate before the election, so that voters casting ballots for a given party can know who might become chancellor if that party wins the most seats. Under Germany’s system of “mixed-member proportional representation,” each voter’s ballot has two parts: one in which they vote for an individual candidate in their local area, and another in which they cast a vote for a political party. 299 of the Bundestag’s approximately 700 members (the number fluctuates between elections) are elected from these local area constituencies, with the candidate who gets the most votes winning the seat. The remaining Bundestag seats are allocated proportionally to each party based on the percentage of party votes that they received. This is designed to create a system in which the percentage of votes won by a party and its percentage of seats in parliament is roughly equal, to create the most representative possible outcomes.
The political landscape in Germany is growing increasingly fragmented, making it essentially impossible for any party to govern on its own. A coalition between multiple parties will be necessary to form a government and elect Merkel’s successor to the Chancellorship–and that’s where things get difficult.
Merkel’s party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has experienced a precipitous drop in support in recent months, following a sluggish vaccine rollout in Germany as well as numerous corruption scandals involving members of her party. The CDU dropped from a high of about 40% in polls last March (driven by support for Merkel’s early Covid response), and now sits at an average of approximately 25%. The CDU’s traditional opposition, the leftist Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, SPD), sits between 15% and 17%. Overtaking them both is Alliance 90/The Greens, a party which has experienced a meteoric rise in recent months. Despite having won only 8% of votes in the previous 2017 election, the Greens now lead most polls with support percentages in the high 20s. Driven by a massive influx of young voters concerned about climate change, the rapid rise of the Greens has drastically altered the German political landscape — if the Greens win the most votes in the coming elections as the poll suggest they will, it will be first time that a party other than the CDU or SPD has won an election since Germany’s return to democracy after the Second World War. The Greens recently received an additional boost in polling after naming their candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock; a journalist, lawyer, and Bundestag member who at 40 would be the youngest German chancellor in history.
Even if the Greens do come out on top, polls indicate they won’t have a majority needed to govern alone. So, what might a coalition look like? The most ideologically coherent possibility would be a progressive alliance between the Greens, the SPD, and The Left, a far-left party which currently polls between about 8 and 10%. Some polling models suggest that such an alliance, known as a red-red-green coalition after the colors of its participating parties, would have enough seats to reach the necessary majority. If not, a playfully-named “traffic light coalition” might be another possibility — composed of the Greens, the SPD, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP, represented by the traditional color of liberalism, yellow — hence the green-yellow-red traffic light name). A more odd possibility would involve a “grand coalition” between the Greens and the CDU, but given the parties’ lack of agreement on most issues this would likely only be an option of last resort only if no other coalition can be formed.
A green party-led government coming to power in the country with Europe’s largest economy would send shockwaves through that continent and the rest of the world. At a time when people all over the world are looking to confront climate change, an environmentalist party would for the first time have its hands on the levers of government. The Greens pledge that, if they win, Germany will run on entirely renewable energy by 2030 — a bold promise that could inspire similar action in countries across the world. The global fight against climate change is doubtlessly going to be very significantly impacted by what happens in Germany this fall.
France is holding its presidential election just about 11 months from now, in April of 2022. The scene does not look promising. Far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, leader of the extremist National Rally party, is only a few points behind France’s embattled liberal president Emmanuel Macron in hypothetical head-to-head matchups between them. It’s highly likely that the French presidential election will come down to just such a contest between Le Pen and Macron, with socialist leader Jean-Luc Melenchon in a somewhat distant third place. (In France, numerous candidates from several different parties compete in the first round of the election, with the top two finishers then advancing to a second round runoff to choose the next president. It’s probable that Macron and Le Pen will be the ones to make it to the runoff.) Le Pen, an Islamophobic ultranationalist who primarily appeals to anti-immigrant sentiments, took over as leader of the National Rally from her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, a noted Holocaust denier who also ran for president several times. Marine Le Pen has greatly outdone her father’s success, building support largely on the backlash to the wave of immigration from majority-Muslim countries in the last decade. Though Le Pen’s extremist views are well-known, Macron’s deepening unpopularity is leading to larger and larger sections of French society turning to Le Pen as a potential alternative.
Big things are afoot in Chile. Following a massive wave of protest beginning in late 2019 against the right-wing government of President Sebastian Pinera, brought on by its devastating austerity measures and later mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, changes are in the air. On a single day in Chile’s capital Santiago in October 2019, 1.2 million people marched through the streets to protest against Pinera’s government. Last October, following months of demonstrations, a national referendum succeeded in calling for the drafting of a new constitution. The new document would replace the old constitution put in place by the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in 1980, which put anti-democratic restrictions on the political process in Chile even after Pinochet left office. And on top of the wave of protest and the drafting of a new constitution, Chile will also be electing a new president this November. Chile uses a two-round system similar to France (and like the next two countries we’ll be discussing, Peru and Brazil). The two candidates leading first-round polls (and who are therefore most likely to be competitors in the runoff election) are both leftists: Pamela Jiles, a socialist, and Daniel Jadue, a communist. Jiles is a journalist and member of Congress for the left-wing Humanist Party, while Jadue is the mayor of the city of Recoleta and member of the Communist Party of Chile. The ascension of either Jiles or Jadue to the highest office in Chile would undoubtedly send shockwaves through Latin America, as well as representing a spiritual continuity with the leftist government of President Salvador Allende, who died in the coup which brought the brutal Pinochet regime to power. It would also mean that the United States would lose another buddy for its big business interests in Latin America, a role which previous right-wing Chilean governments have been happy to play.
In Peru’s presidential election due to be held in June, it’s come down to a contest between the far-right and the far-left, with candidates Keiko Fujimori and Pedro Castillo representing diametrically opposed visions of Peru’s future. Fujimori, leader of the ultraconservative Popular Force party, is the daughter of Peru’s former authoritarian president Alberto Fujimori, who is currently imprisoned for human rights abuses and murder. In an effort to defeat a Maoist guerilla insurgency, Alberto Fujimori deployed brutal death squads that kidnapped and murdered political opponents and innocent bystanders alike. With her father in prison, Keiko Fujimori proudly carries on his legacy and explicitly promises to bring back his policies — known as Fujimorism — if she is elected. Castillo, meanwhile, was an obscure schoolteacher before emerging as a leader in the 2017 Peruvian teacher’s strike and entering into politics. In the first round of the presidential election held on April 11, he was widely expected not to be in the top two — when his surprise advance to the runoff became apparent, TV news didn’t even have a picture of him to put on the screen to accompany the news of his victory. When reporters tried to interview him the next morning, they found him in front of his small farmhouse wearing a poncho and milking his cow. Castillo is a member of the Free Peru party, best described as a mixed bag of socialists and communists. Polls currently show Castillo ahead, with many Peruvians being concerned that Fujimori will revive some of the unsavory aspects of her father’s regime. If Castillo does manage to claim victory in the runoff, it will mean another socialist leader taking power in the ongoing leftist wave that is sweeping across Latin America — having already reached Bolivia, Argentina, and Mexico, and perhaps soon to arrive in Peru as well.
It’s no secret that Brazil is in a tough place. A raging Covid epidemic, massive deforestation of the Amazon, and a wave of state-perpetrated violence against the inhabitants of Brazil’s favela slums all put the country in a position of considerable hardship. The rule of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has in many cases exacerbated these issues. It was Bolsonaro who opened the Amazon to greater resource extraction, which in turn resulted in the enormous wildfires which devastated the region in 2019. Bolsonaro sent the army to police the slums, where they have murdered thousands of people in situations that are reminiscent of America’s epidemic of police killings. Bolsonaro has cast himself as a Brazilian Trump, and has allied himself closely with the former president — like his ideological compatriot, he has downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and done little to stop its spread. Also like Trump, Bolsonaro himself was stricken with the virus, but recovered and was seen cavorting with visitors while he was still ill. Bolsonaro has also called for the return of torture and political killings, praised the military dictatorship which ruled the country from 1964 to 1985, and has said that the only thing the dictatorship did wrong was that it did not murder enough people.
Bolsonaro is seeking reelection to a second term in the election taking place next year, but a major obstacle stands in his way: former president and potential 2022 contender, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva. Lula is the leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party and served two terms as president from 2002 to 2008, and who is constitutionally able to run again and widely popular enough to win. Lula’s career was substantially derailed in 2017 when he was jailed on politically-motivated corruption charges, which were later revealed to have been part of a scheme by his political opponents to keep him from running in the 2018 elections. The desire to keep Lula out of power by any means necessary, based on the well-founded fear that he would win, led directly to his unjust imprisonment as well as the calamitous rule of Jair Bolsonaro. After the case against him was revealed to be fraudulent, the verdict in Lula’s case was overturned, he was released from prison, and he was permitted to run for office again. He has not yet officially announced his candidacy for the 2022 elections, but is widely expected to run — and polls show him to be likely to win as well. One recent poll showed him ahead of Bolsonaro by 20 points. If Lula were to be elected, it would have drastic impacts on Brazil and the world at large. An end to Bolsonaro’s destructive Amazon policies would finally be in sight, protecting an ecological area that is critical not just for Brazil but also for Earth as a whole. In areas like climate change, it’s clear how much the outcome of political processes around the world matter to us all: we are all in this together, and events in one country can have a great impact on the interconnected world of global climate policy.
Why Does It All Matter?
Even though the framework of nation-states gives us the idea that world events are contained safely by national borders, it rarely works that way in practice. Particularly as we confront the truly global problem of climate change, what happens in foreign lands can have a direct impact on us and people the world over. When the Amazon burns, it doesn’t care what country it’s in — and the CO2 it is now unable to absorb will end up in all our atmospheres. Likewise, the rise of leftist governments in Peru and Chile could have a major impact on relations between Latin America and the United States, overturning a system of relationships that has the former in a subservient and exploited position to the latter. At the end of the day we are one people sharing one earth, confronting many of the same problems and dealing with the ripple effects of decisions that are made far away. The winds of change are blowing over the whole world, and they are always worth listening to.