In 2023, a variety of important elections in countries with significant implications for regional and international geopolitics will be taking place. There will be a multitude of fascinating battles fought in many rapidly developing nations, along with elections in several countries which could offer an important insight into the state of global democratization following the pandemic.
After a decade of rising right-wing populism, elections since the pandemic have broadly seen a shift back towards centre-left, liberal, and moderate conservative parties. Results across Latin America, Europe and the English-speaking world have highlighted a rejection of far-right politics and strongmen with authoritarian tendencies, although some countries, notably Italy, Hungary, Sweden, and Israel have bucked that trend.
Strongmen aim for validation in Turkey and Pakistan
2023 will provide some useful elections in which to gauge whether this trend will continue. Perhaps most significant is the Turkish general election. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a tough political environment as he trails in the polls and his right-wing AKP party continues to deal with the unexpected losses of the Istanbul and Ankara mayoralties in 2019.
Erdogan appears to be turning to blatant meddling, with the man who won the Istanbul race, Ekrem Imamoglu of the left-wing HDP (seen as a possible presidential candidate), sentenced to two years in prison for calling public officials “fools” for cancelling the results of the original Istanbul mayoral election in 2019 (which was re-run with Imamoglu winning by a wide margin). This move has been condemned as politically motivated. This, along with Erdogan’s crackdown on the free press, has led many to question whether the upcoming election will be free and fair.
Another strongman trying to retain his grip on power in a large, Muslim country is Imran Khan, the recently removed prime minister of Pakistan. Khan triggered a constitutional crisis in April 2022 by attempting to dissolve parliament to prevent a vote of no confidence against him. Unfortunately for him, the country’s Supreme Court ruled unanimously against his move, and he was removed in a no-confidence vote just seven days after his attempted coup.
Whilst polls are thin on the ground, a series of by-elections have suggested that support for Khan, a former captain of the Pakistani cricket team, may have actually increased since April – certainly, it seems like he retains his cult of personality amongst many in the population. Khan’s PTI is politically centrist, and he will be attempting to topple his conservative successor Shehbaz Sharif of the PML(N). He will also have to contend with the PPP to his left, but they are unlikely to be able to pull the votes together to challenge the incumbent top two.
Military juntas face contrasting destinies
Moving to South East Asia, Thailand and Myanmar due to hold elections in 2023. Thailand is a particularly interesting (not to mention confusing) case. Following a 2014 coup d’état a military junta took control of the country, instigating a raft of incursions on personal and political freedoms.
In 2019, the junta finally held elections, with the junta’s handpicked Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha taking power with the right-wing military-aligned Palang Pracharath Party on the back of a system built to favor the preferences of the junta. In 2022 amid dropping popularity of the PPP, Prayut announced that he was leaving the party and joining the newly formed United Thai Nation, whilst several PPP MPs defected to the populist centre-right Bhumjaithai Party.
The opposition right-of-centre Pheu Thai led the most recent poll with 43% (up from 22% in the last election), whilst none of the PPP, Bhumjaithai, or UTN cleared 7%. The progressive Move Forward, founded to challenge the influence of the military in Thai politics, seem to be stable at around 17%. The Pheu Thai candidate also comfortably leads polls for preferred prime minister whilst Prayut languishes in the low teens.
Myanmar has also been in the grip of a military junta since a coup in 2020, having been on a steady march toward democracy under the leadership of prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi. The chances of a free and fair election in 2023 are remote and this election may well serve as a final nail in the coffin for democracy in Myanmar. Since the coup, Aung San Suu Kyi has been in prison, her party, the NLD, has been threatened with dissolution and the military has been responsible for numerous human rights abuses.
A number of European elections are taking place in countries that did not see right-wing populists getting into government in the last decade. Unlike their counterparts in other countries who have managed to gain ministerial posts (and have often been subsequently electorally punished), right-wing populists in Spain, Estonia and Finland retain significant support and could still force their way into governing coalitions this year.
Spain’s far-right hopes to ascend to power
In Spain, Vox continues to cause political waves, having gone from nothing to 15% across the two general elections in 2019. The far-right outfit surged to 20% in the polls earlier this year but has sunk back to 2019 levels more recently. This has been to the advantage of PP, the traditional conservative party in Spain, which now leads most polling, with the governing centre-left PSOE not far behind. While Vox may have lost some of its momentum, they are still sure to win plenty of seats and in the event of a PP win, it may turn towards Vox as a coalition partner.
There has also been a concerted effort recently from progressive socialists in Spain to wrestle back some of the momentum they have lost over the last ten years. Yolanda Diaz, the popular labour minister, who is a member of the Spanish Communist Party (which is a part of the left alliance Unidas Podemos which is in coalition with PSOE), recently launched a new platform called Sumar for parties on the left to unify around in order to fight the upcoming platform.
A recent poll pegged a Sumar alliance at 19%, which is significantly higher than the 10% that the existing Unidas Podemos is capable of pulling. Whether Sumar becomes a fully-fledged party, an alliance, or a platform for leftist unity is undecided but if Diaz can inject some much need needed energy into the Spanish left, the dynamic of the upcoming election could be turned on its head.
Other major elections
Similar to Spain, Finland’s centre-right National Coalition (KOK) is maintaining a modest polling lead over the incumbent centre-left Social Democrats this year. This can be traced back to the invasion of Ukraine – KOK was particularly quick off the mark in supporting the prospect NATO accession for Finland (a neighbour of Russia). Whilst the Social Democrats too are supportive (and their polling remains fairly strong), it was KOK who took the initiative and maintain the momentum. The right-wing populists PS are polling similar to their 2019 result but in a scenario in which KOK win the election they, like Vox in Spain, could be kingmakers for any potential right-wing coalition.
Another similar situation is unfolding in Estonia where the incumbent liberal Reform party is still comfortably in first place, but the far-right EKRE is polling in second place and have threatened to take the lead at times over last year. It may be difficult for them to find their way into government if they do not top the poll as most of the remaining major parties are liberal, right-of-centre types who are much more likely to work with each other than with EKRE.
Elsewhere in Europe, keep an eye on Bulgaria where there have been four elections in the last two years (most recently in October). Failure to form a government yet again means there will probably be another snap election in 2023. In the Czech Republic, controversial ex-prime minister Andrej Babis is locked in a three-way battle for the presidency with Mendel University Brno rector Danuse Nerudova and retired army general Petr Pavel (both endorsed by centre-right alliance SPOLU).
Tunisia will hold the second round of its legislative elections in January. Tunisia’s young democracy took a body blow in 2021 when President Kais Saied performed an enormous power grab by enacting emergency powers to extend his influence, then dissolved parliament and the judiciary. He then passed a new constitution via a referendum with 30% turnout which entrenched enormous presidential powers and severely limited the other branches of government. Now, in the first election since then, the first round in December saw 11% turnout and boycott from opposition parties. The democracy which showed so much promise after the Arab Spring now seems to be in serious danger.
On the other hand in Zimbabwe, the government run by ZANU-PF and led by Emerson Mnangagwa is under serious pressure and facing a united and organized opposition. Zimbabwe’s economy is in horrific shape, compounded by rampant corruption, international sanctions, terrible infrastructure, and incompetent governance. The opposition Citizens Coalition for Change, led by Nelson Chamisa, is aiming to emulate the example of neighbours Zambia by removing the authoritarian government in a landslide election.
The election in 2018 saw widespread voting irregularities as ZANU-PF won 56%-44%. However, with the country in an even worse position five years after the fall of Robert Mugabe, Chamisa, who enjoys a significant global profile, hopes to mobilize the population using the power of the internet much like Hakainde Hichilema successfully did in Zambia in order to get round widespread media censorship.
Nigeria will be holding its presidential election in 2023 with incumbent Muhammadu Buhari term-limited. Nigeria is an enormous country with enormous economic potential, but it has been held back for decades by huge corruption at all levels of society, an economy on the brink of collapse, terrorist insurgency, and religious divides. Buhari’s APC (with a Muslim base in the north of the country) are deeply unpopular and their candidate to replace him, Bola Tinubu is facing a stiff challenge on two fronts.
The other traditional Nigerian party is the PDP (with its southern Christian base) and their candidate Atiku Abubakar was the runner-up in 2019. However, the big story in this election is Peter Obi, the Labour Party candidate. He was the PDP vice presidential candidate in 2019 but is running on the Labour ticket instead in 2023. The party secured just 0.02% in 2019 but now Obi is leading comfortably in the polls with less than two months to go. A win for Obi would really be an enormous and much needed shake up in one of Africa’s most important countries which could wield significant global power if managed correctly.
Elsewhere in Africa, incumbent presidents in Liberia and Sierra Leone are facing re-election amid rising unpopularity in what will be a test for these two more hopeful cases of African democracy. The Democratic Republic of Congo will also see President Felix Tshisekedi attempt to win re-election in this massive and deeply troubled country, having successfully completed a peaceful transition of power in 2018. Libya is also due to have elections this year, but they have already been kicked back numerous times. A win in this case would just be for the elections to take place.
Argentina will be holding its general election, with the rise of the ultra-libertarian LLA on the radar of South American observers. With candidates yet to be selected, the presidential election seems to be a tight battle between centre-left Peronist FdT (the party of incumbent president Alberto Fernandez), centre-right JxC, and LLA. The FdT has retained the presidency every year since 1989 with the exceptions of 2000-2001 and 2015-2019, a remarkably stable record by South American standards where many countries have regularly swung wildly from left to right to military junta and back again over the past few decades.
Indeed, until the JxC victory in 2015, FdT had no serious opposition from the right, with centrist and progressive parties instead forming the main opposition. This changed in 2015 and now FdT faces two serious challengers to its right with a realistic (albeit improbable) possibility of being locked out of the second round altogether.
Elsewhere in Latin America, both Guatemala and Paraguay are holding elections. These two countries are suddenly amongst the final bastions of the right in the region after leftist parties swept to power in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Honduras, and Panama over the past couple of years.
In New Zealand, having secured a historic absolute majority three years ago for her Labour Party, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern now appears to be in serious trouble. Labour’s polling numbers have been on a continuous slide since 2020 and now they sit narrowly behind the centre-right National Party.
In 2020, Ardern was riding high on the back of her widely popular COVID response and was richly rewarded electorally. Now, with the economy struggling, crime surging, and a damaging by-election loss in November to deal with, Labour appears to be in trouble. On current polling numbers, the Nationals would secure a comfortable majority in coalition with the right-wing ACT, whilst even with the support of significant Green and Maori blocs, Labour would be unable to get over the line.
Finally, keep an eye on the regional elections in Australia, Canada, the United States, the UK and Germany. In Australia, the centre-right Liberal National Party has been taking blow after blow since losing the federal election in 2022 and seems ready to lose control of New South Wales to Labour.
Four German states will hold elections this year including Berlin and Bavaria. This will be a major test of the popularity of the federal government. The centre-left SDP and liberal FDP have been struggling recently with their handling of the Ukraine and energy crises whilst their coalition partners the Greens and as well as the centre right CDU/CSU and far-right AfD seem to be benefitting.
Looking towards the United States, three governorships are up for grabs. Two of them – Kentucky and Louisiana – are held by Democrats in states which are amongst the most Republican in the country. It will be a tough ask for them to hold onto both, especially Louisiana, where incumbent governor John Bel Edwards is term-limited, although Kentucky governor Andy Beshear retains his popularity and is part of a Kentucky political dynasty – important in a state which still harbors some Democratic sympathies further down-ballot. Mississippi is also up for grabs, but anything other than a comfortable Republican would be a surprise, although incumbent governor Tate Reeves remains unpopular following the pandemic and has not made a decision on whether to run. State legislative bodies are also up for re-election in Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey, and Virginia.
In Canada the centre-left NDP is in a strong position to win two state elections – in Manitoba, it is comfortably leading the centre-right PC whilst in Alberta, they are locked in a tight battle with the centre-right UCP.
Last but not least, local elections in the UK are always highly entertaining. This year there will be elections in England and Northern Ireland, and they are likely to pile further pressure onto the Conservative Party with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Reform UK all circling the thousands of local council seats up for grabs.