The 2022 background: US mid-term, Brazil and Israel

In the soon ended year of 2022, perhaps three cases of national elections, all in October-November, stood out as being of particular importance in terms of measuring global security trends: the US mid-term elections, the Israeli parliamentary elections and the presidential elections in Brazil. In democracies, whether with presidential or parliamentary systems of governance, regular elections are key to governmental legitimacy, but vary in function: stabilizing or de-stabilizing, promoting or preventing change, depending on socio-political context. And here we have the added, difficult, question as to in which socio-political context it is at all meaningful (or safe) to hold elections, lest their conduct risk being more disruptive than stabilizing and legitimizing. The list is rather long of examples where this is, or was, the question.

In brief, one might argue that in the case of the US mid-term elections the overall function proved – to the relief of many – to be a step back from the feared trajectory of crisis for the US political system, threatened by the combined challenges of the Trump era added to the longer-term polarization trends in the political and societal system. Biden’s Democrats more than held the terrain in the Senate and GOP gains in the House turned out to be far less than what was feared and expected. Trump-sponsored GOP candidates lost in droves. Prospects of a 2024 presidential Trump triumph/revanchist march suddenly seemed much less certain. Threats to global liberal democracy arising from inside the very pillar of the US system could be seen as less acute.

And then there was the case of the South American giant, Brazil, and the big question there whether the years of Jair Bolsonaro rule of democratic/populist slippery slope would be given one more mandate period, or whether the outcome would be Lula da Silva victory (accepted or not by a defeated Bolsonaro) and hence a termination – for the time being, at least – of the Bolsonaro experiment in creeping authoritarianism. To the relief of many, in the case of the mighty Brazil the da Silva option was preferred by the electorate. Democracy, even of messy and provisional, prevailed, adding to the trend set by the US mid-terms of functioning resilience in the Americas to authoritarian/populist trends.

But then there is the case of Israel, after the years of repeated, inconclusive elections assuming the characteristics of referendums for and against Benjamin Netanyahu in a domestic and regional context of potential explosiveness. The election, the fifth in two years time, had become an un-needed national necessity after the vulnerably fragility of the preceding Bennet-Lapid “unity” (anti-Netanyahu) government had succumbed to opposition pressure and in-built incompatibilities, and this time Netanyahu had campaigned with the historically unique support of rising rightist-extremist parties. Netanyahu and his loyal LIKUD party together with these problematic fellow travelers prevailed, comfortably, in these election, and with a clear lead in the Knesset Netanyahu has now started on the journey of both seeking to impose constitutional changes that will liberate him from his hitherto legal predicament, and to deliver on his promises for influence to his new bed-fellows to the far right, thereby giving rise to a real and present threat to the socio-political stability of Israel, and to Israeli-US relations, among other things.

So elections, while key to the legitimacy of political regimes in the modern world, can be and represent – and indicate – different things, functionally. The fact, incidentally, that the Swedish parliamentary elections have been internationally noted as part, potentially, of a global (populist) trend in response – primarily – to the global migration/integration challenge is another story.

Prospects and electoral agenda 2023

But then what about next year, 2023, where do we expect the globally and regionally significant elections to take place, in the countries where elections matter, at least nominally, or exist at all? And what is at stake in these elections, in terms of stability and change, peaceful or violent? Many elections are planned in the world, some more critical and significant than others.

In the case of the fate of Africa, there is, first and foremost, the general election in Nigeria on February 25, seen internationally and scholarly as a sea change event in the struggle for identity, stability and legitimacy on the continent in view of the rapidly growing size, problem load and importance of that country. At stake here is the viability of Nigeria as a multiethnic, multireligious state, projected to replace the United States as the world’s third most populous country by 2050. As elegantly described by Uzodinma Iweala in Foreign Affairs Nr 4 2022 (“Nigeria’s second independence – Why the giant of Africa needs to start over”), the upcoming Nigerian elections will be an indicator of whether the giant will lead the continent to stability and prosperity and the country itself to positive influence in global affairs, or whether limping steps further on the road to disintegration will instead lead to violence and economic chaos. Lesser, but not insignificant, roles will be played by upcoming (scheduled) elections during the year in countries like Libya (?), Zimbabwe, South Sudan, Liberia and DRC, the problem loaded Democratic Republic of Congo. In view of the fragility of these states, they and their international community sponsors obviously face that same basic dilemma: elections are necessary for legitimacy and longer-term stability, but are also potentially problematic in terms of high-risk disruptiveness.

In the Americas, pending the approach of the US 2024 presidential campaign uncertainties, 2023 sees scheduled elections in, among others, Cuba, Guatemala, and economically deprived but football-proud (the outcome of the Qatar world cup still unsettled at the time of writing, Messi still glory hopeful) Argentina, a South American giant, second only to Brazil in terms of continental leverage.

In Asia, there is, first and foremost, the case of the giant, alongside China, India, by far the largest (liberal) democracy of the world, but one where continued nation-building encompasses the existential struggle between the increasingly assertive, Modi-led and nationalist, Hindu majority and the world’s largest Muslim population, India’s huge Muslim minority – and the ever-lasting question of whether and to what extent the balancing act between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority – including the Muslim majority in Kashmir – can be and remain compatible with Western liberal democracy, while seeking in world politics to deter neighboring and nuclear adversary Pakistan and to stave off Chinese dominance and to manage Russia dependence, i.e., dependence on Russia in the area of armaments. The question as regards India and its new electoral challenge – for state legislatures in 2023 and for general elections in May 2024 – is for prime minister Narendra Modi to seek to harmonize or balance Hindu nationalism as a deliberately polarizing vote winning tool and the national, internationally relevant, need for basic stability, together with the quest for as liberal as possible a democracy as basic component of the Indian political culture.

Campaigning in India will, by the way, run in parallel with largely simultaneous electoral campaigns in India’s immediate surrounding, to the west Pakistan (October) and to the east Bangla Desh (December). Electoral campaign moods in these elections will be both indicative of and conducive to security trends in the region, in addition to whatever emerges from the Ukraine crisis and US-Russia-China security relations.

Mentioning Ukraine in this context unavoidably serves as a reminder that next year, for all the monstruous uncertainties, Ukraine too is scheduled for parliamentary elections, in October, should the schedules withstand the pressures of protracted open warfare. How this is going to be played in the then prevailing circumstances is anybody’s guess. Still it is obviously an event of paramount importance, if and when it occurs.

Europe

Then turning to Europe, Europe west of Ukraine, that is, of particular importance (to European stability and unity, among many) are the scheduled elections in Spain – in December on top of a string of regional elections during the year – and, in November, in Poland, the former decisive to whether and to what extent Spain will prevail as a unitary European democracy able to balance its inherent regional tensions, the latter of critical importance as a choice between the incumbent nationalist Law and Justice (PIS) government of PM Mateusz Morawiecki and the PIS strongman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and the pro-European (and pro EU) opposition. Both these elections in these two large and important European countries are clearly of critical significance to the value basis and the functioning of the European Union, albeit in different ways in view of history, structure and geography, including Poland´s proximity to the Ukraine war and complicated relations with neighboring Germany.

And then, finally, there is in this selection the Turkey-Greece-Cyprus triangle, all three, amazingly, scheduled for elections during this same year, 2023, raising huge questions whether this fact is (potentially) good or bad for peace and stability in the problem-loaded Eastern Mediterranean area.

In the case of Turkey (or Turqiye), simultaneous presidential and parliamentary elections are constitutionally mandated for the month of June at the latest, five years after the last – in fact first – electoral exercise under the new constitutional provisions establishing a presidential system tailor made for Recep Tayiip Erdogan in a controversial 2017 referendum. It follows that these Turkish elections represent much more than a change – or not – of a government; at issue is whether to maintain or to dismantle a pervasive political and economic system, implying huge stakes by both government and opposition and thus potentially huge controversy, or drama. But of particular interest in terms of European (and global) security and stability is the fact that the Turkish electoral campaign will largely coincide in time with parliamentary elections in neighboring, adversarial Greece, scheduled for July.  And that ahead of these two, coincidentally, Cyprus is scheduled to have presidential elections, in February.

This strange coincidence brings us back to the introductory questions concerning the function of elections in terms of peace and stability. There are clearly several perspectives to this. One is that assuming reasonably orderly conducts of this electoral triangle in a sensitive area, the resulting three government will then look forward to a full five years of no electoral disturbance, a period during which the three resulting governments will be liberated from electoral pressures, with time and mental space to focus – once and for all – on sorting out rational and lasting solutions to their territorial and historicist political problems, with or without constructive assistance from outsider sponsors. Clearly this is the best case scenario, while the much worse scenario – and in the real world of intensified competition/conflict perhaps more likely – is colored by the usual politicization and polarization effect of elections in unstable contexts. Hope for the best, and prepare for the worst, would seem to be a wise advice to the EU, Nato, UN and other interested parties in the international community.

It follows from this summary of forthcoming electoral events in key countries all over the world during next year that we shall be dealing with a dense agenda, with items on the agenda often in great need of international attention, over and above the main item for us in Europe, Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The author is ambassador, holds a Phd and is a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.
The article is earlier published in Consilio International.