Netherlands hosts 2017’s first major battle against the far right

Welcome to the first International Elections Digest of 2017! In this month’s edition, we preview all the major elections on tap for the coming year, worldwide.

Leading Off

Netherlands – parliament (March)

The Netherlands presents 2017’s first major election battle against the tide of radical right-wing populism that has been sweeping Europe in recent years and culminated in the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union in 2016. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) currently forms a grand-coalition majority with the social democratic center-left Labour Party. However, polls have long found the two parties poised to suffer massive losses, with Labour near-certain to lose the vast majority of its seats. Those same surveys indicate that the Islamophobic far-right Party for Freedom (PVV) is set to take a possible plurality for the first time.

Although establishment-oriented factions (ranging from social democrats to classical liberals to Christian democrats) once long dominated the Dutch political landscape, the last few elections have seen a huge increase in party fragmentation. The mainstream parties have shed significant ground to anti-establishment populists such as the far-right PVV, the left-wing Socialist Party, and the pensioners’-advocacy 50Plus in the center. The Dutch electoral system of proportional representation, which makes it easy for small parties to enter parliament, combined with major pockets of public dissatisfaction with the status quo, could see an astounding dozen or more parties win seats. Several new minor parties could even win a couple of seats each, and it might take four—or more—parties working together to establish a governing majority.

Consequently, forming a stable coalition could prove extremely difficult. Right-of-center parties are poised to win a commanding majority of seats, but the mainstream center-right parties are adamantly opposed to inflammatory far-right PVV leader Geert Wilders’ Islamophobia, hostility toward immigrants, and his call for the Netherlands to leave the EU. Indeed, Rutte and Wilders are attempting to cast the election as a two-man race between themselves, but there is no rule that requires the leader of the largest party to become prime minister or even a participant in the government.

An anti-Wilders coalition could require the current grand coalition to add several more major parties like the Christian Democrats, the neoliberal D66, and possibly even others, making it highly difficult for the several factions to overcome their ideological differences. However, PVV and VVD will likely wind up as the two largest parties, and if PVV finishes first, it might simply be too big for the mainstream parties not to at least include as a junior partner. Even together, though, PVV and VVD would probably fall well short of a majority.

The Netherlands could be in for protracted negotiations with the resulting government highly uncertain. And if Wilders winds up as part of a ruling coalition, that could have profound consequences for the country’s policies toward European integration, immigration, and multiculturalism in one of the continent’s most stalwart bastions of social liberalism.


New Zealand – parliament (November)
In the wake of longtime Prime Minister John Key’s surprise resignation in December, new Prime Minister Bill English will lead the center-right National Party into regularly scheduled elections this fall, hoping to continue his party’s success at the polls. Key and the National Party had governed since 2008, winning re-election in 2011 and 2014, and English is in good position to earn a fourth straight victory.

The National Party has been polling just under 50 percent very consistently since the 2014 election (where they received 47 percent), and unless something significant changes, the only question in November is whether it will wind up with a majority government or a minority government (in 2014 they fell one seat short of a majority). The National Party’s main opposition is the center-left Labour Party, which is currently polling in the upper 20s. There are two other major parties expected to receive significant support, the left-wing Green Party and right-wing populist New Zealand First party.


East Timor – president (March) and legislature (July)

The small Southeast Asian country of East Timor will elect its national government in 2017 after years of political instability following independence from Indonesia in 2002 and a United Nations peacekeeping operation that lasted from 2006 to 2012. Since 2015, the left-wing nationalist FRETILIN party has formed a national unity government with its main opponent, the center-left National Congress (CNRT), while independent President Taur Matan Ruak was elected with the support of CNRT in 2012. The election for president (who has limited powers but can veto legislation) uses a runoff if no candidate secures a majority, while legislative elections use proportional representation, meaning winners will likely need to secure coalition partners to govern.

Hong Kong – chief executive (March)

Hong Kong operates under a quasi-democratic system with some autonomy from the Communist Party government in mainland China, but Beijing has been trying to tighten its grip over the political system in the city-state. Voters elected staunch pro-democracy advocates to the legislature in 2016, but there’s never been any question that forces loyal to Beijing would retain their majority because almost half the body’s seats are selected by industry trade groups.

The situation at the top is little different. Despite pro-democracy advocates’ push to create a directly elected chief executive during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” mass protests, a committee of roughly 1,200 members comprising various civic organizations and individuals still gets to choose the city’s leader, and this very select constituency leans heavily toward Beijing.

Current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying earned the wrath of reformers when he tried to oust several pro-democracy legislators last year, but he’s become unpopular even outside of the pro-democracy camp, and late last year he said he would not run for a second term. While the reformist faction holds only about a quarter of the 1,200 seats on the selection committee and has little hope of electing its preferred candidate, it could hope to play the role of kingmaker, since pro-Beijing forces have not consolidated around a single candidate.

Mongolia – president (June)

East Asia’s only landlocked nation heads to the polls to elect its next president this summer, when incumbent President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj is barred from seeking a third term. After the tumbling price of natural resources (due to weak Chinese demand) brought sky-high economic growth to a crawl, the opposition center-left Mongolian People’s Party ousted Elbegdorj’s center-right Democratic Party to win veto-proof control of the legislature in 2016. Now the opposition could be well-positioned to capture the presidency and regain complete control over Mongolia’s government.

Papua New Guinea – parliament (June & July)

Prime Minister Peter O’Neill will be seeking a second five-year term in power at the head of the People’s National Congress party. Corruption is a major issue, and opposition leaders tried to depose O’Neill after deadly anti-corruption protests in 2016, but he easily survived a no-confidence vote. Papua New Guinea’s unicameral parliament uses instant-runoff voting in single-member districts, meaning the victor will likely need to assemble a coalition of different parties to govern. The newly elected government will also have to oversee a pending 2019 independence referendum in the autonomous island region of Bougainville, which was the site of a long and bloody civil war in the 1990s.

South Korea – president (by December)

South Korea was roiled by its greatest political crisis since the return of democracy in the 1980s when President Park Geun-hye became consumed in a major corruption and influence-peddling scandal that sparked ongoing mass protests and left her with an approval rating in the single digits. The legislature voted to impeach Park in December and stripped her of her powers pending trial, while a court will soon decide whether to remove Park from office sometime in the first half of the year. If it does, there would be a new election within 60 days. Even if Park is not removed, South Korea’s constitution already barred her from seeking a second five-year term in December’s regularly scheduled election.

Center-left Minjoo Party opposition leader Moon Jae-in, who narrowly lost the 2012 election to Park, is a leading contender in the upcoming presidential election. Former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is considering running, but Park’s disastrous tenure has tainted those associated with her conservative Saenuri Party, which Ban is a member of. However, the nascent centrist People’s Party could complicate Minjoo’s chances if it runs its own candidate: A divided opposition could hand the election to the reeling Saenuri, since all it takes is a plurality to win.

Middle East/North Africa

Iran – president (May)

Iran may not be what Westerners would consider a “free” country, but nevertheless, its past two presidential elections have had enormous reverberations. The (highly disputed) re-election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 led to the failed Green Movement revolution, while the 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani created room for the Iran nuclear deal in 2015. However, the country’s upcoming election is not likely spark comparably dramatic change, primarily because Rouhani is a strong favorite for re-election to a second term.

Elections in Iran are generally contested between a loose coalition of moderate reformists and a coalition of so-called “principlist” conservatives. All candidates are vetted by the state’s Guardian Council, which can reject candidates it deems unacceptable, usually for political views considered too reformist. Still, moderate reformist candidates have typically won the presidency since these divides developed in the 1990s, with Ahmadinejad’s election the one major exception.

With Rouhani unlikely to face serious opposition within the moderate ranks and also unlikely to be rejected by the Guardian Council, only an equally unlikely loss to a more conservative challenger (or electoral malfeasance) would prevent his re-election. No Iranian president has ever failed to win a second term.

Lebanon – parliament (June)

Lebanon will hold its first parliamentary elections in eight years, four years later than they were supposed to take place, after lawmakers repeatedly postponed them due to security concerns and political paralysis. Located in a strategic geographic position between key regional powers, Lebanon is extremely divided among sectarian political groups. Sunni and Shiite Muslims make up roughly one-quarter of the population each, while Christian groups make up roughly 40 percent.

The country’s unique constitutional system enshrines a level of balance between sects under a variant of the power-sharing doctrine of consociationalism called confessionalism. This means that certain religious groups are formally entitled to share power, such as cabinet positions. Traditionally, a Maronite Christian serves in the mostly ceremonial role of president, a Sunni Muslim functions as prime minister, and a Shiite Muslim becomes parliament speaker. Coupled with a proportionally elected parliament, this system has helped ensure that various minorities can peacefully obtain power, but it also contributed greatly to political deadlock after Lebanon’s long civil war ended in 1990.

Lebanese politics has frequently turned into a proxy battle between regional players. Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia and Western nations often support political groups that take a tough stance against Syria, while Iran and Syria’s Shiite-led governments back parties who oppose the West, such as Hezbollah, which Israel and many foreign governments (as well as the Arab League) deem to be a terrorist group. The ongoing civil war in neighboring Syria also looms large over Lebanese civic life. Over 1 million refugees have flooded the small nation since 2011, which previously was home to just 4 million people. The poor state of public services and high levels of corruption have frustrated Lebanese citizens even beyond the never-ending sectarian divisions.

After two years without a president, Lebanon’s parliament finally elected ex-Prime Minister Michel Aoun in 2016. Aoun is associated with the pro-Syria and pro-Iran March 8 Alliance, which Hezbollah supports, while current Prime Minister Saad Hariri hails from the more anti-Syrian March 14 Alliance. Parliament is sharply divided between the two blocs heading into the 2017 elections, but the pro-Syrian bloc appeared to grow more powerful in 2016 with Aoun’s election.

Turkey – referendum (April)

Turkey’s longtime authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has sought for some time to amend the Turkish constitution to weaken parliament and strengthen the presidency. Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party has now succeeded by working with the far-right Nationalist Movement Party to approve a series of constitutional amendments in parliament. Once finalized, the amendments will then go before the electorate in a referendum, most likely in April of this year.

There are 18 amendments in total (some are still awaiting votes in parliament but are expected to be approved). Some amendments are relatively innocuous, such as increasing parliament from 550 members to 600 and aligning presidential and parliamentary election schedules. Far more troublesome are amendments that abolish the position of prime minister and the cabinet and instead allow the president to appoint and fire ministers at will. The president would also be able to call future referendums at his pleasure.

Polling on the referendum has been unclear, with both sides having reasons for optimism. Last year’s failed coup (which has led to an extraordinary crackdown on democracy by Erdoğan), terror attacks, fighting in Syria, and economic weakness have shaken much of the Turkish public, but it remains unclear whether they will embrace Erdoğan’s ideas or take out their frustration on him. If the referendum succeeds, the next presidential election would take place 2019 and allow Erdoğan to serve two more five-year terms, meaning he could end up leading the country until 2029 and consolidate his authoritarian grip on power.


Albania – parliament (June)

Prime Minister Edi Rama’s center-left Socialists are defending the coalition majority they gained in 2013 by ousting the conservative Democratic Party-led alliance. The opposition will likely focus on corruption and crime, while the Socialists will tout Albania’s increased economic growth rate since they took office. However, the center-left Socialist Movement for Integration (known locally as LSI) could once again play kingmaker. While LSI currently supports the Socialists, they backed a Democratic-led coalition in 2009. All three parties are generally pro-European in their outlook, as Albania applied for European Union membership in 2009, but the process is slow-moving and requires major reforms.

Bulgaria – parliament (likely March)

Bulgaria will likely hold early elections in March after the center-right GERB party of outgoing Prime Minister Boyko Borisov badly lost last November’s election for the mostly ceremonial presidency to a center-left Socialist Party candidate—who notably favored closer ties with Russia even though Bulgaria is a European Union and NATO member. The Socialists and their coalition allies, including the centrist liberal Movement for Rights and Freedoms party that advocates for Bulgaria’s sizable Turkish minority, could be poised to return to power following their 2014 defeat.

Czech Republic – parliament (October)

A mainstay of post-communist Czech politics, Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka’s center-left Social Democrats (CSSD) have governed in an uneasy coalition with the centrist populist party ANO since 2013. ANO burst onto the political scene ahead of the last election with a hodgepodge of policies that took a strong stance against corruption and the political establishment while maintaining a generally pro-business outlook. However, it’s faced accusations of merely being a vehicle to personal power for its leader, popular billionaire Finance Minister Andrej Babiš, who is the nation’s second-richest man and has even drawn comparisons to Donald Trump.

According to the latest polls, the country could soon find Babiš leading a new, more right-leaning government following this year’s elections. CSSD already suffered an embarrassing performance in 2016 regional elections, and some 2017 surveys indicate they could fall below even the 20 percent they won in 2013, while ANO looks poised to become the largest party with over a quarter of the vote. Proportional representation means that either party would likely have to find coalition partners to govern, but that could be much easier for ANO than CSSD, since aside from the