● South Korea – president (Dec. 20, 2017, possibly sooner)
South Korea is in the midst of its greatest political crisis since the return of democracy in the late 1980s. President Park Guen-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party is embroiled in an enormous corruption scandal that has left her with just a 4 percent approval rating—and that's not a typo. Park is accused of allowing a friend, Choi Soon-sil, to make key governing decisions despite having no formal role in government while helping Choi embezzle untold millions. The country's first woman president, Park is the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea as a dictator from 1961 until his assassination in 1979. Choi, the daughter of a cult leader, has been described as having a Rasputin-like influence over Park.
Following mass street protests, the country's legislature voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park, stripping her of her powers until she can be removed from office. While the opposition center-left Minjoo Party (also known as the Democratic Party) and the centrist People's Party control the legislature, even many members of Park's own Saenuri Party supported her impeachment. Park's prime minister will now assume her executive powers, and if six of the country's nine constitutional court justices vote to remove Park from office, South Korea would hold its next presidential election within 60 days instead of waiting until the regularly scheduled date of Dec. 20, 2017.
Park was already unpopular before the scandal, and her party suffered a crushing defeat in legislative elections earlier in 2016, giving Minjoo hopes of capturing the presidency in 2017. However, the relatively new People's Party could run its own candidate, complicating the opposition's chances for victory, since all it takes is a plurality to win. Outgoing United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is considering running and could be an imposing candidate for Saenuri, but Park's scandal has dimmed the prospects of those associated with her. Recent polls show Ban in a tight race with potential Minjoo candidate Moon Jae-in, who narrowly lost the 2012 presidential election to Park.
● France – The Republicans’ presidential primary (Nov. 20 & 27), Socialist Party presidential primary (Jan. 22 & 29), president (Apr. 23 & May 7)
In the course of just a few weeks, the French presidential election changed most of its cast. The incumbent president announced he would not seek a second term; his predecessor was eliminated in the first round of his party's primary; and the man who had easily led all general election polls for much of 2016 did not even come close to securing his party's nomination.
Let's start with the right. Les Républicains ("the Republicans"), the country's main right-of-center party, held their two-round primary on Nov. 20 and 27. The two front-runners were former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the more centrist Alain Juppé, a former prime minister. However, another former prime minister, François Fillon, unexpectedly saw his standing soar in the campaign's final stretch. In the first round, Fillon disrupted Sarkozy and Juppé's long-expected top-two finish in spectacular fashion, finishing first with 44 percent of the vote, followed by Juppé at 29 percent. Sarkozy, who took third with only 21 percent of the vote, was eliminated outright.
While the explanation for Fillon's surge is complex, it appears that many staunchly conservative voters who were planning to opt for Juppé due to a pervasive anti-Sarkozy sentiment rallied behind Fillon when he became a credible alternative to the Sarkozy-Juppé duopoly. Indeed, Fillon campaigned on an unapologetically right-wing platform, received the support of socially conservative groups, and promised "radical shock" for France's economy, with a slew of reforms aimed at slashing the public sector, inspired by Margaret Thatcher.
On November 27, Fillon easily beat Juppé in the runoff, 66 percent to 34 percent. He will thus be the Republicans' candidate in the spring's presidential election and therefore also the favorite to become the next president—at least as long as the left fails to get its act together.
France holds a two-round presidential election where all candidates from all parties appear on the same ballot, and the two who receive the most votes in the first round move on to a runoff. Polls currently show Fillon and the far-right's Marine Le Pen of the National Front taking the top two slots, thanks to a badly fractured field on the left that simply features too many candidates, none of whom have broken from the pack.
But there was some good news recently. Earlier this month, Socialist President François Hollande announced that he would not seek a second term, which was actually a positive development. For one, Hollande's remarkable unpopularity made it impossible to envision how he could have won another term. Moreover, his departure at least opens some room for different factions on the left that Hollande had torn apart to come to some understanding with one another. For now, however, it's still every politician for him- or herself.
Around 10 candidates have already announced that they will run in the presidential primary that the Socialist Party is organizing in January, most notably Hollande's Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who represents the party's centrist wing, and former cabinet ministers Arnaud Montebourg and Benoît Hamon, who represent its left wing. But many other left-of-center candidates are running in the spring's general election without going through this primary process, so a major disunity problem remains for all those hoping to avoid a runoff between Fillon and Le Pen.
● Germany – parliament (between Aug. 27 & Oct. 22, 2017)
Late last month, German Prime Minister Angela Merkel confirmed that she will seek a fourth term as prime minister. Merkel, who leads the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has served as Germany's leader since 2005. Merkel's longevity is rare in modern democracies. Just in comparison to other "Group of Seven" countries, by election day Merkel will have watched seven Japanese prime ministers, five Italian prime ministers, three French presidents, three British prime ministers, two Canadian prime Ministers, and two American presidents leave office during her tenure (all men, by the way).
Merkel launched her re-election by trying to tamp down problems with her right flank. While accepting her party's nomination, she called for a ban on full face veils and said she would not accept any application of Shariah law above German law. Merkel has been a leader on the refugee crisis in Europe, much to the consternation of some in her own party, and the rise of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a far-right anti-refugee and anti-Muslim party, has seen her tack to the right on issues related to integrating Muslim refugees into German society.
Despite her recent difficulties, Merkel is the favorite to win another term. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the other major party in Germany, has yet to find a leader who can eat into Merkel's support in the political center. They have also been hurt by serving as the junior partner in a so-called "grand coalition" with Merkel's party from both 2005 to 2009 and 2013 to the present. Serving in Merkel's coalition for eight years makes it hard to argue that she shouldn't be prime minister.
One troubling factor to keep an eye on is potential Russian interference in the German elections. Having successfully influenced the recent American presidential election, the Russians have already begun to do the same in Germany, hacking materials from the German parliament and then handing over these stolen documents to their willing dupes at Wikileaks. The Russians are likely to act in opposition to Merkel, who now might just be the leader of the free world in the wake of Trump's election.
● Iceland – parliament
No party has been able to cobble together a coalition after Iceland's October 29 parliamentary elections produced a historic hung parliament. The conservative Independence Party, which had held power since 2013, had hoped to form a right-leaning government, while the left-wing Left-Greens and radical pro-direct democracy Pirate Party both tried to assemble a coalition of all five opposition parties. However, the new pro-EU center-right Reform Party has assumed the role of kingmaker and thus far has been unwilling to agree to any proposed coalition, meaning Iceland could be looking at an unusual second straight election if no government takes shape soon.
● Italy – referendum (Dec. 4)
Italy held a key constitutional referendum the same day as Austria's vote for president, only Italy's vote didn't go quite so well. The referendum met the same fate as Brexit and the Columbian peace referendum, in that the government's championed position was rejected, in this case by a wide 59-41 margin. The proposal would have made a number of changes to the constitution, collectively weakening the Senate and empowering the prime minister. It was created and pushed forward by center-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who resigned in the wake of its defeat.
The failed referendum marked the end of a sharp rise and sharper fall for Renzi, who took power through an internal party coup in early 2014 and became the youngest prime minister in the history of the Italian Republic, which dates back to 1861. In the wake of successful elections for the European Union's parliament later that year, Renzi's approval reached 70 percent. However, the shine didn't last and by tying his fate to a complicated and controversial referendum, he sealed his fate. Many on the left who would have supported Renzi in an election opposed the referendum, and many on the right who might have supported reforms opposed Renzi. That made for an impossibly small needle to thread.
Following Renzi's resignation, President Sergio Mattarella appointed a new prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, who had served as foreign minister under Renzi and also comes from Renzi's Democratic Party. Gentiloni appears to be a placeholder, and many observers expect that Renzi will return to lead his party in the next election. That election is due by May 2018, but many expect it to come sooner. However, a recent electoral law has changed how elections will be conducted for the House but not the Senate. Mattarella has signaled that he does not want to call an election until both chambers' rules are again synchronized.
● Macedonia – parliament (Dec. 11)
Macedonia's right-wing nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party appeared to narrowly retain power following December's parliamentary elections, just barely edging out the opposition center-left Social Democrats by a 39-38 margin and winding up with 51 seats to the Social Democrats' 49. Those 51 seats put VMRO-DPMNE 10 shy of the number needed for a majority, but its usual ally, the right-leaning Albanian minority-interest Democratic Union for Integration, won 10 seats on its own, which would give the two parties the exact minimum they'd need to govern in a coalition. The Social Democrats had hoped for their first election win in 14 years but appear to have come up short, barring an unexpected new coalition arrangement.
Macedonia, a small southeastern European nation created by the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, had been embroiled in political crisis for the past two years when Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, a member of VMRO-DPMNE, was accused of engaging in massive illegal wiretapping of opposition party leaders and other public figures. These alleged abuses of power led to large protests and Gruevski's eventual resignation in January, with European Union negotiators securing a plan to form a caretaker government until early elections occurred. However, Gruevski remains in charge of his party and could become prime minister once again if VMRO-DPMNE can successfully form a governing coalition.
● Romania – parliament (Dec. 11)
Romania's center-left Social Democrats (PSD) scored a resounding victory with 46 percent of the vote, far ahead of their main rivals. The center-right National Liberal Party won just 20 percent, while a new anti-corruption party called Save Romania Union debuted at 9 percent. The last PSD-led government resigned in disgrace in 2015 amid major corruption scandals and a deadly nightclub fire that led to mass protests demanding the prime minister's ouster. That left the party's electoral future in doubt, but PSD came roaring back to power as its populist economic agenda seemingly overcame corruption concerns for many voters in one of the European Union's poorest nations.
In concert with their longtime ally, the centrist ALDE, PSD should secure a comfortable majority. However, PSD leader Liviu Dragnea himself is apparently ineligible to become prime minister following his conviction over election-rigging in a 2012 referendum—and he's also on trial for corruption. Should PSD attempt to nominate him, it would potentially set up a showdown with President Klaus Iohannis, a former National Liberal Party member, over whether Dragnea is eligible to serve.
● San Marino – parliament (Nov. 20 & Dec. 4)
Elections in San Marino, a microstate of 33,000 people surrounded entirely by Italy, saw the centrist San Marino First coalition of the Sammarinese Christian Democratic Party and two center-left social democratic parties lose power to a left-leaning coalition known by its web address, Adesso.sm, that's led by the leftist United Left, although it includes a few more centrist parties. Tourism, the health of the banking sector, and efforts at European integration were key election issues in a country which uses the Euro currency and whose economy is heavily dependent on its European neighbors.
● The Gambia – president (Dec. 1)
President Yahya Jammeh has ruled The Gambia, a West African nation of 1.9 million people, with an iron first since seizing power in a coup 22 years ago, and his authoritarian government has regularly violated civil rights and viciously cracked down on the opposition during election campaigns. Shockingly, that wasn't enough for Jammeh to win December's election, as opposition challenger Adama Barrow defeated the long-time incumbent. Even more shockingly, Jammeh actually agreed to cede power, publicly congratulating the new president-elect.
This fairy tale of democratization quickly faded though, as Jammeh has since pulled a complete about-face and now refuses to step aside, claiming fraud and calling for a new election. Heads of state from regional powers such as Ghana and Nigeria are trying to persuade the president to step down, and one key unknown is whether the military will continue to support Jammeh in the face of international pressure. If the president is indeed forced to concede, this election would be a rare bright spot in a region historically plagued by authoritarian regimes and unstable attempts at democracy.
● Ghana – president and legislature (Dec. 7)
Incumbent president John Mahama of Ghana's center-left National Democratic Congress lost his bid for a second full term by 54-44 to Nana Akufo-Addo of the center-right New Patriotic Party, which also gained a legislative majority. The two parties have traded power every eight years since the return of democracy in the 1992 presidential election, and 2016 marks the third time there has been a peaceful transfer of power, which scholars generally regard as a strong sign of democratic consolidation. Akufo-Addo narrowly lost in the 2008 and 2012 elections but prevailed this time in part thanks to an export-dependent economy suffering from the global drop in commodity prices since 2014.
● Haiti – president (Nov. 20)
Haiti's fragile democracy has been mired in crisis since late 2015, when opposition parties denounced the result of the presidential election's first round as fraudulent after Jovenel Moïse, the handpicked candidate of outgoing President Michel Martelly, unexpectedly finished in first place. That led to major protests, and second-place finisher Jude Célestin ultimately boycotted the planned runoff. The important players eventually secured a deal to resolve the political crisis whereby Martelly stepped down at the end of his term in favor of a provisional government, and a new first round was held in November.
However, Moïse won an outright majority of 56 percent to avoid a runoff in last month's first round re-run. Célestin and other opposition candidates again rejected the legitimacy of the result and have pledged to file a legal challenge before it's certified on Dec. 29. However, international election observers generally deemed the results to be legitimate. The election outcome is unlikely to resolve Haiti's deep political tensions and public distrust of the country's political system itself, as evidenced by the abysmal 21 percent turnout rate.
● Colombia: President Juan Manuel Santos and the Marxist FARC rebel group have signed a new peace agreement following October's shock defeat for the previous deal in a nationwide referendum. This new accord only needs congressional ratification, meaning Colombia's five-decade civil war with FARC—and the last ongoing war in the Americas—will finally come to a close.
● Electoral College: Pew Research published a new report detailing how the United States is virtually alone among the world's democracies in using an electoral college to elect a president. Most truly democratic countries either use a parliamentary system or elect their president directly, making it all but impossible for someone to become president despite winning fewer votes, like Donald Trump and George W. Bush.
● Hong Kong: After September's elections saw success for anti-Beijing candidates in Hong Kong, China has struck back against some of the winners. Pro-Beijing forces have sought to ban four pro-democracy legislators, including one of the leaders of the 2014 protest movement. This comes after Beijing already removed two legislators who had voiced support for an independent Hong Kong. The backlash over this crackdown apparently led Hong Kong's leader, Leung Chun-ying, to say he wouldn't seek a second term next year, but that's no victory for reformers: The city's chief executive is hand-picked by a select committee stocked with Beijing loyalists, so Leung's replacement will be little different.
● Netherlands: Far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders was convicted of inciting discrimination, but not hate speech, for saying that the Netherlands would be safer with fewer Moroccans. However, the court imposed no fine and the trial has only increased support for Wilders. Much like Donald Trump here in U.S., many in the Netherlands appreciate Wilders for being "politically incorrect" and "speaking his mind."
● Spain: Spain's highest court recently ruled that the government of Catalonia, a region home to Barcelona and over 7 million people, lacks the authority to hold an independence referendum. With the anti-secessionist conservative People's Party and center-right Citizens Party controlling the national parliament, it seems unlikely that Catalonia will get permission to hold such a referendum anytime soon. Catalans are sharply divided over the independence question, but voters elected an avowedly pro-independence regional government in 2015.
● United Kingdom: Britain's Liberal Democrats, who were decimated in the 2015 general election thanks to their coalition government with the Conservatives, won a by-election (what we'd call a special election) in a seat in Parliament previously held by the Tories. In terms of raw numbers, the victory is insignificant, as it only raises the Lib Dems' total number of seats from eight to nine, a world away from the 57 they won in 2010. But more interesting was how the Liberal Democrats won: They turned the campaign into a referendum into Brexit. The seat, Richmond Park, was one of the most pro-"Remain" seats in the country held by a Tory, and the Lib Dems were able to consolidate that vote since the Conservatives were responsible for pushing Brexit in the first place.
The Daily Kos International Elections Digest is compiled by David Beard and Stephen Wolf, with additional contributions from James Lambert, Daniel Nichanian, and Daniel Donner, and is edited by David Nir.