Elections to watch in 2021

Art by Annie Gugliotta

This year, voters in dozens of countries will choose new leaders. With the human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic as a backdrop, how will the worst global crisis in more than a hundred years play out at the ballot box? Here are a few key elections to keep an eye on in 2021.

Germany: A world without Merkel

This fall, for the first time in 16 years, Germans will elect a government that will not be led by Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor is stepping down, and the race to replace her is heating up. Her center-right CDU party will select a new head to carry the flag into the election, but non-centrist parties such as the far-right AfD or the leftwing Greens will try to continue to erode the dominance of centrist parties. Whoever wins, Merkel is a tough act to follow. During her tenure, she steered Germany (and Europe) through the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, and the pandemic. Her successor as leader of Europe's largest economy will take the helm right as Europe tries to dig its way out of a pandemic-imposed slowdown, adjust to post-Brexit life, rebuild (some aspects of) relations with the US, and navigate an increasingly challenging relationship with China. Viel Glück!

Iran: Hardliners wait in the wings

Hardliners hostile to rapprochement with the West did well in last year's parliamentary elections, and are the front-runners ahead of a presidential vote in June. That could complicate any push to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — which Tehran has been violating since the US withdrew from the pact in 2018. Current president Hassan Rouhani supported the original deal and wants to explore reviving it — not least because sanctions relief would help millions of struggling Iranians. US president-elect Joe Biden does too, but will have to convince skeptics on Capitol Hill that any new pact hems in Iran's regional trouble-making. In the end, Iran's supreme leader will decide what Tehran can agree to or not, but the presidential election — and the campaigning around it — will be a crucial bellwether for Iran's domestic and foreign policy.

Uganda: Is it time for Wine?

Next week's presidential election pits current leader Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, against opposition leader Bobi Wine, a former pop star turned politician who is beloved by young and mostly urban Ugandans. The campaign period has been, in Wine's words, "a war and a battlefield" — authorities have arrested and assaulted him and shot protesters who support him. Museveni is popular in the countryside, where he is lauded for having brought stability, growth, and subsidies. Fearing electoral fraud, Wine has launched an app that citizens can use to "monitor" the ballot count. The possibility of post-election violence is high.

Russia: Will the "swamp" creatures return?

In November, Russians will vote in tightly controlled legislative elections that are almost certain to give victory to the ruling United Russia party. But Russia's been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis, and Vladimir Putin's approval ratings are near historical lows (for him, at least). The last time Russia held an election while Putin's popularity was flagging was in 2011. Grievances over corruption and Putin's increasingly out-of-touch rule then brought hundreds of thousands into the streets in what became known as the Bolotnaya Ploschad (literally "swamp square") protests. Alexei Navalny, a major star of those protests, is still in Germany right now after surviving an assassination attempt (almost certainly) carried out by Putin's security services. Will he try to return to the motherland just in time to stir up the streets?

Scotland: Edinburgh calling

After the UK voted in 2016 to leave the EU, the question of Scottish independence has become hot again. The last time Scotland held a referendum on independence from the UK, in 2014, 55% voted no. But pro-independence Scots, including current Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish National Party, want another referendum in the wake of Brexit, which most Scots opposed. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson — who would officially have to greenlight any independence vote — says it's too soon to hold another one. If Sturgeon's SNP rings up a resounding victory in Scotland's legislative election this summer, it could set up a serious clash between Edinburgh and London.

Triple play in Latin America

A number of Latin American nations hold elections this year, but three stand out. Over the past year, the pandemic has clobbered Peru's once-stellar economy and created political chaos — last fall, the country had three presidents in seven days. A presidential vote is scheduled for April, and former footballer George Forsyth is a leading contender among Peruvians sick of the same old faces. Keep a close eye also on Chile, which holds its first presidential vote since mass protests over social justice and inequality in 2019 and 2020 forced a rewrite of the Pinochet-era constitution. Lastly, Mexico's July mid-term legislative election will be a referendum — perhaps literally — on left-populist president Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has remained popular despite mishandling the coronavirus pandemic. López Obrador has proposed including a recall vote on his own presidency on the same ballot.

What's another election that you think is critical to watch this year? Let us know and maybe we'll do another one of these later in 2021.

This time last year, world health experts were speculating about why Africa appeared to have escaped the worst of the global pandemic. Younger populations? Natural immunity created by exposure to past viruses? Something else?

They can stop wondering. Africa is now in the grip of a COVID emergency.

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Listen: Stanford historian Niall Ferguson joins Ian Bremmer on the GZERO World podcast to talk about the geopolitics of disaster. Throughout human history we seem to be unable to adequately prepare for catastrophes (natural or human-caused) before they strike. Why is that? And as we emerge from the greatest calamity of our lifetimes in the COVID-19 pandemic and look to the plethora of crises that climate change has and will cause, what can we do to lessen the blow?

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Get insights on the latest news in US politics from Jon Lieber, head of Eurasia Group's coverage of political and policy developments in Washington:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi barred two Republican members from serving on the Jan. 6 commission. What's going on?

Well, the Jan. 6 commission was designed to be a bipartisan commission, taking input from members from Democrats and Republicans. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy had the opportunity to make recommendations but the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, could always veto those recommendations. In this case, she did, saying no to two members, Jim Banks and Jim Jordan, both of whom are strongly aligned with President Trump and who voted against certifying the election results in 2020. The Republicans for the most part see the Jan. 6 commission as an opportunity to score political points against them, and the Democrats say this is going to be a fair, non-biased, and nonpartisan investigation into what happened on Jan. 6, starting with a hearing next week with some of the police officers who were involved in the battle with the protesters inside the Capitol.

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In his New York Times op-ed, David Brooks says the US is facing an identity crisis — protecting liberal and progressive values at home while doing little to stop autocrats elsewhere. But has the US really abandoned its values abroad just because it's withdrawing from Afghanistan? Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group analyst Charles Dunst take out the Red Pen to argue that the US can advance democracy without being the world's sheriff.

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When the Tokyo Olympics begin on Friday, Japan watchers will be following more than just the performance of Japan's star athletes, including tennis star Naomi Osaka. They will also be tracking the political fortunes of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who is taking a big gamble by staging the event — amid a raging pandemic — in the face of strong and longstanding opposition from the Japanese public. What are the stakes for Suga, particularly with elections on the horizon? Eurasia Group senior analyst Ali Wyne explains.

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YouTube pulls Bolsonaro's rants: Google-owned YouTube pulled down a series of videos on the channel of Brazil's populist President Jair Bolsonaro, accusing him of spreading misinformation about the pandemic. YouTube removed more than a dozen clips for touting quack cures for coronavirus or claiming, in defiance of scientific experts, that masks don't reduce COVID transmissions. Last year, Twitter and Facebook also removed some content from Bolsonaro's feeds for similar reasons. But critics say that YouTube's move is too little too late, because Bolsonaro has been spreading misinformation about COVID since the pandemic began. Many Brazilians hold him personally responsible for the country's abysmal pandemic response, which has led to almost 550,000 deaths, the second worst toll in the world. Will YouTube's move change Bolsonaro's message? His weekly address to the nation, where he converses not only with government ministers but also various conspiracy theorists and loons, is broadcast on YouTube. Surely he doesn't want to risk losing that — or does he?

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Boycotts! Bans! Protests! Drugs! Think you've got gold medal knowledge about politics at the Olympics? Test what you know with this special Tokyo Olympics Quiz. And to stay current on all the latest political stories at the Games and around the world, subscribe here to Signal, our daily newsletter. Now, without further ado, the first question is...

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