The Big Events of 2019

Each year is shaped by unforeseen events and unexpected crises. But there are also, of course, events we know about in advance that create major potential turning points in national, regional, and global politics. Here are ten good examples to keep an eye on in 2019:


Nigeria general election (February 16) – In the country home to Africa's largest economy, about 60 percent of citizens are young enough to be grandchildren of incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and challenger Atiku Abubakar. Buhari's victory in 2015 marked the first time since the reintroduction of democracy in 1999 that power was passed peacefully from one political party to another. The big question this time is whether either candidate can address the country's needs and whether a closely fought election will produce an inconclusive result that provokes unrest and even violence.

Brexit Day (March 29) – Under current UK law, Britain must leave the European Union on March 29. But it's not clear whether Brexit will happen on that date, if at all. If Prime Minister Theresa May can't win parliamentary backing for her Brexit plan in the coming weeks, she might ask for more time. The EU could then offer a few months' extension, if its leaders think the UK will call a second referendum that might cancel Brexit or accept a deal that benefits Europe's economy. The list of "ifs" is growing longer even as the deadline draws near.

Ukraine presidential election (March 31) – The 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine failed because its winners didn't deliver change, and the 2014 "Revolution of Dignity" is now failing for the same reason. Frustrated by continuing corruption, a stagnant economy, and slow progress toward a European future, Ukrainians want someone new, but the leading contenders in this election are incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Russia is watching too. The Kremlin can't control the outcome, but it will interfere, perhaps through more military pressure.

India general election (April-May) – Some 850 million Indians will cast ballots in an election that's in part a referendum on Narendra Modi's four years as prime minister. Recent election losses for his party in provinces where they've performed well in the past offer a warning. Modi can claim credit for the world's fastest-growing major economy and big (desperately needed) spending on India's physical infrastructure. His critics say ambitious reforms, particularly on health care, have stalled, and that by failing to address rising prices, he's abandoned India's farmers, a crucial national voting bloc.

Indonesia presidential election (April 17) – As in 2014, it's Joko Widodo, now the incumbent president, against Prabowo Subianto. But much has changed since then in the world's third largest democracy. In particular, Islam now plays a larger role in the country's politics. The challenger has partnered with a variety of hardline Islamist parties. The incumbent has responded by naming a conservative cleric as his running mate. In addition, many Indonesians get their news from Facebook, and "fake news" has undermined public faith in government.

European parliamentary elections (May 23-26) – Can those who've won national elections under a "Country First" banner expand their influence within European institutions? Populist nationalists like Italy's Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban are hoping to capitalize on anti-EU anger across Europe to strengthen their political leverage within the European Parliament. A sizeable victory for parties of the far-right could lead to further gridlock and confrontation within the EU's halls of power. This election will tell us a lot about the current state of European populism.

South Africa general election (between May and August) – For older South Africans, the African National Congress (ANC) is the party of liberation from apartheid. Younger citizens know the ANC mainly as the party of power. President Cyril Ramaphosa will lead the ANC into elections this year hoping that voters see no better alternative, but a quarter century from the end of white rule, public cynicism runs deep as chronic problems like income inequality and corruption remain. Can the popular Ramaphosa revive enthusiasm for the ruling party?

Canada federal election (By October 21) – The resounding 2015 victory for Justin Trudeau and his center-left Liberal Party now seems like ancient history, and both the prime minister and his party have lost much of their popularity. Victories for center-right parties in Ontario in 2017 and Quebec in 2018 suggest a much closer national election this year. But a split within the center-right Conservative Party could help Trudeau and the Liberals win this year with a lower vote share.

Argentina general election (October 27) – Current President Mauricio Macri, once a wealthy businessman, hoped that painful austerity policies would jumpstart Argentina's economy in time to boost his chances of re-election. It hasn't happened. Former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose spendthrift economic policies made austerity necessary, is hoping to mount a comeback. Directly at stake is whether economic distress will push Argentina back to the left.

Israel legislative elections (By November 5) – This election must come by November but could take place much sooner. In an era of voter demand for change, Benjamin Netanyahu, in office since 2009, is just months away from becoming Israel's longest-ever continuously serving prime minister. But Israeli police have recommended that he face corruption charges in three separate cases. He leads a fragile coalition and has no shortage of potential rivals, mainly on the right. This vote will be as colorful and bitterly contested as any in the world this year.

Facebook unveiled plans for a new cryptocurrency and payment system on Tuesday. It's called the Libra, and it's not-so-modest goal is to "reinvent money," and "transform the global economy" so that "people everywhere can live better lives." Ambitious much, Zuck?

This is a huge political gamble, but the rewards could be enormous. Here's a quick look at the tradeoffs:

The risks: Facebook is asking its 2.5 billion users — and government regulators — to entrust it with something that's vitally important to people everywhere and a power that governments jealously protect: access to money. And it's doing so at a time when trust in Facebook and other big Silicon Valley companies is at a low ebb.

Whether it's a concern that Big Tech has become too powerful or that it's not doing enough to protect privacy or put a stop to fake news, it's a heck of a time to launch a new techno-utopian project that could give Silicon Valley much more power — including the ability to track not just what people say they like but how they spend their money.

Mark Zuckerberg understands this — the Facebook founder is setting up Libra as a Swiss-based non-profit that will be governed by an "association" of 28 tech and financial companies and non-profits of which Facebook is just one member. He's also promising that Facebook will not mix personal data with payment information, and to cooperate with regulators.

But this will always be Zuckerberg's baby, and by launching Libra, he's painting a big new political bullseye on his own back.

The payoff: If Libra can survive the inevitable political and regulatory storm (and convince its billions of users that they can trust the underlying technology and financial stability of the new cryptocurrency) the upside could be enormous.

How enormous? The Libra website claims that more than 30 percent of the world's population — about 1.7 billion people — currently lack access to traditional bank accounts. Many more pay steep fees to transfer money using traditional payment services. Libra, by contrast, promises access to anyone in the world with a simple smartphone — and to make payments as inexpensive as sending a text message.

Plug those capabilities into a social network whose user base is roughly double the population of the biggest country in the world, and the results could be revolutionary — not just for billions of people who would gain new access to financial resources, but for Facebook's business model, and for central banks and governments that have traditionally sought to control the flow of money through their economies.

That would be a techno-utopian dream come true, but it's a power that governments won't willingly surrender.

If Willis's story on Tuesday about Argentina being plunged into darkness after a nationwide power failure didn't get you packing a flashlight and checking that your car has a full tank of gas, this one should. Over the weekend, the New York Times said anonymous US officials had revealed a US campaign to plant "potentially crippling malware" inside Russia's power grid "at a depth and with an aggressiveness that had never been tried before."

Quick thoughts:

This is a big provocation. It's the cyber equivalent of mining a harbor — an aggressive move that falls short of actual conflict but sends an unmistakable message: mess with us, and we'll mess you up.

The leak was probably intentional. The campaign fits with the new US strategy, launched under the Trump administration, of trying to deter cyber adversaries like Russia, China, and Iran from hacking its critical infrastructure. By disclosing the US campaign, US officials are effectively telling Russia (and by extension China and Iran), that they've got a loaded gun cocked and pointed at their economies.

That's dangerous. People — and governments — may not always behave rationally when a gun is pointed at their heads. Russia might be even more inclined to lash out. And unlike more conventional forms of conflict, cyber isn't a domain where the US can be sure it has an overwhelming advantage if push comes to shove.

It gets worse. The Times said US cyber officials described a "broad hesitation" to go into details of cyber operations against Russia with President Donald Trump because they feared he might cancel it or tell other governments about it. Among other things that are disturbing about this story, a lack of communication between the President and US cyber warriors could send mixed signals that further embolden US adversaries.

It's no secret that cyberattacks are becoming more commonplace. But where do most of them originate and what countries do they target most? The graphic above shows the most significant offenders and victims since 2006. Hackers in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea account for three-quarters of all major attacks. Nearly a fifth of attacks, meanwhile, have targeted institutions or companies in the United States.

(At least that we know of: this chart highlights known attacks on government agencies, tech companies, and other operations that caused more than $1 million in economic damage. But many cyberattacks are never disclosed, and some countries are more transparent than others, so consider this a cross-section of a much bigger — and more disturbing — picture.)

China's outrage against Swiss bankers – Paul Donovan, an economist at UBS and a former colleague of your Wednesday Signal author, ended up in hot water last week after he wrote that an outbreak of swine fever that had pushed up pork prices in China, "matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China. It does not really matter to the rest of the world." The Swiss bank put Donovan on leave after a nationalist tabloid picked up the story, unleashing a torrent of invective from angry Chinese citizens, industry groups, and clients. Although we're a bit puzzled at the intensity of the outrage, we're following this story closely. The anger of 1.4 billion people is a powerful thing, and if the US-China standoff over tech and trade continues to escalate, US firms could soon find themselves on the receiving end.

What we are ignoring: Trump on ICE

Trump's Deportation Threats – As Donald Trump revved up his official reelection campaign in Florida on Tuesday, he took to Twitter to vow mass deportations of "millions of illegal aliens" starting next week. We are ignoring this for two reasons: First, it looks more like a campaign trail stunt than a well-thought-out plan — the scale of deportations Trump envisions would require massive logistical coordination, and it's not clear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can deliver it — even if the federal force got help from local police, who may be reluctant to participate in mass arrests in their communities. Second, while this type of rhetoric may play directly to Trump's base, images of crying children torn from their parents will galvanize the president's opponents — and, in particular, the suburban women crucial to his 2016 victory. We're not ignoring the pain and trauma that mass deportations would inflict on immigrant communities if Trump delivers on this threat. We're ignoring a boast that's likely to prove a political bust.