Pollwatch: The year of dangerous elections
By Andy White, Head of Innovation

“Hell yes, I’m tough enough,” said Ed Miliband last night.

ISIS, the Eurozone crisis, tumbling oil prices. In a globalised world, it no longer makes sense to think of political instability being contained to regions like the Balkans or the Middle East.

So while David Cameron and Ed Miliband were interrogated on the collapse of the autocratic regimes in Libya and Syria, it may be changes in the world’s democracies that pose the most significant economic and foreign policy challenges for the Government after May 7th.

RISE OF ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT PARTIES IN EUROPE

Westminster strategists are losing sleep over UKIP winning a handful of seats, but elsewhere in Europe anti-EU parties have become the main parties of government and opposition.

Greece was the first EU state to opt, in Syriza, for a genuinely anti-austerity government. Their rise was foreshadowed by the success of Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in his own country’s 2013 election, when he ran the established parties close, and won over 100 seats in the Italian Parliament.

Key elections take place this year in two more austerity-hit countries in Southern Europe: Spain and Portugal. Spain’s Podemos (‘We Can’) party shares much in common with Syriza – academic, left-wing, and suspicious of a German-led ‘recovery’.

BALTIC SEA ELECTIONS

Along the shores of the Baltic Sea, major elections in Estonia, Finland, Denmark, and Poland also take place this year. The historic threat from Russia looms large over these countries with renewed significance post-Ukraine.

The election in Estonia earlier this month saw the pro-Russia Centre Party struggle. In non-aligned Finland, NATO membership has emerged as an election issue, with voters going to the polls at the end of April.

We can also expect hawkish rhetoric ahead of the Polish elections later this year, where the recent ComRes poll on behalf of New Direction (January 2015) revealed very high support for NATO’s involvement in the country’s defence and security arrangements:

POLLWATCH Responsibility for defence

A BAD ONE FOR GOODLUCK

Outside Europe the OPEC-fuelled crash in global oil prices was a welcome surprise for many but in markets dependent on oil exports it has caused leaders serious headaches.

Nigeria looks like a microcosm of the “emerging” world in 2015: an unbalanced economy, brutal Islamist insurgency, accusations of rampant corruption by a rich elite, and a weakened president – Goodluck Jonathan – who will need to draw on all his powers of nominative determinism in the polls this weekend.

President Jonathan has already postponed the election once to quell the threat from Boko Haram militants, but has now run out of options. Nigerian voters go to the polls this weekend, the government having closed the country’s borders on Wednesday to prevent foreigners from casting illegal ballots. Much of the country has already shut down over fears of violence.

A negative and ethnically divisive contest could have far-reaching consequences, particularly if military leaders try to orchestrate a coup d’etat – not beyond the realms of possibility in a country ruled by the army for most of the late twentieth century.

TENSION IN THE MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

This month’s elections in Israel saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cling on to power after polling terribly during the campaign. His victory came at the expense of weakened diplomatic relations with the West, his relationship with Barack Obama destroyed by (among other things) Mr Netanyahu’s unprecedented speech to the US Congress.

The tension has risen because an already hugely complicated region has now become a morass of poorly understood alliances between enemies and enemies of enemies. Western leaders want to bring Iran in from the cold as a partner in the fight against Islamic State, while Iran continues to back Shia militants in Yemen and Lebanon, as well as Hamas in Palestine. (Saudi Arabia this week launched a counter-offensive against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen.)

A postponed election to the west of Israel could also be important. The Egyptian Parliamentary elections were scheduled for March this year.  Whether or not they eventually happen this summer will be an indicator of the country’s progress which, some fear, is slipping back into permanent military rule.

In Turkey, another country sucked into the conflict in Iraq and Syria, June’s legislative elections could well trigger civil unrest. Until recently a realistic candidate for EU accession, Turkey now appears to be backsliding, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan planning to seize additional powers in what looks like a Putin-style super-presidency.

ELSEWHERE…

Look out, too, for Mexico’s mid-term congressional elections in June, seen as a referendum on President Enrique Peña Nieto’s handling of the long-running fight against organised crime and drug trafficking.

In October, less controversial elections will take place in Canada, where Stephen Harper runs for a fourth consecutive term as Prime Minister. A Conservative who has turned two terms of minority government into a winning majority, he ought to be a role model for David Cameron.

A YEAR OF UNCERTAINTY

We often think the outlook in Britain is uncertain but that perspective is mirrored around the world. Huge geopolitical challenges can easily be overlooked in the parochial “cut and thrust” of domestic electoral politics. But the next Prime Minister will need to be both a national and an international statesman.

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