Putin and Berlusconi in Crimea in 2015. Photo: Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images

I've always considered cynicism the tool that lazy people use to appear sophisticated. But it’s hard not to smirk at the world’s five big votes scheduled for the spring.

See for yourself, starting with an election in Italy that is just two weeks away:

Italy

On March 4, Italians head to the polls for parliamentary elections unlikely to produce a result that pleases most of those who vote. No party will win a majority, beginning a prolonged process of coalition bargaining in a country where many MPs switch parties after the votes are cast. 

Maybe Silvio Berlusconi’s center-right Forza Italia will join the far-right Northern League and some smaller conservative parties to form a government. Berlusconi can’t serve as prime minister because he’s been convicted of tax fraud. Maybe the center-left Democratic Party will lead another unstable coalition, the fourth in seven years, with Forza Italia. Maybe, though not likely, the populist Five Star Movement (5SM) can form a government with the far right. Or maybe talks will collapse and Italy will need another round of elections.

Whatever the outcome, Italy’s large public debt and its frustration with other EU members who aren’t helping ease a still-large refugee burden will continue. The best that can be said: Economic growth continues to improve, and even the 5SM has stopped talking up a referendum on exiting the Eurozone. 

Germany 

Speaking of unhappy coalitions, we’ll learn the outcome on March 4 of the vote-by-mail balloting of 460,000-plus members of Germany’s SPD, who must choose whether their center-left party should join another government led by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the center-right CDU-CSU. Six months after elections in which both major parties took big losses from previous totals, it all comes down to an in-or-out vote for the SPD. This one, unlike similar votes in the past, is no sure thing, particularly with the party’s youth wing actively campaigning for “no.” If SPD voters reject the deal their leaders have cut with Merkel, Germany will have new elections, or Merkel will try to lead a minority government. 

The choice is simple, if cynical: Join a Merkel-led government that many SPD leaders have pledged to oppose in exchange for leadership of the foreign and finance ministries or face new elections after the party’s worst drubbing since World War II. Merkel’s party won just 33% of the vote last September, but the SPD won a mere 20.5%—and its popularity has since fallen to 16%, now behind even the far-right Alternative for Deutschland. As in France, traditional parties of the center-right and center-left are struggling to cope with rising public demand for change.

Russia

Vladimir Putin isn’t much worried that he’ll lose his March 18 bid for re-election. He’s more worried that he’ll miss his 70/70 target — 70% of the vote with 70% turnout — and that the kids won’t turn out to certify that their president remains cool. 

That’s probably why the Russian government hatched a plan to get young voters to compete to win iPads and iPhones by sending in selfies taken at polling stations. If there’s anything the youngsters like more than iStuff, it’s the selfies. 

Other prizes we’d like to see offered: 

  • A chance to hold President Superman’s cape while he wrestles a slightly drugged bear.
  • Two tickets to join the Kremlin watch party for the November US midterm elections. (Bring a date!)  
  • A chance to fire Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on live TV. 

Too cynical? I’m not even warmed up yet. 

Egypt 

On March 26, Egyptians will choose between voting to re-elect President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, voting for an opponent who isn’t really running to win, and staying home to watch TV. The January arrest of former army chief of staff and credible opponent Sami Anan made clear Egypt’s strongman will leave little to chance. Like Putin, Sisi is worried about low turnout, particularly since Egypt’s opposition will boycott the vote. No worries: Sisi’s government is unlikely to publish credible turnout information anyway.

Anan is far from the only rival pushed out of the race — a former prime minister, a human rights lawyer, and former president Anwar Sadat’s nephew have all been harassed off the ballot. But Anan’s uniform reminds us that Sisi worries less about civilian opposition than about losing his support base within the military. That may eventually happen, if Egypt’s economy and security situation don’t improve. But not in time for next month’s vote. In the meantime, 14 international and Egyptian rights groups accuse the US and EU of “largely unquestioning support for a government presiding over the country’s worst human rights crisis in decades.”

Venezuela

The salsa king of Venezuela, aka President Nicolas Maduro, has decided to stand for re-election on April 22. There are many reasons he’s going to win. His government has made no deal with the opposition, allowing Maduro to change election rules as he goes. There will be no objective international observers to certify Maduro didn’t cheat. And Maduro will cheat—by using the country’s courts to disqualify any legitimately popular opponent, by stuffing the ballot box, or both. 

It’s no wonder then that the country’s four largest opposition parties announced this week they’ll boycott the whole show. Henri Falcon, a former Chavista turned controversial opposition figure, says he’s in the race. But though he enjoys a two-to-one lead over Maduro in current polls, there’s no way Maduro will let him win.

In the meantime, conditions inside Venezuela will get even worse. Declining oil production will undermine the value of the country’s only valuable export. Runaway inflation and shortages of basic goods will continue, even for those who have supported Maduro. Sanctions may hasten a default, particularly if the Chinese and Russians decide to stop throwing good money after bad. 

That's why the greatest threat to Maduro in coming months comes not from the still-fragmented opposition but from within the Chavista movement, those with real power to dance him offstage.

Sign up for Signal, a twice-weekly newsletter from GZERO Media, a Eurasia Group company.

Go deeper

NYT: White House drug price negotiations broke down over $100 "Trump Cards"

President Trump with Mark Meadows, his chief of staff, on Sept. 3 at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Negotiations on a deal between the White House and pharmaceutical industry to lower drug prices broke down last month after Mark Meadows, the president's chief of staff, insisted that drugmakers pay for $100 cash cards to be mailed to seniors before the election, according to the New York Times.

Why it matters: Some of the drug companies feared that in agreeing to the prescription cards — reportedly dubbed "Trump Cards" by some in the pharmaceutical industry — they would boost Trump's political standing weeks ahead of Election Day with voters over 65, a group that is crucial to the president's reelection bid, per the Times.

In photos: Virginians line up for hours on first day of early voting

Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

In some parts of Virginia, people waited in line up to four hours to cast their ballots on the first day of early voting, according to the Washington Post.

The big picture: The COVID-19 pandemic seems to already have an impact on how people cast their votes this election season. As many as 80 million Americans are expected to vote early, by mail or in person, Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm, told Axios in August.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 30,306,469 — Total deaths: 948,147— Total recoveries: 20,626,515Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 4:30 p.m. ET: 6,705,114 — Total deaths: 198,197 — Total recoveries: 2,540,334 — Total tests: 92,163,649Map.
  3. Politics: In reversal, CDC again recommends coronavirus testing for asymptomatic people.
  4. Health: Massive USPS face mask operation called off The risks of moving too fast on a vaccine.
  5. Business: Unemployment drop-off reverses course 1 million mortgage-holders fall through safety netHow the pandemic has deepened Boeing's 737 MAX crunch.
  6. Education: At least 42% of school employees are vulnerable.