October 05, 2020

Welcome back! Tonight we're taking a tour through the global elections coming before the big one here in the United States (1,656 words, 6 minutes).

1 big thing: A busy month for democracy

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern voting early in Auckland. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

We are at the onset of a very busy month for global democracy.

The big picture: By the time Americans go to the polls on Nov. 3, the world will have seen 11 national elections and three high-stakes referenda over the course of one month. Earlier pandemic-related delays are partially responsible for the electoral cluster.

Driving the news: The electoral onslaught began with votes on Sunday in the South Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia, which rejected independence from France by a 53%-47% margin, and in the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan.

  • Protesters are in the streets of Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, tonight to protest vote-buying in Sunday's parliamentary election. Official results showed all genuine opposition parties falling short of the 7% electoral threshold.
  • What to watch: The opposition is demanding fresh elections, and tonight's chaotic scenes have already sparked comparisons to other uprisings in former Soviet republics. It's too early to know where this is heading.

What's next: Lithuania and Tajikistan will both hold elections next weekend, followed by Bolivia, Guinea and New Zealand a week later. Then come 10 national votes in two weeks, culminating in the U.S. election.

In New Zealand, early voting is underway and the virus is under control.

  • Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's party is running on its COVID-19 record and leading in the polls — perhaps unsurprising given there are currently just seven active cases in the country, Axios' Rebecca Falconer reports.

In Bolivia, an Oct. 18 presidential vote will belatedly determine the successor to Evo Morales, the leftist who fled the country following last October's presidential vote amid claims of electoral irregularities.

  • Jeanine Añez, the right-wing interim president, has been accused of targeting Morales allies since succeeding him. She dropped out of the race last month so as to not split the conservative vote.
  • Morales' handpicked successor, Luis Arce, leads the polls but needs a margin of 10 points to avoid a run-off. Another disputed vote could lead to violence.

Several of the upcoming elections are already sources of international concern.

  • In Tanzania (Oct. 28), President John Magufuli has imposed a crackdown on independent media ahead of his re-election bid, and authorities have arrested at least 17 members of the opposition, per Human Rights Watch.
  • The presidents of Guinea (Oct. 18) and Ivory Coast (Oct. 31) are seeking constitutionally dubious third terms.
  • Elections for parliament in Georgia (Oct. 31) and the presidency in Moldova (Nov. 1) will be read as tests both of democracy and of Russian influence.

Algeria's constitutional referendum on Nov. 1 serves as a reminder that the uprising that toppled Abdelaziz Bouteflika last year remains unfinished.

  • The protests stopped when COVID-19 arrived, and more recently, authorities have "played a cat-and-mouse game" of arrests and intimidation, the NYT's Adam Nossiter reports.
  • On the one hand: President Abdelmadjid Tebboune insists the new constitution will herald a new era for the country.
  • On the other: "[H]opes are now fading for an overhaul of the political system and real democracy in Algeria," Nossiter writes.

2. Part II: Chile's constitutional question

Protests last October in Santiago. Photo: Marcelo Hernandez/Getty Images

Chile’s constitutional referendum on Oct. 25 is also the result of an uprising that began last year, though it's really four decades in the making.

The big picture: Chile is a relatively prosperous democracy, but its reputation for stability was punctured last October when public anger erupted onto the streets of Santiago.

  • The protests were driven by inequality that Chileans believe is baked into their constitution, which dates back to 1980 and Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
  • The document’s architect “envisaged an eventual end to the dictatorship and a transition to democracy, with constitutional safeguards in place to protect the nation from socialism and preserve the market capitalism that he hoped would transform Chilean society,” Daniel Alarcón writes in the New Yorker.
  • Critics argue the constitution “acts as a kind of straitjacket on Chilean democracy,” he writes, because progressive legislation is often struck down by the courts.

On the one hand: "Replacing Pinochet’s constitution with a new one would be a way of breaking — finally and definitively — with the legacy of his regime," Alarcón writes.

On the other: Some Chileans fear that a system that enabled rapid economic development is being dismantled.

Where things stand: Polls show 70% of Chileans in favor of replacing the constitution. They’d then have to elect members of a new constitutional assembly, which would have a year to write a new constitution.

3. Part III: Fears of violence in Ivory Coast

Henri Konan Bédié , the challenger and former president. Photo: Issouf Sanogo/AFP via Getty

There have already been at least two dramatic twists in Ivory Coast's presidential election, set for Oct. 31.

  • First, the handpicked successor to President Alassane Ouattara died.
  • Then, Ouattara announced his own candidacy, courting outrage from the opposition by claiming recent constitutional changes had reset his presidential terms (he'd otherwise be ineligible).

Why it matters: There has already been violence in the lead-up to this election. Some observers fear it will devolve into war.

The big picture: Ivorian politics have been dominated for three decades by three men: Ouattara and two presidential predecessors, Henri Konan Bédié (president from 1993 to 1999) and Laurent Gbagbo (2000–2011).

  • Ouattara formed a pact with Bédié to defeat defeated Gbagbo in 2010, but Gbagbo refused to leave power. That sparked a brief civil war in which an estimated 3,000 people were killed
  • Gbagbo was acquitted of crimes against humanity last year by the International Criminal Court, but his attempt to run in this year's election was rejected.
  • Bédié, 86, will be on the ballot. He has severed his electoral alliance with Ouattara and called for civil disobedience.

What to watch: It could be 2010 all over again.

  • "There is no consensus among the political class about the electoral process going forward: The constitutional court is contested, the electoral commission is contested, Ouattara's candidacy is contested," Mohamed Diatta of the Institute for Security Studies told the Global Dispatches podcast.
  • "The conditions are just not ripe for a peaceful, transparent and accepted election at this point in time."

4. Europe: Three years after Catalonia's referendum

Referendum day, 2017. Photo: Burak Akbulut/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Spain's supreme court last week upheld a ruling that the pro-independence president of the Catalonia region, Quim Torra, be banned from office for refusing to remove a protest banner from a government building.

The backstory: The banner read "freedom for political prisoners and exiles," a reference to the separatist leaders who held an unsanctioned independence referendum three years ago this week — nine of whom are currently in prison.

The issue of Catalan independence has defined the current period of extreme political polarization in Spain.

  • In Catalonia, there are some signs of weariness. Support for independence has slumped from 49% three years ago to around 42% now.

Bernat Solé, Catalonia's pro-independence foreign minister, tells Axios that the more important figure is 80% — the proportion of Catalonians who he says support a referendum.

  • While COVID-19 has rightly been the top national priority, Solé says, "the political situation in Catalonia is not solved."
  • He says regional elections expected in the coming moments "could be a good tool to answer what the people of Catalonia are thinking at this moment."

What to watch: The elections could also allow for a reset in relations with Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who will likely need Catalan votes to pass a budget and keep his government afloat.

  • He's attempting to walk a tightrope on the independence issue, and he recently agreed to consider clemency requests for the jailed separatist politicians.
  • Solé has been unimpressed. "At the moment, it's a progressive government, they say, 'the most progressive government in Spanish history.' The real thing is that it's the same — it's another Spanish government, and the situation in Catalonia is the same."

5. Story to watch: The COVID-19 crackdown

Enforcing a coronavirus curfew in Sri Lanka. Photo: Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP via Getty

Fears that governments would use the coronavirus crisis to tighten their holds on power are coming to fruition, according to a global report from Freedom House.

What they're saying: "Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries."

  • "Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health."

Breaking it down: Governments have cracked down on their opponents under cover of COVID-19 in countries from Kazakhstan to Cambodia.

  • In countries like Zimbabwe, security forces officially enforcing COVID-19 restrictions have been accused of intimidation and even violence, often targeting government critics.
  • Minorities and migrants have faced particularly harsh treatment in a number of countries.
  • Nearly half of the world's countries have seen attempts to restrict what the media can report about the pandemic.
  • Zoom in: Sri Lanka's government "accelerated its authoritarian agenda over the past six months, stepping up efforts to control independent reporting and unfavorable speech by ordering the arrest of anyone who criticizes or contradicts the official line on the coronavirus," per the report.

The flipside: Belarus is one prominent example of government incompetence or overreach during the pandemic actually emboldening critics.

  • Meanwhile, "journalism has thrived in certain countries as people seek out factual information, and investigative reporting has persisted in several of the most hostile environments," the report notes.

6. What I'm reading: "The man who ran Washington"

James Baker (L) with Mikhail Gorbachev. Photo: TASS via Getty

James Baker is best remembered as the secretary of state who oversaw the end of the Cold War.

But a new biography from husband and wife duo Peter Baker (of the NYT) and Susan Glasser (of the New Yorker) focuses more attention on his mid-life metamorphosis from corporate lawyer in Texas to Washington power player.

  • Baker was born into privilege but not into politics, which he only entered at the urging of his tennis partner at a Houston country club: George H.W. Bush.
  • Baker helped Bush raise funds for a failed Senate run, then Bush recommended Baker for the No. 2 job in Gerald Ford’s Commerce Department in 1975.
  • By the time his friend was elected president in 1988, Baker had managed three presidential campaigns and served as Ronald Reagan's chief of staff and Treasury secretary.

As Bush's top diplomat, Baker's approach — whether after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait or as Soviet republics began to declare independence — was cautious and methodical.

  • But as the U.S. strategy came together, Baker set out to line up as many of the key players as possible behind it through a sort of muscular multilateralism.
  • The chief of staff to Canada's prime minister said of Baker, “He was very much at ease representing the raw power of the United States."
  • Richard Nixon saw things differently (see quoted below).

7. Stories we're watching

Cruise ships being broken down for scrap metal in Izmir, Turkey. Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

  1. India passes 100k coronavirus deaths
  2. Australia and New Zealand to open "safe travel zone"
  3. New Zealand "beat the virus again," Ardern says
  4. Israel and UAE to hold normalization talks in Berlin
  5. Blinken on diplomacy under Biden
  6. Trump's Israel ambassador warns against Biden
  7. In pandemic winter, dinner comes with side of propane


"They're obsessed with the collective action bullshit."
— Nixon on Baker, Bush and multilateralism