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Why 2020 will be key global election year

Crucial ballots in many nations will shape not only domestic politics and economics but also international relations in this decade.

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People listening to President Donald Trump speaking during a campaign event in Miami, Florida. To his supporters, Mr Trump’s controversial presidency and his weak job approval ratings do not seem to matter, so his prospects of winning a second term are far from sunk.

THE eyes of much of the world are currently on the United States with Donald Trump making final preparations for his re-election campaign, which he hopes will win him a second term in November's presidential ballot.

However, beyond the US, which will also be holding congressional elections, there are a wide range of eye-catching ballots in the next 12 months across every continent, which will not just shape domestic politics and economics, but also international relations in the 2020s.

The breadth of this year's elections is highlighted by Asia-Pacific, where there are key ballots from Taiwan next week to Singapore and Sri Lanka, through to Nov 21's election in New Zealand, which will reveal if Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who until recently was the world's youngest government leader, can win a second term for the Labour Party. This follows a decade of rule from 2008-2017 by the right-of-centre National Party.

LANDMARK ELECTIONS

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First off the blocks, however, is the landmark Taiwanese presidential and legislative elections on Jan 11. Held in the context of the months-long unrest in Hong Kong, which itself holds a ballot later this year, this will be one of Taiwan's most important elections in a generation with a growing risk of a cross-strait crisis with China.

The Taiwanese public has been paying significant attention to Hong Kong's protests. And next week's election will be fought between Democratic Progressive Party President Tsai Ing-wen - who polls indicate is likely to win - who has expressed sympathy for Hong Kong's demonstrators and Han Kuo-yu from the pro-Beijing opposition Kuomintang (KMT). The KMT is the organisation that fled to Taiwan some 70 years ago after losing power to the Chinese Communist Party in the civil war on the mainland.

The reason why Ms Tsai's re-election could potentially pose problems for cross-straits relations is that Beijing claims Taiwan as its own territory and says it wants reunification with what it considers a wayward province, and has never renounced the use of force to achieve the goal. Yet Ms Tsai has said recently that "Taiwan will never accept 'one country, two systems'," Beijing's proposed formula for reunification.

Turning to the Middle East and Africa, there are elections from Israel to Iran, and Egypt to Ethiopia. It is perhaps Israel, however, which is the standout in terms of potential importance, with the country heading into its third ballot in less than a year with the nation's longest-ever serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seeking re-election.

The March 3 election is important when seen in the context of concerns that the nation's governmental paralysis is severely weakening public trust in an already highly polarised political system. Months of deadlock have seen two inconclusive ballots in April and September 2019, leaving Mr Netanyahu and his principal opponent, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, unable to cultivate a coalition of 61 seats, nor a national unity government.

As well as these scheduled elections across the world, there is also the significant possibility of a series of unscheduled, "snap elections" too, including in G-7 countries Germany and Japan. In the latter, the nation's longest-serving prime minister Shinzo Abe may call a ballot before or after the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games in July and August.

Meanwhile, there are growing signs too that the German "grand-coalition" could collapse. This would bring an end to the long period of Chancellor Angela Merkel's rule, which began in 2005.

She has been a dominant figure in European politics for over a decade. To put her longevity into wider perspective, three US presidents (George Bush, Barack Obama and Mr Trump), four French presidents (Jacques Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and Emmanuel Macron) and five UK prime ministers (Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron, Theresa May, and Boris Johnson) have so far served during her long tenure.

And, in so doing, she has easily surpassed Margaret Thatcher's record of 11 years as Europe's previous longest serving female political leaders.

Indeed, were her German coalition to last the course of a full fourth term, she would match Helmut Kohl's 16 years in office and be placed behind only Otto von Bismarck, who was in power for almost two decades in Germany in the late 19th Century, having previously driven the unification of the country.

Yet, it is in the Americas that the most eagerly awaited election of all will be held in 2020. While the continent will see ballots from Bolivia to Peru, the standout will be the US presidential and congressional elections in November.

With the Republicans aiming to retain the Senate, and the Democrats hoping to hang on to the House of Representatives, the focus will be on whether Mr Trump can win a second term. Despite his controversial presidency, and his weak job approval rating, his prospects are far from sunk.

TOUGH OPPONENT

This is because several key economic and political fundamentals are acting like "tailwinds" for his re-election. This includes the generally robust economy, which continues to hum along in what last July became the longest ever period of expansion in US history dating back over 120 months, and counting.

Moreover, modern US history generally favours presidents winning a second term with, for instance, the last three incumbents all re-elected. This pattern is also given more support by the fact that, since the 1930s, the party that wins the presidency has held the White House for at least two terms of office with only one exception: the Democrats in 1976 when Jimmy Carter failed to get re-elected in 1980 against Ronald Reagan.

Yet, while Mr Trump will probably prove a tough opponent again, he is not unbeatable, and much could also therefore depend on whom the Democrats choose this year, and how effective a campaign he or she runs. And one of the key factors that will influence the party's prospects of victory will be whether, and how quickly, it can unite around this nominee given the significant number of contenders still in play.

After the policy and personal controversies from Mr Trump's presidency, many Democratic operatives are keen to avoid a bruising, introspective and drawn-out contest that exposes significant intra-party division to the electorate, as happened in 2016.

Then, the contest saw key differences opening up between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which helped contribute to the party losing an election that was potentially winnable given the wafer-thin margins of victory for Mr Trump in several battleground states.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics