Every day is International Day of Democracy for the International Republican Institute, as staff around the world focus on the issues that make democracies work. Those issues include open and transparent voting processes, a free discussion of candidates and the policies they represent, and the inclusion of as many diverse voices and people as possible in political parties, platforms and at the ballot box.

International Day of Democracy is a chance to remind the world of the vibrancy and success of the democratic system. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed September 15th as the International Day of Democracy in 2007, to make the point that while democracies share many common themes, there is no single democratic model, and no country or region with a monopoly on democratic ideas. Instead, democracy is simply the freely expressed will of people to guide their political, economic, social, and cultural systems.

The end of 2021 boasts its share of important elections, scenarios where the vibrant, sometimes messy, always vital system that is a democracy plays out—or does not. Here’s a look at some of the elections to watch through the end of the year.

Germany September 26

Germany—and Europe, as well—faces the end of an era as it votes on September 26 for the first government in 16 years that won’t be led by the retiring Angela Merkel. A Germany without Merkel could create a power vacuum in European politics. The race to lead Germany is proving dramatic. Since May, three parties have led the polls: Merkel’s own party, the center-right Christian Democrats (and its ally in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union), the Greens and more recently, the center-left Social Democrats. Whoever succeeds Merkel will have a tough act to follow, not just in Germany but also in Europe and the world.

Iraq October 10

Iraqis vote in parliamentary elections currently scheduled for October, setting off a government formation process likely to extend to 2022. Though Iraq has been one of the most volatile countries in the world for the past few decades, it has successfully held competitive national elections regularly since 2005. This set of elections comes after protests over widespread government corruption that peaked in late 2019 and early 2020, before slowing because of public health measures around COVID-19. Voters in these elections will use a new single non-transferable voter system, allowing Iraqis for the first time to choose individual representatives, instead of party lists, and to vote for a representative within a geographic constituency. Sectarian divisions will be a factor in the election and forming a stable government will again be a challenge. The U.S. has long considered Iraq to be a strategic country in the Persian Gulf region, but its instability, Iran’s role in the country, and the plight of the Iraqi people since the American-led invasion remain long-term issues. 

Nicaragua November 7

Nicaraguans vote in a general election in November. The 75-year-old Daniel Ortega is running for a fifth term as president, three years after he brutally put down anti-government protests. Ortega is continuing to crack-down on his political opponents and free speech, even though his Sandinista National Liberation Front already controls the legislature, judiciary, and much of the media in Nicaragua. Ortega is not leaving anything to chance, or to democracy. The National Assembly recently passed a law allowing Ortega to ban opposition candidates from running. The National Assembly also passed a law which requires individuals and groups that receive funding and support from foreign entities to register as “foreign agents” and similarly bars them from running for public office. In a step that democratic actors denounced as Ortega’s shameless effort to silence the opposition, the National Assembly also adopted a cybercrime law that severely punishes anyone found guilty of publishing or disseminating what the government deems as false or disruptive information. So, any election that takes place won’t be free and fair, unless the government allows opposition candidates to run, agrees to significant electoral reforms and allows international observers – all actions that seem unlikely at this time. This all comes against a sputtering economy and allegations that the government has covered up the extent and impact of COVID-19.

The Gambia December 4

In 2016, The Gambia became a “democratic example” in sub-Saharan Africa after voters peacefully ushered out 22 years of dictatorship through the ballot box. Activists all over the continent have since looked to The Gambia as a model for what is possible when the power of citizens is harnessed for democratic change. Since the 2016 vote, respect for democratic freedoms has improved significantly, opening the space for political parties to compete, for citizens to participate in government, and for civil society to hold the government accountable without fear of retribution.

But concerns have emerged in the leadup to the presidential vote about the government and political party leaders’ commitment to continuing the country’s democratic trajectory. The next presidential election, in December, will test this progress, revealing if political elites, the electoral commission, security forces, and civil society are in fact committed to putting the interests of citizens first and solidifying The Gambia’s place among the continent’s best democratic performers.

Hong Kong December 19

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections were originally slated for early September 2020, before being postponed, ostensibly due to the coronavirus pandemic. Amid large-scale pro-democracy protests that brought millions to the street, a victory for the pro-democracy camp—which clearly won the 2019 district council elections—was a real possibility. This March, the elections were postponed once more to December 2021, as part of a package of electoral law amendments to ensure that elected positions in the territory are held by pro-Beijing “patriots” only. Directly elected seats in the LegCo were reduced from 45 to 20 out of 90, and extensive government vetting is required before any candidate can run. In addition, pro-democracy local advocates’ ability to influence the selection of Hong Kong’s leader, the Chief Executive, was basically eliminated. Currently, there are no pro-democracy legislators in LegCo, giving the Council the ability to rubber-stamp further degradations of Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the upcoming election, rigged against any candidate Beijing does not support, is unlikely to improve the situation. This election will be less significant for its result—which is preordained—than for how willing the world is to openly condemn this showcase of Hong Kong’s democratic decline.

There are, of course, other elections taking place around the world in the last three months of 2021, and a whole new batch of key votes scheduled for next year. Elections are only part of a democratic system, though they are its most visible and perhaps most important part. These five elections are only the most notable of the upcoming votes this year, but the process of building and promoting democracy takes places slowly, often incrementally, 365 days a year. Because, as IRI knows, every day is International Day of Democracy.

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