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IRI's Scott Mastic in the Washington Examiner: Three Elections to Watch in 2019

February 1, 2019

Three elections to watch in 2019 — and what they mean for the US

Washington Examiner 

By Scott Mastic 

As Democratic hopefuls start to throw their hats into the ring, the news cycle in the United States is already focusing obsessively on our next presidential election in 2020. Yet, with more than one quarter of the global population headed to the polls in just the first half of the year, 2019 will be a year of profound electoral consequences worldwide, with the potential to disrupt or strengthen America and our allies.

Here’s a look at three key elections and what they could mean for U.S. interests.

NIGERIA 
Nigeria will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Feb. 16 and gubernatorial and National Assembly elections on March 2. These will be Nigeria’s sixth elections since the transition from military to civilian democratic rule in 1999. They will take place against a backdrop of serious economic challenges.

Why does it matter to the United States? 
Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, its largest economy, and a key global oil producer. In fact, by 2050, Nigeria’s population is projected to exceed that of the United States. Serious steps are needed to address the country’s spiraling debt, undiversified economy, rapid urbanization, and skyrocketing youth population. Any backsliding in the country’s democracy will further undermine attempts to come to grips with these challenges.

Stable, effective institutions facilitate a prosperous, growing economy and life opportunities for its citizens, while state failure would fuel extremism of the type seen from Boko Haram and the potential for large-scale illegal migration, mostly to Europe. If the integrity of the elections is called into question or if the polls are marred by electoral violence, this could erode trust in the system with negative consequences for the African continent and beyond.

Who is running and what can we expect? 
The presidential and gubernatorial elections are expected to be closely contested. More than 70 candidates will vie for the nation's top office, including incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari and opposition leader and former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the People's Democratic Party. As the incumbent, Buhari has the electoral advantage, but the flailing economy and deteriorating security situation could undermine his position. Observations of the pre-election environment have raised serious concerns over potential vote buying, inadequate security preparations, and electoral violence.

UKRAINE 
The first round of Ukraine’s presidential election will take place on March 31. Polling indicates that no candidate will secure a majority of the vote in the first round, so the contest will likely proceed to a run-off, on April 21.

Why does it matter to the United States? 
In 2014, Russian irregular forces invaded Ukraine and occupied the Crimean peninsula, initiating an era of renewed Russian aggression not only toward Ukraine but also to the whole of Europe. To this day, Crimea remains under Russian occupation. Eastern Ukraine is a war zone, and Russia continues to interfere in Ukraine’s democracy through disinformation campaigns intended to undermine anti-Kremlin candidates.

The upcoming elections will indicate whether Ukraine can continue to build a successful democracy in the face of systemic challenges and the continued Russian assault on its national sovereignty. An independent, democratic Ukraine is perhaps the most important bulwark against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ambitions to reconstitute Russia’s sphere of influence within Eurasia. Given that Russia has been identified as a key geopolitical adversary and strategic threat in President Trump’s National Security Strategy, a stable, democratic Ukraine is of vital importance to U.S. strategic interests.

Who is running and what can we expect? 
Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and charismatic opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko are the current frontrunners, with Tymoshenko currently holding the lead. However, a significant number of voters are still undecided, such that the race remains wide open.

INDONESIA 
Indonesia will hold its first simultaneous nationwide elections for president, vice president, and the national and provincial parliaments on April 17.

Why does it matter to the United States? 
Since the end of the 32-year dictatorship of President Suharto in 1998, Indonesia has served as a model of a Muslim-majority, multiconfessional democracy. Today, Indonesia is in the middle of an internal struggle over the country’s character and its commitment to tolerance and pluralism. Islamist groups are taking an increasingly hardline stance against public figures advocating moderate views and are attacking minority communities in order to polarize the population.

As the second-most populous country in the Asia-Pacific region and the most populous Muslim majority country in the world, the health of Indonesian democracy is of great importance to the stability of the region. Additionally, as an important counterterrorism partner for the U.S. and a key target of the Islamic State, the potential for encroaching extremism in Indonesia is a serious concern for American interests.

Who is running and what can we expect? 
Incumbent Joko Widodo is facing off against challenger Prabowo Subianto, a son-in-law of the former dictator Suharto and a 2014 presidential candidate. As a military commander, Prabowo was complicit in egregious human rights violations during student-led protests that brought down Suharto in May 1998. His election would not bode well for democratic institutions and civil liberties.

Prabowo has opportunistically aligned himself with the Islamists in an effort to unite voters behind his candidacy and has cast his opponent as “anti-Islamic” because of his association with the Chinese Christian former governor of Jakarta, who was jailed on trumped-up blasphemy charges. The campaign period is expected to be tense, and there is a possibility of electoral violence.

Scott Mastic is the vice president of programs at the International Republican Institute. IRI will co-lead an international observation mission to observe the Nigerian elections and will also deploy a delegation to observe the Ukrainian elections.