Many believe that over the past 30 years of democratic expansion, elections have played an integral, and largely positive, role in contributing to the peaceful progression of democratic governance. Others have argued that political transitions and the introduction of electoral politics have led to increased violence and suffering, especially among the poor. Some high profile instances of flawed elections, especially those marked by serious irregularities, have resulted in a release of frustration by citizens, ethnic groups, political entities and others in the form of civil disobedience, violence and even civil war. This debate over the role of elections and multi-party politics in promoting development has received renewed attention of late and will likely continue as democratic transitions continue and the practice of democracy adapts and endures.
Below is a regional review of elections and political transitions to watch in 2013. These elections, and the processes they involve, have the potential to affect global politics and democratic development worldwide.
A cloud of uncertainty hangs over Venezuela, as President Hugo Chávez's health prevented him from taking office on January 10. The opposition continues to call for Chávez to be declared "incapacitated," a step that could lead to new elections in coming months. The country's Supreme Court has upheld the decision to delay inauguration, but it remains unclear how the impasse will be resolved. Those watching wonder if the movement created by Chávez over the past decade will endure and what role elections will play should a leadership transition be at hand?
In April, Paraguay will seek to end the institutional crisis of 2012, which led to the removal of President Fernando Lugo. The upcoming presidential elections – the sixth since the country became a democracy in 1989 – will be vital to rebuilding trust in Paraguay's institutions, strengthening rule of law and preserving the country's fragile democracy. Credible elections will also have regional significance, as it will be observed by members of the Mercosur and other regional blocks like ALBA-TCP that maintain distance from current Paraguayan authorities.
In November, Hondurans head to the polls for general elections, in what are arguably some of the most important elections in the country's history. Having endured over three and a half years of political and economic turbulence following the 2009 coup d'etat, this year's general elections have the potential to restore Honduras' democratic credentials and provide needed political stability and legitimacy to a worsening security situation. Hondurans will have the opportunity to choose from the traditional parties of a largely discredited – but relatively stable – status quo, a firebrand leftist party that is a direct result of the 2009 coup, or a host of smaller parties that promise to bring sweeping change to the country's political landscape. It is more important than ever that the 2013 electoral process is beyond reproach.
Middle East and North Africa
The Middle East's most watched election will be in Egypt. The Middle East's most watched election will be in Egypt. With a new constitution adopted last December, the People's Assembly elections (PA) are expected to be called within two months of its passage, which will likely be in April. The primary competition will be between diverse Islamist parties that together won over 70 percent of the vote in the 2011-2012 PA elections which were then nullified by the courts. Several socialist, liberal and independent parties, many of which coalesced in the National Salvation Front, stand in opposition to some of the constitutional provisions that restrict freedoms, particularly for minorities and women. Egypt will see renewed attention to the status of women and religious/ethnic minorities in its new political order.
On January 23, Jordan conducted its first national elections since the Arab Spring and reform efforts to its constitution and electoral legal framework, including the establishment of an independent electoral management body. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan's chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, pledged to boycott the poll and took a stand against King Abdullah's attempts to implement modest, yet potentially, meaningful political reforms.
Iran's June 14 presidential election will be the first presidential poll since the disputed 2009 election in which President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secured a second term. The reformist Green Movement and other opposition parties have been severely sidelined for the past three years. With the Green Movement's leadership under house arrest, it is expected that the reformists will be unable to field a viable candidate. Attention will be fixed on the ability of the opposition to demonstrate the degree of public support that it did in 2009.
Both Tunisia and Libya are expected to vote in constitutional referenda and hold elections for permanent parliamentary bodies this year. In both instances, parliamentary polls are expected to be highly competitive, with conservatives and secularists expected to make strong showings.
Kenya's next elections, on March 4 and April 11, are quite possibly the most important and complex since the country's return to multiparty politics two decades ago. If elections are largely peaceful and seen as credible two things will happen: Kenya's new constitution, adopted in 2010, will be brought fully into force and the country's progress toward becoming a modern democratic state will advance. Conversely, if elections are marred by widespread violence and perceived as illegitimate, they will likely plunge the country into a renewed period of political instability and set back Kenya's democratic gains. A breakdown in the electoral process will also do serious harm to Kenya's economy, which has been performing well in recent years.
In Zimbabwe, speculation surrounding elections has recently been on the rise following President Robert Mugabe's statements that elections would be held in March. These comments came as the country's major stakeholders were ironing out a few remaining items in the draft constitution. A constitutional referendum is plausible in April, should funding be resolved expeditiously. While the constitution is expected to be approved in the referendum, before general elections can be held, major amendments to the electoral law are required. Recent opinion polls indicate that candidates President Mugabe and Prime Minister Tsvangirai are tied. Major reforms essential for a conductive democratic electoral process are yet to materialize. No doubt, the upcoming 2013 elections will be decisive for the future of Zimbabwe, but many Zimbabweans await the end of this transitional arrangement.
In Pakistan, democratic stability has long been elusive. If the current government, led by President Asif Ali Zardari, is able to finish its term, the upcoming elections in 2013 could mark the country's first civilian-to-civilian transfer of power, as required by the 18th and 20th constitutional amendments. It would also be the first election managed by an election commission chosen by consensus and viewed as trusted and credible. This would be a milestone in bringing Pakistan closer to stability. Elections will likely take place in April or May.
The political situation in the Maldives continues to be very tense. President Waheed has dismissed the idea of early elections, declaring the date for a Presidential election will remain in July as called for by the constitution. The Election Commission (EC) is considered to be a transparent institution, but they aren't ready to hold an election; despite their assertions to the contrary. The concerns extend beyond a narrowly defined set of technical issues because security will be the main concern for the public, the candidates and their parties. Given the likelihood of political violence and the contentious nature of the presidential election, the outcome of the poll needs to be widely accepted by all contestants in order to hold on-going political tensions in check.
The Georgian Dream coalition, having defeated President Saakashvili's United National Movement party in parliamentary elections last fall, will face the first real test of its popularity since taking power when Georgia conducts presidential elections this October. Whatever the outcome, this election will result in a new president given that President Saakashvili is term limited. The change in executive leadership in late 2013 precedes the activation of constitutional amendments that will be triggered in December, significantly reducing the president's powers while increasing those of the sitting prime minister (also Georgian Dream leader) and the parliament.
In Albania recent reforms that may pave the way for a European Union conditional candidacy, could be lost by politicians' preoccupation in organizing for the 2013 parliamentary elections and a likely hard fought campaign. It seems certain that the elections will pit the two relatively equal parties of Albania, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party, against each other (again) in what is likely to be a contest as close as the 2009 and 2011 elections. Under Albania's current electoral system it is difficult for several smaller parties to realistically compete, yet talk of coalitions and several populist overtures have dominated news of late, as has a growing pressure on the Central Election Commission to take several decisions needed for the election to go ahead in June and July.
The lively debate and research of the constructive role that elections and democracy play in promoting (or hindering) human development is a rich topic. The events anticipated in the coming year promise to shed additional light on the role of credible elections in promoting democratic stability and provide additional data to assess the trajectory of democratic growth and political freedom.
Look at our photo gallery of elections mentioned in this article.
View our graphic on elections and democratic transitions to watch in 2013.