French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancelor Angela Merkel react during a press conference after the multinational meeting at Elysee Palace on August 28, 2017 in Paris, France.
Aurelien Meunier—Getty Images
By Ian Bremmer
September 15, 2017

Five important votes are scheduled over the next five weeks around the world. Here’s what you should be keeping tabs on.

Germany

Little drama accompanies Germany’s September 24 elections — Angela Merkel and her CDU party will win a fourth consecutive term, making her the second longest-serving chancellor in modern German history when her term wraps up. Even Merkel’s prime challenger, Martin Schulz of the center-left SPD, has effectively admitted defeat, spending his last days on the campaign trail detailing the conditions he’ll set for joining Merkel’s ruling coalition rather than convincing people he should be the one leading it.

But just because big changes aren’t coming to Germany doesn’t mean the same for Europe. This will be Merkel’s final term, and she can now turn to her legacy. Nothing is more important to that legacy than bolstering the European Union. Look for her to support extraordinary steps to keep the European project afloat and the Eurozone on track, particularly by working more in harmony with France.

France

Speaking of France, its notoriously rigid labor laws give workers strong protections and expensive benefits, but at the cost of a high unemployment rate (currently hovering above 9%) since those same laws deprive employers of incentives to hire new people. French presidents have tangled with these laws for 30 years, but haven’t made much progress, usually because unions mobilize and bring government to a halt. President Emmanuel Macron looks poised to break through. He aims to make it easier for companies to hire and fire workers and to let them negotiate certain workplace issues directly with their workers rather than with national unions. While Macron’s personal popularity plunged 14 percentage points over the last month or so, his party has a solid majority in parliament (holding 350 of the 577 seats), allowing him to bypass the messiness of parliamentary debates and enact the reforms by presidential decree. That parliamentary vote is set for September 22.

Macron needs to get France’s economy humming again — and fast. It used to be that the three pillars of the E.U. were Germany, the U.K. and France. Germany continues to prop up the project (Berlin undertook its own difficult labor reforms nearly two decades ago, while France punted), but the U.K. is heading for the exit while France is left trying to get its fiscal house in order. Macron has good reason to want to reform Europe’s currency union, and he has toured Europe saying as much. But he needs Germany’s buy-in; that’s a lot more difficult to get if Berlin thinks it’ll be the only one shouldering the costs.

Kenya

Kenya just ran elections on August 8, returning a victory for incumbent President Uhuru Kenyatta over four-time candidate Raila Odinga by a 54-44 margin. The fear in the run-up to elections was ethnic violence. As many as 1,400 people were killed and 600,000 displaced after the disputed election of 2007. Thankfully, a deal struck between opposing ethnic groups in 2013 held in place; international observers endorsed the election returns shortly thereafter. But Odinga maintained that the electronic voting tallies were hacked in favor of Kenyatta, and in a surprise twist, Kenya’s Supreme Court agreed, nullifying the election results and ordering new elections be held on October 17. That’s a first for Africa; we’re currently awaiting a report that details the Court’s rationale.

The rerun comes with real costs: at least $100 million by credible estimates. That’s part of the price that comes with maturing state institutions. True, simply holding a successful re-run election (with minimal violence) won’t suddenly transform the country into a developed and stable democracy. But it’s an important step.

Catalonia Referendum

Separatists in Catalonia are holding an independence referendum on October 1; the Spanish government in Madrid says the vote is illegal, and the country’s constitutional court has officially suspended the vote. It’s going ahead anyway.

Catalonia, home to Barcelona, is responsible for 20% of Spain’s GDP; there’s good reason why Madrid doesn’t want the region to break away. While the referendum won’t be internationally recognized, Catalan officials have declared they will unilaterally move forward with secession if the people vote for it. That’s bluster, but it will strain the politics of the country at a time it can ill afford it (especially less than a month removed from the horrific Barcelona terrorist attacks). Spain is finally emerging from a decade-long economic crisis, and its recovery remains fragile. Current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy leads a minority government, which is difficult under the best of circumstances. So while this unsanctioned vote is little more than symbolic at the moment, it has the potential for significant disruption down the line.

Kurdish Referendum

Iraqi Kurds vote for independence on September 25 in a referendum that’s also technically unsanctioned. The Kurds are an ethnic group of around 30 million that spans four countries: Turkey (~15 million), Iran (~8 million), Syria (~2 million) and Iraq (~5.5 million). Kurds have been trying to carve out a state for themselves since the end of the first World War; Iraq’s 2005 constitution was a major step towards that goal, establishing an autonomous region within the country to be run by the Kurdistan regional government.

But the political push to establish a Kurdish homeland took a backseat to fighting ISIS since 2014. Kurds have been instrumental on that front and were indispensable in recapturing the Iraqi city of Mosul. Supporters of Kurdish independence point to battlefield contributions as proof that Kurds have earned a homeland. The U.S. (along with the E.U.) has taken issue with the referendum, but mainly on the question of timing. The fight against ISIS isn’t over yet, and Kurdish secession would weaken pro-U.S. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi considerably ahead of elections next year. But over the longer-term, U.S. support for the Kurds will grow, making it likely that a Kurdish state will eventually come into existence. That will strain relations between the U.S. and Turkey/Iran/Syria (all of whom oppose Kurdish statehood) even further. And a newly created Kurdish state may clash with its neighbors, fueling yet more fires in a part of the world that has no shortage of them.

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