Some 13 presidential ballots and up to 20 legislative and local elections will determine the political risk outlook for many African countries in 2021. Crucial votes are also expected in the Middle East this year. PANGEA-RISK identifies the main elections to watch and assesses the risk outlook across these regions as elections proceed during the second year of the pandemic.
Despite an ongoing second wave of coronavirus infections, a rising death rate, and the looming threat of a third COVID-19 wave later this year, Africa will host a spree of important national and local elections in 2021. There may be as many as 13 presidential elections across the continent, as well as several important legislative and local polls. Not to be outdone, there are also several important elections in the Middle East. At the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, we assessed that the virus and lockdowns would be leveraged by incumbents to either manipulate the elections in their favour, or to delay the ballot, which ultimately may also act in their favour. This same pattern will affect the credibility of several ballots over the coming year.
The trend of regional elections has been set on a worrying trajectory following violent and contested votes in Uganda in January and in Central African Republic (CAR) late last year. Nearly half of elections in 2021 will circumvent term limits and a third of polls are set to be manipulated in favour of long-time incumbents, just like Uganda. Moreover, several countries hosting elections are in protracted states of conflict, just like CAR. However, a number of countries will witness peaceful transitions of power and credible votes despite a trend to the contrary across Africa.
PANGEA-RISK identifies the most significant elections to watch in 2021 in Africa and the Middle East, assessing risk implications for commercial interests and security, and outlining the trajectory of democracy in these regions over the coming years.
AFRICAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS IN 2021
There may be 13 presidential votes in 2021, although some elections could be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, insecurity, or lack of funds. PANGEA-RISK lists all 13 slated elections for 2021 below, including the Ugandan presidential election that was held in January 2021. Frequent elections updates and risk forecasts will be published ahead of and following all these ballots.
Benin – April 2021
The centralisation of authority was the main outcome of the 2019 legislative elections and 2020 municipal elections. A dispute over the country’s electoral law that could exclude the opposition from the 2021 presidential elections is likely to spill onto the streets with a resumption of violent protests expected around the elections period and beyond. Despite some voiced commitments to reforming the electoral law and to re-opening the political space, there have been no overt signals that such reforms are underway. Instead, President Talon’s administration has continued to take actions which have resulted in the suppression of opposition voices and independent media. Nevertheless, Talon’s agenda of economic liberalisation has been welcomed by the international community and key domestic stakeholders (for our latest analysis briefing see BENIN: ELECTION COUNTDOWN BEGINS).
Cape Verde – March 2021
President Jorge Carlos Fonseca of the governing MpD party has generally performed well since 2016. However, the MpD has come under heavy criticism for its handling of the coronavirus crisis and economic hardships, which raises the probability of transition to the PAICV party. Cape Verde is undergoing its worst economic crisis in 45 years. While Cape Verde is renowned for its stability, such shocks threaten to expose economic and political vulnerabilities in the country ahead of the 2021 elections. International institutions are nevertheless forecasting a significant rebound in the local economy. Moreover, despite the potential for anti-government sentiment to rise in the lead up to elections, the risk of civil unrest is low (for our latest analysis briefing see CAPE VERDE: WORST ECONOMIC CRISIS IN 45 YEARS IN 2020).
Chad – April 2021
President Idriss Déby and his PSM party have dominated Chadian politics since rising to power via rebellion in 1990. Déby has gone to great lengths to consolidate his position – including amending the constitution in 2018 to extend his tenure which means he can technically remain in power until 2033. Such measures and delays to elections have been coupled with a broad social-media ban to silence critics and suppress freedom of expression. Violent unrest and public sector strikes are likely ahead of elections in 2021. Meanwhile, attention will gradually shift to the eventual succession of President Déby, whose departure would leave a destabilising vacuum in the highly centralised power structure (for our latest analysis briefing see CHAD: ALARMING SIGNALS OF DEBT DISTRESS AS SHOCKS WEIGHS HEAVY ON LOCAL ECONOMY).
Djibouti – February 2021
With President Ismail Omar Guelleh having been in power since 1999, calls for a succession plan have only mounted. The list of potential successors includes family members, with the most favoured candidate being the president’s stepson, Naguib Abdallah Kamil. Regardless, with Kamil being a close relative and even senior advisor to the president, any succession plan is likely to be mere window dressing as President Guelleh is unlikely to give up any hold on power. This is particularly the case as the president’s family dominates the construction, logistics, telecommunications, and tourism sectors throughout the country. Moreover, despite the potential for anti-government grievances this year, the ruling administration is likely retaining its hold on power, particularly as opposition parties have been successively weakened by the heavy-handed approach of government over the past two decades (our next Djibouti analysis briefing is scheduled on 27 January 2021).
Gambia – December 2021
President Adama Barrow has confirmed the fears of many of his critics. Not only has he broken his original pledge to remain in office for only three years by breaking away from the ruling coalition and forming his own political party, but he has displayed a similar governing style to his predecessor as he has repressed opposition voices. As the country prepares itself to usher in a third republic via its new constitution and host elections later this year, recent developments ultimately raise the prospects for civil unrest, primarily in the capital, Banjul. Moreover, recent actions by security forces suggest there is a high risk of violence during such events. Red flags have also been raised over the fact that in the official budget, most of the country’s money is currently spent on defence and security (for our latest analysis briefing see GAMBIA: BREAKDOWN OF RULING COALITION AHEAD OF 2021 ELECTIONS).
Libya – December 2021
The 2020 Geneva peace agreement between military representatives from the internationally recognised Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army potentially marks a turning point in the Libyan conflict. The ceasefire deal stipulates a range of conditions, including the withdrawal of all forces from front-line areas, the immediate suspension of foreign military training for both factions, and the departure from Libya of all foreign fighters and mercenaries. However, the agreement is significantly lacking in detail and specificity. While the UN intends that the finer points will be worked out during follow-up negotiations and through the establishment of sub-committees, there is considerable room for disputes and back-tracking based on differing interpretations. The formation of a timetable for national elections and the task of forming a unity government. Will be key obstacles through 2021 (for our latest analysis briefing see LIBYA: A CEASEFIRE AT LAST – BUT HOW LONG CAN IT HOLD?).
Niger – February 2021
Presidential candidate Mohamed Bazoum, a former foreign and interior minister, is likely to be elected as the successor to two-term President Mahamadou Issoufou at a run-off ballot in February. Despite the side-lining of the main opposition, the presidential election is expected to pass off without much political violence, indicating that the vote will result in the first peaceful transfer of power in the coup-prone former French colony. The main risk to the elections will be the threat of terrorist and insurgent attacks, particularly in the south-eastern region of Diffa. As an Arab from Diffa, Bazoum has depended heavily on Issoufou’s endorsement to secure the vote of the ethnic Hausa, which is the largest population group. The two men’s long friendship and political alliance indicates continuity of policy under an eventual Bazoum administration (for our latest analysis briefing see NIGER: AFRICA’S URANIUM GIANT IS HEADED TOWARD A PEACEFUL POLITICAL TRANSITION).
Congo, Republic – March 2021
President Denis Sassou-Nguesso is once again the candidate of the ruling Parti Congolais du Travail (PCT)’s to contest the 2021 elections, after more than three decades in power. The opposition continues to remain fragmented, which serves to the benefit of the incumbent as does his party’s majority in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the president has taken additional steps to secure his tenure this year. Such steps have included the continued imprisonment of opposition figures deemed a threat to the current administration. Given the economic crisis along with the Congo’s severe lack of readiness to combat an upswing in COVID-19 infections, the risk of violent unrest as a result of rising anti-government sentiment is sustained over the coming months (for our latest analysis briefing see REPUBLIC OF CONGO: SEVERE RISK OUTLOOK AMID MAJOR MACROECONOMIC FAILINGS).
São Tomé & Príncipe – July 2021
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has come at a time when the archipelago of São Tomé and Príncipe was already battling years of economic decline and ballooning debt, placing significant pressure on the small majority coalition led by Prime Minister Jorge Bom Jesus ahead of presidential elections year. The presidential election may be a bellwether of support for the government but otherwise has little political implications. Despite previous political successes, there has been little substantial economic change on the ground. On the contrary, economic growth has worsened since 2018 and the arrival of COVID-19 has jeopardised any significant recovery in the short to medium term. However, despite economic instability, political and social stability is expected to hold (for our latest analysis briefing see SAO TOME AND PRINCIPE: COVID-19 WORSENS ECONOMIC DECLINE BUT STABILITY HOLDS).
Somalia – February 2021
The Federal Government of Somalia and the semi-autonomous Federal Member States continue to struggle to reach consensus on a path forward. Much of the past year has been marked by disagreement and delay over the implementation of a new electoral law passed in February 2020, which sought to replace the clan-based electoral model with a one-person-one-ballot system. Opposition leaders have accused President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, known as “Farmajo,” of attempting to initiate reforms which could not feasibly be implemented within the allotted timeframe in order to delay the vote on procedural grounds, and thereby extend his term in office. The elections now face a very high probability of being delayed, even beyond 2021. The primary beneficiary of this outcome would be Al Shabaab, which is liable to take advantage of any evolving gaps in governance and security to exert its influence and widen its support networks (for our latest analysis briefing see SOMALIA: POLITICAL TENSIONS AND RISING INSECURITY THREATEN TO DERAIL ELECTIONS).
South Sudan – August 2021
The political and security outlook in South Sudan has faced significant strain due to economic distress. On the one hand, the gradual implementation of the September 2018 peace agreement along with the formation of the unity government in February 2020 laid the groundwork for greater stability to follow. On the other hand, the functioning of the new government remains slow, cabinet meetings are infrequent, and the Transitional National Legislative Assembly has not been reconstituted, meaning that necessary new laws are not being passed and progress on the constitution has been delayed. Moreover, a failure to bring armed rebel holdouts into the peace agreement will undermine the power-sharing government’s stability and exacerbate the security outlook toward elections later this year (these are due by September 2021). The polls could very well be delayed into 2022 or beyond, which would potentially fracture the peace agreement (for our latest analysis briefing see SOUTH SUDAN: NEAR POWER BLACKOUT IN JUBA THIS WEEK INDICATES NON-PAYMENT RISKS).
Uganda – 14 January 2021
President Yoweri Museveni won the presidential election held on 14 January with over 58 percent of total votes, defeating ten other candidates who had contested the ballot. The result is unsurprising given continued widespread rural support for the long-time incumbent, as well as a campaign of repression and intimidation in the cities that preceded the poll. The United States and European Union have called for an investigation into abuses of power by the government and violence during the election. Regardless of the outcome of this probe, Uganda is unlikely to face a backlash from the elections or any significant punitive actions that would undermine its investment climate or its alliance with the US and EU in regional peacekeeping and counterterrorism operations. Despite international media attention focussed on opposition presidential candidate Robert Kyagulanyi, aka Bobi Wine, the latter secured no more than 35 percent of the vote and posed no serious challenge to Museveni this time round (for our latest analysis briefing see UGANDA: STEERING TOWARD OIL PRODUCTION FOLLOWING TARNISHED ELECTIONS).
Zambia – August 2021
Seeking re-election in 2021 will be President Lungu’s ultimate ambition and dominate all policymaking until then. However, President Lungu’s bid for a third term and to further ramp up borrowing was recently dealt a political blow. A legislative bill which would have allowed Lungu to change the electoral layout and take control of central bank monetary policy — ahead of elections due in August – failed after less than the required two-thirds majority of lawmakers voted in favour, in a major political defeat for Lungu and the PF party. The government’s weak response to the coronavirus amidst economic decline and rising public debt may come to taint President Edgur Lungu’s presidency ahead of elections in 2021. Towards these elections, political and socio-economic protests will become more frequent in major cities and industrial and mining areas. The government is already facing an increasingly critical backlash from donors and diplomatic partners over its repression of political freedoms ahead of these elections (for our latest analysis briefing see ZAMBIA: CASH-STRAPPED GOVERNMENT AGAIN TARGETS THE MINING SECTOR AFTER MESSY DEFAULT).
LEGISLATIVE AND LOCAL AFRICAN ELECTIONS IN 2021
Almost 20 African countries are due to hold legislative or local elections this year, but most of these will be insignificant in political consequence while some votes may be delayed. However, several ballots will be important indicators of political direction and stability, including elections in Angola, Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Morocco, and South Africa.
Angola – April 2021
Violent political protests have become more frequent in major cities since mid-2020. Grievances include entrenched state corruption, massive unemployment, rising costs of living, and loss of political freedoms, while opposition parties such as UNITA have joined the protests. A heavy-handed approach by security forces to enforce coronavirus controls and regulations, including arbitrary detentions and beatings of those breaching the laws, have driven up anti-government sentiment. While urban youths are more likely to stage violent protests and commit to civil disobedience in the short term, a swing in opinion among older age groups would cause a political shift away from the governing MPLA party in the delayed local elections that are now due in April 2021 but could be further delayed. These local elections would be held for the first time as a test of Angola’s democracy and as a key bellwether for the next national elections in 2022 (for our latest analysis briefing see ANGOLA: POLITICAL VIOLENCE AND STATE CORRUPTION IMPERIL IMF AND CREDITOR RELATIONS).
Côte d’Ivoire – March 2021
President Alassane Ouattara was re-elected to a controversial third term in late 2020 after the main opposition parties boycotted the vote. The political polarisation of the country has raised fears of renewed violence in coming years, while parliamentary elections in 2021 might trigger renewed political violence, depending on how the opposition decides to approach these polls. An aging political elite remains in power, which is at odds with the country’s young and often agitated population. The risk of political violence will extend well into 2021 and beyond (for our latest analysis briefing see COTE D’IVOIRE: POLITICAL STABILITY AND SECURITY DEPEND ON ECONOMIC RECOVERY IN 2021).
Ethiopia – June 2021
The delayed Ethiopian parliamentary elections will be closely watched this year as indicators of the country’s political stability and security outlook. The vote would be the country’s first genuinely competitive multiparty elections. Key for the integrity of the process is the transparency of the electoral commission and maintaining the free flow of information. There are over 100 political parties competing in the parliamentary system, many for the first time including the ruling People’s Party (PP). However, rapid political and economic change in Africa’s second most-populous country has led to an upsurge in violent conflict and the fragmentation of regional states. Delays to the elections and the centralisation of political authority by the federal government have triggered insurgencies in the northern Tigray state, as well as frequent unrest in Oromia and Benishangul-Gumuz. Another delay to the elections or a contested outcome would stoke many of these conflicts and exacerbate ethnic and sectarian fault lines (for our latest analysis briefing see SPECIAL REPORT: PROSPECTS OF ANOTHER WAR IN THE HORN OF AFRICA).
Morocco – October 2021
Facing its worst economic crisis in 25 years, Morocco’s royal establishment is considering postponing the 2021 legislative and local elections to avoid a swing to more hardened Islamist leaders, although such a poll delay would certainly spike civil unrest risks. The governing Islamist PJD party is expected to emerge as the largest party at the elections. PJD Prime Minister Saad Eddine el Othmani’s government has remained committed to the king and the Makhzen’s agenda, although internal challenges to Othmani will worry the royal establishment. Former PJD leader and prime minister Abdelilah Benkirane, who is by far Morocco’s most charismatic and talented politician, is set to contest the party leadership ahead of the elections and more hardened Islamists leaders threaten the PJD’s current relationship with the Makhzen. Islamists are also critical of the king’s decision to normalise relations with Israel under a US-brokered deal in which the Western Sahara region is recognised by the US (for our latest analysis briefing see MOROCCO: GOVERNMENT STRUGGLES TO CONTAIN COVID-19 AND PROTECT THE ECONOMY).
South Africa – August-November 2021
South African municipal ballots elect councils for all district, metropolitan, and local municipalities in each of the country’s nine provinces. In 2016, the main opposition DA party made significant in-roads against the dominant ANC party, and captured control of several major cities. However, the DA’s control of these cities has since been lost and the weak prospect of coalition governments makes the outcome of the 2021 elections very uncertain. The local elections are usually a bellwether of the national government, currently headed by ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is battling an economic crisis, the pandemic, and state corruption, as well as a rebellion from within his own party. If a third wave of coronavirus infections proceeds as expected around the time of the elections, the elections may be postponed or even be merged with the 2024 national elections (for our latest analysis briefing see SOUTH AFRICA: ‘ACE’ IN THE HOLE – NEUTRALISING THE PRIMARY CHALLENGE TO ECONOMIC REFORM).
MIDDLE EAST ELECTIONS IN 2021
There will be several important elections in the Middle East region in 2021, including in Iran, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. The most notable of these votes will be the Iranian elections that have repercussions for the entire region and will set the tone of relations with the US and Europe over nuclear proliferation.
Iran – June 2021
The Iranian presidential election scheduled for June 2021 will partially determine the prospects of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA). Conservative political elements in Iran have discredited pro-JCPOA reformist politicians due to the perceived failure of the policy of Western engagement. They have held these reformists responsible for the onset of the country’s dire economic circumstances in recent years. With conservatives expected to triumph over reformists in June, an easy return to the deal remains unlikely. Even if President Hassan Rouhani is succeeded by another moderate candidate, that individual would have limited room to manoeuvre as foreign and defence policies are the prerogative of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is likely to take a harder and more populist anti-US position. Consequently, the elections considerably narrow the window of opportunity for the new US administration to get negotiations back on track with Iran, and if hardliners win as expected, any progress made during the pre-election period could be stopped in its tracks (for our latest analysis briefing see IRAN: TOO MANY SPOILERS WILL PRECLUDE BIDEN’S SWIFT RETURN TO A DEAL).