As everyone in the United States discovered on 9 November 2016, ballot boxes often contain big surprises. The day before the 2016 presidential elections, US polling data uniformly predicted that Hillary Clinton would defeat Donald Trump by a wide margin. Shock—more so than surprise—followed the next day as Americans awoke to the impending Trump presidency. For so many of us, it still seems surreal—a bad dream we hope to awaken from soon. While the US and world media are getting ready for next autumn’s electoral match between Trump and one of the dozen or so Democrats who have thrown their hats into the ring, other electoral matches—at home and abroad—are providing surprises of all sorts.
Slovakia has just elected a relative newcomer, lawyer Zuzana Caputova, who, like New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, is an environmentalist deeply concerned about global warming. Slovakia’s first female president, Caputova supports gay rights and opposed a ban on abortion, a risky move in a Roman Catholic country. She won largely as a result of popular anger over the murder last year of a young journalist who was investigating corrupt links between Slovak political leaders and the Italian Mafia. Caputova is pro-European Union and was previously a member of a non-parliamentary leftist party, Progressive Slovakia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s balloting in the first round of presidential elections has yielded quite a surprise: another political newcomer, an actor who plays a school teacher who becomes president on a television comedy program, has emerged as the front-runner. Comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won 30 percent of the vote, nearly twice the amount as incumbent Petro Poroshenko. Surprisingly, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was eliminated in the first round.
In North Africa, Algerians would love to have an election, but on their own terms. Presidential elections were supposed to take place on 18 April 2019. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika cancelled the balloting because of mass protests against his bid for a fifth term, and then resigned on 2 April. No new date has been set for elections. Bouteflika is now gone, but protestors still fill the streets—sparking talk of another Arab Spring movement—demanding the dismantling of an entire political apparatus in order to have free and fair elections. Meanwhile, at the other end of the Mediterranean, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP party suffered an unexpected upset, losing ground in Ankara, Izmir, and Istanbul. Erdogan is now contesting the ballot results, which have put a dent in his image of invincibility, just four years after an alleged coup attempt enabled him to gain nearly total control of Turkish politics.
Under previous US administrations, foreign election results like these would have been cause for State Department comment and diplomatic outreach. Not under Trump’s presidency, though. The State Department is the weakest it has ever been in US history, and the only foreign political story in the American media remains the train-wreck that is Brexit.
Two days from now, Israel will hold an election that, in the context of current US-Israeli relations, could well impact Republican politics as well as the role of the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. Incumbent Binyamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud party has held office for ten years, and although he is under investigation for corruption, will likely win the election. Netanyahu’s speech at the AIPAC conference last month was part and parcel of his election campaign, and probably guaranteed him more votes, since Trump recognized Israel’s control of the occupied Golan Heights in the midst of the AIPAC conference. Interestingly, a significant number of Democratic front-runners for next year’s presidential elections chose not to attend AIPAC’s annual conference, raising questions about the Democratic party’s shifting views on Israel and Palestine.
Although the 2020 presidential elections are still too far off to predict with any accuracy, that has not stopped American journalists from breathlessly following every new development and rumor about the current crop of Democratic hopefuls in an attempt to figure out who might lead the pack a year from now in the lead-up to the Democratic convention. No detail of candidates’ comments, personal histories, or actions goes unreported, though coverage of key domestic issues, particularly climate change, remains spotty. This week, former Vice President Joe Biden’s “roaming hands” and overly affectionate treatment of women politicians has monopolized the media spotlight, even though Biden has not yet declared his bid for the presidency.
Despite recent media focus on Texas’s Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost to Republican Ted Cruz in last fall’s senate elections, another newcomer to national politics, Pete Buttigieg, has attracted the attention of the Democratic center-left. A former Rhodes Scholar and military veteran who speaks several languages fluently, Buttigieg is the first openly gay mayor of South Bend, the third-largest city in the state of Indiana. He is also quite young—only 37 years old—and has captured the imagination of young voters as well as older disillusioned Democrats who are neither keen on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders becoming the 2020 nominee, nor impressed by the other Democratic hopefuls. Sanders continues to lead in early polling surveys, though, and has the support of millions of young Americans who will be voting for the first time next year.
In Chicago, another openly gay politician, Lori Lightfoot, made history last week by becoming the first black woman to be elected mayor of America’s third largest city. The Chicago City Council elections also brought surprising results: the biggest electoral victory for socialists in modern American history. Democratic Socialists now control one-tenth of the city council, a good sign for Bernie Sanders and his supporters.
On Capitol Hill, progressive newcomers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ro Khanna, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib remain the focus of media attention and public fascination, as well as potential opponents to the established Democratic leadership, which fears that the newcomers and their base will work to primary incumbent Democrats next year. Meanwhile, Trump remains the only Republican candidate. Moderate Republicans might have hoped that the Mueller Report would create an opening for contestation of a second Trump term, but until the entire report is made available to the public, internal Republican opposition to Trump’s candidacy looks unlikely.
Electoral upsets at home and abroad suggest that new progressive currents are now in motion, and could well culminate in surprising electoral results when Americans go to the polls 19 months from now.
(Read the Arabic version of this article here.)