Meet five political heavyweights who may win 2017’s most critical elections

If the last year has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected in politics. Nevertheless, here are five current candidates pegged to do well in international elections this year, from France to South Korea.

By: /
January 13, 2017
France's far-right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen talks to journalists as she poses in front of a poster for her 2017 French presidential election campaign during the inauguration of her party campaign headquarters "L'Escale" in Paris, France, November 16, 2016. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

2016 was an important year for politics. With it came crucial decisions regarding separatism and immigration, as well as an election to fill the world’s most powerful position.

But while all eyes will be on Donald Trump as he enters the White House this month, we look ahead to upcoming presidential elections and the future leaders that might take the international stage in 2017. Various elections are scheduled to take place throughout the year, in places such as South Korea, France and Iran. Many will be watching to see if the rest of the world lines up with the rightist sentiments emerging from political powerhouses like the United States and the UK.

Below are five presidential candidates confirmed or rumoured to be running in elections across the globe in 2017 who could find themselves topping the ballot. The world will likely be seeing much more of them this year.

1. John Tsang Chun-wah, Hong Kong

Although born in Hong Kong, John Tsang Chun-wah, 65, received most of his education in the U.S. He studied architecture in Boston and eventually went on to obtain a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard University. Upon returning to Hong Kong in 1982, he became a member of its civil service, and in 2003 was appointed secretary for commerce, industry and technology. He became the director of the Chief Executive’s Office in 2006 and has been serving as Hong Kong’s financial secretary since 2007.

Tsang has been sitting at the top of opinion polls for months in the lead up to the region’s election for its next chief executive, which takes place on March 26. Perhaps bolstering his chances of winning is current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s shocking decision not to seek re-election, which makes Chun-ying the first chief executive not to run for a second term.

Tsang, however, must still wait for approval from Beijing before officially announcing his candidacy. Keeping in line with the “one country, two systems” policy maintained by both China and Hong Kong, the former must approve of any and all candidates from which an election committee, voted for by residents of the latter, must select Hong Kong’s chief executive. Tsang put forward his resignation as financial secretary in December and has since taken leave. The central government, however, has yet to authorize his departure, leaving him unable to formally announce any plans to run. The deadline for candidates to register is March 1.

While Beijing has yet to endorse a favourite out of the four candidates either rumoured or confirmed to be running, Hong Kong voters seem in favour of Tsang. The election comes at a time when anti-China sentiment appears to be on the rise in the region. Tsang is more pro-Hong Kong than his counterparts, often sympathizing with supporters of the region’s independence. His fiscal policies in particular are expected to include a focus on localism and greater funding for regional start-ups.

2. Marine Le Pen, France

As the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine Le Pen, 48, became involved in politics at an early age. She began advocating for the party at age 13, and officially joined at age 18.

Le Pen would eventually go on to practice law. In 1998, she was elected regional councillor for Nord-Pas-de-Calais. She became vice-president of the National Front in 2003 and the following year became a member of the European Parliament. She officially took over the party as leader in 2011.

While the National Front has typically been associated with anti-Semitism, racism and xenophobia, Le Pen has attempted to soften the party’s image, portraying it as much less radical and more mainstream.

The party appears to be capitalizing on the recent downturn in both the French and other European economies, using this as a reason for wanting France to distance itself from the rest of the EU. If elected president, Le Pen promises to hold a referendum on EU membership, and has even suggested leaving the euro. The party also continues to push anti-immigration policies, with an interest in tightening the country’s border security.

With the first round of the election scheduled for April 23, many are predicting Le Pen will make it through to the second and final round on May 7. She has been gaining stride, according to a recent opinion poll.

Despite this, Republican candidate François Fillon remains the frontrunner in the election race. Fillon served as prime minister of France from 2007 to 2012, and his experience in office may give him an edge over Le Pen. Still, with Trump’s recent win, she is undoubtedly hopeful of a victory.

3. Hassan Rouhani, Iran

Iran’s presidential election is scheduled for May 19, and the current president, Hassan Rouhani, 68, is seeking re-election.

Growing up, he obtained law degrees both at home and abroad in Scotland. Political strife led him to flee Iran shortly before the 1979 revolution. Once the revolution ended, he returned and began his political career.

Rouhani is viewed as a moderate in comparison to some of Iran’s more extremist politicians, with a strong focus on domestic economy and improving relations with other countries, especially in the West. He was first elected president in 2013, and the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 with the U.S. and other Western powers is arguably his most notable accomplishment, though the deal has failed to provide economic relief desired by the country’s middle class and urban elites. The future of the agreement is nowhere near assured; Trump said he would put an end to the deal once elected.

According to an opinion poll conducted last year, Rouhani claimed a majority of Iranian support by a rather wide margin. His closest competition, former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will not be running in this year’s election, as he has not obtained the necessary approval from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. While many may still be in favour of Rouhani, and a more hard-lined opponent has yet to emerge, he will have to contend with the loss of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a fellow moderate who would have been a key ally in Rouhani’s fight against a more conservative candidate. 

4. Angela Merkel, Germany

Despite a background in science, Angela Merkel, 62, has spent much of her life in politics. In 1990 she joined the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and became a member of the country’s federal parliament. After holding various ministerial positions in different departments at the federal level, she became chairwoman of the CDU. In 2005, she was elected Germany’s first female chancellor.

Throughout her time as chancellor, Merkel has dealt with economic perils facing Germany and the EU, as well as foreign policy issues, including the refugee crisis. Nevertheless, she decided late last year that she will be running again in this year’s election. 

Merkel’s decision in 2015 to allow over 1.1 million immigrants seeking asylum into the country was controversial, and helped pave the way for gains to be made by the right-wing populist party, Alternative for Germany. Led by former businesswoman Frauke Petry, the AfD would go on to win numerous state elections. Tensions in the country rose following the Berlin Christmas market attack in December.

Despite this, recent opinion polls still show a majority of voters in favour of Merkel. She also appears to have international support. As reported in an article by the Wall Street Journal, Western journalists and politicians continue to view Merkel as “a stabilizing force for liberal democratic values.”

The fate of the country’s open-door migrant policy is not yet clear, though Merkel has already expressed remorse for the decision. What the chancellor decides to make of the policy going forward could dictate whether or not she will win this year’s election, scheduled to take place before October 22. Were Merkel to be re-elected, the world would likely see stronger ties being developed between Germany and the West, particularly the U.S.

5. Moon Jae-in, South Korea

Born in 1953, Moon Jae-in, 63, grew up in the South Korean city of Busan. In 1972, shortly after being accepted into law school, he was arrested for protesting against the dictatorship of the father of South Korea’s current (and suspended) president, Park Geun-hye.

Following a career in human rights law, Moon ran against Park in the 2012 elections, losing by a margin of 3.6 per cent. The liberal politician then went on to become chairman of South Korea’s Minjoo or Democratic Party in 2015. After stepping down last year, he still remains affiliated with the party.

In December, South Korea’s parliament voted to impeach Park, resulting in a shift of executive responsibilities to the country’s prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn. Now it is a matter of waiting for judges to decide if the vote is legitimate and whether the situation calls for impeachment. If this is the case, Park will have to step down, and an election must take place within 60 days. 

Moon continues to top various opinion polls as the favourite to replace Park, with a lead over former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who has yet to declare his candidacy but is likely to do so.

According to his platform, Moon hopes to reduce unemployment and debt rates, and may reverse the country’s previous decision to set up an American missile defence system inside its borders. The election will take place no later than December 20.