Top 5 political risks to watch for in 2016

Top 5 political risks to watch for in 2016

The year 2016 will pose a number of major risks for the international community, not only in traditional trouble spots but also in the democracies of the West and in China. Here are five of the largest ones likely to make headlines throughout the year.

Marginalization of minorities in the Middle East will continue to lead to massive destabilization

The greater-Middle East will continue to present a number of challenges to the world in 2016. Though ISIS has been gradually pushed back throughout the year and lost some territory in Iraq and Syria, the next round of fighting could yield far different results. More importantly, the focus on ISIS is problematic because it treats ISIS as disease when it is really just a symptom.

Much of the region’s violence is related to a particular pandemic that is the root of many of the region’s troubles: the behavior of Middle Eastern regimes towards the disaffected groups under their control. The areas where the Sunni-Shiite divide is flaring up — the conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — are textbook examples of what happens when one group in power marginalizes others too harshly and for too long: when people have no one else to turn too, violence and even terrorist groups like ISIS can look attractive.

Sisi’s Egypt, even without the Sunni-Shiite divide, also clearly demonstrates this trend: the massive crackdown on opposition feeds extremism, helping to push younger Muslim Brotherhood members towards violence and empowering an ISIS affiliate in Sinai, a region of Egypt moving closer to resembling a miniature failed state.

Even in pluralistic democracies like Turkey, with its many Kurds in addition to Turks, and Israel, with its roughly equal numbers of Arabs and Jews that are under its control (if one acknowledges the truth that Israel exercises more sovereignty over the Palestinian territory than Palestinians), are far from positive examples.

Turkey’s President Erdoğan continues to mold his country, long an example of secular democracy, increasingly along Islamic and authoritarian single-party rule. He has used his consolidated power to vigorously pursue conflict with Turkey’s own and the region’s Kurds, often the chief adversaries of ISIS. Such moves further complicate the already complex dynamics of both the fight against ISIS and the Syrian Civil War.

Though to a milder degree, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu also seems set to continue his country’s path to eroding liberal democratic values in favor of more theocratic, Jewish-ethno-centric laws, practices, and regulations. These de facto single out Arabs and, along with increased settlement building in Palestinian neighborhoods and land, continued military occupation in the West Bank, a continued siege of Gaza, and no serious attempt being made to engage with Palestinians on a two-state solution, will only serve to provoke Arabs into engaging in even higher-levels of violence. This will only further destabilize the situation, empowering extremists, provoking more intense Israeli responses, increasing Israeli isolation, and weakening Mahmoud Abbas and his PA/Fatah in favor of Hamas or worse.

From the Arabs under Israel’s control to the Islamists in Egypt, from the Houthis in Yemen to the Sunnis in Iraq, if the disempowered are not treated less harshly by their governments and integrated politically, the cycles of violence throughout the region will only further accelerate and intensify.

EU political dysfunction on display

While talk of the European Union’s demise is incredibly premature, the level of political dysfunction at present is unsettling. How the EU handles the trends and crises that will unfold in 2016 could end up defining the EU for years, perhaps decades. There are more than a few ailing economies that present problems for the whole Union. Voters in key EU economic trouble spots like Greece, Spain, and Portugal seem to be rejecting the EU’s economic prescriptions, a recipe for political chaos.

Meanwhile, the influx of refugees into Europe comes at the worst possible time. The dysfunctional response has been far from competent, and even before this new wave of refugees, Europe was already seeing a rightward-tilt politically speaking; a smattering of terrorist incidents in 2015, which peaked with the attacks in Paris this November, have only naturally increased the right’s anti-immigrant demagoguery, with immigration being the main issue right-wing parties are using to successfully sell themselves to European voters. Thus, right-wing parties all over Europe are gaining significant power or are even coming to lead governments.

This is making it exceedingly difficult EU to craft or implement a coherent policy on refugees and migrants. Politically, the cost for leaders taking in refugees is a zero-sum one that reduces support for them and their parties and empowers right-wing parties at their expense.

If political dysfunction is allowed to reign and the EU cannot collectively create and enforce policies on major issues like these, serious questions about the nature and capabilities of the EU will present themselves ever more urgently; their answers will prove increasingly elusive.

America’s political wild cards

Between Europe and America, the world’s most stable Democratic systems look increasingly less stable.. The rise and dominance of Donald Trump and fellow wild cards Sen. Ted Cruz (an extremely calculating and obstructionist first-time senator largely responsible for the 2013 government shutdown) and Dr. Ben Carson (a medical doctor with zero significant political experience) behind the more radical wing of the Republican Party has made this 2016 presidential race one of the most unpredictable in American history.

Historically, many Americans have had a natural disdain for the political class, but this election cycle may see the most dramatic materialization of this trend yet. Trump, Cruz, and Carson currently represent Republicans’ first, second, and fourth choices to be their presidential nominee, respectively, and Trump in particular, much like his European counterparts, is leveraging Americans’ inflated fears about both terrorism and immigration to fuel his campaign.

One of such outside-the-system-wild-cards looking more and more likely to become the Republican Party’s nominee for the president of the world’s most powerful and oldest continuous democracy is hardly a reassuring sign for the rest of the world. Though near-certain-Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is likely to triumph over any of them, the unraveling of one of America’s two major political parties cannot simply be shrugged off.

Increasingly, Republicans’ modus operandi is rejection of bipartisan legislation and using government shutdowns and debt-ceiling extensions as bargaining chips. Even if Clinton prevails, then, Obama’s presidency has demonstrated that America’s two-party barely functions when both parties are roughly the same size and one is not interested in governing.

China’s economic woes could mean political, stability woes for CCP

The slowing of the Chinese economic juggernaut to its lowest officially announced growth since early 2009 was a big surprise in 2015 and, apart from its more global effects, may put the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the hot seat domestically if the situation continues to worsen.

The CCP has already had a difficult time dealing with public unrest from democracy-oriented mass protests in Hong Kong to worker dissatisfaction to Muslim Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang; if current trends continue, it will have a tough time keeping order with a Chinese public that has grown to be bolder and more frequent in voicing dissatisfaction with the government over the past few years.

CCP officials have done a fine job of transitioning China from the anarchy of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s to the wild success of its economy over the past few decades, so there is some reason to hope for a competent response. At the same time, that China’s economy has fallen so far (and there is legitimate concern that it might be worse and that China is fibbing with its official numbers) suggests CCP leaders are not so sure about how to manage the crisis, and it remains to be seen if 2016 will see the situation improve or become even worse. How a CCP facing increasing internal unrest and declining legitimacy would approach various territorial disputes with other Asian nations and with Taiwan is a further question that brings additional cause for concern.

Recipe for conflict in Africa’s Great Lakes region

Rwanda’s internal ethnic problems served as a catalyst for the series of conflicts known as Africa’s World War (the deadliest conflict in the world since WWII and one that is still ongoing). Current problems that are spiraling rapidly out of control in Burundi threaten to plunge the region into conflict again.

Rwanda’s Tutsi President Paul Kagame has shown a willingness to aggressively project Rwandan military power outside of his own borders, and the UN even accused his forces of possibly committing a countergenocide against Hutus. Kagame successfully changed his system be able to keep himself in power after pledging he would step down, something Burundi’s Hutu President Pierre Nkurunziza did by recently running for and winning a third term in violation of that country’s constitution.

When protests erupted in Burundi in response, the government began a crackdown that just this December began to look a lot like Tutsis were being targeted (even, apparently, with gang rape). Burundi’s military is led by both Hutu and Tutsi officers, but recently Tutsi officers have been forming rebel groups and President Nkurunziza has been pushing Tutsi officers out of major positions of power.

Tensions are already rising between Burundi and Rwanda, and there is also the simmering though quieting conflict involving Hutus and Tutsis in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to consider. If Burundi erupts into civil war, Hutus and Tutsis throughout the region may find themselves sucked into another round of brutal ethnic conflict reminiscent of horrors past.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Brian Frydenborg

Brian E. Frydenborg is a freelancer based in Amman, Jordan, who earned his B.A. double-major in Politics and History at Washington and Lee University and holds an M.S. in Peace Operations awarded from the George Mason University School of Public Policy. His studies included abroad experiences in Japan, Liberia, and Israel/Palestine. He has had dozens of articles published across a variety of outlets, is one of the top bloggers for the Russian International Affairs Council, and has spent most of the last fifteen years studying, researching, and writing about (and occasionally practicing) politics, history, public policy, foreign policy, humanitarian aid, international development, and peace operations.