The Top 10 Global Stories To Watch In 2013

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Where will the major stories of 2013 be? If your country begins with an I, the chances are it is having elections. Otherwise you can look forward to the year of the snake, the start of Barack Obama’s second term and a grand Irish homecoming. Oh, and the 100th anniversary of the crossword puzzle.

Iran’s presidential election in June will come at a delicate time as the country faces down acute international pressure over its nuclear ambitions and internal discontent over a tailspinning economy. The hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who once grabbed headlines across the world for his controversial statements, will finally have to step down after two consecutive terms in office.

The election will be closely watched for any hint that the new administration would compromise on the nuclear issue and open up a way out of the current stalemate. In reality though, the new president will have little power to change course. The fate of Iran’s nuclear programme rests in the hands of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word on all state matters and enjoys a job for life.

That said, a new president may still be instrumental in easing tensions, as the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who served between 1997 and 2005, showed.

Khatami is once again being touted as a possible candidate in 2013, but conservatives are signalling that he would only be allowed to run if he distanced himself from the opposition Green movement, which stunned the world with a bloody revolt during the last presidential election in 2009.

Ahmadinejad is believed to be grooming his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his successor, but the president has lost a great deal of his influence in the past two years and Mashaei is seen by his conservative opponents as the head of a “deviant current” attempting to undermine clerical power. Other names mentioned include Tehran’s mayor, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf; the speaker of parliament, Ali Larijani; the former speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel; and the former foreign minister and current adviser to the supreme leader, Ali Akbar Velayati. SKD

Israel goes to the polls in a general election on 22 January, but no one is expecting a fundamental change in the next coalition government. A rightwing alliance between the Likud party of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu is on course to emerge with the biggest number of seats – about 40 – in the 120-member parliament. Smaller religious and ultra-orthodox parties will give the rightwing a majority.

Assuming Netanyahu heads another coalition after the election, there are two key questions for his next term. First, whether he orders a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; and second, whether he makes a serious effort to address the calcified peace process with the Palestinians or continues his strategy of talking about talks while expanding settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. HS

Ireland’s big plan for 2013 is to get as many as possible of the diaspora to return to the republic on holiday this year, hoping that the influx might help jump-start consumer spending. Dubbed The Gathering, the aim is to bring in an extra 325,000 tourists by encouraging some of the 70 million people who claim Irish heritage to visit. The Gathering is offering €500 (£410) to groups and individuals who enlist a minimum of 10 extra overseas visitors, but not everyone is buying into the idea. The actor Gabriel Byrne has labelled it a “shakedown” of the Irish diaspora. HM

Opportunist politicians, seething ethnic rivalries, two candidates indicted by the international criminal court (ICC) … it’s election year in Kenya.

The country is still scarred by violence that followed the disputed 2007 poll. More than 1,200 people were killed by police or in ethnic attacks which, according to human rights groups, were planned and financed by leading politicians. These allegedly included Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, who have not allowed the prospect of appearing at The Hague just weeks after the March 2013 election to deter them from running again.

“They have turned this election into a referendum on the ICC,” said Abdullahi Boru Halakhe, a Horn of Africa analyst for the International Crisis Group. “They have cultivated and choreographed a narrative that the ICC is a creation of the west. If they win, Kenya will have to chart a new course and effectively become a pariah state.”

Once bitter rivals, Kenyatta and Ruto recently announced an alliance which, it is hoped, will reduce the chances of a violent replay of 2007-08 between the Kikuyu and Kalenjin communities in the Rift Valley. Kenyatta takes on Raila Odinga in the race to succeed president Mwai Kibaki, who is stepping down after two terms.

Localised conflict remains a distinct possibility. In recent months dozens of young police recruits were shot dead in the remote northern Samburu region, more than a hundred people were killed in tribal clashes on the coast and deadly riots rocked Mombasa. Politicians are known to rely on their ethnic communities for support and to manipulate and stoke tensions at election time. A national conflagration, however, seems less likely this time. DS

He turns 89 in February and is still spoiling for a fight. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe’s love of electioneering is matched only by his hatred of losing. He

has declared that elections will be held in March 2013, though June seems a likelier date after a new national constitution is approved. Once again he will take on Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), and once again there are omens of violence, intimidation and rigging – officials admit the electoral roll is likely to contain the names of dead people.

Last time, in 2008, more than 200 Zimbabweans were killed and many tortured, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw and enter a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe’s Zanu-PF. Since then, the parties have fought like ferrets in a sack while the economy has made a wobbly recovery, but activists still face persecution.

It may be harder for the MDC this time. Some feel its ministers have failed to live up to their promises and become too accustomed to their Mercedes-Benzes and other perks. Tsvangirai himself has been battered by revelations about his love life.Recent opinion polls show Zanu-PF moving ahead of the MDC,[] although most people were unwilling to express a preference.

Trevor Maisiri, a senior analyst in southern African for the International Crisis Group,[] said: “It will be a very tightly contested election. It will be a close call and that might lead to a dispute. We might then see another round of negotations and continued power sharing.”

Maisiri predicted there will not be a bloodbath on the same scale as last time. “Zanu-PF and the state institutions are very careful not to drive the political violence we saw in 2008. Their biggest fear is illegitimacy around another election. So they have been working to create an environment of intimidation on the ground [] so people are cowed into voting for Zanu-PF.”

Other analysts suggest there will be one major winner: apathy. Miles Tendi, author of Making History in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe: Politics, Intellectuals and the Media, said voters do not have the appetite for another turbulent campaign. “Turnout has been declining since 1980.

The last elections in 2008 had the lowest ever turnout.

“Between 2000 and 2008 there were eight elections in Zimbabwe. Too many elections in a short period diminishes their value. The problem is deepened by the fact that each of these elections produced a contested result. The electorate has lost trust in election institutions and processes. Turnout will also be low because none of the competing political parties have a workable vision for addressing Zimbabwe’s problems.” DS

Polls show Americans think Barack Obama will have a better second term than first, though there is no shortage of potential pitfalls. Gun control will feature early on, with legislation planned for early in the new year. Immigration reform is another aspiration, though this could get squeezed by the battle over gun rights. Overseas, Syria and Iran look like dominating the agenda for the entire second term, with few easy wins likely on either.

Iceland may have a population of only 320,000, but as a showcase for radical democratic reform it is undoubtedly the country to watch in 2013. In April it will hold parliamentary elections, and a entirely new party is hoping to make an impact. Reykjavik mayor Jón Gnarr – formerly a stand-up comedian – has confirmed that he will stand for Bright Future, a new party that has grown out of the Best party, which stormed to victory in the municipal elections in 2010. Its comical campaign video – to the tune of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best – promised a polar bear for Reykjavik zoo and free towels in all public swimming pools, and attracted many protest votes in the wake of Iceland’s financial crash. But since taking power the party has taken difficult decisions and won plaudits for its “new politics”, which includes deciding policy through online debates and communicating with residents via Facebook. Now several members have formed Bright Future and hope they can revive an interest in national politics in a similar way. On his own Facebook page Gnarr recently wrote: “I think Iceland could be the perfect laboratory for the future of democracy, direct democracy, participatory budgeting and other ideas.” Or, as he promised in 2010, he may just want to ensure “a drug free parliament by 2020”. AT

Few people predict anything other than re-election for Angela Merkel in Germany’s autumn vote. The speculation is focused more on who will make up the new government than who will lead it.

Gerd Languth, professor of political science at the University of Bonn and a veteran observer of German politics, says it will not become clear until election night at the earliest, but he sees the possibility of three different coalition constellations. First is “a new grand coalition” made up of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democratic party (SPD), “though the SPD would fight tooth and nail for this not to happen, only seeing this as a last resort”. Another option is a CDU-Green party grouping, a once unthinkable scenario. “If we assume that the SPD and Greens don’t get enough to govern, which is likely to be the case, the Greens – who are so keen to get into government – could well imagine becoming bedfellows with the CDU,” he said. “They’d be better placed with the CDU, in terms of the influence they’d have, and the number of ministerial positions they might expect. The Greens are realists.”

A return to the current coalition between the CDU and liberal Free Democratic party (FDP) is also a possibility, Languth said, but only if the FDP manages to secure the minimum 5% necessary to get into parliament, which has frequently seemed doubtful.

Is there any reason then why Merkel would not manage a third term? A complete economic collapse perhaps, which, with recent gloomy predictions for next year, cannot be completely ruled out – though even then, most analysts agree that Germans would tend to want to keep the tried and trusted Merkel at the helm. KC

Mario Monti is aiming to stay on as Italian prime minister and Silvio Berlusconi has bounced back from his resignation in 2011 to seek another term, but Italy’s centre-left Democratic party is still the favourite to win the February election.

“I believe there will be a Democratic party government with Monti asked to come on board as finance minister or as president,” said Claudio Cerasa, assistant editor of the Italian daily Il Foglio.Italy’s electoral law means Bersani can feel relatively confident of a working majority in the lower house, but the regional basis for representation in the senate means the swing regions of Sicily, Veneto, Campania and Lombardy – where Berlusconi could perform well – could stop Bersani from forming a functioning government, said Cerasa. “It may be up to Monti to help out Bersani in the senate by taking votes from Berlusconi.”

A broad alliance between Bersani and Monti could prove unwieldy, given that the centrists backing Monti include the heirs to the Christian Democrat party, who take their cues on family policy from the Vatican. Allied with Bersani to his left is Nichi Vendola, the gay governor of Puglia, who is already growling at the prospect of teaming up with the centrists. The concoction recalls Romano Prodi’s coalition, which took office in 2006 before coming off the rails in 2008 amid infighting, allowing Berlusconi back in for his third term. TK

2013 is the year of the snake, a polarising creature in China – repulsive to some, auspicious to others – and predictions for the country’s coming year are appropriately contradictory and complex. Internet users will probably exceed 600 million as the authorities expand their surveillance and control over the web. The economy will expand rapidly – at a rate of 8.4%, according to the World Bank – while environmental concerns and local government debts continue to snowball. Authorities will crack down on corruption while maintaining a characteristically hard line on dissent.

Xi Jinping will formally become China’s president in March. Xi presents himself as a strikingly human counterpoint to his stone-faced predecessor, Hu Jintao, but his oft-repeated calls for a “great renewal of the Chinese nation” could portend increasingly assertive actions abroad, especially in disputed areas of the South and East China seas. JK


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