In 2011 there was a wide-ranging changing of the guard. In Europe, struggling countries including Italy and Greece brought in technocrats, or voted out administrations, that had failed to solve their economic crises. In the Middle East, two entrenched regimes toppled under popular uprisings and a third after a revolution.
In 2012, there is potential for an even bigger shift, with several key countries facing possible changes at the top levels of government. Citizens that overthrew dictators are set to hold public votes to choose their leaders for the first time in decades. Several elections in the euro zone could also have massive implications on the European debt crisis.
Outside of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, other significant elections promise to affect the global debate. On Sunday Vladimir Putin won a third presidential term in Russia, where he will now be in office until 2018, when he could potentially run for another six-year term. The election was unique because it was preceded by anti-Putin protests that would have been unheard of a few years ago. Opposition groups are once again denouncing widespread electoral fraud and openly challenging the administration in the squares of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Click ahead for 10 more elections that could change the game of global politics in 2012.
By Bianca Schlotterbeck
Posted March 6 2012
Election date: April 22 and May 6
According to opinion polls, the French presidential election, due on April 22 and May 6, looks likely to make Nicolas Sarkozy (pictured here) only the second leader of the fifth republic to become a one-term president. Having lost favor with much of the public, at 23 percent, Sarkozy is battling the worst poll ratings of any French leader seeking re-election.
The favorite to win, Socialist candidate Francois Hollande with 30.5 percent in the polls, has declared war “on the world of finance,” proposed a tax rate of 75 percent for houses earning above €1m ($1.3 million), promised to undo Sarkozy’s raising of the pension age and re-negotiate the hard-won European Union fiscal compact for being too focused on austerity.
This has aroused the suspicion of other European leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly announced her support for Sarkozy before he had even declared he was running. German weekly magazine Der Spiegel reported Hollande’s campaign was being shunned by conservative European leaders including British Prime Minister David Cameron, who did not meet him on a recent visit to London.
If Hollande does win, disagreement between the euro zone’s two largest powers could have serious implications for resolving the euro zone debt crisis.
“This could cause a serious setback for the political process in Europe, and after years with Merkozy’s intensifying leadership it could become rather uncomfortable for the financial markets to watch a Hollande publicly showing that he is very much in disagreement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on several accounts,” analysts at Danske Bank wrote in a note.
Election date: April 1
Myanmar’s by-election on April 1 is a game changer as these will be the first parliamentary seats to be contested by Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), since its ban was lifted by the government a few months ago. Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured here on her second campaign trip on Feb. 7 in Pathein) is running for a seat and recently held her first political rally outside the capital since being released from house arrest in 2010.
The by-elections will be a test of the sincerity of the military regime that has run Myanmar since 1962. If the elections are seen to be free and fair they may begin to persuade American legislators to start lifting sanctions imposed on Myanmar in the 1990s.
Investors are taking note of the massive changes in the country, with billionaire U.S. investor Jim Rogers recently telling CNBC, “I am wildy bullish on Myanmar. If I could find a way to put all of my money into Myanmar, I probably would. It is at the place where China was in late 1978. They are opening up, they’ve changed. They’ve got 60 million people, they are right there between China and India," he explained. “I cannot think of anything in the world about which I’m more bullish than Myanmar.”
Election date: April 29 or May 6
The political situation in Greece is far from certain. At the brink of defaulting on its debts, under Lucas Papademos, an unelected technocrat, most Greek legislators have backed further austerity measures in return for a new €130 billion ($184 billion) bailout by the European Union. Expected to go to the polls in late April or early May, Antonis Samaras, the leader of the most popular conservative New Democracy party, has promised to honor the spending cuts demanded by the euro zone governments.
However, Greek politicians have never been so unpopular and voters are bitterly divided (pictured here, Greek communists gather outside parliament). Polls show New Democracy finishing first with 25 to 30 percent but well short of an overall majority and Samaras has been trying to win back right-wingers who opposed the bailout.
Any attempt by Greek politicians to reverse the austerity measures would test the patience of euro zone leaders to such an extent that they may let Greece default, however as the Greek economy contracts and unemployment rises a democratic mandate for the cuts looks to all but vanish.
Election date: May 4
The election in Palestine on May 4 could have regional implications as it hinges on a reunification deal, being brokered by Qatar, between Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas (pictured here at left with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Khaled Meshaal the leader of Hamas) and Islamic militants Hamas that would see Abbas head a unity government, which would prepare for elections in West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
This would be significant as it would mark a decisive shift by Abbas away from peace talks with Israel — which is highly critical of any unification with Hamas, which it considers a terrorist group — towards a rival government that forcibly ousted forces loyal to Abbas from Gaza in 2007.
It is unclear whether the West, which gives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians each year, would accept an Abbas-led interim government that was supported by Hamas. This will hinge on whether Hamas is prepared to stay in the background and accept Abbas’s internationally backed political platform, an outcome that is anything but certain.
Election date: May 23
Egypt’s first presidential election since a successful uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak will begin on May 23 with the final results expected on June 21. This will be the first time in decades that the Egyptian people have a chance to choose their leader, and several candidates have already been touring the country to drum up support, including former Arab League chief Amr Moussa and ex-Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Abol Fotoh.
However, divisions within the country remain deep, as does distrust of the military council that is overseeing the fledgling political process. The electoral commission has said that there will be no international monitoring of the poll, but it will need to be seen to be fair to unite the country. It is also not clear whether the election will produce a candidate truly in favor of democracy.
On the global stage Egypt is seen as one of the key countries that will affect stability of the Middle East. In a recent report, U.S. think-tank the Brookings Institution described Egypt as “the heart of the Arab world.
“With more than 80 million people — as many as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Syria combined — it has a large and vigorous civil society, feisty, independent media, a broad array of political forces, and a well-respected judiciary. If Egypt can make the transition to democracy, it will lead the way to a new era for the Arab world. If Cairo falls back to dictatorship of one variety or another, it is unlikely the rest of the region will move on without it. The Arab Spring will live or die in Egypt.”
Election date: May 2012
Another day of bloodshed in Syria, on Feb. 26, coincided with a referendum on a new draft constitution, put forward by President Bashar al-Assad (pictured here) as proof of his commitment to reform and denounced by Syrian opposition and the West as a farce.
The result of the referendum is supposed to lead to a multi-party parliamentary election in three months. It is unclear whether an all-out military crackdown on the opposition by the Assad regime will enable them to go ahead, or if the country will have descended into civil war by then.
While the West dismisses talk of a Libya-style NATO role to support Assad's opponents, according to a report by Reuters, Gulf Arab states have pushed for a more forceful stance. Saudi Arabia said on Friday it would back the idea of arming rebels — a proposal likely to alarm Moscow, which has made clear it is vehemently against any interference in Syria.
Following talks with his Dutch counterpart in the Hague, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said, "Of course, we believe that the adoption of a new constitution in Syria is a step forward towards political pluralism," He went on to describe the elections in May as “better late than never.”
Election date: June
The Libyan election, due to take place in June, will be significant because it is the country’s first national election in 42 years, following the removal of Colonel Gaddafi and his family in October 2011.
The poll will allow Libyans to elect a national assembly that will have the job of writing a new constitution. However, preparations are not running smoothly and the exact date has yet to be set. Dozens of parties have sprung up but the electoral picture has been clouded by a lack of security and fighting over how the vote will be run. Wartime rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has said Libyans could shy away from the June elections unless more is done to educate them about the vote.
Nevertheless, there has been some success in certain parts of the country, such as the third-largest city Misrata (resident pictured here) that organized a poll for local elections from scratch in less than a month without any guidance from the National Transitional Council. The city now hopes it can serve as a model for the rest of the country in June.
As the world’s 13th-largest oil supplier at a time when sanctions on Iran has left the market tight, the political stability of Libya will remain a concern.
Election date: July 1
Mexico’s presidential election could see the country’s first female president come to power. Josefina Vazquez Mota (pictured here) of the ruling National Action Party (PAN) is closing the gap in opinion polls with 29 percent support compared to 36 percent for Enrique Pena Nieto of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary party (PRI).
A win for Josefina Vazquez Mota would see Latin America’s three largest economies ruled by women. Nevertheless, political analysts say that to make up the seven-point gap, Mota will have to navigate between the successful economic policies of the current center-right president, Felipe Calderon, and his deeply unpopular crackdown on organized crime, which, according to the Financial Times, has increased Mexico’s murder rate from eight per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 to more than 22 today.
Election date: October 7
Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez (pictured here), who continues to battle cancer, seems likely to face the toughest electoral test of his political career when voters go to the polls on Oct. 7.
His challenger is Henrique Capriles Radonski, a state governor who won an opposition primary by a landslide with a turnout of more than three and a half million voters in February. This marks the first time since Chavez came to power in 1998, that his rivals have managed to galvanize and mobilize voters.
Among their concerns is his handling of the economy, which has a 26 percent inflation rate, and of violent crime, which has shot up under his leadership.
However, Capriles will have to keep momentum in a race where many polls still give Hugo Chavez a 20-point lead. While he should get a boost from his primary triumph, Capriles is up against an incumbent who controls the hemisphere’s largest oil reserves and, according to a report by Time magazine, is using the revenue to ramp up public spending before the election.
Election date: November 6
The U.S. presidential election in November 2012 will decide whether Barack Obama serves a second term or is defeated by a Republican contender. Positive economic data and a prolonged Republican nominating battle has seen the president’s approval rating rise by nine percentage points in four months, according to a new Politico/ George Washington University Battleground Poll.
Obama’s approval rating is 53 percent. Matched up against his Republican opponents, he leads Mitt Romney by 10 points (53-43) and Rick Santorum by 11 (53-42). The president is also seeing greater success with female voters than his Republican rivals, a crucial group needed to win the election.
Still, according to a recent report by the Financial Times, Obama is incredibly unpopular among white working-class men who are increasingly abandoning the Democrats to vote Republican. In the 2010 mid-term elections, 63 percent of white working-class voters backed the Republicans and only 33 percent the Democrats.
Whoever wins the U.S. election will also have to address the big issue of spiraling government debt, to which both Democrats and Republicans have failed to find a solution.