If 2011 was all about unexpected changes in leadership, with dictators toppled and autocrats teetering, 2012’s leadership shifts should be a bit more predictable. Four of the world’s most important governments – the US, China, Russia and France – could have new leaders by the time we toast the arrival of 2013.
It may be fashionable to sneer at politicians, to suggest that they’re all the same, but in each of the four countries there is a battle underway between two very different views.
Barack Obama and probable Republican nominee Mitt Romney are fundamentally opposed on everything from the financial crisis to foreign policy. In France the Socialist candidate for president, François Hollande, has already made it clear he opposes Nicolas Sarkozy’s refusal to countenance eurobonds and wants to see a more flexible European Central Bank. Policies that would dramatically change the way the continent deals with the eurozone crisis.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin’s re-emergence as president is no longer the safe bet it looked a month ago following weeks of street protests. A rival candidate that can unify the opposition let alone defeat the Kremlin machinery is unlikely, but the election itself will undoubtedly offer competing visions of how Russia sees itself in the 21st century.
Only in China does the transition from one leader to another appear smoother. Hu Jintao will step down as China’s president and is likely to be replaced by Xi Jinping when the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress takes place later this year. Little that Xi has said in public suggests he will change course, but two factors will have an impact.
One is the scale of change in personnel. Seven of the nine-strong all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee are stepping down. The second is the generational shift. Xi and Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over as premier from Wen Jiabao, are both much younger than their predecessors. The Cultural Revolution, which took place before both came into politics, has had far less of an impact on the pair. Few can say with confidence that China’s new leaders will simply carry on the policies of their predecessors.
Predicting political events is no easy task and I’m not prepared to make any educated guesses now. But this, I feel I can say with confidence. 2012 will be a year when the actions of the handful of people who lead us will have far-ranging consequences. It will matter who they are.