2012: year in review
Syria and Barack Obama’s re-election dominated the headlines this year. Sadly, the fighting in Syria showed no signs of fading, President Bashar al-Assad (supported by Russia and China) stubbornly refused to step down and the death toll rose to over 40,000. There were concerns that the conflict could spread to Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey – which asked Nato to deploy Patriot missile defences along its border and which occasionally exchanged artillery fire with Syria. Turkey also gave refuge to thousands of refugees.
In the US Barack Obama was re-elected to the White House, becoming the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win two consecutive terms as President with over 50 per cent of the national vote. Despite an unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent Obama managed to get nearly 51 per cent of the popular vote; he also won all the ‘swing states’ with the exception of Indiana and North Carolina.
The main issue in the US election was the economy and who voters could best trust with fixing it. The losing Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, ran a campaign full of mishaps, and voters were not convinced what he stood for. Obama is now trying to negotiate with Republicans, who still control the House of Representatives, on how to avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ – tax increases and spending cuts that automatically kick in if Congress does not pass legislation to control the deficit.
The euro survived another year, but the eurozone unemployment rate remained stubbornly high at 12 per cent, and numerous EU summits were held to tackle Europe’s debt crisis. A summit in June agreed to use eurozone bailout funds worth €740 billion to directly recapitalise Spanish banks, breaking the link between banking and government debt that had fuelled the euro crisis.
European Central Bank president Mario Draghi said he would do “whatever it takes to save the euro” and announced a programme to buy unlimited short-term bonds from countries asking for assistance and agreeing to a plan to reduce debt. Spain did not ask for a bailout but the jobless rate rose to an alarming 25 per cent. There were sighs of relief when the centre-right New Democracy party in Greece managed to form a coalition government – in favour of the country’s bailout agreement – after July’s election.
Italy’s technocrat government led by Mario Monti gave the country much needed stability and calmed the markets but collapsed earlier this month after Silvio Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party withdrew its support for it. Berlusconi, who was given a one year jail sentence for tax fraud in October (which he appealed), decided to contest next February’s election as his party’s candidate for Prime Minister. Monti, meanwhile, announced he is heading a new coalition made of up centrists, business leaders and pro-Vatican forces who back his ‘ethical’ vision of politics.
There was a significant change in France when voters defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy in May’s presidential election and opted for Francois Hollande as the first Socialist President since Francois Mitterand. Hollande emphasised a new ‘growth’ element to the eurozone amid fears that too much austerity was killing the economy. He also imposed a 75 per cent tax on millionaires, saw France lose its AAA credit rating and presided over a deterioration in political relations with Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, was re-elected as head of her Christian Democratic Union with a record 98 per cent of the vote. Merkel has been praised for her handling of the eurozone crisis and the German economy and her popularity ratings nationwide are close to 70 per cent. In Britain Prime Minister David Cameron broke a taboo by saying that leaving the EU was “imaginable” as his backbench MPs turned increasingly hostile towards the UK’s membership of the bloc.
In Egypt Mohammed Morsi won the presidential election to become the first elected Islamist head of state in the Arab world. Sporadic clashes between Islamists and secularists took place throughout the year and a new constitution that many believe is too Islamist was approved by 64 per cent of the electorate – but voter turnout was a low 33 per cent. Fears have been raised that minorities will be trampled on and that the country is slowly turning to Islamic rule.
In Libya the post-revolution National Transitional Council handed power over to an elected Congress although many armed militias freely roamed around the country. This was evident when the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, was killed, together with three other Americans, after the US consulate in Benghazi was stormed by armed militants.
The Israeli-Palestinian peace process went nowhere, Israel continued to build illegal settlements, and an air strike that killed the head of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza led to a week-long war between Israel and Hamas. Egyptian President Morsi managed to broker a ceasefire, earning him international praise. Meanwhile, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly voted for Palestine to be declared a non-member observer state at the UN.
Xi Jinping emerged as China’s new leader when he was elected Communist Party general secretary at the 18th party congress. He will be appointed President in March. Earlier on the party was rocked by a scandal involving Bo Xilai who was removed from the politburo in connection with events emerging from the death of a UK businessman.
There were fears that China and Japan could go to war after a territorial dispute over the ownership of some islands in the East China Sea produced anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. This month the Liberal Democratic Party in Japan won a landslide victory in the country’s parliamentary elections with a promise to revive the economy and stand up to China.
In Russia Vladimir Putin was elected to his third non-successive term as President as fears about the erosion of democracy in Russia continued to grow in Western capitals. Iran’s nuclear programme continued despite sanctions and North Korea successfully launched a rocket in violation of UN rules. The international community believes this type of rocket could one day deliver a nuclear warhead capable of hitting targets as far as the continental United States.
Burma continued along the path of democratic reform and was visited by Barack Obama, Hugo Chavez was re-elected in Venezuela but then revealed his cancer had returned and rebels in the Democratic Republic of the Congo made significant territorial gains in a bloody conflict sadly largely ignored by the world.
Coalition casualties in Afghanistan were the lowest since 2008 but there was a sharp rise in attacks by Taliban sympathisers within the Afghan army against Nato forces. Charles Taylor, a former President of Liberia, was sentenced to 50 years in jail by a special court in The Hague, becoming the first African head of state to be convicted for war crimes.
A large chunk of territory in Mali was taken over by jihadis allied to al-Qaeda who went about destroying what they considered to be ‘non-Islamic’ shrines and monuments in cities such as Timbuktu. In Nigeria attacks against Christians by Islamic extremists increased throughout the year. And in Pakistan, Malala Yousufzai, a 14 year-old schoolgirl, was shot in the head by the Taliban after advocating education for girls. She became an international symbol of opposition to the Taliban. Fortunately she was not killed and is still recovering at a British hospital where she is being treated.