More than many in recent memory, 2013 has been a year of pivotal transitions of power from old to new world leaders in states critical to world peace. Below, the five most unexpected, volatile, impacting or otherwise notable transitions of power around the world this year, ranked.
5. Italy: Mario Monti To Enrico Letta
Italy is one of the more politically confusing and economically messy states in the European Union, and one of the most financially volatile members of the Eurozone. After an election in which a former comedian gained ground as the leader of an almost-serious populist movement, Italy shifted gears from the economics professor turned Prime Minister Mario Monti to someone just as serious about cutting spending: Enrico Letta.
Because of the way Italian politics are compartmentalized into coalitions of small parties, Letta’s victory was something of a celebration for both center-left and center-right parties. As for the far left– well, they weren’t too happy to hear that Letta didn’t want his annual budget to be everyone’s “Father Christmas.” Anti-austerity protests have risen in number since arriving to power, particularly this month when Letta is set to reveal a series of more impressive economic reforms. The health of Italy’s economy is pivotal to the health of the Euro currency, and many see Italy as the same sort of welfare state as Greece, but with a more vibrant neoliberal wing of politicians. With a new face in charge that is willing to take some pressure for austerity measures, Italy’s ship may be turning around in 2014, changing the face of the region.
4. Georgia: Mikheil Saakashvili to Irakli Garibashvili
Unlike many of the transitions on this list, the passage of power from President Mikheil Saakashvili to his rival Bidzina Ivanishvili would have been remarkable for what did not happen as much as for what did. Saakashvili is the first president in Georgian history to peacefully give up power, prompting some to call him his country’s George Washington. Saakashvili leaves a staunchly pro-American, anti-Putin legacy, having become a favorite of Bush administration diplomatic leaders and having dared to fight a war for Abkhazia and South Ossetia provinces in his country. His successors, the pro-Russia billionaire Bidzina Ivanishvili’s Georgian Dream Party, won the presidential election accusing Saakashvili of oppressing the press and needlessly antagonizing opposition leaders. Many considered that Ivanishvili’s relationship with Vladimir Putin would slowly undo the years of hard work Saakashvili’s administration had put into Georgia becoming an independent, thriving economy. Others thought that Ivanishvili was merely friendly but no ally to the Russia premier.
Ivanishvili, then Prime Minister, has since given up politics entirely, telling Forbes he is not likely to ever return. His hand-picked successor, Giorgi Margvelashvili, then became the focal point for concerns that Georgia would regress to its pre-Saakashvili stance on Russia. And then Ukraine exploded into a hotbed of protests.
What Margvelashvili does with his power in 2014 will have massive repercussions outside of Georgia as its neighbors begin to reevaluate their relationships with both Russia and the European Union. So far, with Saakashvili making appearances in Kiev and returning to New York (ostensibly in case the Georgian Dream coalition finds reason to prosecute him), the new administration has rebuffed Russia’s advances. But the nation has a ways to go to be fully independent and a beacon of post-Soviet independence in the region.
3. Venezuela: Hugo Chávez to Nicolás Maduro
While Hugo Chávez’s health had steadily declined over the years due to a stubborn cancer, his death this past March still came as a shock to the international system. As the strongman dictator of a socialist country whose political structure depended on him personally wielding power, many wondered how long Venezuela could last in its current oppressive socialist state. Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro, a former bus driver turned high-ranking party official with close ties to the Cuban communist regime, has at least managed to remain in power into 2014– something many doubted was possible. He did so through a contentious election the opposition insisted it had won, and the government’s shady behavior did little to dispute. He did so through rumors so potent that President of the Assembly Diosdado Cabello would stage a coup that Cabello himself had to use state television to deny he was up to any funny business.
Unfortunately for Venezuela, the Maduro reign has meant even more oppression and economic distress than under Chávez. With a penchant for embarrassing gaffes and an economy so distressed that citizens have had trouble finding toilet paper in stores, Maduro has given himself decree powers to unilaterally force small businesses to give up their products for cheap. His attitude towards free enterprise bodes grim for the nation’s 2014, but with a vibrant student opposition movement, Venezuela still has a chance to turn its way around before becoming another Cuba.
2. Egypt: Mohamed Morsi to Adly Mansour
Egypt did not enter 2013 in a stable political position, nor will it leave it in any such way. After the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi attempted to balance the interests of his radical party with more moderate elements in his state. His plans abruptly came to an end with Morsi was arrested and removed from power during a military coup, after abusing his power with the arrests of NGO workers and permissive persecution of Christians by his party. The coup demonstrated that secular Egyptians were not ready to give their country up to a group with strong ties to Hamas, and Mansour’s tenure– new as it remains– has reinforced the national opposition to the group. The Muslim Brotherhood is undergoing what, months before, the National Socialist Party of Greece, Golden Dawn, experienced: after months of violence and public furor, they have been outlawed as a terrorist group, their leaders arrested. As of this week, Morsi is to face a third trial for conspiring with foreign groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah to promote terror. The outcome of these legal proceedings will have a profound impact on the stability of Egypt’s institutions, as will the push for an installment of a head of state that can be both non-tyrannical and non-transitional.
1. China: Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping
Xi Jinping assumed the office of President of the People’s Republic of China the same month Hugo Chávez died, though ascended to the top of the Chinese Communist Party the November before. Upon assuming the office formerly held by handpicked successor to Deng Xiaoping Hu Jintao, Xi attempted to distinguish himself by calling for a diminished sense of “pomp” after the rule of a man who brought the Summer Olympic Games to Beijing. He has distinguished himself so far as much more than just an enemy of ornateness (despite being married to a pop star), but a ruthless reformer little concerned with the legacy of Mao Zedong and bent on establishing China as a global superpower. In fact, just this week Xi found himself receiving some sidelong glances from hardcore communists in the Party as he significantly “toned down” the celebration of Mao’s birthday this week. This in conjunction with a series of significant economic reforms including the abolition of the one-child policy has made many wonder whether Xi is trying to move China rightward or soften its iron fist. His foreign policy leaves no such doubts however. Xi has attempted to reclaim Japanese islands for China installing an Air Defense Identification Zone unilaterally over international waters, revamped the space program, and is in talks for significant economic negotiations with Saudi Arabia. These international moves will have more of an impact on the balance of global powers than almost any unilateral action by a foreign leader, and only Xi knows what moves may come in 2014.