IPI’s Top 20 Issues to Watch in 2012: The Regions

Before the holidays, IPI’s Global Observatory published a list of the top ten multilateral issues to watch in 2012 that are likely to impact the field of international peace and security.

Today, we publish part 2: IPI’s top 20 issues to watch in each region of the world.

Here they are, in no order of priority:


1. Elections In, Power-Sharing Agreements Out. About twenty presidential and legislative elections will be organized in Africa in 2012. Here is the list: Algeria, Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Togo, and Zimbabwe.

Kenya and Zimbabwe may be the two most worrisome. Both countries have suffered violence during their last presidential elections. Kenya could avoid a repeat of its 2008 bloodbath, but the corruption of its political elites and its centrality in the East African region makes the upcoming Kenyan election a sensitive affair. Zimbabwe, on the other hand, is more likely to experience upheaval as President Mugabe fights for his survival. What is certain is that power-sharing agreements, once the international community’s favored way out of post-election crises, are much discredited today.

Legislative elections in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) also deserve special attention, as the contested aftermath of the 2011 presidential elections will continue into 2012. With its 19,000-member peacekeeping force, the DRC is likely to be the first big test for the UN in the new year.

2. Progress in Somalia? The shaky transitional institutions were not able to deliver a new constitution and organize elections by 2011. The mandates of the Transitional Federal Government and Parliament were extended until August 2012. By then, a roadmap to create a new constitution, reform Parliament, and improve security in the war-torn capital is to be implemented. Despite progress against al-Shabaab Islamist fighters, thanks to the African Union peacekeeping mission AMISOM (now supported by Ethiopian and Kenyan forces), the militant group remains a serious security threat. The UN plans to move its political office back to Mogadishu from Nairobi in January, and in February, the UK is organizing a conference in London to discuss ways to tackle Somalia’s instability. Will 2012 be a turning point for the future of Somalia?

3. Growing Pains for South Sudan. South Sudan is just about six months old, and it has already seen fresh internal fighting and an escalation of violence with its neighbor to the north. To watch in the coming year will be the level at which the international community remains engaged in helping to maintain peace and promote development in South Sudan. International engagement was essential in developing the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and will be similarly critical to the long-term viability of the state and peace in the region.

4. New African Union Leadership? The African Union (AU) Assembly will vote to elect the AU leadership on January 29th and 30th. In a bid to strengthen the continental grouping, South African former foreign minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is challenging the current chairperson of the commission, the Gabonese Jean Ping, for the AU’s top job. Far from a done deal, Mrs. Dlamini-Zuma would need to overcome Mr. Ping’s backing by francophone countries, as well as hesitation by Nigeria, Egypt, and Algeria to provide South Africa with an additional platform to further its dominant position on the continent and beyond.


5. Politics and Elections in the United States. American democracy, beset of late by gridlock, partisanship, and weak leadership, will be further challenged by the distractions and heated rhetoric of an election year. The campaign between the Democrat incumbent President Obama and his Republican challenger will last throughout 2012 and likely be waged around domestic economic issues. Look for Mr. Obama to highlight his foreign policy “wins,” including the end of the Iraq war and the killing of Osama bin Laden, while Republicans will blame lagging economic growth and a stubbornly high US unemployment rate on the president. Given the stark differences in the competing parties’ foreign policy platforms, a Republican win would have strong implications for the global security agenda.

6. US Troops Back Home. Will a US troop withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan free resources for more engagement in Africa or UN peacekeeping? Unlikely, perhaps, but it is worth watching how the country deals with its large military and returning troops in the context of economic recession, high unemployment, and calls for cutting defense spending.

7. A Turning Point for Haiti? Will 2012 be a turning point for Haiti? 2011 was marked by political stalemate following a difficult presidential election, which saw the majority opposition in Parliament rejecting the first two nominees for prime minister by the new president, before settling on Garry Conille. However, this year’s legislative and local elections could rebalance the Parliament and allow President Martelly to finally govern. This, combined with the start of the withdrawal of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH (resulting more from local unpopularity and Security Council fatigue rather than real progress on the ground), could mean that the Haitians will begin to regain control of primary security functions. Two years after the deadly January 2010 earthquake, the challenge will be to balance much-needed development with security imperatives. The controversial plan to reinstate the Haitian army, and a likely change at the top of the Haitian National Police, will have to be watched closely.

8. Presidential Elections in Venezuela. President Hugo Chavez is running for re-election in the fall of 2012. He is likely to win, either by legitimate or illegitimate means. But this election offers the opposition their best chance in years—if they can rally around a single strong candidate. Chavez has been politically weakened by high crime and mismanagement and physically weakened by cancer. He is perceived by many not to be the man he used to be. A post-Chavez Venezuela could have broad repercussions for the region. A Chavez defeat would likely lead to improved relations among Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Also, a change of regime in Venezuela could potentially hasten the reforms already set in motion in Cuba, as Chavez has been the principal patron of the Castro brothers in recent years.

Europe and Central Asia

9. Development of the Sovereign Debt Crisis. Will Europe head back into recession and possibly call into question the common currency and larger political unity, or will the muddle-through approach prevail? The latter is more likely—although no two economists are in agreement—but even in this case, the global implications will be large. The power of influence of debt-sodden European countries will reach new lows, as will the attraction of the European model to other parts of the world. The European debt crisis and the resulting austerity measures and budget cuts will also have a substantial effect on the funding of multilateral institutions. Development and humanitarian aid programs might be strongly affected. While emergency relief operations following a major natural disaster might be spared due to their capacity to draw the attention of a globalized audience, longer-term programming might well bear the brunt of the growing climate of austerity.

10. The Global Role of Turkey. Alongside India and Brazil, but as a newcomer, Turkey will continue to be a major geopolitical player, with aggressive economic and foreign policy throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond. It is still too early to tell how this will affect Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, but with the European bid becoming less attractive, and the fluidity of the situation in the Middle East, Turkey’s growing focus on east and south is inevitable.

11. Unthawing the Frozen Conflicts. Resumption of the formal 5+2 talks over the future status of Transdniestria will attract considerable attention in 2012 since there is a new “president” of this breakaway region (Evegenij Shevchuk) for the first time in twenty years. Much will depend on the presidential elections in Moldova and Russia. Meanwhile, the situation with Nagorno-Karabakh is heading in the opposite direction. Violent incidents are increasing along the Line of Contact between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There is growing discontent with the Minsk Group that has been trying to broker a settlement for two decades. Azerbaijan is becoming increasingly assertive, and, as a member of the Security Council this year, will no doubt raise the Nagorno-Karabakh issue whenever possible. It will be worth watching how elections in Russia and Georgia (parliamentary in 2012, presidential in 2013) affect negotiations over the settlement of conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

12. Greater Dependence on Central Asia. Difficulties in supplying NATO’s troops in Afghanistan via Pakistan is shifting the focus to Central Asia. Greater dependence on the Northern Distribution Network will strengthen the bargaining power of Central Asian transit countries, like Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and those that host American bases, like Kyrgyzstan. Major investments in infrastructure to increase trade, supply NATO’s forces, and strengthen drug control can be expected. Oil and gas, particularly in Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, will continue to attract major attention from China, Russia, and Western investors.

Middle East and North Africa

13. The Rise of Political Islam. The takeover by the Islamist parties in Egypt, Morocco, and Tunisia is ushering in a new era. In 2012, it will become clear whether they are planning to adapt to democratic politics or try to use the democratic process for their own narrow interests. Will they be able to answer to the high economic and social expectations of their populations and still maintain the support of Western donors wary to see the Arab world backtrack on fundamental freedoms? Or will they disappoint the domestic audiences and slowly lose support? Also, as new constitutions are drafted, the shape and spirit of the state—whether civil or one in which Islam takes central stage—will continue be debated and fought over.

14. Presidential Elections in Egypt. Elections are slated for the summer of 2012, which would transition Egypt from military to civilian rule. Expected presidential candidates, including Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, will have to articulate their plans to bring together a country that is divided on many issues, as well as deliver on better economic and living standards.

15. The Stability of Libya. National reconciliation is at stake in Libya. There are two main points of contention: (1) the divide between the Western educated secularists and the Islamists in the county and (2) the demobilization of regional militias. Libyans will show whether they choose democracy as the ultimate arbiter, or whether they prefer to resort to imposing factional, tribal, or regional agendas. The militias, on the other hand, may refuse to join the national security forces and decide to resist. The stability of the country depends on these outcomes.

16. A Watershed Year for Syria. Will Syria follow Yemen’s model, where President Ali Abdullah Saleh has finally signed the Gulf Cooperation Council’s initiative for a peaceful solution, or the Libyan model, where protracted violence led to the downfall of the Qaddafi regime? Will Assad accept the Arab League initiative for a peaceful transition of power or go the way of Libya? Internationally, the UN Security Council will be under increasing pressure to do something, although NATO’s controversial intervention in Libya might have set back any strong council action in Syria. The risk is that Syria will be the collateral damage of Libya, in the same way that inaction in Rwanda was caused in part by a controversial intervention in Somalia. However, one way or another, the Syrian regime cannot last.

17. Iran Under Pressure. In 2012, Iran will hold parliamentary elections, and there are already strong divisions surfacing over which faction will be in charge of composing the list of candidates. Will we see more of the same—a veneer of democracy with ongoing internal bickering among conservative factions—or a spark for change? Thus far, Iran has managed to escape the rising tide of revolutions sweeping across the region. However, with an increasingly struggling economy, that might not hold true for 2012.

South and East Asia

18. Strategic Shifts Towards the Asian Pacific Rim. As its troops leave Iraq and reduce their presence in Afghanistan, the US appears to be taking a strategic shift towards the Asia-Pacific region. The agreement signed with Australia to station troops there demonstrates a renewed interest in the Pacific and could be a sign of more to come, as does the thawing of relations with Myanmar, a country to watch closely in 2012. How this shapes the balance of power in the region—especially with existing tensions between China and several Southeast Asian countries over trans-shipment routes—is something to watch.

19. Change of Leadership in China and North Korea. By the end of 2012, some 70 percent of China’s top leadership will change. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minster Wen Jiabao will almost certainly hand their positions over to Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang respectively—two inscrutable faces to the world. More nationalistic voices might rise up, but transitions in China have been quite smooth in recent years. They will make big headlines, but not much impact in 2012. A big question mark instead should be put over North Korea. Kim Jong-un is the new leader, but it is unclear whether he actually runs the country. It is hard to see through the opaque regime. Provocation is its traditional foreign policy approach, and in the coming months we could expect provocative acts meant to prove that the government is firmly in place. On the other hand, it will be interesting to follow how the economic opening aimed at attracting foreign capital in the Special Economic Zones bordering China will play out.

20. An Increasingly Vulnerable Pakistan. As the new year begins, President Zardari is still struggling to hold his ruling coalition together. Hampered by unpopularity, a fed-up army, and interventionist judges, he will suffer in the upper-house election, due to be held in March. With woeful infrastructure, education, and economic management, Pakistanis may tilt even more towards conservative and nationalist parties. In addition, Pakistan-US relations, already rocky, will see new pressures. On the US side, Congress is more and more critical of aid provided to Pakistan intended to maintain the status quo. In Pakistan, there are signs that the government may be entering a new dialogue with the Taliban and is seeking to redefine its relationship vis-à-vis India. These developments are all determinative for regional peace and security.

Francesco Mancini is Senior Director of Research at the International Peace Institute.