New year could see many new faces in power
With elections due in many key countries, and the shifting sands of national power continuing to reshape the political and diplomatic landscape, 2013 will be a crucial year for world affairs
Iran's presidential election in June will come at a delicate time as the country faces down acute international pressure over its nuclear ambitions and internal discontent over a tailspinning economy. The hardline president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, will finally have to step down after two consecutive terms in office.
In reality, the new president will have little power to change course. The fate of Iran's nuclear programme rests in the hands of the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who enjoys a job for life. That said, a new president may still be instrumental in easing tensions, as the reformist president Mohammad Khatami, who served between 1997 and 2005, showed.
Khatami is once again being touted as a possible candidate in 2013, but conservatives are signalling that he would only be allowed to run if he distanced himself from the opposition Green movement.
Ahmadinejad is believed to be grooming his controversial chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, as his successor.
Israelis go to the polls on January 22, but no one is expecting a fundamental change in the next coalition government. A rightwing alliance between the Likud Party of prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu is on course to emerge with the biggest number of seats - about 40 - in the 120-member parliament. Smaller religious and ultra-orthodox parties will give the right a majority.
Assuming Netanyahu heads another coalition, there are two key questions: first, whether he orders a unilateral Israeli military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities; and second, whether he makes a serious effort to address the calcified peace process with the Palestinians.
He turns 89 in February and is still spoiling for a fight. Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe has declared that elections will be held in March, though June seems likelier. Once again he will take on Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
Last time, in 2008, more than 200 Zimbabweans were killed, forcing Tsvangirai to withdraw and enter a power-sharing agreement with Mugabe's Zanu-PF. It may be harder for the MDC this time. Some feel its ministers have failed to live up to their promises and become too accustomed to their perks.
Polls show Americans think Barack Obama will have a better second term than his first, though there is no shortage of potential pitfalls. Gun control will feature early on. Immigration reform is another aspiration, though this could get squeezed by the battle over gun rights. Overseas, Syria and Iran look like dominating the US diplomatic agenda, with few easy wins likely on either.
Few people predict anything other than re-election for Angela Merkel in Germany's autumn vote. The speculation is focused more on who will make up the new government than who will lead it.
Gerd Languth, professor of political science at the University of Bonn and a veteran observer of German politics, sees the possibility of three different coalitions. First is a "new grand coalition" made up of Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), "though the SPD would fight tooth and nail for this not to happen".
Another option is a CDU-Green Party grouping, a once unthinkable scenario.
A return to the current coalition between the CDU and liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) is also a possibility, Languth said.
Mario Monti is aiming to stay on as prime minister and Silvio Berlusconi has bounced back from his resignation in 2011 to seek another term, but Italy's centre-left Democratic Party, run by the former communist Pier Luigi Bersani, is still favourite to win the February election.
Italy's electoral law means Bersani can feel relatively confident of a working majority in the lower house, but the regional basis for representation in the senate could stop him from forming a functioning government, said Claudio Cerasa, assistant editor of the Italian daily Il Foglio. "It may be up to Monti to help out Bersani in the senate by taking votes from Berlusconi."
A broad alliance between Bersani and Monti could prove unwieldy.