We have just bid farewell to an eventful year. Since time is a continuum, let us look back for a while and reflect how some events of the past year will impact the New Year. Changes in leadership of countries, conflicts within and between nations, natural disasters, the passing away of some leaders and international agreements will no doubt influence events in 2014.
China got a new set of leaders. Xi Jingping (60) General Secretary of the Communist Party of China took over as President of China on 14 March 2013. The 12th National People's Congress held in Beijing “elected” (actually confirmed) Xi Jingping as President of the country. Li Keqiang, powerful member of the Politburo Standing Committee, was elected as Prime Minister by the NPC. Earlier the 18th National Congress of the CPC held in November 2012 elected Xi Jingping as General Secretary of the Party.
The transfer of power process went ahead smoothly and without any hitch despite doubts by the Western media. The new leadership will lead the country through to 2023. What is intriguing is that China announced on 23 November, 2013 a new air defense zone over the disputed islands (Senkaku islands) in East China Sea. It overlaps with the air zone declared by Japan. The move has provoked angry reactions from Japan, United States and South Korea. Tension prevails in the region.
Democrat President Barack Obama began his second term in office on 21 January 2013. Obama is hamstrung because the Congress is dominated by Republicans and the Senate by Democrats.
The second National Assembly elections were held in two phases (May and July 2013) in Bhutan, since King Jigme Singye Wankchuk introduced democratic reforms in the Himalayan Kingdom. The People's Democratic Party emerged winner when it got 32 of the 47 seats. The King appointed PDP leader Tshering Tobgay as Prime Minister.
The 14th National Assembly elections and provincial elections were held in Pakistan on 11 May 2013. The elections saw the demise of the center-left PPP and return of the center-right Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. Nawaz Sharif became Prime Minister for the third time after 14 years. He could not complete his tenure in the two previous stints. It was under Nawaz Sharif that Pakistan became a nuclear-weapon state in May 1998. Nawaz was ousted by General Pervez Musharraf in 1999 and tried for treason. What was startling is the rise of cricketer Imran Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaf in Pakistan politics. He holds second position in the National Assembly. Bhutto-Zardari family-led PPP government was routed for pervasive corruption and rise of fundamentalism. Despite implicit threats of army coup the Zardari government completed its five-year mandate. Mir Hazar Khan Khoso's caretaker government supervised the elections and ensured peaceful transfer of power.
Pakistan also elected a new President on 30 July 2013. The Electoral College consisting of the members of the Senate, National Assembly and Provincial Assemblies elected Mamnoon Hussain, who took office in September 2013.
Nepal still does not have a constitution. The first Constituent Assembly formed after the national elections in April 2008 was dissolved in May 2012. The second Constituent Assembly was formed after repeatedly delaying the elections, which was finally held on 19 November 2013. The Nepali Congress became the party with the largest number of seats in the new CA, which will also serve as Parliament. The powerful Maoists have been decimated. However NC will have to form a coalition government as no party got majority in the new Assembly. Because of deep mistrust among the parties the election was conducted under a caretaker government headed by the Chief Justice Khil Raj Regmi.
Maldives' democracy faced threats in December 2011. President Mohamed Nasheed got involved in a power struggle with Chief Justice Abdulla Mohamed, which eventually led to Nasheed's resignation in February 2012. Nasheed claimed he was forced to resign at gun point. Fresh elections were held on 7 September 2013, which was later annulled by the Supreme Court. The run-off was held on 16 November in which Abdulla Yameen of the Progressive Party got elected. Yameen is the half-brother of former President Mammon Abdul Gayoom.
The situation in Afghanistan has not stabilized despite the presence of NATO forces. American troops are scheduled to leave the country later in 2014. Karzai has refused to comply with the US demand that he sign the bilateral security agreement by 31 December. The peace prospect in the country is very grim.
Iran elected a new President on 14 June 2013. Hassan Rouhani (64), a moderate cleric and former negotiator on nuclear issues, became the seventh President of Iran. After assuming the presidency Rouhani promised to improve relations with the West, especially United States. Iran has been at tremendous odds with the West over its nuclear programme. The West and Israel accuse Iran of developing nuclear weapon. Iran is also seen by Israel and the Gulf states as a serious threat to the region. Iran denied these charges claiming that its programme was for peaceful purposes.
During the UN General Assembly in September 2013 in New York the breakthrough came when President Obama spoke over phone to President Rouhani. Thereafter, there was rapid progress in negotiations in Geneva between the P5+1 and Iran to strike a deal. On 24 November 2013 the P5+1 signed an understanding with Iran to curb Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting of sanctions. Although Israel rejected the deal there are hopes that trust between the two sides would be built in the six month period and a detailed agreement would be concluded between Iran and the West. The West needs Iran's oil and Iranian support to resolve the Syrian crisis. Iran needs to revitalize its depressed economy.
On 1 November Pheu Thai Party of Prime Minister Yinluck Sinawatra passed a controversial bill that would have pardoned former Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and would have facilitated return of self-exiled Prime Minister Thaksin Sinawatra. Opposition Democratic Party opposed the bill and poured onto the streets of Bangkok and fought with pro-government supporters. They called for the resignation of Yinluck. The Senate turned down the bill on 11 November. During the month long unrest 4 people were killed. On 9 December 2013 Yinluck Sinawatra dissolved the Parliament and called for fresh elections on 2 February 2014. Opposition Democratic Party has decided to boycott the elections.
Malaysia went for national elections on 5 May 2013. The ruling “Barisan Nasional” coalition dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) party of Prime Minister Najib Razak won 133 seats in the parliament of 222 members. “Pakatan Rakyat” coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim got 89 and assumed the role of opposition. Since there is no change in the government Malaysia will continue its course under Najib Razak.
Australia elected its 44th Parliament on 7 September 2013. The center-left Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd suffered defeat at the hands of Tony Abbott's center-right Liberal Party. Abbott mustered 90 seats in the parliament of 150 members.
Rudd got 55 seats and lost the election because of leadership squabbles with Julia Gillard. Interestingly, voting in Australia is compulsory. If a citizen does not vote he has to give convincing reasons for being absent, failing which he may be fined.
The most important election in Europe took place in Germany on 22 September 2013. The conservative Christian Democratic Union of Angela Merkel won convincingly, obtaining 255 of the 631 seats in the Bundestag (Parliament). But it fell short of simple majority. Rival Social Democratic Party (SPD) managed 193 seats. After more than two months of negotiations, CDU and SPD produced a 185-page Agreement to form a grand coalition. The Bundestag overwhelmingly (462 votes) elected Merkel as Chancellor on 17 December 2013 for the third time.
Since 2010 Europe has been going through economic turmoil because of “Euro” crisis. Several EU members almost went bankrupt because of massive mismanagement. In 2011 the Euro almost collapsed because of public debts of Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. During 2013 Merkelstirred Europe through the currency crisis, stood firmly behind Euro and bailed out the sinking economies. German economy performed exceptionally well and was the driving force in Europe.
The situation in the Middle East remains extremely fluid. Egypt the most influential state of the region has gone through difficult political upheavals. The first ever elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the Army Chief General Abdul Fatah al-Sissi on July 3, 2013. Since taking over the Presidency on 1 July 2012, Morsi failed to revive the economy and unite the nation. His pro-Islamist policies provoked massive anti-Morsi demonstration at Tahrir Square, frequently leading to bloody street battles. General Sissi abrogated the constitution drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood dominated parliament and jailed most of the Brotherhood leadership. Morsi is currently undergoing trial for treason.
Arab Spring came to a halt with Egypt's ephemeral experiment with democracy. The restive Brotherhood continues to harass the military regime with sporadic armed attacks. The country is now firmly under military rule as it was since 1952.
Tunisia, the birth place of “Arab Spring”, is currently ruled by Muslim Brotherhood affiliate “Ennahda”. Political assassinations and struggle for state power continued during 2013. Opposition parties continue to demand Ennahda government's resignation and fresh elections.
The post-Gaddafi situation in Libya is precarious. The country is divided along militant tribal groups, which has made the government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan non-functional. The security situation of the country crumbled completely due to frequent clashes among these groups. The 200-member General National Congress was elected in July 2012 to write the constitution. Later the GNC decided that constituent assembly members will be directly elected in September 2013. However, dates for that election have not yet been finalized.
Human catastrophe due to the civil war continues in Syria. The Government of Bashar Al-Assad continues to hold on as the rebel forces are badly disunited. More than 120,000 people have lost their lives and 2 million people have become refugees in neighbouring countries. The UN Security Council is divided over how to resolve this conflict. Repeated attempts to hold all-party conference in Geneva to find a solution has not made any progress.
In June 2013 there were allegations that Syrian army used chemical weapons (sarin gas) on its people causing death of over 1400 people. US Administration took a hard stand when President Obama on 4 September threatened to bomb Damascus. Tension in the region heightened with the possibility of new US-led war. Subsequently at the initiative of Russia, UN Security Council adopted a resolution on 27 September 2013, under which Syria agreed to surrender all its chemical weapons to the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for destruction by mid-2014.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly faced anti-government demonstrations in Istanbul in May 2013. Government had planned to raze Gezi Park in Istanbul and build a modern shopping mall and some military barracks. On 28 May, 2013 several dozen environmentalists occupied Gezi Park protesting government decision. Police's heavy-handed action against the protestors led to wider demonstrations across Turkey demanding Erdogan's resignation. Many saw the demonstrations as a prelude to an 'Arab Spring' type movement in the making. NATO countries were worried since Turkey is the powerful eastern bulwark of NATO alliance and is also the frontline state of Syria. But Erdogan's 'Justice and Development Party' is popular and it took him more than a month to bring the situation under control.
President Obama visited Israel, West Bank and Jordan from 20-23 March 2013 and strongly urged the Israelis to start the “final status” negotiations with the Palestinians. After several attempts by John Kerry the stalled negotiations began on 29 July 2013 in Washington. Thereafter the talks continued in Jerusalem and Hebron. Negotiations were scheduled to be completed in nine months. On 4 December 2013 Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat informed John Kerry that the talks were faltering and urged him to salvage them. Israel continues to expand its illegal settlements and kill Palestinians with impunity. Shall we see resolution of the longest conflict in the world in 2014?
What was shocking was the release, in early November 2013, of Swiss forensic report on Yasser Arafat's death. Swiss scientist said their data supports the theory that Arafat was poisoned with polonium. Human Rights groups should press for UN investigation on how actually Arafat died.
Armed conflicts are ongoing in South Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Congo, Nigeria and Central African Republic (CAR). France, the former colonial power, sent troops to Mali and CAR to bring back normalcy.
The scandal that dominated world media headlines last year was the revelations made by Edward Snowden about the spying activities of National Security Agency of America. Snowden worked for NSA from where he collected 200,000 classified documents and released those to The Guardian and The Washington Post in early June 2013. His releases caused severe diplomatic tension for Washington with Germany and France and other allies in Europe. NSA has been collecting telephone metadata and spying on internet communications around the world, violating privacy of citizens. Snowden fled US and after an entertaining drama, was granted asylum by Russia on 1 August 2013. The episode created serious tension between Washington and Moscow.
In an unusual move Pope Benedict XVI, pontiff of the Catholic Christians, resigned on 28 February 2013 for what he said “lack of strength of mind and body” due to his advanced age. Argentinean Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio became the new chief pontiff on 13 March 2013 as Pope Francis.
WTO- Bali Package
The 9th Ministerial Conference of WTO was held in Bali, Indonesia from 3-7 December 2013. The Conference adopted a series of decisions to ease and streamline trade known as “Bali Package”. The package focused on – trade facilitation, food security, cotton, and measures for developing countries. The Conference was hailed as success as the Package is expected to generate $1 trillion worth of new trade.
The writer is former Ambassador and Secretary.