The year 2013 will go down in history books as a year of wars, natural disasters, political upheavals, economic slowdowns and stagnations, polarization and terrorism. The year’s lows were still better than 2012, especially on world economic front. It still faces huge challenges but early signs of betterment are good news for the downtrodden around the globe.
The US economy seemed to be headed to a good recovery trajectory with job data showing continuous improvement. The new year promises much more to the US and in turn world economy if Washington’s partisan politics let the difficult journey continue uninterrupted. The year-end bipartisan budget deal certainly is a good omen for 2014.
The biggest failure of Congress, among its many others in 2013, was on the much-touted and long-awaited immigration reforms. America will elect much of the Congress in the mid-term election this November. Republicans’ divisive politics of gridlocks, sequesters and government shutdowns has consumed much of their popularity among voters. The tea party bubble within the GoP ranks seems to have busted by its own intransigence and political extremism. While the intra-party struggle amongst hardliners and moderates will continue in 2014 but moderates are likely to win the day — again a good omen for immigration reforms. Desperate to win back the lost political capital, the Republicans may show some political will to pass the reforms before the mid-term elections, or at least initiate the process.
The Affordable Care Act or the Obamacare, the biggest legacy of President Barack Obama, had an embarrassing start on October 1 when the glitch-ridden official website started enrolling Americans for health insurance. Obama presidency’s this signature project is expected to come under renewed scrutiny in the run-up to the mid-term elections. Politics aside, the biggest expansion of healthcare in US history is bound to benefits millions of Americans. Republicans are unlikely to succeed in defunding the program, barring they keep control of the House and retake the control of Senate in November elections.
One more disappointing failure of the Congress in 2013 was its inability to come up with a legislation to ban or limit the availability of handguns. Gun lobby, as was widely anticipated in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, Newtown, massacre, would prevail, and it did. Innocent Americans continue to lose their lives in gun violence and may continue to do so in 2014 as Congress is less likely to pass a gun control legislation.
One of the high-marks of 2014 was the election of Bill de Blasio as the mayor of nation’s largest and most diverse city. de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, has a huge challenge of bridging the yawning budgetary holes while implementing his liberal agenda of expanding affordable housing, revamping police, reforming education and promoting small business. de Blasio’s emphatic victory brightens hopes of millions of New Yorkers for a better life in 2014.
The shale oil and gas revolution, despite all the controversies surrounding it, continued to benefit the US economy. The continuous growth of gas production from tar sand and shale gas and oil, such as North Dakota’s Bakken-Three Forks, brought North America closest ever to energy independence. The price of gas has come down to 4.43 dollar per million British thermal unit [against 11.50 to 13 dollars in Europe and up to 19 dollars in northeast asia] because of the use of hydrofracturing or fracking technology to extract the gas from shale formations.
Continuous expansion of oil and gas sector in 2014 will continue to create more jobs, bring down production cost and bring back some of the overseas US foreign investments. Cheap energy will be one of the biggest advantages the US will enjoy over its global competitors during 2014, and may see more energy starved European companies shifting their production lines to the US.
On the international seen, the failure of Arab Spring to bring about democratic change in the Arab world increased polarization, violence and social upheavals from Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, Palestinian territories, Yemen, Saudi Arabia to Tunisia, Bahrain and beyond. The Syrian war reached a stalemate with none of the sides strong enough to clinch a decisive victory.
The rise of Al Qaeda in the ranks of Syrian opposition increased the prospects of more instability in the country. Peace talks are scheduled for January 22nd but chances of success will depend on the role of opposition. The process may fail if hardline Al Qaeda-affiliated extremists are in the leadership role. Syrian war’s transformation into a sectarian conflict between Iran and Hezbollah-backed government of President Bashar alAssad regime and Saudi Arabia-backed extremists has turned the situation more explosive. British daily Guardian reported in November 2013 that Riyadh planned to raise a new militia with the help of Pakistan to topple the Assad regime. More power centers in Syria means more bloodshed and instability in 2014.
Iran’s warming relations with the West, especially the US, has already angered the Saudis who have indicated to buy a nuclear warhead from Pakistan, should Iran ever go nuclear. A BBC documentary released in November 2013 claimed that in return for bankrolling the Pakistani nuclear weapons project, Saudi Arabia has a claim on some of those weapons in time of need. Pakistan strongly denies any such plans, maintaining that its nuclear weapons program is only for its national security. Iran’s improved relations with the West will diminish the prospects of it going nuclear at least in the near, effectively putting to rest the fears about Saudi Arabia, at least for the time being.
The fate of Libya is no different in 2014 where the country has virtually gone in the hands of heavily armed private militias. Libya may also become a new breeding ground for violent extremists if the state fails to establish its writ on its geography in the new year.
In Iraq, sectarian violence increased during 2013. According to iraqbodycount.org website, which tracks the death toll in Iraq, a total 9,400 Iraqis lost their lives in violence in 2013. The new year may not change much in Iraq, largely because of increasing Al Qaeda-driven violence and the inability of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to bring the long awaited multi-sectoral reforms and transparency in governance. Maliki has expressed his determination to defeat Al Qaeda, but his words will need much more action that what was seen in 2013 to make good on his promise.
The new year is expected to bring many changes in Asia. India, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Thailand will go to landmark elections in 2014. In India, more than 714 million voters (larger than both EU and US electorates combined) will elect a new parliament in May this year. If current political and recent election voting trends are any indication, the ruling Congress Party may face a certain defeat. Congress faced embarrassing defeat in the recent election in the four states. Narendra Modi, the controversial right-wing hardliner from the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is more than likely to be Indian’s next prime minister. Modi’s election as prime minister may bring a much more hardline India on the international stage.
Nationalist Awami League is also expected to return to power in neighboring Bangladesh where the opposition parties have boycotted the January 5 vote. The 18-party opposition alliance lead by former prime minister Khaleda Zia kept much of Bangladesh shut in most of 2013 to press Prime Minsiter Sheikh Hasina Wajid to hand over power to an interim government to hold elections. The opposition says Hasina Wajid cannot hold transparent elections while being at the helm. The elections will lose legitimacy if held without opposition’s participation. Thus the new year may not bring political stability to Bangladesh, which has seen renewed violence after the hanging of Abdul Qauder Mollah, a leader of banned Jamaat-e-Islami party.
International human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have criticized the tribunal, terming it below fair trial standards. Mollah’s hanging has further divided the country, with many calling it politically motivated. It has renewed tensions between Pakistan and Bangladesh. A Pakistani parliamentary resolution expressing concern over Mollah’s hanging evoked strong response from Dhaka. Awami League’s electoral victory could mean bilateral relations will stay chilly, if not further strained.
Pakistan seemed to be heading in the right direction after May 2013 elections which brought Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif back in government for a record third term. The outgoing year also saw three other major developments with implications in the new year. Two of the country’s most powerful men, the activist Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhary and army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, retired in November and December. The third major development was the killing of the country’s most wanted man, Hakimullah Mehsud, the chief of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, in a US drone strike on November 1.
But all is still not well with the nuclear armed South Asian nation. Its economy remains fragile with budgetary imbalances touching the limits of insanity, skyrocketing inflation and prices of daily-use commodities. The semblance of political stability may wane fast if the government doesn’t deliver on economic front and bringing peace. Both will be the biggest challenges of 2014 and keep the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif under pressure during the new year.
Stability in Pakistan would also be linked to the developments in bordering Afghanistan which is expected to see two major developments in 2014. The country may elect the first non-Pashtun president in years on April 5 to replace Hamid Karzai. The second major development will be the exit of US-lead ISAF troops. The new president may also finalize the bilateral security pact with the US, which President Karzai has so far refused to sign. The exit of foreign forces from Afghanistan will put to real test the government in Kabul. The US and its Western allies have spent billions of dollars on raising, training and arming the Afghan National Army. Will it be able to contain Taliban onslaught in the absence of western forces remains the most difficult question to answer. Much will depend on the strength and discipline of the Afghan army and the success of Afghan government’s dialogue with the Taliban to bring about lasting peace to the country.
Afghan government’s performance aside, Washington’s own assessment of the situation in Afghanistan remains bleak. A new intelligence assessment on Afghanistan concludes that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation. Much will depend of the fate of BSA and the role Afghanistan’s neighbors, and other powers such as India and China will play. Afghanistan, thus, may remain unstable during 2014.
Thailand may also see more political instability after the opposition parties boycotted the February 2 elections. The Thai army has warned that the country could face a coup in the middle of violence and the country’s election commission’s calls to delay the vote. The coming weeks are, thus, critical for Thailand’s democracy.
China ended the year by stoking new tensions in the East China Sea by declaring air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that overlapped longstanding Japanese and South Korean air zones. Neither Japan nor South Korea is complying with China’s ADIZ demands. The new tensions will continue to pose a serious threat to security in the region during 2014. However, the continent will remain
Africa and Latin America
In Africa, flash-points such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, DRC, Egypt, may see more unrest in 2014. However, the continent’s promise of prosperity will not diminish and many emerging economies such as Ghana will continue to grow.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the year saw steady poverty and economic challenges continued to grow. The number of indigent people rose from 66 million to 68 million due to the higher increase in food costs relative to general inflation, stated the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) in its report Social Panorama of Latin America and the Caribbean 2013, published on December 5. The regions economic challenges will continue in 2014.