It’s been quite a year: US President Donald Trump was impeached, Boris Johnson became Prime Minister in the UK and went on to comfortably win an election and the right-wing League in Italy withdrew its support from the governing coalition.
The European Parliament elections did not see the often predicted ‘right-wing populist surge’ with the exception of Italy, where Matteo Salvini’s League made substantial gains. The Christian Democrats (EPP) and the Socialists both lost ground and no longer command a majority between them, while the Greens and Liberals saw a significant increase in their number of seats.
It was an important year for the EU. Ursula von der Leyen took over as President of the European Commission from Jean Claude Juncker, with observers hoping that the former German Defence Minister will adopt a tougher stance on ensuring that the rule of law is upheld in countries like Malta, Poland and Hungary than her predecessor.
Former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel replaced Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. Among Tusk’s achievements in 2019 were an agreement by all member states (except Poland) to achieve climate neutrality by 2050, a ban on single use plastics, trade agreements with Singapore, Vietnam and the Mercosur bloc (Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay) and the strengthening of Frontex, the EU’s Border Control Agency.
The centre-left Democratic Party replaced the right-wing League as the 5-Star Movement’s coalition partner after Matteo Salvini, who was riding high in the polls and wanted fresh elections, withdrew his support for the government. Giuseppe Conte remained Prime Minister in the new government. An interesting phenomenon that developed in Italy was the formation of the Sardines movement, a grassroots organisation which organised peaceful demonstrations against the political rhetoric of Salvini.
Two general elections – six months apart from each other – gave a relative majority of seats to the Socialists led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez. The first minority government collapsed after a few months and after the second election a coalition minority government was agreed to between the Socialists and the left-wing Podemos. In the second poll the far-right anti-immigrant Vox party made substantial gains and became the third largest party in the country - having benefitted from the Catalan crisis and strong anti-separatist sentiment in Spain.
Prime Minister Theresa May failed on a number of occasions to get parliamentary backing for her Brexit deal with the EU – mainly because of the ‘backstop’ in Northern Ireland. May consequenly resigned and was replaced by Brexiteer Boris Johnson, who agreed to a new deal with Brussels which modified the ‘backstop’. Johnson also failed to get a majority to back his deal and then called an election which gave him a huge 80-seat majority – mainly because voters were confused with Labour’s Brexit stance and had little faith in Jeremy Corbyn’s left-wing policies. After the election Johnson got the backing of Parliament for the first reading of his deal. A final vote will be held on January 9 and the UK will leave the EU on January 31, 2020. A free trade deal will then have to be negotiated by the time the transition period ends – by December 31, 2020. Some observers say there will not be enough time for such a deal to be finalised, so a ‘no deal’ Brexit is still a possibility.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s fragile coalition between her CDU and the Social Democrats (SDP) survived but both parties continued to lose ground in various state elections, mainly to the far-right Alternative for Germany and the centre-left Greens. In another setback for Merkel the SDP elected two left-wingers to the lead the party, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, both of whom are strongly critical of the alliance with the CDU.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government continued to be rocked by the Yellow Vests protests calling for economic justice. More recently, massive strikes took place called by public sector unions opposed to the government’s attempts to bring about pension reform. Meanwhile, Macron effectively became Europe’s leader, and led the way in calling for multilateralism to tackle the world’s problems and in offering an alternative to Trump’s ‘America First’ agenda.
France and Europe, and much of the world, mourned the death of former French President Jacques Chirac, a champion of Europe and a genuine patriot who opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and who successfully took France into the euro.
The centre-right People’s Party led by Sebastian Kurz won the country’s parliamentary election and increased its share of the vote. The election was called after the previous coalition of the People’s Party and Freedom Party collapsed in the wake of the publication of secret recordings in which the then-leader of the Freedom Party Heinz-Christian Strache promised government contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. After weeks of negotiations Kurz, whose party did not obtain an absolute majority of seats, now seems close to forming a coalition government with the Greens, who also increased their share of the vote.
Sanna Marin, 34, became the world’s youngest prime minister. She was chosen by her Social Democratic party after its leader, Antti Rinne, resigned as head of the coalition government.
Mass anti-corruption protests and infighting by the governing left-wing parties led to the collapse of the Social Democratic government and its replacement by a centre-right administration led by Ludovic Orban, the leader of the National Liberal Party.
There was good news for pro-European liberals as the Opposition Dialogue for Hungary took control of Budapest in the city election, ousting the ruling Fidesz party incumbent. The victory represented the first major electoral blow to Prime Minister Viktor Orban since he was elected in 2010. The Opposition also made other gains, winning in 10 out of 23 major cities.
A controversial law which makes it easier to sack judges critical of the government’s judicial reforms was passed by Parliament. Before the vote the country’s Supreme Court warned that Poland could be forced to leave the EU over its reforms.
The territorial conflict between Ukraine and Russia was largely at a standstill, but the two countries did agree to a “full and comprehensive” ceasefire in eastern Ukraine after talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in Paris. The negotiations were brokered by French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The deal, which came after a large prisoner exchange, also envisaged the withdrawal of Ukraine’s military from three key areas on the front line.
The ruling AK Party of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lost control of Istanbul after a re-run of the city’s mayoral election. The Opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, won by a huge margin of 775,000 votes, representing a huge blow to Erdogan and ending 25 years of AKP rule.
Donald Trump became the third US president in history to be impeached by the House of Representatives, and now faces a trial in the Senate next month that will decide whether he remains in office. The Democratic-controlled House voted on two charges, namely that the President abused his power and that he obstructed Congress. The first charge of abuse of power was related to Trump’s attempt to exert pressure on Ukraine to investigate the leading Democrat in the 2020 presidential race, Joe Biden. The second charge of obstruction of Congress was based on Trump’s refusing to co-operate with the impeachment inquiry, withholding documentary evidence and preventing his close aides from giving evidence. Republicans control the Senate so it is highly unlikely that Trump he will be removed from office when he faces a trial next month.
Trump carried on with his ‘America First’ unilateral strategy throughout the year and continued quarrelling with his allies and making America less respected throughout the world. Trump quit the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) with Russia, thereby making the world a more dangerous place, pursued trade wars with China and the EU, officially withdrew from the Paris climate change accord and ordered US troops to leave Syria – allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds – who had fought with the West to defeat ISIS.
The US President made ‘history’ by stepping inside North Korean territory after meeting leader Kin Jong-un, but no progress at all was made in getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons programme. On the contrary, North Korea continued with its missile tests throughout the year.
Meanwhile three Democratic Party front-runnners emerged in the 2020 presidential race, namely Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, with Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg in the next level of support.
Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau retained power in a narrow election win and now heads a minority government. The Opposition Conservatives won the popular vote but this was not translated into more seats than the Liberals. Trudeau’s popularity declined somewhat due to an ethics scandal and because many voters expected him to do more for the environment.
Mass protests in Algeria led to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika being ousted by the army after 20 years in power. A presidential poll months later, marked by a record low turnout, saw Abdelmadjid Tebboune, a former prime minister, being elected, but the protests have continued, and many view the new President as being too close to the country’s establishment.
The military threw out President Omar al-Bashir who ruled for three decades, after months of nationwide protests. A joint governing council between the army and Opposition was formed to oversee a transition to civilian rule. In Iraq, mass demonstrations erupted, mainly against unemployment, corruption and poor public services, with hundreds of protesters being killed. Iraq’s Parliament approved the resignation of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who now heads a caretaker government.
There were also mass protests in Lebanon, mainly agaisnt corruption and in favour of social and economic reforms. Prime Minister Saad Hariri announced his resignation and the Shia Hezbollah movement and its allies, who command a parliamentary majority, nominated former education minister Hassan Diab to replace him, but the protests have continued.
A political and military stalemate endured with clashes between General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east, and the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. The LNA is bcaked by Egypt, the UAE and Russia, while the GNA is supported by Turkey and Qatar.
In an important development (and possibly dangerous) Turkish President Ergodan announced that he will be presenting a Bill in the Turkish Parliament in January 2020 to authorise the sending of troops to Libya to support the GNA, which he said, had been requested by the Libyan government. This could well lead to other countries sending troops to back General Haftar, and a possible escalation of the conflict.
Iraq and Syria
After a five-year blitz to seize Islamic State territory in Iraq and Syria, the jihadists were driven out of their last bastion in March by Kurdish-led forces. Later US President Donald Trump announced to the world that IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in a US special forces raid in Syria. In Syria, meanwhile, the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its Russian allies continued to relentlessly bombard the last few rebel-held enclaves, notably the province of Idlib, leading to many civilian casualties.
Iran announced a number of measures moving away from the landmark 2015 nuclear accord, inluding uranium enrichment, one year after Donald Trump’s reckless decision to pull the US out of the deal and re-impose sanctions. US-Iran relations continued to plummet, especially after Washington blamed Tehran for a number of attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf as well as missile attacks Yemen's Huthi rebels on major Saudi oil facilities. Iran also saw a number of riots after a fuel price hike, which Amnesty International said led to over 300 demonstrators being killed by the security forces.
China and Hong Kong
It was a worrying year for Hong Kong with almost daily pro-democracy protests in the second half of the year. Demonstrations were initially sparked by a now-abandoned Extradition Bill which would have seen people sent to mainland China to face trial – but then developed into a popular revolt against Beijing’s interference in the running of Hong Kong. Many observers were concerned that Beijing would use force to quash the protests. In an encouraging sign, pro-democracy candidates won a landslide victory in the territory’s local elections.
Venezuela continued sliding downhill as a result of President Nicolas Maduro’s doctrinaire brand of socialism, economic mismanagemnt and the underminng of the rule of law and democracy. Opposition leader Juan Guaido declared himself interim president and was recognised by over 50 countries, including the United States.
There were violent demonstrations in Haiti over fuel shortages and protests in Chile over metro ticket hikes and the need for constitutional reform. Bolivia was also rocked by protests after President Evo Morales claimed to have won a fourth term. After the deaths of dozens of protesters Morales resigned and fled to Mexico. There were also major protests in Ecuador and Colombia against austerity measures by the two governmwent.
The Middle East peace process (or what’s left of it) went absolutely nowhere with the US not considered an honest broker by the Palestinians. The Trump administration’s decision to no longer consider Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as being illegal only made the possibility of a peace settlement even more remote.
In Israel two elections held in April and September saw Likud headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deadlocked with the centrist Blue and White party with neither able to form a government. Another election is to be held in March 2020. Meanwhile Netanyahu, who earlier in the year was indicted over corruption charges, was easily re-elected Likud party leader last week.
In India, the world’s largest democracy, Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s Janata Party won a landslide victory in the country’s election. His somewhat nationalist policies, however, have been a cause for concern and a number of protests have taken place in the country over a new controversial law that excludes Muslims from future citizenship. A week ago, in fact, in a backlash to the new law, Modi lost a key state election in Jharkhand, in eastern India.
The Nobel Peace Prize for 2019 went to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed Ali for his efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation, and in particular for his initiative to resolve the border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea. Ali has also earned international respect for his political and economic reforms at home.
The African National Congress (ANC) was returned to power after winning a parliamentary election, but with a reduced majority. A struggling economy and corruption have eroded the ANC’s popularity.
It was certainly a year where climate change was very much in the news. At least 15 natural disasters linked to climate change caused damage of over $30 billion including floods in north India, the US and China, typhoon Lekima in China, Hurricane Dorian in the US, typhoon Hagibis in Japan and the California wildfires. Iceland lost its first glacier to climate change, fires ravaged Brazil’s Amazon and Australia, Venice was swamped by extreme flooding and 2019 was declared to be the second hottest year in history.
The extreme weather led to worldwide protests spurred on by environmental activist Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose campaigning gained international recognition and admiration. Thunberg addressed the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, was nominated for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize and was named Time Person of the Year.
Jihadist terror attacks continued throughout the year in a number of countries such as Somalia, Nigeria, Burkino Faso, Niger, Mali, Cameroon, Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Kenya and Sri Lanka – where a particularly brutal Easter Sunday terroriist attack killed 259 people, mainly Christians attending Church, and a number of tourists at hotels.
There was also a surge in right-wing white supremacist terror attacks, the worst one being the mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, which killed 51 Muslims. Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old white supremacist Australian, and part of the alt-right movement, was charged with the murders.
Boeing grounded its 737 MAX planes after crashes involving a Lion Air plane and an Ethiopian Airlines plane with 346 lives lost in both tragedies. Earlier this month Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg resigned.