A slate of candidates will vie for Mexican President Felipe Calderón's job when the president's six-year term ends later this year. Deplorable security conditions will be a central campaign issue, as the country reels from a drug war that has cost at least 35,000 lives since 2006.
Venezuelans due to vote in presidential elections in October face a major question: Will President Hugo Chavez be on the ballot? The socialist leader has suffered health problems that appear serious enough to raise questions of whether he'll run. If he doesn't, strategic allies like Iran will watch eagerly to see if another anti-American leader takes his place.
If early election trends continue, Islamist political groups will gain control of Egypt's parliament when officials announce final results in March. Religious minorities-including Christians comprising 10 percent of the population-will watch to see if their freedoms erode under a new government with power to shape the nation for decades.
Painful austerity measures may pay off this year in Great Britain. After two years of deep cuts introduced by Prime Minister David Cameron, a key global indicator called the Purchasing Managers Index suggests Britain may be the only European country to avoid a recession. The rest of the continent will likely face a rough year: Morgan Stanley estimates Europe's economies will contract 0.7 percent in 2012 as the EU financial crisis continues.
Most election observers expect Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to the country's presidency after March elections. But growing discontent with the authoritarian leader's rule may force Putin to make a critical choice: reform or repress. When thousands of Russians flooded Moscow's streets to protest corrupt parliamentary elections in December, the government responded by dispatching the military-but a post-Arab Spring world may force Putin to learn the limits of repression.
If 2011 was a tough year for political dissidents and religious groups in China, 2012 could be even worse: As the Chinese Communist Party prepares for its 18th congress-and a change in party leadership-government officials may seek to manage public reaction by continuing to silence public dissent. Even groups that aren't directly challenging government policy will likely face continued harassment: Christians in congregations like Beijing's unregistered Shouwang Church say they'll continue to look for ways to meet, despite government opposition.
With 2012 marking the 100th birthday of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, the country's officials set this year as a deadline for achieving status as a "strong and prosperous nation." Major construction projects in the nation's capital are designed to create new restaurants, theaters, and 100,000 new apartments. But a crippled economy and dire food shortages in the communist regime mean millions continue to languish in one of the most secretive nations on earth, even as the death of dictator Kim Jong-Il apparently leaves his youngest son, Kim Jong-Un, as the next dictator.
Though India isn't immune to the global economic downturn, the Asian giant still enjoyed an economic growth rate of around 7 percent in 2011. That vastly outstripped America's estimated 3 percent rate, but widespread poverty still plagues Asia's third-largest economy, and government officials are proposing to expand welfare benefits in a system that suffers extensive corruption.
A burning question for East Africa in 2012: Will full-scale war erupt between Sudan and the newly constituted South Sudan? As Sudanese military forces bolster encampments near the disputed border with South Sudan, an international crisis could re-ignite war between the two regions and leave millions of South Sudanese facing old dangers in their new nation.
Will Israel strike Iran in 2012? One of the weightiest questions of the year carries worldwide implications, including how the United States would respond. After a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Iran is inching closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon, top Israeli officials suggested a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could be necessary to prevent an attack by the nation that has called for Israel's extinction.