Pakistan, Russia, and Zimbabwe are holding elections this year. Cuba's Fidel Castro is talking about retirement. But few leadership changes in 2008 will be as closely watched as the US election. Who Americans want in the Oval Office won't be known until November. Yet from Mexico to Iraq, people are already forming views about who they'd like to see at the helm of the world's only superpower, says correspondent Mark Rice-Oxley in London. A Monitor survey found opinion divided, and often counterintuitive.
Would you prefer a Democrat or a Republican as the next US president?
Liberals don't necessarily support a Democrat, nor do conservatives necessarily want a Republican. Many people interviewed outside the US said it was time for a change. But some felt that having Democrats in both the White House and Congress could hurt global trade.
"From a Chinese perspective, most people would prefer the Republicans to the Democrats because the Republicans have taken a more liberal approach to trade disputes with China," says Shi Yinhong, head of the American Research Center at Renmin University in Beijing.
"Democrats are a little more protectionist ... and take more of a human rights position," he says.
In Britain, people "like the idea of a woman president or the first black president," says Denis MacShane, a British Labour member of parliament. But he agrees that Britain and Europe were wary of Democrats' protectionist credentials. "Having a Democrat in the White House is not a guarantee that policy on economic, trade and other issues will not be hostile to British and European interests," he says.
While many were critical of President George Bush's foreign-policy "mistakes," others focused on positive steps. Priscilla Maphumulu, a South African optometrist, says that the US administration's commitments to helping tackle the AIDS crisis predispose her toward the Republicans.
In 2003, Mr. Bush committed to spending $15 billion to fighting AIDS over five years, and much of it was directed to Africa. In 2007, he pledged to double that figure over the next five years.
"I think no other administration has given so much assistance to this problem before," Ms. Maphumulu says. "This is what has to do with my life. I don't know about Iraq and other policies, but that is not as important to me. So, I am happy for the Republicans to win."
Which policy would you most like the next US president to change?
Everyone interviewed responded similarly: America needs to act less unilaterally, to build solutions via consensus rather than imposing them. They want the next president to respect that every country has its own culture and approaches, which may not adapt well to prescriptions cooked up in Washington.
"Democrat or Republican, I do not care," says Fakhri Karim, a Baghdad newspaper owner and book publisher. "I just prefer a US president that would balance US interests with those of other nations.... The United States must construct its foreign policies based on local knowledge and not based on what advisers come up with at the Pentagon or in the State Department as they did in Iraq."
Svetlana Kurchavik, a Russian housewife, says: "I don't want America to interfere into other countries, or dictate their conditions to anybody."
In Mexico City, chauffeur Eloy Cortes says, "What I want more than anything is that the US become more conscious of the rights of immigrants in the US." He says that those illegal immigrants already there should be legalized and that the US should expand its guest-worker program. He, like most Mexicans, is against the construction of a wall between the two countries. "Putting up a wall makes it seem as if we are Jews and Palestinians."
Salvador Bautista, a plumber in Mexico City, wants to see similar immigration policy changes. Mr. Bautista, who worked in lettuce and strawberry fields in the US (once crossing illegally, the other time as a guest worker), also says the US can take on a much greater role in the current crises across the world, especially global warming.
In South Africa, John Thusi, a real estate agent from Soweto, says that Africans are bothered by big powers using Africa as a giant quarry to be exploited. "They send in their companies and mine everything out and make so much money on our backs. But they don't give us a share of what is ours."
Mr. Thusi likes Barak Obama for president. "I heard about a black man in America – Obama. I believe he is a good man. I am not sure of what he stands for, but if he is black and has gotten that far, he must be someone capable and special in America."
Where else are leadership changes expected this year?
Several other key elections – in Pakistan, Russia and Zimbabwe – will once again put democratic norms to the test.
Pakistan's parliamentary election will produce a new prime minister, but still leave the strongman Pervez Musharraf as president, backed by the Army. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe has been the nation's leader since 1980 and was just nominated again as candidate for the ruling party in March's presidential election.
In Russia, presidential elections will likely yield a different president – but the same leader. "A new president will not deviate from [Vladmir] Putin's line in foreign or domestic policy," says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst with the Carnegie Centre in Moscow. Mr. Putin's anointed successor, Dmitri Medvedev, is "a weak, possibly temporary figure who will hold power on behalf of Putin," he adds.
Will 2008 be a year of more or less democratic freedoms?
Depending on how the Russian elections play out, Putin may well be on the verge of joining a growing band of leaders who consider themselves "president for life." Some call it "ballot-box botox." and note how appealing it has become.
The number of countries where elections are likely to do little to change the leadership include Egypt, Syria, North Korea, Turkmenistan, Zimbabwe, Belarus, Venezuela, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. "We have a global phenomenon now of postdemocratic states where you have presidents for life and they are not fascist or communist or dictators in the 20th-century sense of the word. But they are far from being democracies in the European or North American sense," says Mr. MacShane in London.
This will be a major challenge for the next US president, he says: How to bolster its alliances with democratic states so as to arrest the attack on universal values such as respect for opposition parties, free press, and race and gender rights.
"I still think that the object of America's enemies is to divide the US from Europe in as many different ways as possible and I hope that doesn't happen because I don't want to live in a world in which the Chinese or Russian or Saudi or [Venezuela's Hugo] Chávez vision of democracy is the one that gets the upper hand," says MacShane.