With 2018 coming to an end, SAFEY looks back at the year and counts down to some of the major events that took place on each continent, and how they have impacted not only individual countries and but also the world. Some of the events such as the handshake between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un as well as the opposition victory in Malaysia were hardly imaginable a year ago, while others such as the wildfires in Greece or tsunami in Indonesia also caused heart-wrenching scenes being beamed across the globe. In this year-ender special, SAFEY picked 25 events that it believed defined 2018 from the political, economic and social perspectives.
Trade war between US and China underway
In July, US President Donald J. Trump moved to impose tariffs on billions worth of Chinese goods, citing unfair trade practices. In the months that followed, China also started a similar move and it eventually marked the beginning of a trade war between the two most powerful economies in the world. Both governments refused to budge and had instead accused each other of escalating it. Despite the war of words, representatives from both sides have also been working to avert a full-scale trade war. A deal to suspend new tariffs was agreed in December in order to facilitate a more conductive environment for talks.
Leftist claims Mexican presidency amid reform promises
A new leftist government under the leadership of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador or “AMLO” took power in Mexico after winning the election in July. AMLO’s victory was hailed as a turning point in the country’s history as he vowed to rid deeply entrenched corruption in Latin America’s second-largest economy as well as tackling violence related to the drug war. His reform message was thought to have resonated well with the aspirations of many Mexicans who grew weary of past governments that have been dominated by the political and business elites. Despite starting off on a positive note, AMLO will now be required to put his words into action by drawing out clearer plans on how he intends to achieve his promises in the next six years.
Far-right candidate wins presidential race in Brazil
The far-right candidate in Brazil’s presidential election, Jair Bolsonaro claimed victory following a run-off against his closest rival from the left, Fernando Haddad. The victory of the so-called “Trump of the Tropics” came amidst several high-corruption cases involving the ex-president Lula Inacio Lula da Silva as well as the economic malaise that has been dogging the largest economy in Latin America. Bolsonaro however is not without controversies as he had in the past issued remarks that were regarded as misogynist as well as racist. His pledges to combat crime using a military-style approach had also raised fears that country will return to a dictatorship seen in the 1970s.
Migrant caravans turn attention to Trump’s tough immigration policy
Large groups of migrants marched toward the United States border via Mexico in November in order to seek asylum and it once again put President Donald Trump’s immigration policy into the spotlight. The so-called “migrant caravans” numbered in thousands were mostly from Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador where poverty and violence were rife. Clashes took place near the border of Guatemala and Mexico as security forces moved to block their entry. Trump had vowed tough measures on the migrants by tightening asylum rules. He also wanted the migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration court hearings got underway. The crisis could also be one of the biggest bilateral tests for Trump and his Mexican counterpart, who might have a different approach in resolving it.
Unrest in Nicaragua amid controversial changes to social security system
Nicaragua was gripped by months of unrest following the changes on the social security system by the government. Deadly protests were reported across the country with the death toll numbered in hundreds. The embattled President Daniel Ortega refused to step down despite mounting pressure from the protest movements as well as sanctions by the US. Talks mediated by the Catholic church also failed to yield any positive results and Ortega instead launched a brutal crackdown against his opponents.
Xi Jinping continues to cement his rule on China amid abolishment of term limits
Xi Jinping cleared his final hurdle to rule indefinitely as the country’s rubber-stamp parliament, National People Congress (NPC) abolished the presidential term limits. The move also meant that Xi has become one of the most powerful leaders in China since Mao Zedong, and probably across the globe. Amidst his meteoric rise to power, the possibility of an unlimited rule of Xi also indicated that he will also be the one leading the country in its mission to become a great power. With the party, the government as well as the military firmly behind him, Xi is now on course to lead the world’s second-largest economy to achieve the so-called, “Chinese Dream”, a term popularized at the beginning of his presidency.
93-year old Mahathir makes comeback as opposition delivers surprise victory in Malaysia election
Having retired from the premiership in 2003, the 93-year old Mahathir Mohamad returned as the Prime Minister of Malaysia after leading the opposition coalition to its first victory against Barisan Nasional that had been ruling the country for 60 years. The shock victory of the opposition was heralded in as the new era for the country where the 1MDB corruption scandal had engulfed the administration of ex-Prime Minister Najib Razak. The victory also led to the release of Anwar Ibrahim, Mahathir’s protégé turned political foe in the late 90s. Riding on the promises to reform and restore the country’s reputation, Mahathir has also promised to hand over the post to Anwar once his two-year stint ends.
Political crisis in Sri Lanka as president fires prime minister
Sri Lanka was plunged into a political crisis in early November as the country’s President Maithripala Sirisena fired his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe amid sharp differences in a range of issues including economic reforms. In a strange twist of event, Sirisena had instead appointed his once political rival Mahinda Rajapaksa into the prime ministerial post, triggering outcry from the incumbent’s camp. Protests were held against the decision that was being labeled as unconstitutional. The crisis came to an end in December when Sirisena reappointed Wickremesinghe as the prime minister following a court decision. Despite this, there were still concerns if the crisis was fully resolved as Sirisena had openly expressed his doubts on Wickremesinghe’s government during a speech at the swearing-in ceremony, leading to speculation of an early parliamentary election.
Malcolm Turnbull ousted as Australian prime minister in leadership tussle
Australia got a new prime minister in August following a Liberal party leadership challenge that ousted the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull. His replacement, Scott Morrison emerged victorious and became 30th prime minister of the country after beating two other contenders in the race. Despite this, there have been growing concerns that voters are getting agitated with political developments in the country that changed six prime ministers in almost a decade. None of the prime ministers also managed to serve a full three-year term before being ousted by members of their own party.
String of natural calamities in Indonesia
Indonesia was hit by a string of natural calamities throughout much of 2018 in which thousands of people lost their lives and homes were destroyed. An earthquake-triggered tsunami hit the coastal areas of Palu in Sulawesi in September, killing at least 2,200 people and in December, the eruption of the Anak Krakatau volcano in the Sunda Strait also triggered another tsunami, causing at least 380 casualties in south Sumatra and west Jawa. In July, the eruption of Mount Agung volcano also triggered major flight delays for travelers on the island resort of Bali. Situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is no stranger to earthquakes and volcano eruptions though questions have been raised about the country’s early warning system and preparedness-level amidst the high number of deaths during such disasters.
Trump meets North Korea’s Kim in historic Singapore summit
US President Donald Trump met with North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un at a historic summit in Singapore in June. The summit has been regarded as a new turning point in the relationship between the two rivals since the end of the Korean War and it was also a major foreign policy boost for Trump, who had made the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula one of his top priorities. Prior to the summit, the leaders of the two Koreas also met and since then, there have also been marked improvements in ties between the two countries. Despite this, there were still doubts if the stated goals of denuclearization will be achieved as the summit was lacking in terms of substance. The nuclear talks that were supposed to follow have also been stalled, hinting at differences between both Washington and Pyongyang.
Murder of prominent Arab journalist in Turkey sparks outrage
A diplomatic spat broke out between Ankara and Riyadh in October following the murder of prominent Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi. The murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul immediately put spotlight on the royal family particularly Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who was being accused of a cover-up. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had pressured the Saudi to come clean instead of providing conflicting accounts on what exactly happened as well as to extradite the suspects. The killing also put one of Saudi’s key allies, the United States in a difficult spot as any link between the royal family and the murder would contradict some of the fundamental values propagated by Washington.
Assad consolidates more territories as Syrian civil war nears an end
After seven years of fighting, the Syrian civil war appeared to be reaching its final stages with President Bashar Al-Assad consolidating more territories, putting him in a stronger position compared to a few years ago. Backed by Russia and Iran, Assad was also able to secure ceasefire deals with the significantly weaker rebels at their strongholds in Daraa and Idlib, hence strengthening control in the west of the country. Although the eastern parts remain largely under control of the Kurdish forces, his gains were enough to make western powers as well as the rebels to acknowledge that Assad will stay on. Toward the end of 2018, the US already signaled that it will pull out its troops from the country while Turkey said it will consider working with Assad’s government should he won a democratic election
US pulls out of nuclear agreement with Iran
The United States pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal in May after President Donald Trump, calling it an “embarrassment” and “worst deal ever”. The announcement drew condemnations from Washington’s European allies namely the United Kingdom, France, and Germany amid fears that it will fuel instability in the Middle East region. Despite this, the US started to reimpose sanctions on Iran a few months later, affecting European businesses that dealt with the country. While some of the signatories remained committed to the deal, there has been very little room for optimism amidst the uncertainties caused by the US withdrawal and subsequent sanctions.
Trump’s Jerusalem move sparks anger
Protests erupted across much of the Muslim world following the relocation of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May. The opening ceremony of the embassy that was attended by US President Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka was shrouded by images of deadly protests in the West Bank and Gaza while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called it a “slap of the century”. Apart from street protests, the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel could also complicate the Middle East peace process in which Trump was set to roll out his plans by 2019.
Bumpy road for Macron’s reforms in France amid waves of protests
French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for economic reforms hit a snag throughout much of 2018 amid strong resistance from various groups, particularly trade unions and left-wing activists. While he was elected with much fanfare a year before, his critics have argued that his plans were too elitist and paid little consideration to the ordinary folks. Strikes that crippled the country’s transportation were held throughout much of summer, while social unrest in relation to the “Yellow Vest” movement also gripped the streets of multiple towns and cities including Paris toward the end of the year. Macron has offered some concessions to end the stalemate though his popularity had already taken a dive by then.
Chaotic year in UK politics as Brexit deadline nears
While the countdown timer for Brexit tickled away, uncertainties continued to clout much of the exit negotiation as the European Union locked horns with Theresa May’s government over several thorny issues including the Irish border, immigration, trade and the customs union among others. Apart from the EU, May also faced hostilities domestically, mainly from the Labour Party but also some of his Conservative Party peers notably Boris Johnson who resigned amid sharp differences over the direction of the negotiation. Ordinary folks in the UK also took to the streets in thousands to demand a referendum on the deal in October. Although she survived a no-confidence vote in December, she still faced the uphill task to convince the Parliament to support the deal she had negotiated with the EU.
Putin re-elected for 4th time in Russian election
Russian President Vladimir Putin was re-elected for the fourth time following an election in March. Although he might have enjoyed strong support in the domestic political arena, Putin’s international appeal has been somewhat mixed as Russia’s role in Syria, as well as Ukraine, continued to worry the western powers, particularly in Europe. The accusation of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential election in 2016 also raised fears that the uninterrupted rule of Putin could mean that the country could be more assertive in the future, resulting in a new Cold War era.
Unusually hot summer triggers wildfires in Europe
The unusually hot and dry summer this year triggered several major wildfires in parts of Europe. In Greece, the wildfires in the Attica region killed dozens of people and it also became the second worst wildfires in the 21st century. Similar situations were also reported in France, Sweden, Italy, Norway, Finland and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, wildfires also raged through parts of California where 98 people were killed, and hundreds of homes destroyed. Although there was no conclusive that climate change is responsible for such extreme weather, many believed that such occurrences will be more common in the future if no corrective action is being taken.
Hopes for reform in Armenia following ouster of strongman Sargsyan
The political crisis in Armenia came to an end when Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan resigned after 11 days of street protests. Public anger began to erupt when Sargsyan reneged on his promise of not seeking high office once the constitutional change to make the prime minister more powerful than the president was passed in 2015. In response, the opposition leader Nikol Pashinian rallied thousands of his supporters to protest in the capital, Yerevan and Sargsyan eventually conceded and stepped down. Pashinian went on to win a landslide in the December election though there was little time to celebrate as he had the urgent tasks of tackling corruption and reforming the economy.
Bridge collapse in Genoa highlights Italy’s infrastructure gap
The Morandi Bridge (Ponte Morandi) in Genoa partially collapsed in mid-August, killing dozens of people who were traveling on it. The collapse subsequently reignited a debate on the infrastructure gap in the country where spending has not been able to keep up with the maintenance costs of bridges, motorways and school among others. Bureaucratic loopholes and the frequent change of governments were also other factors to consider as infrastructure planning and implementation were often stunted. While the government had promised a thorough investigation, attention will likely be directed toward addressing the systemic weaknesses in order to prevent another similar tragedy in the future.
Deadly Ebola outbreak in D.R. Congo
The Democratic Republic of Congo (Congo-Kinshasa) was hit by its worst Ebola outbreak in history in August in which a total of 351 deaths has been recorded to date. The outbreak was the country’s third in less than two years, though efforts to contain its spread are also being hampered by active conflicts in the most affected provinces of North Kivu and Ituri. The risk of unrest due to the country’s election by end of 2018 also stoked fears that the battle against the disease will be neglected. Additionally, concerns have also been raised that it could spread to neighboring Rwanda and Uganda among others amidst the influx of refugees fleeing from violence in the country.
Zimbabwe votes in first election since end of Mugabe rule
Zimbabwe headed to its first poll since the end of Robert Mugabe’s rule in July amid high hopes that it will restore democracy and economic growth. While the results were in favor of the candidate from the ruling Zanu-PF party, Emmerson Mnangagwa, it was being challenged by the opposition leader Nelson Chamisa. The dispute resulted in violence in parts of Zimbabwe including Harare as Chamisa’s supporters clashed with security forces. Chamisa eventually stood down and Mnangagwa had also offered to hold reconciliation talks in order to move forward.
Jacob Zuma resigns as South African president following internal pressure
The eight-year president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma resigned in February amid mounting pressure from his Africa National Congress (ANC) party over multiple corruption scandals. Zuma’s resignation was a welcome relief for the ANC as his presidency was on the brink of overriding the party’s legacy in ending the Apartheid. For many ordinary South Africans, he had also failed to deliver on the promises to improve the economy while unemployment soared. He was succeeded by Cyril Ramaphosa who had the challenging task of regaining people’s confidence on ANC ahead of the general election in 2019.
Upheavals against Sudanese president amid rising prices
Massive protests erupted against the 29-year rule of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir following a decision to end fuel and wheat subsidies in December. While the president has promised reforms, it did little to appease the protesters that have grown weary of years of economic mismanagement and corruption in the sub-Saharan African nation. The organizers have vowed to continue with their protests and in the long-run, there is no doubt it could tarnish the legitimacy of Bashir or even force to him stand down as president.