Why 2012 could be a critical year of change

It's a real cliche to say this will be a year of change; what year isn't?

But in 2012 the political cycles of four out of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council happen to coincide; and those five - the US, Britain, France, Russia and China - are still the world's most influential political powers.

Only Britain won't choose a new government this year.

Let's begin with Russia. Tomorrow will be the first and probably only round of the presidential election there.

After his constitutional pas-de-deux with Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy prime minister who became president for a term, Vladimir Putin can climb back into the presidential chair again.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Vladimir Putin and Dmitri Medvedev look set to swap seats again after Sunday's elections

Only this time the constitution has been changed, so Mr Putin will get six years in power, instead of four.

Will they be peaceful? Somehow, I doubt it; Russia isn't as obedient as it used to be.

Next month, with a deciding round in May, France will vote for its president.

At the moment the challenger, the socialist Francois Hollande, looks like winning. Mr Hollande promises a tougher line on the banks, and on high earners, and a slightly tougher one on the EU.

And he'd pull French troops out of Afghanistan this year; awkward for Britain and America.

It's too soon to guess who'll win the election in the United States. Americans tend to make up their minds much closer to election day.

Barack Obama we know; about the likely approach of Mitt Romney - if he's the one - we don't know much at all yet.

But we know who the next Chinese leader will be, even before the Communist Party rubber-stamps him towards the end of the year.

Mr Xi Jinping - unelected, of course - is tougher, and closer to China's armed forces, than the current Chinese leadership has been.

In Washington the other day President Obama suggested that Mr Xi might like to arrange a get-to-know-you meeting between their armed forces.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption China's likely next leader, Xi Jinping, met President Obama at the White House last month

He simply answered "no". Still, like Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping will have an increasingly turbulent country to control.

So how will things look in a year's time?

More tense, it's probably safe to say, with China and America eyeing each other up more fiercely.

And that's not counting the 50-50 chance that the US or Israel will bomb Iran in the autumn.

If it happens, that, and not a bunch of elections, is what we'll remember 2012 for.

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