Johannesburg - Scandals, turbulent economies, tarnished legacies or simply uncertain futures: It’s testing times for the leaders of some of the world’s most prominent countries.
They are facing radically different problems, yet they all are gasping for respite from the sniping, embittered electorates and skittish financial markets that have marked the year so far.
Here’s a look at how things might unfold over the coming months from Pretoria to Washington, via Brasilia, Berlin and London:
Jacob Zuma, South African President
For the first time in his nine years as head of the ruling party, Zuma, 73, faces a real threat to his power. Some senior African National Congress officials are trying to oust him over his ties to a prominent family accused of using the relationship to further their business interests and even influence government appointments.
Asked by the opposition to resign in parliament last week, Zuma was as defiant as ever over whether his friends were offered cabinet positions. “Don’t ask me,” he said. “Where do I come into it?” Zuma has outfoxed all opponents so far, and his control over most of the ANC is still strong. The question is whether his resilience can last.
BEST OUTCOME FOR HIM: He consolidates his hold over the ANC and purges any mutineers, allowing him to decide who succeeds him in 2019.
WORST OUTCOME FOR HIM: Enough senior ANC members desert him and force him out of office in the coming months. If that happens, there’s even a chance old corruption charges could be reinstated.
Dilma Rousseff, Brazilian President
After two years of investigation into corruption that spread from money launderers to companies and then politicians, it’s a pivotal few months for the 68-year-old Rousseff.
With her mentor and predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva charged with money laundering, she’s being attacked for allegedly intervening to shield him. In Congress, an impeachment commission that’s holding meetings will offer its recommendation to the floor. If Rousseff loses, she would be the second president impeached since Brazil returned to democracy in 1985.
BEST OUTCOME FOR HER: Impeachment proceedings fail to find a smoking gun and she finds a way through Brazil’s economic mire to complete her term in 2018.
WORST OUTCOME FOR HER: Street violence and the likelihood of impeachment force her to resign in coming weeks.
Angela Merkel, German Chancellor
She’s been in power the longest -- a decade -- and is facing the biggest ever threat to her chancellorship with Germans divided over her open-border policy during Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
At home, the public has also been shaken by terrorist attacks in Paris and now Brussels at the hands of Europe's home-grown jihadists. Voters handed the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party its biggest success yet in regional elections on March 13. Abroad, the talent at marshaling European allies she showed during Greece’s debt crisis appear to be eluding her at the moment. For now, Merkel, 61, is holding firm: “I’ve weathered storms before,” she said at a party campaign rally this month.
BEST OUTCOME FOR HER: Refugee arrivals on Greek soil ease as Syrian peace talks progress. Merkel heads into Germany’s 2017 election strengthened and wins a fourth term.
WORST OUTCOME FOR HER: An EU deal with Turkey to limit migration fails and Syria’s civil war drags on. Merkel closes Germany’s borders and seeks re-election, but as a shadow of her former political self.
David Cameron, British Prime Minister
Unlike the others, Cameron’s problems are more self-made. It’s less than a year since he won a surprise election victory, confounding his critics and leaving the opposition in disarray. But if he loses a June 23 referendum on keeping the U.K. in the European Union, it’s hard to see how he would keep his job.
He called the vote to placate his Conservative Party, but may have underestimated the level of support for leaving among activists and lawmakers. Polls of an increasingly divided and fragmented electorate suggest the vote may be close. Should Britain opt to leave the EU, Scotland would undoubtedly seek independence again. So Cameron, 49, could end up watching two bitter divorces unfold after he leaves office.
BEST OUTCOME FOR HIM: A clear vote to stay in the U.K. lets him convince his party that the public doesn’t share its European obsession. He hands over to his finance minister, George Osborne, in time to win the 2020 election.
WORST OUTCOME FOR HIM: Spooked by terrorist attacks on the continent and more migrants heading west, Britain votes to leave the EU. Cameron quits after failing to sell the benefits and is replaced by his long-time rival, London Mayor Boris Johnson.
Barack Obama, US President
As Obama’s second term comes to an end, he’s been bedevilled by the race to replace him. It’s been one of the most unconventional and acrimonious in recent memory and still has almost eight months to run.
Billionaire developer Donald Trump has shocked the US political establishment and clearly irked Obama, who could see many of his accomplishments upended if Republicans reclaim the White House. “We have heard vulgar and divisive rhetoric aimed at women and minorities,” Obama said on March 15.
The trouble is that Trump’s rise also reflects where the economy under Obama has fallen short, particularly stagnant wages. The lagging effects of the recession that ended almost seven years ago hover over the presidential campaign. The leading Democrat candidate, Hillary Clinton, is viewed unfavourably by 52 percent of Americans, a poll released March 8 showed.
BEST OUTCOME FOR HIM: He embraces Clinton after a victory, handing over the keys to the White House to a Democrat safe in the knowledge his political legacy is secure.
WORST OUTCOME FOR HIM: Trump wins. Period.
Authors: Franz Wild, Tony Czuczka, Toluse Olorunnipa, Robert Hutton and David Biller