If 2011 was the year when governments were overthrown in the streets, 2012 could be the year when politics plays out at the ballot box. A third of the world's nations will be holding local, state, or national elections; a number of Arab Spring countries will be putting their democratic aspirations into action; and four out of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Russia, China and France -- may retreat from the world stage as they undergo leadership transitions, with major implications for international affairs. Let's take a look at the races that will make headlines in the year to come.
THE UNITED STATES
Type: Presidential, legislative
When: Nov. 6
What to watch: With the Iowa caucuses -- the first nominating contest of the presidential campaign -- only days away, Ron Paul is surging, Newt Gingrich is sliding, and Mitt Romney is, well, proving to be the steady-as-he-goes Republican frontrunner that he's always been. President Barack Obama's approval rating is hovering in the low 40s, while the struggling U.S. economy remains by far the top issue for voters. The focus may be on the next leader of the free world, but which party controls the U.S. legislative branch -- which, in turn, controls U.S. fiscal policy -- is also up for grabs in 2012.
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