Josefina Vázquez Mota is the first female candidate to have a serious shot at winning Mexico's presidential election, though her road to the Mexican presidential palace is full of obstacles. The National Action Party (PAN) candidate must revive a ruling party decimated by a devastating drug war while defending PAN's conservative positions on issues such as abortion, without tarnishing her image as a women's rights advocate. Yet the 51-year-old economist and former education minister has narrowed the gap between herself and front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto heading into the July 1 election. (When Peña Nieto said he didn't know the price of tortillas because he was not "the lady of the house," Vázquez Mota retorted that she had time to be a government official and check the refrigerator.) On the campaign trail, she has pledged to root out government corruption and continue the offensive against cartels. Vázquez Mota once wrote a controversial book, God, Please Make Me a Widow. Now she's hoping that a country known for its machismo will make her its first female president.
Could Valentina Matviyenko become Russia's answer to Germany's Angela Merkel? It may not be likely, but Matviyenko is a scientist turned politician like Merkel, and as speaker of Russia's upper house of parliament she is now effectively the third-most senior politician in Russia after Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. She's arguably also the most powerful woman to have emerged in post-Soviet politics. Trained as a chemist, the 63-year-old Matviyenko rose quickly through the political ranks during the turbulent days of perestroika. In 2003 she was elected governor of St. Petersburg in a vote widely criticized as orchestrated by Putin. She went on to run his hometown for nine years and was credited with building up the city's infrastructure and presiding over a period of unprecedented wealth while being criticized for marginalizing the political opposition and bullying the media. When Putin's party seemed weak in St. Petersburg elections last fall, Matviyenko was promoted right out of town.
The EU's critics charge that it's an inhuman and undemocratic bureaucracy, with little accountability to individual citizens. Viviane Reding is doing her best to change that. The former journalist has been speaking truth to power since becoming the EU's top human rights enforcer. Reding, 60, who served as commissioner for education and culture as well as for information and media before her current position, has accused Google of breaking the law with its too-lax privacy policies, proposed legislation to create quotas for women on corporate boards, and publicly feuded with the Netherlands' controversial anti-immigrant Freedom Party. Reding attacked the French government for its expulsion of Roma in 2010, comparing the move to the large-scale arrests of Jews in Vichy France. (The comment earned Reding a rebuke from the French government.) With European politicians increasingly pandering to far-right xenophobes and abandoning the open-borders policies that have defined the EU since its inception, Reding has established herself as a defender worth reckoning with.
Long considered a vestige of South Africa's pro-apartheid elite, the opposition Democratic Alliance party has a bright new face: Lindiwe Mazibuko, who, at 31, became the party's first black parliamentary caucus leader in October. Mazibuko's quick rise -- she entered parliament as the Democratic Alliance's spokesperson in 2009 -- is seen as an opportunity for the party to attract South Africa's majority-black population and challenge the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in the 2014 national elections. The ANC, which came to power with Nelson Mandela in 1994, has since been mired in political infighting, while South Africans struggle with a high unemployment rate and an overstretched education system. Some critics say Mazibuko -- who was born in Swaziland, raised in a middle-class family in Durban, and studied classical singing in England before graduating from the University of Cape Town -- is not "black enough" to widen her party's appeal and not experienced enough to fix South Africa's problems. But the outspoken critic of President Jacob Zuma is confident the Democratic Alliance will soon prove, as she puts it, a "viable alternative."
Hanan Ashrawi was present at the creation of the "peace process," serving as the official spokesperson for the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as the Israelis and Palestinians made the first tentative steps toward a two-state solution. Now, after more than two decades of endless process but little peace, she is ready to declare the talks a dead end and is helping to lead the charge for a new strategy to forge an independent Palestinian state. As a member of the PLO's executive committee, the 65-year-old Ashrawi is a close ally of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and also has the ear of President Mahmoud Abbas. She has thrown her support behind attempts to isolate Israel diplomatically, most notably by pushing the case for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations and dangling the possibility that the PLO could revoke its recognition of Israel "should all other avenues fail."