FEW would have thought it a year ago but the surprise election result of 2012 was Barack Obama's successful return to the White House for a second term as US president.

It wasn't that anyone had doubts about his fitness to do the job; it was just that he had allowed it to become such a close-run thing. In the final straight, his rival Mitt Romney was able to come up on the rails and for a terrifying moment it looked as if the gaffe-prone Republican might make it by a short head.

As theworld held its breath, though, the US seemed to come to its collective senses and a different kind of country – young, non-white and liberal – got behind their man and Obama won more easily than might have been anticipated a week or so earlier in the race. On balance, he had earned the right not be a one-term wonder. The economy might not be in great shape, with a desperate need to introduce federal spending cuts and increase taxation in order to prevent a new recession, but some things have changed for the better under Obama's watch.

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He has shown a steely resolve to extricate US forces from Afghanistan within the coming two years and the much-needed legislation known as Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was a step in the right direction for providing universal medical provision. All in all, then, it was a good year for the US president and one which went some way to vindicating the high hopes of his groundbreaking election in 2008.

A world away on the Korean isthmus, Kim Jong-un also had cause to be content with the way last year turned out. Although he was not re-elected as such, democracy being unknown in his country, Kim's coming to power also has a sense of things remaining the same. The world's youngest leader succeeded his father and grandfather as the supreme leader of North Korea and as an important bonus he was also promoted to the rank of field marshal, thereby consolidating his hold on power in a country which has serious military ambitions.

If there were any doubts about a lack of modesty in his plans for the future of his debt-ridden country, they were dispelled in November when US spy satellite imagery revealed a massive propaganda message carved into a hillside in Ryanggang Province, reading: "Long Live General Kim Jong-un, the

Shining Sun!" The slogan is located next to an artificial lake built in 2007 to serve a hydro-electric power station and the individual letters measure 15 by 20 metres. North Korea's nuclear ambitions and the recent successful launch of a ballistic missile are one reason why Obama will be keeping a watchful eye on southeast Asia, not least because Japan, Washington's main ally in the region, is not exactly jumping for joy at what's going on in Pyongyang.

For that reason, Tokyo will also be watching warily and it will be interesting to see how its newly elected leader, Shinzo Abe, will handle the tensions. Like Obama, he is enjoying something of a second coming having served a fitful term as prime minister in 2006 when he was forced to stand down after a year in office pleading illness. At the time, it was thought that his chronic bowel complaint was a cover for a succession of scandals within his government and his unexpected election victory two weeks ago offers him a second chance. It's one he will have to accept with both hands because he arrives with no little baggage.

Abe has been described as "the most dangerous politician in Japan", not because of his current political beliefs but because he has often attempted to rewrite history by excusing the excesses of the Japanese army during the second world war. He is also keen on taking a hard line with China, with whom Japan has a number of longstanding territorial spats. Beijing should beware: behind Abe's elegant aristocratic facade there is a pretty cool customer who is nobody's fool.

In China, meanwhile, Xi Jinping was chosen to replace Hu Jintao at the top of the ruling Communist Party, making him leader of the People's Republic for the next decade. "The people's desire for a better life is what we shall fight for," he said, vowing to address corruption within the party. Whether the new leadership will usher in longed-for social and political reforms remains to be seen, but the party has done its best to give the impression that change is afoot by attempting to humanise the image of its leaders. Last week, China's state-run media released a profile of Xi Jinping, pushing his "man of the people" credentials. Cynics, naturally, dismiss this as government propaganda.

In Russia, Vladimir Putin became president once more. As the result of a breathtaking bout of double-dealing, which managed to be perfectly legal, the ex-KGB officer returned to power in May having served a brief term as prime minister under the ill-starred Dmitry Medvedev. Perhaps no-one should be too surprised – this is, after all, the land of the tsars – but Putin is nothing if not a survivor.

Before he does anything, though, he will have to bring Russia's elite under control. During Putin's first period in office, Russian oligarchs became extremely wealthy and powerful – so much so that many of them were little more than gangsters who considered themselves to be above the law, and a whiff of the wild west is never far away from Russian politics.

In his first state of the nation address, delivered shortly before Christmas, Putin gave notice of his intentions, promising further crackdowns on corruption and vowing to introduce more stringent taxes on wealthy Russians. Although he has been widely criticised, even derided for his tough-guy posturing, Russia has always responded well to firm leadership and at the very least the Putin brand does provide what it says on the tin.

The same might be said about Hugo Chavez, who still manages to dominate Venezuelan politics despite being treated in Cuba for a severe form of cancer which has so far defied treatment. Despite this setback, his ruling Socialist Party increased its hold on power by winning 20 of the country's 23 state governorships. In a fortnight's time, Chavez is due to be sworn in as president for a fourth term and few bets are being taken against another comeback from this most enduring of world leaders, cancer or no cancer.

Closer to home, the world said goodbye to Nicolas Sarkozy, who retired from French politics after losing out to Francois Hollande in the presidential election in May. Any hopes of a comeback will depend on his ability to throw off lingering suspicions that he received illegal campaign donations and the general dislike which the left in France still harbours for him. If it really is the end of the road, Sarkozy will be remembered for being a consummate Europhile and for the close relationship he built up with Germany's leader, Angela Merkel.

Curiously, the next political contender to emerge from that cross-Rhine nexus is the Rangers-supporting, Irn-Bru-drinking prime minister of Lower Saxony, who is being widely tipped as Merkel's heir-apparent. David McAllister is the son of a Scottish soldier who served in the 51st Highland Division during the second world war and was brought up in post-war Germany. He is very much a European role model who has enjoyed a meteoric rise to power as the darling of Germany's younger middle classes. With his collaborationist European instincts and his solid grounding in German culture and politics, McAllister is seen as the coming man in 2013 and the upholder of Merkel's centre-right politics.