Was it the year of the woman? Angela Merkel left the political stage. New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen were given gold stars for their respective responses to the pandemic. And Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya emerged as Belarus’ democracy warrior.
As COVID lingers – and thrives – it’s clear that 2022 will be packed with immensely complicated political problems for all countries. Many female leaders will be at the forefront of efforts to meet complex domestic and international challenges over the next 12 months. Here are four of them.
Britain’s Liz Truss
Liz Truss has many jobs. She is Minister for Women and Equalities, and after a cabinet reshuffle in the fall she was also tapped as Foreign Secretary. This week, she added to her portfolio the unenviable role of chief negotiator with the EU on all things Brexit. One of her priorities will be to chart a path forward on the future of the Northern Irish border, which has put London on a path toward trade war with Brussels and trouble with Washington. Truss, who has now held cabinet positions in three Tory governments, is also trying to mold Britain's post-Brexit foreign policy.
Timing is everything in politics, and Truss takes on this monster portfolio just as her boss, Boris Johnson, finds himself in the dog house after a series of bungled policies and communication strategies – as well as a string of tasteless scandals of the Marie Antoniette variety. Truss has already been floated as a potential successor to Johnson, who analysts say may now be on borrowed time. But her chance to become prime minister could depend on how painstaking talks with Brussels progress in the near term. Can she triumph where others have so far failed?
France’s Valerie Pécresse
Since entering the French presidential fray just a few weeks ago, Valerie Pécresse, who now heads the center-right Les Républicains party, has shaken up a race that has been incumbent Emmanuel Macron’s to lose. Pécress has been in politics for a long time, having advised former President Jacques Chirac in the late 1990s, and is now head of Paris’ sprawling regional government.
In winning her party’s presidential nomination, Pécresse became the first woman to head the party of Charles de Gaulle, a big feat in a country where women remain underrepresented in politics.
Pécresse’s near-term challenge will be twofold: First, she must convince an embittered French electorate that she has a plan to improve average people’s lives after two years of pandemic hell. So far, her tough-on-immigration and security message seems to be resonating with moderate voters across the political spectrum.
But Pécresse’s second trial will be one that her male counterparts don’t have to contend with: convincing voters with long-held views about gender and leadership that a woman can – and should – head the next government.
Israel’s Merav Michaeli
Eight ragtag parties joined forces this past summer to unseat Israel’s longtime premier Benjamin Netanyahu. Only one of them is led by a woman. Merav Michaeli, a 54-year old former journalist, heads the once-dominant Labor party, which has seen its political fortunes wither in recent years along with the rest of the Israeli left.
For the past six months, Michaeli – and the entire ideologically-diverse coalition – has been focused on survival, by keeping the governing bloc from collapsing. They’ve done that, having passed the first national budget in three years.
But there’s a lot riding on Michaeli’s leadership, and many are counting on her to rebuild the liberal party of Golda Meir and Yizhak Rabin that’s been in shambles: “I am here because this is my project — to turn it back into a ruling party,” she told the New York Times earlier this year.
It’s true that Michaeli has brought Labor back from the brink (the group had been in the opposition from 2009 to 2020). But it’s one thing to bring a party back from oblivion as part of a sweeping change movement. It’s another to return it to its peak as Israel’s “peace camp” when neither the Israelis nor the Palestinian Authority now seem particularly keen on upending the status quo. So then what does the revived Labor party stand for in post-Oslo 2022? Now that the onboarding period is over, it’ll be Michaeli’s job to let Israelis know.
Hungary’s Katalin Novak
When discussing the illiberal shift in Eastern European politics in recent years, the media conjures images of leaders who look like barely reformed apparatchiks with stubby fingers. Then there’s Hungary’s Katalin Novak, vice president of the ruling Fidesz party, touting the group’s right-wing populist message.
This week, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán tapped Novak to be Hungary’s first female president should he prevail in elections next spring. Novak, who is 44, is widely considered both attractive and articulate. Indeed, undecided voters might find Fidesz’s hard line on LGBTQ rights and so-called traditional family values more palatable when Novak, Hungary’s Minister of Family and Youth Affairs and recipient of France’s highest state honor in 2019, is delivering the message.As president, Novak’s job would be mostly ceremonial, though she could delay the enactment of some laws and appoint judges and a national prosecutor, which might come in handy for Orbán. But will Novak’s sugar-and-spice image help pull Orban across the finish line as he faces a united opposition and the toughest political fight of his life?