The eyes of much of the world are currently on the United States with the Trump tax cuts which the president hopes will boost the prospects of the Republican Party in November’s congressional elections. However, beyond the United States, there are a wide range of eye-catching ballots in the next 12 months, across every continent, which will have very important ramifications for domestic politics, economics, and international relations for years to come.
In the Middle East, for instance, there is a Bahrani parliamentary ballot; Iraqi general election; and Lebanese parliamentary ballot. The latter will be widely watched coming soon after Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri’s now rescinded resignation after he accused coalition partner Hezbollah, and Iran, of spreading discord across the region.
In Africa, there is a general election in Zimbabwe, a parliamentary ballot in Rwanda, a parliamentary election in Libya, and a presidential ballot in Egypt. The latter, very likely to see President Abdul Fattah Al Sissi’s re-election, will nonetheless be closely monitored given the country’s strategic importance in the region.
In Asia-Pacific region, there is a Thai general election; Malaysian parliamentary ballot; and Pakistani general election. The Thai election, the first since the military coup in 2014, will be particularly closely watched with the country still badly divided between the Puea Thai party, the military and urban elites.
In Europe, there is a Hungarian parliamentary election; Irish presidential ballot; Italian general election; and Russian presidential ballot. Although the latter’s result is almost certainly a foregone conclusion, with Vladimir Putin the overwhelming favourite, it will be closely monitored given victory would mean he could achieve the remarkable feat of being prime minister or president from 1999 to 2024, a longer period at the top than all the Soviet Union’s supreme leaders, except Joseph Stalin.
In the Americas, there is a Venezuelan presidential ballot, Brazilian general election, Colombian presidential and parliamentary ballots, and Mexican general election. The latter is being closely watched because the frontrunner is left-wing Nafta critic, Andres Manuel Loprez Obrador, who has vowed to stand up against Donald Trump’s “poisonous, hateful and xenophobic” policy toward his country.
While the exact statistical outcome of these ballots is uncertain, what is far surer is that foreign political consultants will be working behind the scenes in many of these countries trying to steer candidates to success. It is estimated that US consultants, alone, have already worked in more than half of the countries in the world.
In 2018, that tally will only grow as firms reach out to more uncharted international territory. Indeed, originating in the US, political campaigning has become a mini-industry driven by the potentially significant rewards on offer. For instance, it is estimated by the US Centre for Responsive Politics that the overall cost of the 2016 US presidential and congressional elections was around some $6.6 billion (Dh24.2 billion). Of that massive sum, consultants earned a significant slice for their services, including polling, campaign strategy, telemarketing, digital advice, and producing advertisements.
While the success, internationally, of this army of consultants is mixed, the phenomenon has had a lasting impact, prompting what some have called the globalisation of politics. However, in the eyes of critics it is an international triumph of spin over substance that has tended to promote more homogenous campaigns with a repetitive, common political language.
A key underlying premise is that the technologies and tactics of the consultants can achieve success just about anywhere. Thus, many foreign countries are sometimes deemed as mere international counterparts of US election battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.
What started, in the 1960s and 1970s, as international elections and campaigning work soon branched out into providing more foreign governments, leaders and bodies such as tourism and investment authorities with international communications advice and ultimately what is now known as ‘country branding’. Country branding is founded on the realisation that, in an overcrowded global information market place, countries and political leaders are, in effect, competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organisations, non-government organisations, regulators, media and consumers.
In this ultra-competitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset (or potentially big liability) with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes. In some cases, a single highly damaging episode can fundamentally damage a country’s standing, as China found after Tiananmen Square. In such situations, an approach involving a long recovery to rebuild that which is lost is often required.
Some countries may simply wish to promote an opportunity based on a specific single goal, such as wanting to attract more foreign direct investment or increasing tourism — as the ‘Incredible India’ campaign illustrates. Other states, for example the Maldives, may want to establish a presence in the public mind because of fears about a specific issue such as climate change.
Today, it is not just US political consultants who are blazing a trail in this industry. London, for instance, has become a major country branding centre fuelled by its favourable European time zone.
Looking to the future, demand for elections, communications and branding advice may only grow. Indeed, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, some of which remains uncharted territory for the industry, globe-trotting firms may be on the threshold of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.