File photo: A girl, along with her family members, showing indelible ink mark on her finger after casting vote during the Assembly Election at a polling station in Patiala, India. Image Credit: PTI

As 2019 dawns, attention is turning to the wide range of key elections in the next 12 months, including in the Middle East. These span the globe from the Asia-Pacific to the Americas, including the UAE, and will have potentially a big impact on domestic politics, economics, and international relations well into the 2020s.

In the Middle East and North Africa, there is not just an UAE legislative ballot for the Federal National Council (FNC), but also an Israeli general election, and a Tunisian parliamentary and presidential ballot. Much attention, from friends and foes alike of Benjamin Netanyahu, will be on the Israeli ballot with the possibility that he could win a new mandate and become the first prime minister in Israeli history to win five terms of office.

In the Asia-Pacific, there is an Indian general election, an Indonesian presidential election, a national ballot in the Philippines, plus an Afghan presidential election (unless the latter is delayed because of security concerns).

Perhaps most eye catching will be the Indian ballot, with 850 million eligible to vote, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking a landmark second term against the Indian National Congress party under the dynastic leadership of Rahul Gandhi who is the son, grandson and great grandson of previous prime ministers.

In Europe, there is a European Parliament election, Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary ballots, a Greek parliamentary ballot, plus a significant possibility of a snap UK Brexit-related general election. The ballot for the European Parliament, which has the ultimate say in selecting in 2019 the replacement for Jean-Claude Juncker as the new European Commission president, is likely to be centre stage across the continent and will be the first such election where there are scheduled to be no British representatives returned to office since the early 1970s when the United Kingdom joined the Brussels-based club.

In Africa, there are general elections in South Africa and also Nigeria, two of the continent’s key countries, plus a presidential ballot in Algeria, and a general election in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In South Africa, a Brics and G20 state, a key question will be the degree to which voters abandon the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed the nation since 1994, for opposition parties.

In the Americas, there is a Canadian general election, and Argentinian presidential election. The latter is being closely watched to see if Mauricio Macri can win a second term given that his public approval ratings have sunk as Argentina’s economic woes have mounted.

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.

Mini-industry with significant rewards

In 2018, that tally will only grow as firms reach out to more uncharted international territory. Indeed, originating in the United States, 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 2018 US congressional elections was over $5 billion (Dh18.36 billion), the costliest ever. 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 some cases, a single damaging episode can fundamentally damage a country’s standing. 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.

Looking to the future, demand for elections, communications and branding advice may only grow. Indeed, globe-trotting firms may be on the threshold of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered with so many key ballots in 2019.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics