The Russian ballot is just one of a wide range of key elections around the world in the next 12 months that will have potentially big impacts on domestic politics, economics and international relations into the 2020s.
In the Americas, there is a US congressional election, a Venezuelan presidential ballot, a Brazilian general election, Colombian presidential and parliamentary ballots, and a Mexican general election. The latter is being closely watched because the frontrunner, Andres Manuel Loprez Obrador, has vowed to stand up against US President Donald Trump’s “poisonous, hateful and xenophobic” policy toward his country.
In Africa, there is a general election in Zimbabwe, parliamentary ballots in Rwanda and Libya, and a presidential election in Egypt. The latter, very likely to see President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi re-elected, will nonetheless be closely monitored given the country’s strategic importance in the region.
In the Middle East, there is a Bahraini parliamentary ballot, an Iraqi general election and a Lebanese parliamentary ballot. The latter will be widely watched, coming soon after Prime Minister Saad Hariri’s now-rescinded resignation after he accused coalition partner Hezbollah, and Iran, of spreading discord across the region.
In the Asia-Pacific, there are Thai and Pakistani general elections, and a Malaysian parliamentary ballot. 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.
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 world’s countries. In 2018, that tally will only grow as firms reach out to more uncharted international territory.
Originating in the US, political campaigning has become a mini-industry driven by potentially significant rewards. For instance, the US Center for Responsive Politics estimates that the overall cost of the 2016 presidential and congressional elections was around $6.6 billion. Of that massive sum, consultants earned a significant slice for their services, including polling, campaign strategy, telemarketing, digital advice and producing adverts.
While the international success of this army of consultants is mixed, the phenomenon has had a lasting impact, prompting what some have called the globalization of politics. But 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.
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.
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 with international communications advice and “country branding.”
Country branding is founded on the realization that in an overcrowded global information marketplace, countries and political leaders are in effect competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organizations, non-government organizations, 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 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 center fueled by its favorable 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 with so many key ballots in 2018.
• Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics