​2016: The year of the election ballot consultant

COMMENT 

The eyes of much of the world are on the aftermath of November’s United States ballots and the inauguration on January  20 of Donald Trump as president. Although 2016 was a big election year, there is a wide range of eye-catching elections in the next 12 months, across every continent, which will have ramifications for domestic politics, economics and international relations for years to come.

In Africa and the Middle East, for instance, there is a key Iranian presidential election in May, a legislative ballot in Lebanon in the same month, plus presidential and legislative elections in Kenya (August), a presidential poll in Rwanda (August) and a legislative election in Angola (August). The poll in Iran will be watched across the globe and Hassan Rouhani, should he seek a second term, faces an exceptionally tough battle against a resurgent conservative opposition, which could be further energised if Trump decides to try to abandon the nuclear deal signed last year by Tehran, Washington and several other powers.

There are also key legislative ballots in Haiti (January) and the Netherlands (March). In France, presidential polls in April and May could see far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen, who has promised a referendum on the country’s membership of the European Union, trying to run a Trump-style anti-Establishment campaign to score a victory.

In the second half of the year, a legislative ballot will be held in Argentina in October and a presidential election in South Korea in December. Moreover, a presidential ballot is scheduled to take place in Singapore before August 26, and legislative elections must occur in Germany by October 22 and in New Zealand by November 18.

The poll in Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to win power again, could be especially important for the EU. With Brussels and the continent at large facing another uncertain period, after a difficult 2016, which saw the United Kingdom vote to leave the EU, her political experience and influence may well be needed to help the 28-member bloc to navigate the challenges that coming years will bring.

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 the countries in the world.

In 2017, that tally will only grow as firms, fresh from working on the US presidential and congressional elections in 2016, reach out to more uncharted international territory. 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 amounted to some $6.6-billion. Of that massive sum, consultants earned a significant slice for their services, which included polling, campaign strategies, telemarketing, digital advice and producing advertisements.

Although the success, internationally, of this army of consultants is mixed, the phenomenon has had a lasting effect, prompting what some have called the globalisation of politics. 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.

As James Harding documents in Alpha Dogs, the origins of this phenomenon lie in the 1960s and 1970s. It was then that US consultants began exporting US political technologies and tactics into Latin America and then, ultimately, across the globe.

A key underlying premise is that those technologies and tactics can achieve success just about anywhere. Thus, many foreign countries are sometimes deemed mere international counterparts of US election battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Florida.

What started 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 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, nongovernment organisations, regulators, media and consumers.

In this ultra-competitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset (or a potentially big liability) with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes. In some cases, a single 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 what has been 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 Georgia, Rwanda and the Maldives, may want to establish a presence in the public mind because of fears about a specific issue — such as Russian preponderance, or building sympathy among donors, investors and tourists in the short term, and climate change in the long term.

It is not just US political consultants who are blazing a trail in this communications and branding industry. London, for instance, has become a major country-branding centre fuelled by its favourable European time zone between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas.

Looking to the future, demand for elections, communications and branding advice is only likely to grow given the increasing complexity and overcrowded nature of the global information marketplace. Indeed, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, some of which remain uncharted territory for the industry, globe-trotting firms may be on the very threshold of some of the most challenging work they have yet encountered.

Andrew Hammond is an associate at the Centre for International Affairs, Diplomacy and Strategy at the London School of Economics.

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Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond works from Oxford/Istanbul. PhD researcher: Islamic history and thought Turkey, Egypt, Gulf. Mideast politics. @StAntsCollege, Oxford. Previous @PembrokeOxford, BBC Arabic, @ECFR, Reuters Andrew Hammond has over 6420 followers on Twitter.

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