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Why Western consultants are targeting more world elections in 2014

By Andrew Hammond, Analyst
January 3, 2014 -- Updated 0955 GMT (1755 HKT)
Egypt will hold a key referendum on January 14-15 on a new constitution.
Egypt will hold a key referendum on January 14-15 on a new constitution.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • This year sees a number of important elections with the uncertain outcomes
  • These will likely affect world security and economic prosperity, Hammod says
  • Foreign political consultants will be working behind the scenes in many countries, he says

Editor's note: Andrew Hammond was formerly a geopolitical analyst at Oxford Analytica, and a special adviser in the UK government of Tony Blair. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- This year sees a number of important elections, such as South Africa, Afghanistan, Brazil and Turkey, the uncertain outcomes of which will likely affect world security and economic growth.

In Afghanistan, for example, there is significant uncertainty whether foreign troops will remain in the country beyond the end of the year. To date, Afghan president Hamid Karzai has declined to sign the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement that would preserve an enduring U.S. military presence of several thousand troops. And, it remains unclear whether a deal can be done before April's presidential ballot, or whether the negotiation process will continue under Karzai's successor, thus injecting new question marks into the process.

And in Egypt holds a key referendum on January 14-15 on a new constitution, while on February 2 Thailand goes to the polls for a parliamentary ballot which will be boycotted by the opposition Democrat Party.

In April, there are important legislative ballots in Indonesia (which will followed in July with a presidential election), and Iraq will also hold a key parliamentary ballot which could see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki win a third term office. And, by May 31, India -- the world's largest democracy -- is set for a legislative election that could see the BJP winning power from the Congress Party.

Andrew Hammond
Andrew Hammond

In the second half of the year, South Africa holds landmark parliamentary elections in July that will help determine the country's future direction in the post-Mandela period, and Turkey holds a presidential ballot in August which could see prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan put his "hat in the ring." Meanwhile, Brazil, Uruguay and Mozambique all hold parliamentary and presidential elections in October, and Lebanon and Bosnia-Herzegovina go to the polls for legislative elections that same month.

To be sure, it is not just emerging economies where key ballots will take place. As well as the United States in November, for instance, Scotland holds a landmark independence referendum in September that could see it break away from the rest of the United Kingdom.

While there will be much punditry about these elections, the precise outcome of many of them is very uncertain. What is far more sure, however, is that foreign political consultants will be working behind the scenes in many of the emerging economies, in particular, trying to steer candidates to success.

James Harding documents in his book "Alpha Dogs," how U.S. political consultants, alone, have already worked in more than half of the countries in the world. This year, that tally will grow as globetrotting U.S. firms reach out to more uncharted territories following their widespread employment in the 2012 U.S. presidential and congressional elections.

Those U.S. ballots were the most expensive in history, with both Barack Obama and his presidential opponent Mitt Romney becoming the first candidates ever to raise more than $1 billion for a single presidential campaign.

Overall, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates that the cost of the presidential and congressional elections that year was about $6 billion.

While the success of election consultants is mixed in terms of ballot outcomes, the phenomenon has had a lasting effect, prompting what some have called the "globalization" of the political communications profession. Or, in the eyes of critics, the international triumph of spin over substance, which has tended to promote more homogenous campaigns with a repetitive, common political language.

As the origins of what has become a mini-industry lie in the 1970s and 1980s. It was then that U.S. political consultants began exporting their political technologies and tactics into Latin America and across the globe.

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

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 counsel and ultimately what is now known as "country branding."

Country branding is founded on the realization that, in an overcrowded global information market place, countries and political leaders are, in effect, competing for the attention of investors, tourists, supranational organisations, nongovernmental organisations, regulators, media and consumers. Some countries may get only a few opportunities a year to make a favorable impression and get their "side of the story" across. In this ultracompetitive environment, reputation can be a prized asset with a direct effect on future political, economic, social and cultural fortunes.

In general, the most effective country strategies align all key stakeholders around a single powerful vision. A good example here is New Zealand which, since the 1980s, has transformed itself from earlier perceptions of being a relatively remote backwater which, despite its scenic beauty, was not a major global tourist destination.

The New Zealand example underlines how a simple, unified vision can be enormously powerful. The country is far from being unique in having an unspoilt natural environment and quality produce. But it has managed to capture the world's imagination with its consistent branding that has put natural values firmly at its core.

Today, of course, it is not just U.S. political consultants who are blazing a trail in the industry. London, for instance, has become a major center for country-branding, fueled by its favourable European time zone between Asia, the Middle East, Africa and North America; and the headquartering within the city of several key global media.

Demand for country branding, and related political campaigning, experts 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, much of which remains uncharted territory for the industry, globetrotting firms may be on the threshold of some of the most challenging work they have encountered.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Andrew Hammond.

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