With the new year now well under way, much international political attention is already focusing upon November’s US congressional elections, particularly the battle between Republicans and Democrats for control of the Senate.
However, important as this battle will be, what is under-appreciated is how 2014 could prove to be a remarkable election year right across the world, with a significant number of key emerging economies holding ballots – from Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey, to Brazil.
On 14-15 January, for instance, Egypt holds an important referendum on a new constitution (with legislative and presidential elections anticipated later in the year), while on 2 February Thailand goes to the polls for a parliamentary ballot, which will be boycotted by the opposition Democratic Party.
In April, Hamid Karzai’s successor as Afghan president will be elected; Iraq will hold a key parliamentary ballot which could see prime minister Nouri al-Maliki win a third term; and there are also important legislative ballots in Indonesia (which will be followed in July with a presidential election).
And, by 31 May, India – the world’s largest democracy – is set for a parliamentary election that could see the BJP win power from the Congress Party.
In the second half of the year, South Africa holds landmark parliamentary elections in July, which will help determine the country’s future direction in the post-Mandela period, and Turkey holds a presidential ballot in August that might see prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his “hat in the ring”.
Meanwhile, Brazil, Uruguay and Mozambique all hold parliamentary and presidential elections in October, while Lebanon and Bosnia and Herzegovinia go to the polls for parliamentary elections that same month. To be sure, it is not just emerging economies where important ballots will be take place. For instance, Scotland holds a landmark independence referendum in September that could see it break away from the rest of the United Kingdom. And, November’s US congressional elections will do much to determine how much progress President Barack Obama can make on his remaining domestic policy agenda in his final two years of office in 2015 and 2016.
While there will be much punditry about these elections, the precise outcome of many of them is 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.
It is estimated that US political consultants, alone, have already worked in more than half of the countries in the world. This year, that tally will grow as globetrotting US firms reach out to more uncharted territory following their widespread employment in the 2012 US presidential and congressional elections.
Those 2012 US elections were the most expensive in history, with both Obama and his opponent Mitt Romney becoming the first candidates ever to raise more than $1 billion (£609m) for a single presidential campaign. Overall, the Center for Responsive Politics calculates that the cost of the presidential and congressional elections that year was around a mammoth $6bn.
While the success of election consultants is mixed in terms of ballot outcomes, this phenomenon has had a lasting effect, prompting what some have called the “globalisation” 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 James Harding documents in Alpha Dogs, the origins of what has become a mini-industry lie in the 1970s and 1980s. It was then that US 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 electoral success just about anywhere. Thus, many foreign countries are sometimes deemed as mere international counterparts of US election “swing states” such as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
While the politics of these states are far removed from many of the countries in which US consultants work, demand for their skills is nonetheless high. Indeed, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, much of which remains uncharted territory for the profession, globetrotting firms may be on the threshold of some of the most challenging campaigns and elections work they have yet encountered.
Taken overall, 2014 thus promises to be a significant election period, especially in emerging economies.
In countries ranging across four continents, from Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Thailand, Indonesia, South Africa and Turkey to Brazil, the political consequences could be considerable, and help determine the course of international relations for many years to come.
• Andrew Hammond is a former geopolitical analyst at Oxford Analytica. He was also a special adviser in the UK government