20 Oct 2004

Opposition parties and new media: trends in the West and elsewhere

It is broadly accepted that the arrival of the Internet and other new ICTs in the mid-1990s has offered opposition parties worldwide a range of new communications opportunities. But it raises the question whether the arrival of new technology indeed levels the playing field by allowing opposition parties to bypass traditional media (where major parties dominate) and promote themselves via the WWW.

Thursday, 07 October 2004

by James Gomez

Opposition parties that previously received little or no coverage in the traditional media now have a platform from which to reach a much larger audience. The relatively low cost of the Internet and the ease with which content can be produced and uploaded for dissemination allows opposition parties these days to have as sophisticated a site as the ruling parties.

The Internet is said to have the ability to undermine undemocratic and authoritarian regimes, since such regimes find it extremely difficult to control the information flow via the Internet unlike the ability to control traditional media such as newspapers, radio and television. There is also emerging evidence that the Internet allows opposition movements to authoritarian regimes to set up websites outside state boundaries to avoid censorship and to also upload information anonymously.

Early evidence from the US suggests that a number of small parties have indeed benefited from the Internet in terms of mobilisation and organisation. For instance in the US until 1995, minor parties were ahead of the Democrats and Republicans in utilising the Internet for political mobilisation and communication. Some researchers however argue that minor political parties’ uses of the Internet did not impact political outcomes in the US and as time went on major parties became dominant in cyberspace.

In the UK early evidence also suggested that minor parties were levelling the communications field when it comes to inter-party competition. But further comparative research with developments in the US show that increasingly even in the UK the sites of major parties are more prominent and sophisticated than those of minor parties.

Collectively, preliminary studies in the US and the UK tend to conclude that the major parties dominate cyberspace as they do traditional media. This is because in these two countries the media laws tend to be open and largely operate in a liberal democratic environment. Hence major parties could quickly establish their hegemony in cyberspace just like they did in the realm of traditional media.

However the evidence is mixed if move away from these two countries and we look at other European examples. In the Italian case it was confirmed that for small parties such as the Greens, the Internet levels the playing field in party competition. Based on a comparative study of 15 European Union states another researcher confirmed that the party websites strengthened communication pluralism and widened information available about minor and fringe parties. Further south, in one study of several southern European parties, the researcher concluded that the differences in party systems, ideology and electoral systems ensure technology’s potential to encourage party competition.

Further a field in Mexico the evidence suggests that institutional changes in the country allowed political parties to use the Internet and contribute to inter party competition and the higher visibility of the opposition parties. Other evidence from Russian and the Ukraine also points to the fact that the Internet offers minor parties a more equal basis on which to compete with major parties.

In Asia the evidence from countries such as Cambodia show that opposition political parties or movements have actually been able to make political gains by using the Internet. In Japan, while opposition and new parties looked favourably on the use of the Internet, election campaign regulations prevented them from fully utilising the medium. However, they circumvented the restriction by distributing email bulletins to subscribed members throughout the official campaign period. Smaller parties in particular have called for revision of existing legislation to make the use of the Internet more enabling for political parties.

Overall, evidence seems to suggest that in newly democratised countries and in some authoritarian regimes, the Internet can have an impact on inter-party competition and can be useful in posing a challenge to one-party states. And minor parties and parties in opposition generally place a high premium on the use of the Internet to get their message across.

Even if minor or opposition parties have managed to get a higher profile, it remains to be seen if this is politically effective. For instance, there is the problem that some of the smaller parties may not have the resources to update information and modernise their equipment. Other issues include an aversion to the use of technology by older party members as well as the risk of running afoul of strict rules of censorship and sanctions while using the Internet.

These are some of the issues that we need to consider in discussions about the Internet and political parties.

James Gomez


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