More politicians taking their campaigns online

Wednesday, 20 February 2008
But reach of the Internet is confined mainly to the middle class
A PICTURE of Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi with his eyes closed at a political event is currently making the rounds on the Internet.
Written on top of the picture is a quote he made recently: ‘PM: I work very hard.’
The digital flier is being distributed through a website run by an opposition party member, Parti Keadilan Rakyat’s (PKR) Mr Nathaniel Tan, and is just one of the many ways politicians are now taking their campaigns online.
Party members, in particular from PKR and the Democratic Action Party (DAP), are writing daily in personal blogs, offering updates on party news, while occasionally taking swipes at the ruling party.
PKR’s adviser, former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, is one example of a politician who has embraced the Web wholeheartedly. He has set up a blog as well as put up profiles on the three most popular social networking sites: Facebook, MySpace and Friendster.
Another opposition leader, DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang, has set up two blogs – one in English and one in Chinese.
Add that to the dozens of Netizens already endorsing candidates on their blogs, starting online groups of like-minded people and distributing political fliers through mass e-mail, and it all points to Malaysia’s most- wired election yet.
The last time there was this much political buzz online was during the 1999 elections, which came in the wake of Datuk Seri Anwar’s sudden sacking.
Then, it was also the opposition that used the Web as a platform to have their views heard. It was that election that gave rise to left-leaning online newspaper Malaysiakini.
But does all this activity online filter to the ground? And, more importantly, does it translate into votes?
Opinions on this from observers and even those campaigning online are divided.
At the heart of the problem is the poor Internet penetration. Only about seven in every 100 Malaysians have access to the Web.
Said political observer Johan Jaafar: ‘There is the digital divide. In some rural places, maybe only one in 100 people has Internet access.’
‘Campaigning online, your reach is confined to the middle class. And the fact is, many of the people who read blogs are not registered voters.
‘So, maybe it will in the future, but the Internet will have very little impact now,’ said Mr Johan, who is the former editor of Malaysian newspaper Utusan Melayu.
Surprisingly enough, blogger-turned-politician Jeff Ooi agreed with him.
Though he largely made his name online, the DAP member said: ‘Most of my campaigning will be done offline.’
The 52-year-old, who will likely be fielded in Penang, is unsure if enough people reading blogs are moved to vote.
He said: ‘I’m doubtful it will make too much of a difference. At the moment we are still trying to get people online to walk the talk. It’s cooking, but it’s still lukewarm.’
Despite doubts over its reach, PKR’s Mr Tan, 27, said part of the allure of the Internet for opposition parties is because ‘it is the only avenue left for truth’.
He added that it was sometimes a case of quality over quantity: ‘Although penetration is low, content online tends to have a viral effect. It also affects many who are politically conscious, including those in power – thus the right people care about what is being said online, whether or not they form the majority.’
Even more convinced of the Internet’s potential influence on this year’s elections is one of the country’s most prominent Netizens, Raja Petra Kamarudin.
The 57-year-old who runs the political blog Malaysia Today pointed to Internet statistics to make his point.
Drawing a comparison to the 1999 elections, he said: ‘Then, there were about 8 million voters here with only 300,000 people with Internet access. Now the number of voters has gone up to 10 million but the number of people with Internet access is 11 million. It’s a huge leap.
‘You cannot tell me that will not have some sort of bearing.’