I&D Budapest Session 2: Political Parties and Elections

This is cross-posted from Patrick Meier’s blog, IRevolution:

The second panel kicked off with a presentation by Rachel Gibson and Stephen Ward entitled: “Reinventing the Party? The Role of ICTs in Party Politics.” For this research, Rachel and Stephen examined the influence of ICTs on parties campaigns and organizational change, drawing on cross-national research in five European countries. The new era of campaigning is characterized by increased personalization, targeting, and shift towards informalizing politics. Interactivity and decentralization/fragmentation are also defining features. The assumption is that the effect of ICTs on party systems is enhanced pruralism via lowered costs and fewer edited communication.

The general conclusion is normalization. Major parties still pre-dominate (content/connectivity) although it is a more equal communications medium for minor parties than TV, radio, and print. New media “widens” rather than levels the communication playing field. Some questions still remain, however. Are ICTs extending the reach of political parties? Are they deepening engagement? Are they flattening hierarchies?

Extending reach of parties? ICTs as a recruitment tools? Increases in efficiency, marketing; collapsing geo boundaries; reaching new audiences.

Deepening engagement: ICTs as actvist tools? Online recruitment is becoming the most important method but is replacement rather than an additional method. Overall, most survey evidence suggests those who engage online are already politically active. That being said, there is some potential to reach beyond usual suspects (especially students) but dependent on, the issues, methods and style of engagement (viral marketing/humor is important). ICTs also generate additional participatory spaces; networking and enabling activists.

Flattening hierarchies: ICTs as democratic tools? Is activism deepening? Only ICTs most used by already active (super activists?) to engage further; more educated/informed activist & supporters; but, online joiners relatively passive? Networked individualism – increasing connections but weak ties?

Are ICTs changing parties? They encouraging low intensity participation. ICTs are used to enhance profile of leaders; erode traditional geographical collective structures; creatie new communities of interest around personalities & issues; beginn to reshape parties & impact on party democracy but outcome depends on indiviudal party (goals and culture).

In conclusion, parties adopted cautious approaches to new ICTs; ICTs accelerated some trends that pre-date Interent (personalization, invidividualism); Renewal via ICTs unlikely since technology alone does not address fundamental disatisfaction with parties. However, ICTs may well be beginning to reshape and reconfigure party organizations; No one-size-fits-all model, American patterns will not necessarily be replicated globally.

Urs Gasser gave the second presentation. His interest is on political participation in advanced democracies, such as Switzerland where there are half-a-dozen elections per year. Urs gave the project SmartVote as an example, which provides information for citizens (users) with matches to candidates running for elections. SmartVote is basically a sophisticated profile matching tool. In 2007, over 85% of candidates running in elections participated in SmartVote by answering a questionnaire of some 70 questions.

The most surprising finding is on the impact of traditional media vis-a-vis the success of SmartVote. One question is how this will impact political parties since this service matches individal candidates, not parties, with citizen preferences. The cultural factor turns out to be particularly important to the success of SmartVote. The website could also be used as an accountability tool by going back to the information posted by candidates following the elections.

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