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Mar 20, 2008

The widening web of politics


Malaysia’s political landscape was hit hard from cyberspace last week when a blogger entered Parliament after winning in elections that saw the ruling coalition lose its two-thirds majority in the House.

In a country where the mainstream media largely supported the government, Jeff Ooi — a former advertising copywriter — used his political blog to win a seat on an Opposition ticket. He was not the only blogger in the fray.

Elizabeth Wong, a social activist and blogger, won a state assembly election. Badrul Hisham Shahrin, who ran for Parliament, lost to Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s son-in-law after four recounts. He was contesting from a rural area where not many could read his blogs.

The southeast Asian country is still reeling under the latest political shock, after the Internet played a key role in shaping political thought and generated an anti-government wave days before millions set out to vote.

Technology destroyed the powerful hold that Abdullah’s Barisan Nasional had over Malaysia, where sex scandals and videos of ministers frolicking with their girlfriends have been posted on YouTube, much to their embarrassment.

Technology is becoming a huge part of campaigns. In the Philippines, SMS bursts can bring tens of thousands of people to the streets. And the Malaysian elections show that in countries where the media are controlled, people and the Opposition now have an alternative where they can campaign, discuss and collect money for their cause. In several countries across Asia, the Internet has politically empowered people, a phenomenon that is only going to spread as the cyberspace expands.

So when Ooi (www.jeffooi.com) went on his walkabouts while campaigning, all he heard was a call for change. He told an online magazine that eye contact with potential voters helped online donations for his campaign. On her blog (elizabethwong.wordpress.com), Wong spoke of a new dawn in her state, Selangor. “We need your help and inputs. We need honest, committed residents to fill in the blanks and vacancies… We have to deliver,” she wrote
after winning the assembly seat.

We too are getting into an election year. Will we see bloggers winning Parliament and assembly seats in India over the next several polls when we vote in state and general elections? Maybe not, largely because the Internet is still an urban phenomenon and most of India lives in villages where large chunks have no access to computers. In our Hindi and southern heartlands, news still travels through newspapers and not through television. And in a vast country like ours it is probably difficult to identify star political bloggers.

In cities, however, the Internet could shape public opinion with bloggers highlighting issues of concern to people at a local than the national level. But it would still be a baby-steps start, one that would take time to replace the traditional methods of campaigning — blaring loudspeakers, public meetings, hoardings and leaflets that abound in election season.

But the young urban voter — who’s mostly cynical about and disinterested in government and governance — can be targeted by bloggers, as they would appeal to their technologically savvy minds. In Malaysia, only one in five have access to the Internet, according to official data. In India, while the overall penetration is extremely poor, urban pockets score well in terms of computer population. That means the ability to reach out to the young is high and can be exploited by eager bloggers who might want to find their way into politics.


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