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Colombia: Cyber-Politics for the 2010 Elections

Two months ago, we at GVO reported how two pre-candidates for the 2010 presidential election had opened their Twitter accounts, as part of their campaign strategy. As President Álvaro Uribe, in office since August 7, 2002, keeps the country waiting with his decision whether or not to run for a third term that would last until 2014, despite Congress’ rush to pass a referendum for a Constitutional reform needed for a third term to be allowed), some candidates have started to campaign all over the country.

Some government officials, such as Agriculture Minister Andrés Felipe Árias and Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos, have resigned to posts in order to campaign, which they must do so before May 30, one year before the election. They are stating they will seek to continue Uribe's policies if elected. However, Santos is not officially running, claiming he will only run if president Uribe decides not to. Despite Uribe's indecision and the opposition to the second re-election voiced by politicians, social sectors and the media, domestically and abroad, it is clear the campaign for 2010 has started and campaign staffers have looked at internet as a new media to promote their candidates.

In a two-post series, journalist and blogger Camilo García has summarized the presence of Colombian politicians on the internet, not only through their official websites or Twitter, but also through Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube. In the first part [es], García writes about several politicians who use social networks in order to promote their names for the next elections. It's unavoidable to mention US President Barack Obama's success back in 2008. Here we quote some highlights:

Fajardo, como prometió en Caracol Radio, utiliza las herramientas digitales. Tiene un portal muy bonito donde olvida que lo importante en Internet son los contenidos, no la forma y la cantidad de herramientas digitales que usa. El ahora candidato tiene cuenta en Flickr, tiene 121 videos en YouTube y 5.940 partidarios en Facebook. La figura se observa pero las ideas no las veo. Lastima que este señor no tenga aún una cuenta en Twitter.

[Former Mayor of Medellín Sergio] Fajardo, as he promised [when he worked for] Caracol Radio, uses digital tools. He has a very nice portal where he forgets that the important thing on internet is the content, not shape [or] the number of digital tools he uses. The current candidate has a Flickr account, 121 videos on YouTube and 5,940 supporters on Facebook. I can see his image, but not his ideas. It's a shame this guy doesn't have a Twitter account yet. [Note: He or a campaign staffer had opened one weeks before García's post was published, but it had only one update at the time].

García quotes one of the tweets [es] from former Congressman Germán Vargas Lleras, leader of the centre-right Radical Change party:

“La situación en el Caribe colombiano es peor que en el resto del país, ando por Villanueva, Bolivar. (…) No puede ser que las personas que trabajan allí y los compradores desarrollen sus actividades en condiciones tan deplorables.”

“The situation in the Colombian Caribbean region is worse than the rest of the country, I'm in Villanueva, Bolívar (…) It can't be [possible] that people who work there and their customers do their activities in such deplorable conditions.”

García thinks that these tweets reveal something troubling:

Trinos (…) como estos denotan el desconocimiento tan profundo que tienen los políticos del país . Hasta yo sé que en la Costa se observa una pobreza de grande dimensiones y eso que sólo soy un ciudadano cualquiera. Si un político o senador se asombra con esas circunstancias y considera digna su publicación en Internet creo que estamos perdidos.

Tweets as these show a deep lack of knowledge the politicians have about the country. Even I know that poverty of huge dimensions is noticeable in the [Caribbean] Coast, me being a common citizen. If a politician or a senator is amazed at these circumstances and consider its publication on the internet to be worthy I think we're doomed.

And he praises former Defense Minister and Liberal Party pre-candidate Rafael Pardo:

Lo interesante de este perfil en Twitter es que el político está detrás de la cuenta. Reconoce que no sabe utilizar las herramientas tecnológicas y lo más sensato es que pide ayuda de los usuarios para lograr los objetivos. Esto marca una diferencia con los otros políticos que tienen sus estrategias en Internet pero se limitan a enviar mensajes al pueblo. La diferencia está en la interacción.

Otro de los aspectos que lo diferencian de los otros personajes es el contenido. Artículos breves, con temas de coyuntura. Es decir, tiene claridad en sus ideas políticas y es capaz de expresarlas para internet, es decir, crea contenido valioso para Internet.

The interesting thing about this Twitter profile is that it is the politician the one behind the account. He admits he hasn't learned yet to use digital tools and the most sensible thing is that he asks for help from his users in order to achieve his goals. This marks a difference with the other politicians who have internet strategies but limit themselves to sending messages to the public. The difference is the interaction.

Another of the aspects that makes [Rafael Pardo] different from these other characters is the content (on his portal): Short articles, about current situations topics. This is, he has clarity on his political ideas and is able to express them for the web. He creates valuable content for internet.

García mentions former Mayor of Bogotá Antanas Mockus, who had opened an account with just two tweets, and the unpopularity of current Mayor of Bogotá, left-wing Alternative Democratic Pole's Samuel Moreno Rojas, who is mocked on Twitter with nicknames such as #bobolitro (“dumb”) and #torombolo (which makes reference to Mr Moreno's physical resemblance to Jughead, the Archie character, known in Latin America as “Torombolo”).

On the second part [es], García compares the Obama strategy with those things the Colombian politicians are doing to campaign on the net. He writes that the Obama's strategy is well out of reach for any Colombian politician, especially because of the high cost of employing such a varied team of “designers, programmers, communication experts, library scientists, and advertisers” that is needed.

Much of the consensus to date is that Rafael Pardo is the only presidential pre-candidate who has some kind of clue about using internet as a campaign medium. Probably this is why political website La Silla Vacía [es] dubbed him as the “cyber-candidate” in an article about his registration to the Liberal Party internal elections last April 28, an event which was followed live on his website. As the event progressed, La Silla Vacía [es] asked other Colombian twitterers about their thoughts about Pardo and his use of his own Twitter account @rafaelpardo [es]. Pardo states that “these new media are necessary to reach certain audiences” and that “it's very useful because, given so much scarcity and hardness of access to traditional media, new media become a necessary alternative. But it's important not to use them as a billboard, but seeking to inform and discuss with the audience and their worryings.” Those twitterers who answered were quoted in the article [es] written by editor-in-chief Juanita León.

Some users also reacted to the article by La Silla Vacía [es]. Juan F Botero writes [es] about the limited reach of this strategy:

Además, la población colombiana apenas esta empezando a tener acceso en su casa a internet. Es por esta razón que estas estrategias mediaticas, si funcionan, solo lo hacen en países en donde la población tiene acceso las 24 horas del día. Yo me pregunto, que colombiano promedio puede enviar y recibir mensajes de twitter por su celular? o puede consultar su perfil de facebook en el bus o en transmilenio?

En fin, bien por Pardo y todos aquellos precandidatos que utilizan nuevas tecnologias, pero antes de ponerse a perder el tiempo, deberían buscar estrategias que no solo le lleguen a unos pocos.

Besides, Colombian people are just beginning to access the internet from home. It's because of this that these media strategies, if they work, only do so in countries where the people has internet access 24 hours a day. I wonder, what average Colombian citizen can send and receive Twitter messages on their cellphone? or browse his Facebook profile on a bus or Transmilenio bus system?

Anyway, good for Pardo and all those pre-candidates who use new technologies, but before wasting their time, they should seek strategies that do not only reach a few people.

Despite the lack of access for some, cam2574 is more optimistic [es] and thinks that it is good that these candidates are looking for alternate ways to reach potential voters, but understanding that “it is a learning process.”

Even though many twitterers have mostly praise for Pardo's understanding of Twitter as a tool and internet as a medium for campaigning, the Liberal pre-candidate is not that successful in polls.

Things being so, Pardo and another presidential candidates have a lot to do in order to take advantage of the web as a campaigning tool. In the last few weeks, candidates such as conservative Andrés Felipe Árias (@andresarias2010) or former Defense Minister and ruling camp dissident Marta Lucía Ramírez (@mluciaramirez; @MLRPresidenta for her campaign) have joined Pardo, Vargas Lleras, Fajardo, and Mockus on Twitter. In the case of Ramírez, its initial campaign logo has attracted the attention of some people [es] because of its resemblance with the one used by the Obama campaign. Last week, Ms Ramírez campaign issued a new logo, still similar to the Obama one.

As internet access in Colombia is still growing (mobile broadband access grew 349% and fixed broadband 51.3% in 2008 [es], the former mostly in rural areas, according to a report) and prospects are optimistic, especially when it comes to mobile access [es], candidates for Presidency and Congress (parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 14, 2010) are expected to join the cyberpolitics wave. It remains a ‘virgin’ territory, with everything to do. Still, as the “early adopters” jumped to the web in order to emulate Obama, the possible impact of the web in the elections will only be seen in the next few months. Will the candidates —and the citizens— finally understand and use the web to its full potential for campaigning, debating, and proposing solutions to solve the many problems Colombia is facing?

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