Political parties are considered the pillars of contemporary representative democracy. This is true as representative democracy requires intermediary actors between state and society and institutional mechanisms to articulate and advocate diverse views and policy preferences.
A number of those intermediaries claim to connect ‘the people’ to the state. However, over the years, it has become increasingly evident that, in essence, political parties have a fundamental and indispensable niche in contemporary democracies. The most distinctive feature of political parties vis-à-vis any other political interest groups is that they are the only entity whose primary goal is contesting and capturing state power through peaceful means. Therefore, political parties have traditionally been considered the primary vehicle for political representation, the primary mechanism for a government organisation, and the channels for maintaining democratic accountability.
While in the past, digitally-driven technological innovations would have appeared to be a phenomenon that is associated with the so-called developed world, this is no longer the case. According to Internet World Stats, in 2013, Africa had 16 per cent internet penetration and 67 million smartphones in use. In 2014, internet penetration in Africa had increased to 26.5 per cent. By the first quarter of 2020, this rate had risen to 39.3%, and there are indications that Africa’s internet penetration will reach 50% by 2025 and that the continent will be home to 360 million smartphones, allowing some to predict a ‘boom’ for democracy across the continent.
For this reason, Democracy Works Foundation (DWF) hosted a hybrid, regional dialogue on the 28th of March in Luanda, Angola, to provide an opportunity for political parties to critically reflect not just on what is changing in the political parties’ environment but also on how those changes impact the parties themselves and how parties are responding or can best respond to those changes for them to remain relevant. The dialogue was attended by participants from political parties represented in parliament in Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi and Zambia.
Of particular interest in this dialogue was an appreciation of various innovations in information technology and social media that can be considered appropriate to political parties. Thus, while underscoring the relevance of digital technology and the need for political parties to adapt to and take advantage of these innovations, the dialogue also allowed parties to identify and appreciate a wide range of options relevant to them as they discharge their mandates. Of course, the environment impacting political parties is much more diverse and complex. The technological revolution that is taking place is only one of the many factors that are changing, but technology is probably the most fundamental factor, given its wide-ranging implications. Therefore, in our efforts to re-establish trust in democracy, priority should be given to adapting political parties to the contemporary technologically driven environment.
Unpacking the implications of the evolving digital technologies and social media on the nature and functions of political parties, Dr Victor Shale, Shalestone Consultants, South Africa:
“To be controversial, let me say that political parties are not emergency vehicles or ambulances. Their role is to aggregate and articulate the needs of their card-holding members, to educate and socialise citizens like a university does, according to their ideology and worldview. Political parties are to mobilise and ensure that citizens are consistently engaged in democracy and the development of their country. Political parties in the continent lack understanding of different types of public participation tools and platforms and downplay the generational shift from traditional to new methods of participation.
When we talk about participation, we refer to citizens’ ability to influence or support the government and politics. This is when the people of Lesotho, Angola, Malawi, and Botswana can control their government and the development trajectory of our countries. Participation is no longer about physical presence; it’s no longer measured through formal electoral activities. Participation has taken a new form through digital technology and social media. The question is whether our parties are moving with the times or not? If you’re wondering why political party membership is declining, the answer is in the new type of participation.”
While technology-driven informal and direct forms of engagement are becoming increasingly popular, becoming a member of political parties is increasingly not. In many parts of the world, people have found alternative ways to participate in politics through online petitioning and action groups rather than through political parties.
“In digital technology, there are generally two rules of engagement; one, you go where the audience is already convening, and secondly, you need to be able to adjust as the need arises because the voter and electorate are kings! Unfortunately, in politics today, political leaders get to decide the political direction instead of the people. That’s the case in most African countries, where the ideals of democracy for the people by the people are not adhered to. Digital communication, on the other hand, allows for more meaningful and transparent participation, where political parties can be held to account, and the public can exercise their voice.
Mobile phones, especially smartphones, are essential for political parties as internet access in Africa continues to grow. Mobile is a great enabler for people who didn’t have a voice before, and it’s also a great equaliser. Social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter have high participation and penetration and have been great platforms for political discourse. It’s beneficial for politicians to use such media to engage with their locals.
WhatsApp can provide political parties with easy access to your members, communicating through short videos, documents, and voice note that people can easily share.
Facebook is huge! Facebook Pages are beneficial for public service announcements and critical milestones with your members and supporters. Reports show that a person’s first thing when buying a smartphone is registering on Facebook, even in rural parts. So, there’s a massive market on Facebook – some view Facebook as the actual internet.
Twitter has become the global political discourse platform. It has facilitated the formation of many political movements. This platform is used effectively to hold governments and politicians accountable,” said Ms Jessica Musila, an Independent Governance Expert from Kenya, speaking on an overview of digital tools and platforms options for political parties.
Ms Anna Graumans, Project Team Leader for the ProDemos VoteMatch from the Hague, Netherlands, spoke about how political parties can use digitally-driven innovations to keep voters informed and engaged during an election, using The Case of the Voter Advice Application-VoteMatch.
The social and political context in which parties operate has significantly changed since their heyday in the middle of the 20th century. The most remarkable changes are the breakthroughs in information technology and social media. Today, digital technology is not only changing and disrupting whole sectors of society, but it also offers numerous possibilities for modern, meaningful and equal participation and deliberation, as well as chances for new forms of transparency and accountability in ways and on a scale that was until recently unimaginable and unheard of.
In conclusion, the consensus is that digital technology is advancing across the continent, and political parties must adjust to the changing climate to remain relevant. DWF commits to continue providing the platforms for political parties to engage around different themes, including digital technology and elections.