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Political Parties and the Media By Ronald Meinardus

MANILATo state that the mass media is crucial in electoral politics is a platitude. "If you dont exist in the media, you dont exist"this I read the other day in a U.S. publication on political campaigns. Irrespective of ideological leanings, all politicians are keen on getting into the media. Every time they receive coverage in an article, have their face on television or their voice on radio, they assume that they increase their standing among potential voters. Although democratic elections should be about political choices, in most countries they are basically a popularity contest. And mass popularity comes with media exposure. This reminds me of a joke from my early years as a radio journalist in Germany. Question: How do you find a politician in a crowded room? Answer: Hold a microphone up in the air and the politician will jump at you instantly. This anecdote illustrates the importance that media has gained among politicians in modern democracies. While studies dealing with political communication in specific countries presumably fill entire libraries, to my knowledge, very few comparative studies are available on the way politicians communicate with their target audiences across countries. In this light, a recent international workshop held in Manila on political communication for political parties in Asia was enlightening. Sponsored by the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats, the sole pan-Asian umbrella organization for like-minded political parties, the conference brought together communications officers and campaign managers of political parties from seven Asian nations: Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and the Philippines. They agreed that in todays world, political success, to a large degree, depends on strategically sound communication. On the other hand, it became apparent that the respective communication practices and strategies differ widely from one country to another. While, for instance, in South Korea the Internet has become the most important information and campaign tool and is widely considered the key to the success of Roh, Moo-hyun in the recent presidential elections, countries like Cambodia and Indonesia are merely beginning to utilize digital communication for political purposes. Whereas the major political parties in Indonesia and Cambodia have their own Web sites, they view these mainly as instruments to communicate with a relatively small group of party loyalists and supporters abroad. ``For us, face-to-face meetings between politicians and the electorate are the most important tool of communication, says Leaksmy Pok, Deputy Head of the PR Department of the Sam Rainsy Party, Cambodias main opposition force today. In addition to public meetings that are

strategically and meticulously planned to reach as many voters as possible, the party distributes printed material. But this form of transmitting the message has limitations, too. ``As 60 percent of our people are illiterate, it is useless to hand out printed materials to them, Mr. Pok said. Unlike Cambodia, illiteracy is not a major problem in the Philippines _ at least not illiteracy in the classical meaning of the term. Political communication in this country, though, is affected by computer illiteracy. With only an estimated five percent of the population connected to the World Wide Web, the Internet does not play a major role in the scenarios of political strategists. Recently, the Liberal Party of the Philippines launched its website, boasting that it is the first political party in the country to set up a permanent presence in cyberspace. I assume the Liberals will soon be joined by others. The country is preparing for its general elections in 2004 _ the first time overseas Filipinos, a sizeable constituency, will be entitled to cast their ballots. ``There is an eight million voters-market overseas, and they are online, says Jonathan Malaya, the Editor-in-Chief of the Liberal Partys newsletter. Malaya predicts that all the major parties will soon gear up in a rush to grab the votes of the Filipino diaspora. A special feature of Philippine politics that has an effect on the political communication practices is the very limited role that political parties play. While it is common knowledge that political parties play a far lesser role in Asia than in Europe or the Americas, in the Philippines, political parties are particularly weak. ``In our country, all politics is personalized, according to Maritese Vitug, editor-in-chief of Newsbreak Magazine. This also affects the business of communication. ``Politicians publish their personal statements and they are not identified in the public as party representatives, Vitug adds. While the diversity of political systems and cultures make it impossible to identify common patterns in political communication, three general trends relevant for the countries represented at the conference can be observed. In spite of the increase in the role of modern media, the importance of personal, face-to-face communication between the candidates and the electorate has not diminished. The contrary seems to be the case. As much as the classical canon that ``all politics is local holds true for Asia, the rule that personal contact with the people remains a condition for success in electoral politics. Second, although the great majority of the people in many Asian countries have no access to the Internet (and will probably not have this opportunity for many years to come), the electronic media is slowly but surely gaining impact on political communication throughout the continent. While in most countries the Internet is far from being a form of mass media, it has, nevertheless, become a crucial instrument of communication for the political elites and for international networking.

Finally, there is good news for the most traditional of all media: the newspaper. While much has been said and written about declining readership, positive newspaper coverage remains a cornerstone of successful political campaigns in all countries with a free press. While not all voters read a newspaper regularly and prefer to watch TV and listen to the radio instead, the editors-in-charge of TV and radio shows strongly rely on the newspapers for their reporting and personal opinions. Newspapers are, thus, the actual source of many media reports. They are, to use modern jargon, the number-one political agenda setter.