Monday, September 13, 2010

Tweeting Their Way Through Election Campaigns

By Erica Marat

If there is any visible change in pre-elections Kyrgyzstan, it is the growing number of Kyrgyz politicians relying on online social networks. As political campaigns for the October 10 parliamentary elections informally began shortly after the constitutional referendum in June, over a dozen Kyrgyz politicians joined Twitter and Facebook, as well as other various online forums.

In pursuit of engaging younger voters, political leaders like Temir Sariev (head of Ak Shumkar party) and Omurbek Babanov (Respublica party) claim they personally read all messages sent by their Twitter followers. Twitter is a social networking and blogging site used by over 100 million people worldwide.

Users of online discussion forums like Akylbek Japarov have already managed to stage vibrant debates on the country’s economic future.

Prominent politician Bakyt Beshimov was the first to appear on the blog LiveJournal and Facebook. Engaging a younger audience, Beshimov provoked tough questions about Kyrgyzstan’s political reality at the time when former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s leadership seemed invincible. Many Facebook users were excited to be able to communicate with Beshimov in person.

For younger politicians like Edil Baisalov, who recently launched the political party Aikol El, using Facebook, Twitter and LiveJournal as everyday communication tools with local and international audiences has become second nature. Other young aspiring politicians are finding their voices online as well.

Of all politicians, Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbayeva is perhaps the most popular Twitter user, with over 1,600 followers.

This spike in using online interaction by Kyrgyz politicians shows that some political forces are trying this new style of campaigning. In an environment were no single political force controls the election results, competing parties must rely more on their messages, rather than old techniques based on organizing charity events or distributing goods to convince people to vote.
Thanks to this emerging participation, there is a strong possibility that the elections are going to be free and fair, which would be a novel achievement in the region. Success in this election should strengthen current and future political parties.

However, Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal do not necessarily guarantee stronger support at the polls. Some users of social network sites think that parties like Ak Shumkar are better promoted online than in real life. Nor are online social networks useful, should some political forces choose to stir up mob violence, possibly ethnic based, in order to challenge opponents with physical force on the day of the election.

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