12-18 May 2017 #858

It’s party time on the internet

… but still doubtful if the wave of digital campaigning in this local election will translate into votes
Sonia Awale
  • An 8-second video on Instagram shows a middle-aged female voter approaching immaculately dressed Bibeksheel Nepali candidate for Kathmandu mayor, 21-year-old Ranju Darshana, on a roof terrace overlooking Darbar Square and says, “I came all the way here looking for you.” Darshana returns a shy smile and says, “Thank you.”

  • Sajha Party Chief Rabindra Mishra starts a 45-minute video on Facebook with his party’s candidates Kishor Thapa and Nirupama Yadav by noting how he is conducting a “slightly different” interview than when he was a journalist for BBC Nepali. Mishra’s public Facebook account has nearly 650,000 followers, while his party’s page has only 65,000.

  • Folk duo Raju Pariyar and Priya Bhandari perform a jaunty election music video on YouTube that clocks 500,000 views within a week of being posted.  The lyrics: “Vote for UML, the people’s party that never kowtowed to anyone and lifted the blockade.”  There is lots of flag-waving and unabashed nationalism.

  • The RPP’s Kamal Thapa has over 361,000 followers on Twitter and pins a tweet of a slick animated video extolling the glory of his party and exhorting all to vote in local elections. In other posts, Thapa addresses throngs in his home district of Makwanpur and canvasses for the RPP’s mayoral candidate for Hetauda.

Health Minister Gagan Thapa is not standing for local elections, but does a live discussion on Periscope on ‘Liveable Kathmandu’. It can be played back on his Facebook page including Thapa’s not-so-subtle plug for his own Nepali Congress party’s candidate for mayor, Raju Raj Joshi, extolling his commitment to improve Kathmandu’s environment.  

Read also:

Nationally local, Editorial

Resuscitating democracy, Guest Editorial

With limited time to campaign in two-phased local elections, Nepal’s political parties are fielding their candidates for village and municipal councils on social networks like never before. 

The first local election in 19 years starts Sunday and will include nearly 9 million youthful first-time voters. Even those who have never voted in local polls are already 38. The new parties, especially, believe they can reach potential voters through smart phones rather than street rallies.

Digital native start-ups, like Bibeksheel Nepali, Sajha Party and New Force, are making full use of digital platforms to spread their good governance messages and take support away from the established parties.

Although the 2013 constituent assembly election was the first in Nepal’s digital era, Sunday’s contest is the first time ‘social’ has been used extensively. Half of Nepalis have Internet access, 7 million are on Facebook, and most are logging on through mobile phones. So, even the stodgiest political leaders have realised they also need a digital podium.

“One of our best selling points is the innovative way in which we present ourselves in social media,” says Anusa Thapa, CEO of Bibeksheel Nepali. The young party is vigorously promoting Ranju Darshana on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, and attracting thousands of viewers to live online interviews and other events. 

The party also has an animated video, with a rap soundtrack, which fulminates against corruption, mismanagement and urban bedlam, promising that Bibeksheel’s young mayor will usher in a new era of clean and efficient Kathmandu.

However, it is not clear if the message works, even with younger voters in the capital. At 21, Aviv Adhikari is a media studies student at Kathmandu University and the same age as Darshana. But he is not completely convinced that the candidate has the maturity or experience to be mayor, adding: “I don’t think the rap works with young voters. It is the wrong genre. Colloquial folk songs are much more effective.”

As an established party that traditionally used celebrity musicians at campaign rallies, the UML is doing just that. It has released music videos of folk duets by well-known singers, replacing colloquial lyrics with thumping nationalism and an anti-incumbent message.

Ajaya Bhadra Khanal of Sajha Party, launched this year by fellow former journalist Rabindra Mishra, says digital platforms are much more effective than mass meetings in reaching large numbers of voters. 

“Being a new party, and given the limited time for campaigning, social media is a must for us and is our main medium to communicate about our election symbols and candidates,” adds Khanal. “In the long run, I am sure social media will gradually help transform Nepali politics.”

The established parties are catching on. The Hindu-right RPP has set up a nine-member social media team that has posted promotional messages and two election videos, and features celebrity members like Rekha Thapa and Komal Oli. 

The Maoists have replugged some of their war-era videos to revive a bit of their revolutionary verve, and the NC appears to mistakenly think that streaming central committee members giving speeches will somehow appeal to young voters.

Corporate CEO and social media critic Ashutosh Tiwari uses online posts himself to encourage young candidates like Darshana, and says the new parties have been much smarter in exploiting the Internet to enhance their credibility as well as gain voters. “The new generation is looking for alternatives to the old party system and for candidates with a new way of doing politics. They will certainly make a dent,” he argues.  

But candidates have found the Internet is a double-edged sword. For every post supporting them, there are many more rude responses from flamers and trolls. For example, a YouTube video ridiculing Rabindra Mishra of Sajha has got far more views than his official promo video. Being a young woman, Darshana is trolled mercilessly, reflecting the more sordid side of social media globally. It is also doubtful how effective Internet campaigning can be compared to old-fashioned mass meetings, street rallies and door-to-door flesh pressing. 

“Nepalis have one of the highest digital engagements in the world. But we have seen it’s not as easy to dissuade people from party loyalty in elections,” says media columnist Dharma Adhikari. 

Social media expert Ujjwal Acharya doubts that online campaigning alone will convert into votes, but may do so in future once politicians realise its full potential, rather than using it to bad-mouth rivals. 

His conclusion: “Most social media followers of political parties are already their voters. The real question is if they can influence people outside their circle.” 

Read also:

Does democracy deliver development, Sangita Thebe Limbu

'Electing for a better future', Kunda Dixit

Campaigning in cyberspace, Bhrikuti Rai