In December 2007, I wrote an article titled "Malawi's 2009 battle on the Internet". I received several mixed reactions. Some people even said that I was merely day dreaming. But almost a year and a half later and about three weeks to May 19, Malawi's politicians have penetrated the internet as can be evidenced through the rest of this story.
(A note to the reader: you can click on the links and be taken to the sites hyperlinked. Note also that the article has been repackaged with some sections from my earlier article on the same).
With its presidential candidate Dr Bingu wa Mutharika, it has a website http://dppmw.org/ The party also runs a Facebook account while Mutharika himself has a blog in his name. Recently there are new blogs, some conspicuously partisan. But I welcome the development. If it is true, President Mutharika too should be welcome to the blogosphere as I saw a blog in his name. Politicians should be encouraged to these opportunities.
New Rainbow Coalition (NARC)
United Democratic Front (UDF)
With no presidential candidate as to date, the UDF as a party does not have own website. However its national chairman who is Malawi's former president Bakili Muluzi runs one is his own name in party colours. Its presence online faces attacks from enemies like the blog http://antimuluzi.blogspot.com/ which openly is against his candidature. Muluzi was also earlier on reported to have created a Facebook account.
Independent Presidential Candidate
A new comer to the political scene in Malawi, James Nyondo also has a personal website. It appears that he is heavily utilizing the site attracting the attention of his supporters and those wishing to know more about him.
Malawi Congress Party (MCP)
Malawi's oldest party also decided to cyber on http://www.malawicongressparty.org/ while probably sadly maintaining an earlier site
http://www.geocities.com/mcpmalawi/. While what is online seems to leave out some items that the party actually touts in its rallies, the new website seems to be enjoying a good number of visits due to the need for knowledge about the party that claims to have changed. Some commentators (through the print) have also described the website as more beautiful than any other on the race.
Then one sees selected parliamentary candidates like Chikondi Nkhoma in Lilongwe are turning to the website for passing on their manifesto to the electorate. The young candidate is also on Facebook. Dr Cornelius Mwalwanda of Karonga had a running website (in DPP colours) but it appears he shut it down following losses at primary elections.
News portals like Nyasa Times have been described by some as online tools meant to serve the interests of one political party over others. Yet it also a fact that the portal is probably the most updated and followed due its coverage of elections in Malawi.
A recently launched African Elections Project with focus on Malawi should be a welcome idea as now for the first time Malawians and the world over will and can follow elections on a dedicated elections portal for Malawi. This project is unique in the sense that it will also Malawians send text messages to a dedicated number and report on the elections.
Internet Civic Education and Participation
Various authors have underscored that media visibility is key resource for political survival and success in a mediated public sphere prevalent today. What most modern day politicians have realized is that the traditional terrestrial radio and hard newspapers are not the only ones they can use if they are to sell themselves and the nation. The Internet is here to strengthen their horizontal and vertical communication with them and the electorates.
As elections come closer, it can be anticipated that more and more Malawians will be keen to know how to choose the right candidates for Parliament and State house. It is normal these days to see that a good deal of civic education is taking place on the Internet.
Apart from voices within Malawi, the Diaspora community needs to be included. Candidates are under scrutiny by those within and away from Malawi and every move within the public sphere is likely to be discussed. If politicians exclude themselves from these opportunities, they might be losing out on an important electorate for the democratic Malawi.
Sometime ago, I saw a poll on Nyasa Times on whether Malawians in the Diaspora should be allowed to vote or not. As one might guess, majority (84 percent) said yes. People long to participate even though they have been geographically isolated. But with Internet, such information and civic boundaries have been eliminated. Should one expect the Malawi Electoral Commission to consider such a poll?
While Internet penetration in Malawi is still under one percent of the population, this development seems to appeal to a good number of Malawians within and in the Diaspora as they are now able to read and learn more about their candidates.
This is one way of bringing the democracy of the Internet to politics and the reverse also applies. While this might sound too advanced, it will be interesting to see how our politicians might slowly pick up the ideas towards 2009 and 2014.
Wining the 2009 battle will partly be dependent on many factors including equipping and utilising the Malawian information highway we are living in today.