Fundamentally, electoral politics is about communication: political parties must hone their message and then successfully communicate it in order to persuade and mobilize as many voters as possible. But in rural constituencies, lackluster roads, haphazard postal systems and unreliable telephones mean that political parties are hard pressed to communicate with voters through traditional channels.
However, in Cambodia, political parties — and youth wings in particular — have recognized the potential impact of mobile phones and social media technology. About 30 percent of Cambodia’s population is younger than 25, mobile phone penetration rests around 90 percent and the rate of internet use is rapidly increasing, which gives parties new options for creatively connecting with citizens. In particular, parties have used interactive voice response (IVR) systems and social media platforms such as Facebook for effective non-traditional outreach.
In August 2014, five Cambodian political parties — Cambodian People’s Party (CPP); Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); FUNCINPEC; Republic Democratic Party (RDP); and League for Democracy Party (LDP) — established IVR systems to make party information more accessible to voters. IVR systems store audio recordings for playback; when callers access the system on their phones, they interact by using voice prompts or inputting numbers on their phone. Citizens can also leave voice responses to prompts. Interested voters can call the IVR phone number to access party policy proposals, candidate lists or other party information that is stored in the system. Within eight weeks, one party’s IVR line had received more than 17,000 calls.
Although IVR systems may not be flashy or hi-tech, they boost communication between democratic institutions and citizens, which is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Highlighting the importance of this technology, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia William Todd said, “Establishing ways for citizens to interact with the political parties and relay their concerns improves the sharing of information and strengthens democracy.” In expanding and developing democracies where the political space may be limited, IVR systems increasingly provide political parties with effective, affordable and accessible platforms for disseminating party information outside of traditional or state-controlled media outlets.
Another way to operate outside of state-controlled media is by using social media platforms. For example, CNRP examined the country’s demographics and technology environment, and decided that using social media made good political sense. CNRP proactively cultivated a strong social media presence, using Facebook to connect with the more than 700,000 Cambodian users. On its Facebook page, the CNRP offered policy alternatives to the CPP government and successfully organized large scale protests. Connecting with youth voters who distrusted traditional media and felt marginalized by the Cambodian government, the party’s messages would often be shared with family members as alternative information sources.
These two non-traditional forms of outreach demonstrate parties’ options for communicating with potential supporters in more closed societies. What made CNRP’s communication strategy so successful was the party’s understanding of the surrounding tech environment. By figuring out that many Cambodians used their mobile phones and Facebook to receive and spread information, CNRP benefited by taking advantage of these tools, which were already being utilized by their members and supporters to spread their message.