By Frank Kibble.
The discussion about digital democracy often focuses on how technology can transform the way people are engaged with politics here in Britain or in other strongly developed countries. We forget that for us, democracy is thoroughly entrenched in society from voter to parliamentarian. In other parts of the world where democracy is vulnerable and under attack from corruption, duplicity and chauvinism, could more tangible results be seen through the implementation of practices that strengthen the digital ecosystem? Certain individuals would unequivocally answer ‘yes’ and are making concerted efforts to do just that.
Peru is one of these places. Party politics there is overwhelmingly focused around a Presidential candidate’s personality rather than ideology and how many grand promises they can make in exchange for votes. After serving their terms they have a tendency for ending up incarcerated for offences including fraud, corruption and human rights abuses. President from 2011 to 2016 was Ollanta Humala and is himself currently serving an eighteen month sentence along with his wife for his role in the Odebrecht Scandal, an affair that saw politicians from ten countries investigated for corruption in relation to a construction corporation.
However even before this Humala’s failings and ineptitude had been hampering Peruvian democracy. Back in 2013 he caused outrage when his plans to fast track appointments of judges and a human rights ombudsman amongst other positions were leaked to the press. He had also been accused for some time of abandoning the passionate leftist politics that had got him elected in favour of an orthodox capitalist approach once in office. Civil servants and students, either out of genuine discontent or having been promised rewards by Humala’s opponents, staged huge protests in Lima in scenes that had not been seen in Peru since the demonstrations took place against the terrorist Shining Path group in the 1990s.
Like other major protests taking place in Egypt, Turkey and Brazil in 2013 about how each country was being run, the La Repartija demonstrations in Peru were characterised by the youth of those taking part and the method of communication they employed, social media. Back then the power of social media to connect individuals from afar and to organise was only just beginning to be felt. In Lima, Twitter and Facebook acted as platforms for people to mobilise, express their discontent online and to convene meetings. This was a revolutionary use of digital technology to galvanise the population and enact change. Humala never recovered from La Repartija and after defeat in 2016 found himself very quickly serving his aforementioned prison sentence.
Whether the protests themselves led to a genuine strengthening of democracy in Peru with the hastening of Humala’s exit is another issue. However what is undeniable is that because of the role of social media those Peruvians participating felt politically engaged in a way never seen before. The somewhat indifferent young middle classes had been mobilised and now were the forces leading the way. Seeking to capitalise on this atmosphere of empowerment, a development organisation called D&D International hosted a public seminar entitled ‘Social Media and the New Way of Citizen Participation’. It attracted an excellent response, with those attending keen to contribute to the dialogue and learn more. This started the ball rolling and six months later the Programme for Digital Democracy, or Democracia Digital, was launched.
The think tank, now more than three and a half years old, now co-ordinates several major initiatives every year including the National Award on Digital Democracy. Since it began over 230 nominations have been made for it that come from citizens, civil society and both the public and private sectors. They also convene a National Summit on Digital Democracy each year with forty speakers from Peru and abroad and over 300 participants. These forums are essential in establishing dialogue and sharing experiences about digital democracy which is after all only in its infancy in Peru.
Through these discussions Democracia Digital have been able to open up channels with important stakeholders whose participation is key to a healthy digital ecosystem. Representatives from government, the private sector, civil society, the techie community and academia gathered for the first Internet Governance Forum in Lima last year. This marked for the first time the acceptance of digital democracy as a viable and important pursuit by those in positions of power in Peru.
But they are still fighting some apathy in this pursuit. Democracia Digital’s founder Elaine Ford says “some congressmen are not really engaged with issues surrounding digital democracy and have very little idea about the positive impact that correct use of the internet and ICT can have on their work.” Nonetheless in the congressional elections that took place last year, Ford found that candidates were more aware of their social media presence, evidence perhaps of such individuals becoming more engaged with digital practices but only when they need votes.
Indeed she believes that Congress is falling behind by not getting to grips with big digital issues that other nations have made progress with: “I feel they don’t know yet how to build public policy related to open data, open government, internet governance and human rights and the web”. In addition despite Humala’s demise the Presidential office and major institutions remain discredited given current premier Pedro Pablo Kuczynski’s history of flirting with corrupt practices. It is hoped that through forums of discussion and education as well as original research published as Digital Policy Papers, Democracia Digital will be able to advance thinking and lobby those in office to take action.
However in a country with limited internet connectivity outside of the main cities, can digital democracy actually achieve positive change for Peruvians? Ford is optimistic – “every year more Peruvians have access to the internet. Broadband has expanded all over the country so there is a need to work with citizens to teach them the benefits of responsible use of the internet. Through this we can strengthen the quality of our democracy by enabling more civic participation, accountability of public institutions, social inclusion, diversity in content, flow of knowledge and above all empowerment of citizens.” She points to the most recent edition of Democracia Digital’s National Award as evidence that the think tank’s work is not purely Lima-centric, with a quarter of nominations coming from the regions. To put this in perspective roughly a third of the country’s population lives in the capital so this achievement is not to be sniffed at.
Ford says her long term goal is to reach the whole country as quickly as possible. They are trying to do this by hosting as many free dialogues, conferences and workshops in the regions as possible having already made inroads in some provincial cities. They are reaching out to those in local and regional government through their self-developed InnovApp, training individuals directly on collaborating with citizens as well as on open data and open government.
Ford is confident they are making headway in these endeavours: “There is a lot to do in Peru in terms of digital democracy. All the time we have new challenges but we strive to innovate and to bring new ideas and different activities to people to strengthen the digital ecosystem in Peru.” From its disruptive beginnings amidst political disarray, perhaps a new digital path can be forged for Peruvian democracy after all.
Frank Kibble is a History graduate from the University of Exeter and is currently travelling through South America.