European View (2011) 10:25–31DOI 10.1007/s12290-011-0154-6ARTICLEE-democracy as the future faceof democracy: a case studyof the 2011 Irish electionsTom Curran • Ravi SinghPublished online: 3 June 2011Ó Centre for European Studies 2011Abstract This article tells the success story of the Fine Gael Party in the 2011general elections in Ireland, while including it in the broader context ofe-democracy trends. After briefly describing the challenging political and eco-nomic situation of Ireland prior to elections, it looks into detail at the digitalstrategy used by Fine Gael to win these elections. Special attention andnumerous examples are given to highlight the role of new media and socialnetworks in reaching and engaging voters and winning votes. The authorsconclude with lessons that can be learned from the Irish case and the advan-tages of embracing state-of-the-art e-democracy tools.Keywords Fine Gael Á Enda Kenny Á Irish general elections 2011 Á E-democracy ÁDigital strategy Á Digital campaign Á New media Á Social networksIntroductionThe Irish elections on 25 February this year have made global news. It was theending of an old era of traditional politics and the beginning of a new era ofyounger, brighter politics that promised to bring hope and change to a countrybrought to its knees in desperation in the last few years. Things in Ireland had tochange; the people demanded it. Not only was the Irish general election of 2011T. Curran (&)Fine Gael, National Headquarters, 51 Upper Mount Street, Dublin, Irelande-mail: email@example.comR. Singh (&)ElectionMall Technologies, Inc. 37 Square de Meeus, 1000 Brussels, Belgiume-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 123
26to be the most important election in Ireland’s history, but it was also the firstgeneral election where the Internet would play a central role. The statistics ofonline use in Ireland were already an advantage. Internet penetration in Irelandwas already at 65%, with one out of two Irish people using Facebook. This articletells the success story of the Fine Gael Party in the 2011 elections, and describesit in the broader context of e-democracy trends. It concludes with lessons thatcan be learned from the Irish case and the advantages of embracing state-of-the-art e-democracy tools.E-democracy as the future face of democracyE-democracy is not a new concept; the term has been around for some yearsnow. However, there are many people who are still unaware of the power andpotential of e-democracy. With rising Internet penetration rates and the massivegrowth of social media, e-democracy is set to become common politicalcurrency in the next few years. The logic and purpose of e-democracy is to bringpolitics into the present by taking into consideration the latest technology andcommunication trends. Its main advantage is to make politics and its decision-making processes accessible to a whole new demographic of people at the sametime and with reduced costs. By using new technologies, the Internet can enablethe real-time, broader and more active participation of politicians and citizensalike. This is why the power of e-democracy cannot be underestimated any longer.The incredible speed and manner in which information is dispersed across theInternet is unrivalled by any other traditional form of media. No other method ofraising awareness, advertising or marketing has the unlimited reach of theInternet and the capacity to reach intended audiences through targetingtechniques. Even in the case of political debating where traditionally everyone isrequired to be in the same place at the same time, the Internet has enabledanyone to access and create debates online and partake in online discussions.The question now is, how has the Internet’s reach and popularity been appliedsuccessfully to everyday politics? Has e-democracy already started to change theface of modern politics? The answer of this article is yes, and the Irish electionstogether with the winning digital strategy of Fine Gael will be used as a case inpoint.E-democracy and election campaignsSo far, politicians around the globe have made different use of Internetstrategies and tactics. During his presidential campaign in 2007–2008, BarackObama set the standard with his world-famous online campaign that goteverybody’s attention. The campaign generated huge amounts of online activityand participation from both the electorate and the candidates. The results wereunprecedented and caused a huge surge in popularity for the would-be
European View 27President of the United States. He cleverly used Internet tools to get in touchwith a wide range of voters across the country, particularly young people, whowould not normally have had an interest in traditional politics. The Obamacampaign, which is now considered a breakthrough campaign for catapultingpolitics into new media platforms, showed the world that the Internet can play ahuge role in politics and, if used properly, can make a significant difference onelection day. It is often said that President Obama would not have won the USpresidential election without the use of the Internet.Setting the scene: challenging election times for IrelandBefore the elections in Ireland, the country had been in the throes of the biggesteconomic depression of its history. Unemployment had risen significantly duringthe last three months of 2010 and peaked at 14.7%, the highest rate since 1994.Having come down from its few years of fame as the second-richest country inthe European Union, the recession was a tough change to adjust to, one thatwould smother the EU’s pride for years to come. Ireland’s tale is one of rags to riches, then repeated in reverse. During the1990s Ireland was synonymous with wealth, prosperity and all things luxurious.The Celtic Tiger prowled through the country for years, transforming everythingit touched to gold. However, the wealth created during these years and theexcessive greed experienced could not be sustained by the economy, andinevitably it crashed. The boom of the 1990s turned to bust and history beganrepeating itself, and this time the plunge into bankruptcy, carefully archived inevery type of table, diagram and chart, saw a drop of astonishing magnitude.Irish banks had to be rescued by the government on numerous occasions, eachrescue becoming bigger and more hurtful to the economy than the last. Finally,the government solemnly accepted a bailout from the EU and IMF, as the publicstruggled to keep their heads above water. On 1 February 2011, a general election was called by President Mary McAleeseat the request of outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen, who resigned on 22 January ´2011. Cowen’s political party, Fianna Fail, was on the brink of being thrown outof government for the first time since 1927. They had been the ruling party inIreland for 61 of the last 79 years. The topics of the debate and campaignreflected the current state of the country, with the biggest focus on theeconomy, health care and political reform. Immigration, job creation, mortgagepayment difficulties and spending cuts were also prominent.Fine Gael: a ‘digital strategy’ towards electoral successThe difficult times Ireland was experiencing made it a real challenge for all Irishparties to win votes. But Fine Gael hit the ground running in the electioncampaign, using the Internet as an aggressive tactic to battle some of thetoughest challenges facing the Irish people for years. Known as their ‘digital 123
28advantage’, the Internet strategies of Fine Gael helped them to continuously topthe polls during the entire election campaign and eventually win the elections. Voters’ confidence in the Fianna Fail significantly decreased from 42% in 2007to 25% in 2009 and reached an all-time low of 14% in January 2011, as each blowto the economy was mirrored in the statistics. Anger among the public wasevident and the people’s faith in the government dropped further with everypoll. Meanwhile, Fine Gael, whose popularity was at 19% at the start of theelection, saw a huge surge in numbers during the campaign, with their onlineefforts playing a big part in this. Fine Gael understood that a well-managedonline campaign combined with traditional efforts could make a significantdifference when it came to getting their message across to the voters. The party also realised that if it wanted a successful digital campaign, it wouldneed the right team on the ground to achieve this. Thus, the ‘Digital Task Force’was created, consisting of young, enthusiastic people. With a mere eight weeksuntil election day on 25 February, Fine Gael went into overdrive when it came toInternet strategies. Due to local campaign laws, television advertising is notallowed in Irish general elections, apart from limited party political broadcastsper campaigns, and so other methods of communications needed to beexplored. Internet campaigning was the best and most powerful option. The use of an online platform using the latest technology in cloud computingallowed Fine Gael’s digital team to organise and manage all the differenttechnology tools and distribute information to canvassers and the media. Thepowerful software allowed them to successfully communicate with over 5,040supporters of the organisation in a single mail shot. With less than one week tomobilise those supporters, Fine Gael created an e-canvasser tool that was similarto that used in Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign and already proven to be amassive success. This allowed Fine Gael to effectively organise, manage andtarget their supporters’ profiles.Making the most of new media and social networksThe leader of the Fine Gael Party, Enda Kenny, wanted to engage directly withthe public and listen to their views on what had gone wrong in the economyand what recommendations the citizens had for fixing problems. Kenny askedthem to submit their views and comments directly to the website on a newpublic forum that replaced the old website. The result was over 250,000 visitorsand more than 40,000 comments left on the site. The Irish public told Fine Gaelthat they were concerned about the EU-IMF bailout, job losses, youthimmigration, health services, tax increases and the failings of the Irish politicalsystem. Fine Gael used all this feedback to help shape their policy agenda, the‘Five Point Plan’, and their campaign slogan, ‘Let’s Get Ireland Working’. The website continuously evolved with new content, videos and interactivetools. Each Fine Gael policy position was added to the website, and users wereable to comment on each policy and respond to fellow users on the site. Neverbefore had an Irish political party conducted this type of online policy discussion.
European View 29For Fine Gael it was not just about the policy itself, but about establishing adialogue. Fine Gael’s YouTube channel became the most popular political partychannel in Ireland, reaching the sixth-highest ranking in all of Ireland andgrowing over 3,000% in four weeks. Fine Gael’s viral campaign efforts were alsohelped by the first Irish-language tweeted debate commentary and the historiclive streaming, through Ustream, of a public debate which brought over 30,000visitors to the site in minutes during the live broadcast. ‘Take Action Web Pages’, Facebook and Twitter accounts were created forover 104 candidates in mere weeks to provide a way for voters to learn aboutthe Fine Gael candidates and communicate with them online. Fine Gael alsoused the online advertising platforms of Google and Microsoft, which togethercontrol over 95% of the Internet traffic, to help drive online engagement. This setanother record: it was the first time video ads and rollover advertising were usedfor political campaigns in Ireland and the world. Widgets were created, using technical integration with Facebook and MSNMessenger, to allow users to donate the status of their accounts to the Fine GaelParty. By informing their Facebook friends, approximately 3,000 users partici-pated in this initiative in less than 48 hours. Other creative digital tools wereused throughout the campaign to help gain momentum. Valentine’s Daye-cards, ‘twibbons’, ‘Twolicies’, ‘Donate your Facebook status’, interactivewebsite opportunities and even a video game featuring Enda Kenny all helpedto maintain interest and drive over 250,000 visitors to the website, which led to a600% increase in visits. Election day arrived and Enda Kenny appeared online in his own rollover ad,addressing the people of Ireland and asking them for the last time to vote forFine Gael to help lead the country to recovery. When the results came in, it was aroaring success for Fine Gael. They won a record 76 seats to become the largest ´party in the Dail since its formation 78 years ago. Meanwhile, Fianna Fail ´experienced the biggest defeat by a sitting government since the formation ofthe Irish State in 1921. It was an overwhelming landslide victory for Fine Gael,which would form a coalition with Labour, also successful with 37 seats. EndaKenny had led his party to success with a digital advantage that had neverbefore been seen on such a scale in the small country.1Lessons to be learned: more e-democracy coming to Europe?The impact of the digital efforts organised by a good team on the ground alongwith high-end technology providers has changed the way political communi-cations is done in Ireland, just as Obama’s campaign in 2008 ushered in the riseof digital campaigns in the US. So what should the other EU Member Statesmake of Fine Gael’s campaign and its electoral success? The authors of this1 Fine Gael received a final tally of 36.1%, which saw the party take a place in government in coalitionwith Labour, which had grown steadily over the years from 10% popularity in 2007 to 15% in 2009and finally 19.4% in the general election results of 2011. Other parties had the following percentages: ´in, ´Green Party, 1.8%; Sinn Fe 9.9%; Independents, 12.6%; Fianna Fail, 17.4%; and others, 2.6%. 123
30article believe there are lessons to be learned by all stakeholders involved in ademocratic electoral process:• Establish a dialogue: Starting with the electorate, the Fine Gael campaign is useful in pointing out that the voices of the voters can be heard, and that this is not just party rhetoric or an empty campaign slogan. As shown above, Fine Gael used the massive feedback received through different online channels to shape the ‘Five Point Plan’ that would take the country out of a very difficult economic situation.• The rise of the online politician: Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny should serve as an example for other leaders to engage more with their audience. Of course, on the campaign trail it is impossible for a politician to be in two places at once. However, by using social networks and new media tools, candidates can have a simultaneous online presence in a multitude of places.• An online campaign plan: As far as parties are involved, a caveat is in order: a digital strategy will never replace a party programme. Both are needed and only a fruitful synergy of the two can accomplish the desired results. Nevertheless, a digital strategy has enormous potential when it comes to making this party programme known across the electorate, promoting it and getting feedback on it. Each party needs to decide how it will leverage social networks and who will manage the accounts.• Technology infrastructure: The latest advances in technology, especially cloud computing and the widespread use of integrated platforms for campaigns, have proven to be not only innovative but also efficient, saving costs and time. They allow campaigns to develop customised tools targeted at different categories of voters, as well as to reach out to non-voters. Can European states afford to ignore these points? Only if they want to ignorethe trends: year by year, the figures show that Internet penetration is increasingwithin EU Member States, albeit at different speeds; these upward trends alsoapply to new media and social networks. History always has a funny habit ofrepeating itself, only in slightly different guises. It is already common knowledgethat Roosevelt’s now-famous fireside chats helped him rally the support ofcitizens for his New Deal measures. And more than one historian has pointed outthat the turning point of the 1960 US presidential elections were the first-evertelevised presidential debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.What both cases show is that embracing the most advanced communicationtools (radio in the case of Roosevelt, television for Kennedy) helps politicians winsupport and votes. In a nutshell, it can safely be concluded that with elections coming up in keyEU states such as France and Spain in 2012, and with the European elections of2014, it is more than likely that the victory will belong to those who understandand embrace e-democracy and the state-of-the-art tools it provides.
European View 31 Tom Curran is Secretary-General of Fine Gael and during the 2011 Irish elections was in the Advising and Strategy Planning Committee of the party. Ravi Singh is CEO and Founder of ElectionMall.com and has been involved in electoral campaigns in the United States, Latin America, Europe and Asia. 123