While all of South America has been experiencing an exponential growth of weblogs, podcasts, and other online methods of civic participation, no country has done more to institutionalize the new tools into its political process than Chile. The ruling class’ embrace of online media as a way to encourage greater civic participation and government accountability can be traced back to a November, 2000 leadership mission to the Silicon Valley and Seattle, Washington organized by president Ricardo Lagos as a way for Chilean government officials and business executives to learn from cutting edge technology companies based in the U.S. Upon returning to Chile, the group decided that their country, still recovering from years of oppressive military dictatorship, should be transformed into a “Digital Nation,” which would enable all Chileans to have a stronger voice.
A year later, in 2001, the Digital Nation Foundation was born with the mission of developing a digital culture in Chile that joins the government, business world, civil sector, and education system together in order to promote greater information, communication, and development for everyone. And it is that foundation which today, has helped make Chile the first country in the world to have each of its presidential candidates blogging their platforms, promises, and news items on what has turned into a always-running, weblog-based, presidential debate open to whoever would like to participate.
Presidential Blog Forum 2005 is a website in which each candidate to the presidential palace has a blog to put forth his or her viewpoints and proposals and interact with registered site users who can show their concerns.
The project has certainly seemed to be a smash success from its first day of launch on October 5. As Roberto Arancibia posted that day at 2:30 p.m.:
UPDATE 15:30: According to the foundation more than a thousand people have already visited the blog in just a few hours. The number of comments for each candidate has been:
Arancibia's “coincidence” refers to the fact that the initial amount of user submitted comments largely mirrored presidential poll results respectively. The format of the blog forum is that each candidate answers the same user-submitted question which is selected by a moderater. Registered users are then free to comment on each candidates response and those comments are left visible on the page. The only rules of the forum are that 1.) all registered users must provide their full name and valid email address 2.) disagreement is welcome though insults are not and 3.) only related comments will be published. Without further adieu, let's take a look at what each of the candidates have been blogging about.
The candidates’ latest question comes from Alfredo Piquer, president of ACTI, who, pointing to Chile's low score at the World Economic Forum's Global Competitivity report, asks the candidates to blog about the importance of innovation.
Progress in real society is obtained when new ways of doing things replace old ones. This process requires that we learn to adapt to the frequent changes in the economy and society.
She goes on to say that more active public policy must be created to support projects which engage both the public and private sector and inspire technological solutions. All of this, according to Bachelet, depends on high quality public education, especially in science and technology. She ends her post by mentioning that although “innovation” was Chile's second lowest score in the Global Competitivity Report, they still lead all of Latin America in overall competitiveness by a wide margin, which actually widened from 2004 to 2005.
The post has, so far, generated nine comments including one asking Bachelet to clarify what she means by “flexible economy” and asking if Chile's bandwidth is able to support more widespread use of economical voice over IP services like Skype.
Tomás Hirsch, in his response, says that the government must embrace science and technology at all education levels and suggests the creation of a National Campaign for Information Literacy, which would take place in schools and community colleges for students during the day and for their parents at night and which would also promote the use of free and open source software. He furthermore proposes dedicating 3% of the Gross Domestic Product to public and private scientific research as well as reforming CONICYT, the National Center for Public Research.
Joaquín Lavín, however says that Chile's innovation problems stem from the fact that entrepreneurs don't have enough opportunities to find funding and start a business.
Which is why my proposals are simple and aim to solve these problems effectively: renegotiating our debt, access to credit, and zero processing fees to start a company.
He concludes his post by noting that, if elected, he would make the process of applying for patents easier and more affordable and also sign treaties with other countries which would stop the piracy of Chilean inventions abroad.
Innovation won't just occur through loans putting more people into debt. Innovation is a phenomenon which is cultivated, not just by money, but also with better use of our human capital and stimulation by the government.
Sebastian Piñera also begins his post emphasizing the need to invest a greater percentage of Chile's GDP in technological and scientific research, but then moves on to globalization:
Today Chile has complete access to the world of development, thanks to the Free Trade Agreements that have been signed with various nations across the planet. Similarly, there is a technological revolution which allows us to break the barriers of the knowledge economy and receive in real time the reality of the world. We must take advantage of and develop those opportunities!
He ends his post by calling out to the youths to help chile abandon the developing world and join the “vehicle of modernity.”
The four presidential candidates have also tackled other issues including foreign relations, access to internet, and a campaign against AIDS. But, from an outsider's view, what is just as incredible as granting completely open, online access to the candidates, is how few Chileans have taken advantage of submitting questions. Most comments are by a handful of people already entrenched in Chile's close-knit blogging community, largely based in the capitol, Santiago.
Chilean blogger, Pehuen is skeptical of the forum's purported success in a post entitled “Chile: Digital Nation or Digital Bubble?,” which suggests that all the hype the Chilean media has given to the growth in online participation doesn't match the actual results. He refers to a news item last Wednesday which proudly declared that more than 15,000 users visited the Presidential Blog Forum, but then points out that, as of Wednesday, only 600 comments had been made which makes for only a 4% level of real participation. A commenter then notes that the great majority of questions were limited to technology even though the forum allows for all types of discussions to take place.
At the popular blogging portal, Atina Chile, reaction to the Presidential Blogger Forum seems to be mixed. Some bloggers say the forum doesn't carry the same feeling of a blog, especially since it disallows the use of pseudonyms while others say they doubt the candidates even read the comments which follow their posts. Still others are enormously thankful that new technologies allow real civic participation in the election process.
For Patricio Navia, Presidential Blog Forum 2005 isn't even the biggest online innovation for this year's election. Rather, he points readers to a joint project by the University of Chicago and University of Chile called Bolsa Electoral, or “Electoral Market” which uses economic toolsets to calculate probabilities of each candidate advancing through the elections. According to the site, frontrunner Michelle Bachelet has about a 75% chance of becoming Chile's next president.
Finally, it is perhaps worth pointing out that the Presidential Blog Forum 2005 website is run by Drupal, an open source content management system which is developed by volunteer programmers from around the globe. If you are interested in watching the candidates debate face to face, they will do exactly that this evening at 10 p.m. Chilean time on Canal 13, which will be simulcast on the internet.