(CN) — Europe has become a laboratory for a new type of politics: The rise of the “digital party,” whose members choose candidates, vote on policy positions and offer ideas through online platforms.
Call it digital disruption moving into the sphere of politics. Just as newspapers are being zapped by Google and Facebook and taxis put out of business by Uber, the old political order in Europe is challenged by a new breed of politics calling itself democracy fit for the social media age. Nothing similar is taking place in the United States, political scientists say.
The influence of digital parties is real, and gaining a foothold in Europe’s political world where a potpourri of parties face off in elections and, if they gain enough votes, are given a portion of seats in parliaments.
Italy’s 5-Star Movement is Europe’s most successful digital party. It is now Italy’s biggest party and heads the government. Its politicians, who often appear clad in casual clothes rather than business suits, are in the highest positions of power. Italy’s offices of deputy prime minister, defense, justice, labor, economic development, environment, education and health, among others, are all held by 5-Star members.
Europe’s other major digital party is in Spain. It is called Podemos (We Can) and its members and affiliated politicians hold 67 seats in Spain's congress and 19 seats in the Senate. This makes it Spain's third-largest party. Spain’s Socialist minority government relies on their votes.
But it’s a messy and controversial way of practicing democracy still in an embryonic stage, and so far it has come with mixed results — both in terms of electoral success and reviving democracy.
The digital party is, in fact, not a brand new phenomenon. The first digital party was born in 2006 in Sweden and called itself the Pirate Party. It was founded by internet activists upset at a judicial ruling that shut down the file-sharing service known as Pirate Bay.
Using a platform called LiquidFeedback, the Pirate Party expanded to other Northern European countries. They advocated for government transparency, digital rights and online privacy. Pirate parties are still around today, largely on the fringes, with the exceptions being Iceland and the Czech Republic.
So far, Europe’s digital parties have emerged only on the left, where their influence is growing. Britain's Labour Party recently created an online platform, called My Momentum, where members can engage in party decision-making. In France, a nascent far-left party known as France Insoumise (Unbowed France) is also using a participatory online platform.
“I think these parties prefigure an emerging template that all democratic parties will need to adapt to. It is a format far more able to capture current feelings,” said Paolo Gerbaudo, a political sociologist at King’s College London, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News. He is the author of a new book, “The Digital Party.”
Political scientists, though, warn that these new parties — nimble, streamlined and fast-growing in a similar fashion to digital commercial start-ups — are not living up to their ideals of fostering an improved, and more participatory, democracy, and say they are creating new conundrums and problems.
Both Podemos and the 5-Star Movement, for instance, have been criticized for creating “superleaders” who manipulate the technology to bolster their own views and positions in the parties.
What makes a digital party different from a traditional one?
First and foremost, the use of digital technology, through which members discuss and debate issues, vote on candidates and policy decisions, and offer ideas for new laws: a political version of crowdsourcing.
Their big selling point, supporters say, is how they bring people into politics in a real way — forging a new political dynamic where people and not politicians are in charge. This is done through online platforms. The 5-Star Movement has a system called Rousseau (named after the 18th century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an early advocate of direct democracy) and Podemos has a platform called Participa.