Net Election

The Campaign in Spain

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

{{Slate’s Political Roundup#73099}}

From our insular perspective, it’s easy to think that this year’s presidential election is the only vote in 2000. In fact, according to this Web site, 42 national elections are currently slated to take place before Americans go to the polls Nov. 7. In some of these countries, there simply aren’t enough citizens with access to computers and the Internet to make the Net relevant as a campaign tool. But in the relatively well-wired nations of Europe, the Web is playing a role. And their Net elections look very different from ours.

March 12 is Election Day in Spain. According to the Computer Industry Almanac, Spain has 3 million Internet users, making it the 15th most wired nation in the world (the United States is the leader with 111 million). Although the Spanish race is officially in its “pre-campaign” stage until Feb. 25, the three leading parties—the rightist Popular Party, the Socialist Party (known by its Spanish acronym, PSOE), and the Communist-led United Left (IU)—have revved up their Web sites for the campaign. The Popular Party has been in power since 1996, but the socialists, who ruled from 1982-96, recently signed a cooperation pact with the Communists, making this year’s election an old-fashioned battle between right and left. It’s a close race: A poll in the Feb. 14 edition of El País showed the Popular Party with 41.6 percent support and the socialists with 37.3.

The party Web sites are big on cool animation—the opening screen on the Socialist Party’s home page shows its red rose symbol being formed from multiple instances of the word “PSOE” (though the tinny music that follows is maddeningly reminiscent of a cable-access TV theme tune); the Popular Party’s introduction takes forever to load and inexplicably features pinball-machine sound effects; and the United Left site is so loaded down with Shockwave (the software that enables all those fancy animated effects) that performance sometimes slows to a crawl when connected by modem. Nevertheless, the United Left takes the prize for coolest graphics—the Commies might have won the Cold War with mouse-over effects and color coordination like this.

The Web gurus seem to have blown their budgets on presentation, though. Beyond aesthetics, the sites offer remarkably similar, remarkably dull packages of information with very little interactivity—aside from a bulletin board on the Popular Party site, one-way e-mail links are the extent of it. All the sites highlight their presidential candidate and campaign slogan—Joaquín Almunia and España Como Tú La Harías (Spain as You’d Make It) for the socialists (this slogan is soon to be replaced with Lo Próximo–The Next Step), Francisco Frutos and Tú Eres Necesario/a (You’re Needed) for the Communists, President José María Aznar and Vamos a Más (We’re Going Further) for the Popular Party. All feature news alerts, candidate schedules, and party manifestos. The Popular Party’s electoral program isn’t yet available, despite the fact that it set the date of the election!

Political statements tend to be much more vague than the American candidates’ proclamations—broad comments about topics such as education, the environment, women’s issues, and technological progress take the place of detailed positions on ethanol subsidies. Still, the Web sites offer a glimpse of pandering, European style. The United Left, for instance, explains its plans to “cut the work week to 35 hours without a salary reduction,” and the Socialist Party promises to provide a tree for every city resident.

What’s most remarkable is what’s missing from all the sites when compared with their American counterparts: endorsements, appeals for money and volunteers, and the marketing of campaign tchotchkes. When the parties do ask for support, the requests tend to be extraordinarily indirect and buried. PSOE’s big pitch? “The Socialist Party needs to count not only on your opinions but also on the work and support of many other citizens, and this need is even more urgent during the electoral campaign. If you wish to and you think that you could work with us, you can send a message to … ” The Popular Party’s appeal?  “As you well know, the Popular Party has its doors open to receive whatever contribution you wish to make to the common project in which we are all needed. … We await your suggestions, your concerns, and your help in whatever form.”  Quite a contrast with the incessant, aggressive pop-up pitches that are an integral part of most of the U.S. candidates’ sites. The Spanish parties omit contribution requests because the campaigns are financed with public funds.

The current crop of Spanish political Web sites are really just advanced billboards for party policies, signposts for where to find candidates on the campaign trail, and old-fashioned propaganda repositories. They’re not less crass than their American counterparts, just duller and less inventive. They’re about where we were four years ago: more like than