Why do we have poster wars?

AUG 16 — In Waterloo, which is about 20 minutes to the south of the central business district of Sydney, a man in his mid-30s approached me. He offered me a leaflet. The leaflet more or less says “Vote Liberal.” Although I cannot vote in the upcoming Australian federal election, I accepted the leaflet out of curiosity. Apart from that, it has been quiet here in Australia despite the election being just less than a week away.

Let me rephrase that and stress what actually interests me. I do not see too many posters around.

A question lingers in my head. Why is that so?

Without access to newspapers, television and the Internet, it would take an effort to realise that Australia is in its campaigning period. The atmosphere in the streets and in the city right now is no different from any other typical day. People just mind their business, as if the upcoming election is a minor distraction.

Contract that to Malaysian elections. Election time is always carnival-like in Malaysia. It is noisy and it is colourful. Loud speeches will blare into the night. More strikingly is the poster war. Colours representing major political parties will decorate the streets. Once it is election time, you will know it, even if you are apolitical.

Some Australian friends of mine try to explain this phenomenon to me by stating that Australian politics is boring. It is really a contest between two uncharismatic politicians representing two unexciting political parties, they say. Australians are not entirely excited about it. On top of that, I live in a safe seat for Labor. There is little contest to be expected. In other words, the level of excitement translates into a poster war, or lack of it.

That explanation does not explain my experience in the United States. I lived in Ann Arbor during the 2004 presidential election. It is an overwhelmingly Democrat town. I do not remember seeing too many posters hung in public places but the election was still electrifying.

One may expect infrastructure to have some part in causing poster wars. If the communication infrastructure like television and radio is unable to relay messages, posters are effective for the job.

Now, the US and arguably Australia have a more developed communication infrastructure than Malaysia. As far as Kuala Lumpur is concerned, the level is comparable. Yet, if one wants to witness a poster war, the Malaysian capital is the place to be. Or compare Kuala Lumpur with some rural area like Ijok.

If infrastructure was an issue, Kuala Lumpur should experience less of a poster war compared to other places. In fact, there were poster wars everywhere in most previous Malaysian elections that I care to remember. Thus, the state of infrastructure does not provide a satisfactory explanation.

Being a libertarian, I find it inevitable to eventually resort to a libertarian explanation and I think it explains the phenomenon of poster war better than others do.

The libertarian explanation goes like this. Non-Barisan Nasional parties face restrictions in terms of access to the mainstream media. The restrictions naturally encourage individuals and parties to look for alternative avenues to spread their political messages or to introduce their candidates to voters. Posters and the Internet are two avenues relatively free of restrictions in Malaysia.

In Australia and the US, all parties have considerable access to the mainstream media. Thus, there is less need for a poster war.

This may be useful in addressing the problem of a poster war. On the whole a poster war can be entertaining, more often than not those who participate in it tend to overdo it. When you are looking at a road sign for direction and you read “go right for Barisan Nasional or go left of Pakatan Rakyat” instead of KLCC or Bukit Bintang, you know somebody is being overzealous about those posters.

With fewer restrictions to access or even entry into the mainstream media, the problem of too many posters may be solved without resorting to more rules and regulations.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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