Vote buying: not only in PH
Every election in the Philippines, vote-buying always comes up as a major concern, a chronic plague that perennially shakes our faith in the integrity of the electoral process and democracy itself. But as we lament—or contemplate—this predicament, it is insightful to consider that we are not alone in our suffering. In this essay I survey some vote-buying practices around the world and draw some insights that may be useful for our national experience.
Vote-buying is actually as old as democracy itself. Even in ancient Greece—the traditional birthplace of democracy—vote-buying was already practiced, and the same can be said of the Roman republic. (Interestingly, the Latin term for vote-buying, ambitus, has the same etymology as “ambition.”) Today it is a well-documented fact that the Mafia continues to undermine elections in Italy through vote-buying.
In the United Kingdom, vote-buying became rampant in the middle part of the 19th century, following the enactment of universal suffrage in 1832. Yale scholar Susan Stokes writes that in 1835, “14 pounds were paid per vote in a hotly-contested election” in one district. She adds that vote-buying was later mediated by electoral agents, who bribed voters in behalf of their politician-clients.
In the United States, too, vote-buying was common practice until the early 20th century. In 1887, one-fifth of New York voters received money for their votes; and in 1912, one-fourth of the voters of Adams County, Ohio, were bribed. As in the United Kingdom, vote-buying “machines” made a living out of elections, serving as the middlemen between candidates and voters.
Closer to home, vote-buying has also been reported in almost all of our Southeast Asian neighbors. In the 2012 elections in Thailand, one election observer reported that “the current rate in Chonburi starts at 300 baht (around $10) and goes up to as much as 3,000 baht ($100).” In Indonesia, vote-buying is known as politik uang (literally “money politics”) and a 2014 survey showed that four out of 10 Indonesians actually believe that it is acceptable for politicians to hand out cash and commodities like rice, oil and sugar as part of campaigning.
This brings us to the point that vote-buying does not involve money alone. In Taiwan, the custom of visitors giving something to their hosts collides (or coincides) with politicians’ campaigns, but in this context, gifts—not money—are given. In other cases, cash is given, but not to pay for votes, but for services such as acting as “canvassers” for parties, winning people’s loyalties (and votes) in what scholars call “indirect vote buying.”
Others have taken this idea further by asking whether making campaign promises to certain groups—i.e., a pledge to informal settlers that they will not be evicted—also constitutes a bribe. Does it? In some countries, election laws stipulate that bribes can come in the form of gifts or promises. But where to draw the line between electoral bribery and legitimate campaigning remains a challenge for many countries, including our own.
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Having established the global prevalence of vote-buying, the point of this exercise is not to find comfort in having company in our misery. There are also many examples of democracies that have overcome vote-buying, and we can learn from their experiences.
One important lesson is that ballot secrecy plays a huge role in reducing votes. In the United States, law scholar Richard Hasen attributes the significant decline in vote-buying to the secrecy of the ballot— which only became customary in the 1880s through the 1890s—given the difficulty among vote-buyers in determining whether they got what they paid for. The same can be said in Argentina, where a 1912 law introducing secret balloting marked a significant decline in vote-buying. But in the Philippines, while ballots are supposed to be secret, operators continue to find ways to make sure they get their money’s worth—and examining these practices is key to understanding how vote-buying persists.
Electoral reforms in general have mixed results. When Thailand promulgated a new constitution in 1997 with provisions such as controls on campaign spending, the introduction of a party-list system, and an independent body to administer elections, vote-buying simply took more subtle forms. The Thai experience resonates with our own electoral system, where well-crafted laws are undermined by poor implementation.
On the other hand, specific interventions such as voter education campaigns can have an impact. For instance, leaflets in Sao Tome and Principe, an island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, urging voters to “vote with their conscience” were demonstrated to reduce vote-buying.
Interestingly, scholars also make the observation that vote-buying generally declines with the decrease of poverty and social inequity, and the growth of the middle class. One way of explaining this is that as people get richer, the marginal utility of a bribe decreases, and votes get more expensive. Doubtless, education, too, plays a role, as well as many other interconnected factors that come with socioeconomic development.
The cynic may ask: How can we achieve this kind of socioeconomic development if it’s our corrupt political system that’s holding us back? On the other hand, the modest gains in our economy—and the decline of electoral corruption in other countries—should offer hope that vote-buying, no matter how rampant, can actually be put to an end.
The challenge is for us to make this happen sooner than later.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Visit his website on health, culture and society at www.gideonlasco.com.
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