Vote-Buying: Good Democracy vs. Bad Democracy
20 min read

Vote-Buying: Good Democracy vs. Bad Democracy

The recent election in Sarawak, Malaysia has brought the concept of vote buying into the political lexicon once again.

Both during and in the aftermath of the election accusations have abounded of the provision of financial promises in order to guarantee votes particularly by the Sarawak Barisan Nasional through everything from cash gifts to the promise of development projects or welfare incentives, particularly in the rural seats that once again en masse voted for SBN parties.

Vote buying in this context has overwhelmingly negative connotations and forms part of a narrative of the shoring up of a corrupt and authoritarian government in Malaysia. One Channel 4 journalist from the UK, barred from a press event for daring to ask the Prime Minister when he was resigning. was clearly quite scandalised by his witnessing of "vote buying, corruption and intimidation" during his observation of election proceedings.

It is easy today to find condemnation of vote buying in many quarters both in Malaysia and around the world, so much so that the concept itself comes ready packaged with a whole series of insinuations and assumptions. Vote buying is typically assumed an abuse of power, an act of the powerful to hold onto their power, it is associated with authoritarianism and the destruction of democracy and thus the undermining of the power of the people. It is linked with corruption and with personal enrichment and is charged with being a challenge to the ethical fabric on which any society depends. In the end it is seen as an alliance between the powerful and powerless, excluding all other sections of society, in a one sided relationship of dependence which challenges both the rule of law and any possibility of accountability.

Yet whilst all this moral outrage is easy, the very reality of vote buying appears to be completely obscured within this discourse. When confronted by such practices as vote buying what we need more than anything is to understand their complex reality.

Take for example the Wall Street Journal’s accusation of vote-buying in the Sarawak election. Amongst other things they list two state funded charities, Yayasan 1MDB and iM Sarawak as forming part of a general tendency to influence the outcome of the 2016 election through the pouring of cash and resources into Sarawak.

“One of them, Yayasan 1MDB, backed a Malaysian social-development program that recently funded 12 rooftop solar panels in Sungai Labi to power a television and fans in the village community hall here, replacing expensive and smelly diesel generators.“We don’t feel so hot anymore,’’ said village representative Som Batu.That development program, iM Sarawak, has made 1,400 investments in Sarawak ranging from rural firefighting systems to a Real Madrid soccer camp since it was formed in 2013. Such projects are consistent with its social-development mission. But some foreign diplomats and analysts say iM Sarawak was created to help sway the 2016 state election. iM Sarawak said it doesn’t disclose details of its funding and declined to comment further. Yayasan also is sponsoring 150 imams and village officials from Sarawak for a Muslim Haj pilgrimage estimated to cost nearly $400,000. Yayasan, which didn’t reply to a request for comment, has previously sponsored such trips for officials in other states. Mr. Najib said recently the Haj trip was intended to reward these people for their good work and leadership. Others suspect different motives.”

Yet if the outcome of vote buying is the provision of electricity and firefighting systems in rural areas often desperately in need of them, at the very least this has to be differentiated from the other forms of coercion, from violence to threats or the physical rigging of election results, all of which can be seen to remove from voters the very power to decide on their vote. Elements of coercion have certainly been a regular feature in Malaysian elections, yet the linking of such kinds of coercion and the provision and cash and developmental goods, as if both were forms of a monolithic notion of oppression, as if such provision was no different from violent coercion, is problematic.

At the very least if the aim of a government was to coercively win an election, irrespective of the wishes of voters one would have to ask why they would choose such a costly method such as vote buying which necessarily implies the distribution of considerable resources to voters. If vote buying expressed just how little power such individuals have, one would have to ask why candidates would go to such length in order to ensure their vote. Rather what we find in vote buying isn’t simply a one way transaction in which for cash a representative attains power, what we in fact find in a relationship of vote buying is the infiltration of the demands and power of certain voters into the system and their influence on its outcomes, the placing of a limitation on what is possible and what is not possible and the need for rulers to respect their vote. Such a relationship has, I think, to be understood in ways different  to just domination.

To begin with it has to be understood that vote buying isn't simply something innocent and naive rural voters are subjected to. It isn't simply a form of uni-directional exploitation. Vote buying goes both ways, it is as much a tactic of elite groups to affect electoral groups as it is also a tactic and demand of the governed which enables both the acquisition of resources and evidences to them in a very empirical sense the ability and willingness of representatives to protect their interests. As DAP stalwart Tony Pua noted in Sarawak

In rural districts, our campaign teams were peppered with cash requests on a daily basis. "Supporters" turning up for nomination will follow up by camping at our campaign office awaiting their "allowance". You want work done? Pay up. You want PACA? Pay up. You want to campaign at a longhouse? Pay up. You want people to attend ceramah? Pay up. And of course, on the final day, voters were asking how much were we paying for their votes.

As Pua goes on to say he is proud that his candidates avoided entering into such transactions, yet this pride appears to emanate from a set of normative principles which appears abstracted from the real expectations of the political subjects he is discussing.

Secondly we have to question the differentiation between vote-buying and democratic values. Here it becomes necessary to distinguish between on the one hand real democratic practice and on the other the formal ideology of democracy which has emerged in liberal democratic societies. Such a formal ideology of democracy has come to privilege ideas such as the secret individual ballot and the freely given vote. It rallies against what it views as a problematic symptom of democracy, coercion and privileges the ideal of the disinterested and independent voter who votes from conscience and from the intellect and who cannot therefore be bought.

Many points can be made here. Firstly it has to be noted how such ideals are inserted within a much broader division within liberalism itself between the passions and self-interest and the sphere of intellect and reason and the attempt both within the practical and philosophical domains to purge reason of both passion and self-interest which become represented as enabling fanaticism and corruption. Yet the ability to enforce such rigid divisions within real individuals in the actual practice of democracy appears problematic.

Linked to this one has to expose the hidden middle class values which lurk beneath such normative injunctions. The idea of the vote as interest free is an easy proposition for those middle class voters who have greater material security and who often know when voting outside of direct self-interest that their values will be secured by a future government. Interest free voting is more often not a privilege of those whose interests aren’t an existential matter, but to those who live in subsistence economies, whose material interests are directly related to the act of voting and who haven’t the time to think in national terms this privilege isn’t available.

Finally such a normative democratic ideal attempts to tame the very radicality of democratic practice and the freedom of the vote. It sees in this freedom the tendency towards anarchy and corruption, it sees in such freedom the possibility of the tyranny of the majority. Democracy it argues needs fair rules in order to prevent its collapse into its opposite, tyranny. Democracy here requires protection from itself and thus must become not an expression of popular power but both a formal procedure and a mode of governance.

Yet if we move outside of such an normative democratic ideal, can not vote-buying be understood as an expression of democracy in so far as it is a form of the assertion of the power of the masses. Whilst it occurs outside of democratic institutions, outside of middle class understandings of politics and outside of liberal understandings of the neutral and impartial sphere of reason, does it not confirm the power of individuals within an electoral process to use their vote how they wish and to enter into a relationship of bargaining with the political sphere. Thus in the end is it not an example of contestation between the governors and governed and of political practice outside of formal democratic institutions.

In so far as this can be accepted what we require then isn’t a binary opposition between modern liberal democracy and non-normative democratic practices in a division between notions of good and bad democracy but an understanding of the diversity of forces which make up democratic development and practice and which should therefore be understood and not moralised against.

It is here worthwhile to read “Brokers, Voters, and Clientelism: The Puzzle of Distributive Politics” by Susan C. Stokes, Thad Dunning, Marcelo Nazareno, Valeria Brusco and their account of the decline of practices of vote-buying in the United Kingdom and United States. Here we find that there isn’t a sudden normative transition from a corrupt pseudo-democratic regime to the normative regime of liberal democracy nor the gradual realisation of such principles as they overcame tendencies towards corruption and clientelism. Nor was there an equivalent development of liberal democracies in all places.

Rather as they show, there was through the development of an expanded democratic franchise in both the UK and US a functional coherence between practices of corruption and vote-buying and the democratization of political life. Thus Strokes et. al. argue in the UK the passage of the Great Reform Act of 1832 was seen by many contemporaries not as challenging electoral corruption but rather encouraging it. The Act which broadened the franchise and removed the rotten boroughs which had allowed wealthy landowners to literally buy political seats increased electoral competition within seats encouraging rich candidates to buy “not the borough itself, but the voters”. Thus the increase in the power of individual voters was mirrored by the increase in attempts to guarantee their vote. Vote-buying then emerged in great proportions in the years after 1832 and was widespread in British elections until 1880s. As Stokes et. al. then argue what occurred in the period after the 1880s is a transition between two models of mediating the relationship between the voter and the electoral candidate. The first model the “broker-mediated distribution model” relied upon middle men such as election agents in order to influence electoral outcomes. The second model of programmatic politics increasingly relied upon technologies of mass communication in order to affect electoral outcomes. Thus as we find over the period there was a marked shift in election spending away from election agents and bribes and towards printing and advertising costs. In this sense we can trace between vote-buying and modern advertising a common attempt to influence electoral outcomes. Money thus came to be supplanted with information.

What shaped this transition Stokes et. al. argue was dual processes of industrialisation and urbanisation. Such factors steadily over the century induced a series of changes which challenged the nature of vote-buying. In particular such processes induced population growth which increased the size of the electorate to which candidates had to appeal, saw migration to urban areas in which traditional social ties were weakened and anonymity for voters assured and as the century went rising incomes made voters less susceptible to cash inducements. All of these factors made vote buying increasingly expensive and thus increasingly disadvantageous. Thus larger constituencies increased the number of constituents whose votes would have to be bought. Urban anonymity and dislocation made it hard to ensure that a bought vote would be a guaranteed vote, the closed world of the borough allowed a party machinery to monitor voter behaviour and not only buy a vote but ensure that this purchase was fulfilled, whilst a rise in living standards made people increasingly less susceptible to the promise of short terms gains. As Stokes et. al. then argue as the century went on vote-buying was increasingly unable to buy votes so much as “buy some probability of a vote”, a less valuable commodity, and as anonymity and the secret ballot developed voters increasingly became able to take money and bribes from multiple agents. Thus as costs increased and benefits reduced they argue the idea of programmatic politics seemed more attractive to the political class.

In tandem with this Stokes et. al. note a corresponding decline in the cost of mass communication with the explosion of newspapers, print journalism and mass literacy. Thus as party leaders came to realise “the epoch of aristocratic, and even of middle class, influence was passing rapidly and that the new mass electorate, through increased education and a cheap press, would become politically free and independent in a sense that their predecessors would not have thought possible”.

Yet if the British example outlines a gradual decline in vote-buying, in American politics they identify the persistence of practices of clientelism and vote-buying well into the 20th century. In part they argue because of the different affect of industrialisation on American society. Thus vote-buying continued to operate in the US within the modern welfare institutions which remained riddled with patrimonial relations. In particular as Stokes et al. argue important factors were “high poverty rates, large numbers of voters populating immigrants communities, and the institutional setting” which weakened the political will of the political class to confront vote-buying.

In this sense we find that differential and uneven models of modernization affected the relationship between the ideal of liberal democracy and the real lived practices of democracy. One could point towards Britain as an ideal type of electoral development in which urbanization, higher income and population occurred over the 19th century in tandem and thus produced a relatively stable and neutral modern political sphere, which never the lass clung firm to other archaisms, particularly hereditary representation and the monarchy. Yet such an ideal type was not the experience of many other democracies however developed. The example of America shows this, but onee could equally talk of the development of democracy in France and Italy which even up until the present day are renowned for significant levels of electoral corruption. Modernity here proves itself not simply to be linear but to develop alongside itself counteracting tendencies and thus against the norm of liberal democracy a whole series of exceptions to the model the world over have emerged.

When vote-buying is thus confronted with the normative ideal of liberal democracy it becomes hard to identify where such an ideal is itself in practice. As Partha Chatterjee has argued in a similar context when faced with such a piling up of exceptions perhaps the answer is not to cling onto such a normative ideal, but to depose it. Similarly when faced with such a piling up of exceptions to the liberal democratic ideal perhaps what is needed is to bring into question this ideal and to learn to continue the practice of democracy outside of its confines.

In Malaysia, similar to the analysis of the UK and US in Stokes et. al. you could also talk of the development of democratic practices as occurring within an uneven mode of modernization. Liberal democratic governance which was constitutionally enshrined at Merdeka has in practice been undermined and obscured. This relates to the very nature of Malaysia’s capitalist development which simultaneously combined a modern and developed democratic state apparatus with a relatively underdeveloped (in a certain sense deliberately so) economic base. As such the state in the post-Colonial period had its task not only democratic governance but also the direct intervention in the economic sphere in order to organise production. Thus because of the nature of the colonial economy, which was not organised towards free production but towards production in favour of the colonial power and thus produced a structured market the state played a key role in the distribution of resources and development. As such economic issues came to dominate democratic decision making.

With the events around May 13th 1969 and the development of the New Economic Policy processes of state centralisation and economic development became key considerations. In opposition to the federal government both at the national level and at the state level the BN coalition proposed a policy of both national integration and economic development in an attempt to cement their power. Thus a national Malaysian identity was increasingly emphasised through the Rukunegara and economic development was now to be expanded to include the rural mainly Malay masses occurred through direct state action in particular to increase the power of the Malay middle classes and Malay elite in the economy. For democracy the outcome was two fold, on the one hand in the aftermath of May 13th local democracy was increasingly curtailed and later abolished, increasing the role of the central government whilst simultaneously the role of the executive in the economy increased through more direct intervention in economic planning, increased connections between politics and business, and through emphasising the role of economic development in the process of nation-building. Thus through a series of scandals during the 1970s and 1980s executive power increasingly centralised as the executive assumed dominance over the judicial branch, over the police and over parliament principally through the practice of money politics. In this sense in spite of developed democratic institutions, a market economy and a modern state apparatus the very dynamic of Malaysian modernization curtailed the maintenance of liberal democracy. If all Malaysians at Merdeka were given the vote and equal citizenship this was increasingly counteracted on the basis of economic demands.

Thus unlike the British model where modernization through a growing population, growing income and urbanization necessitated electoral reform, in Malaysia where all such elements were present there was produced a highly uneven electoral democracy in which practices of vote buying and clientelism continued to operate.

Yet whilst the tendency of many is to oppose such a centralization of executive power and money politics to democratic practice, seeing an either/or distinction between the two, is it not worth reading the way in which the exist alongside one another and thus the ways in which democratic resistances and popular power still infiltrate the sphere of money politics and the way in which money politics relies itself upon the participation of democratic masses?

In Malaysia for example a great fatalism reigns over the possibility to produce reform through electoral politics. One often hears in reference to practices of vote buying the idea that democracy is itself extinguished and results are perfectly tied up in advance such that even when a majority of the vote is attained, the possibility of really assuming power appears always already denied. Yet as Stokes et. al. argue money politics itself is neither a historical given nor external to democratic practice, it rather develops in relation to democracy and is subject to a whole series of pressures and forces which governs its development. It can also be argued that vote buying isn’t anti-thetical to democratic politics but is one of its expressions.

In this sense it might be worth not simply denouncing vote-buying but rather investigating the processes within which it takes place. To denounce it is to wish that one were practicing politics on a different field and with different rules. But one is not, politics has to be practiced in the spaces in which it finds itself in, and current realities cannot be wished away. More useful then would be to consider on the one hand the limitations within contemporary processes of executive power and centralization which enable the entry of democratic demands into the sphere of elite politics and on the other hand the possibilities within regimes of patronage politics and money politics, and their tendency towards change and crisis in order to think how other forms of political practice can occur.

It would be worth then investigating how patronage regimes can experience political reform.

Here it would be worth looking for lessons in the politics of West Bengal and in particular the transition from the remarkably stable rule of the Left Front coalition, led by the CPM (Communist Party of India (Marxist)) to the rule of the Trinamool Congress. The Left Front’s rule, which was seen as remarkably stable and sustained by a whole series of patronage relations and money politics, was for a very long period viewed impervious to electoral opposition. And yet by 2011, after years of sustained losses, the Left Front finally fell to a party which sought to challenge its very form of rule and thus for the first time since 1977, in West Bengal a new party was in charge.

As Kheya Bag has argued, it was key reforms made in the early years of the Left Front government, in particular those in relation to land reform and the democratization of the Panchayat system which provided the Left Front and in particular the CPM with a strong rural base, and made CPM cadres fundamental points of mediation between different sectoral and regional interests. (In this sense then similar to the example of the UK by Stokes et. al. patronage flourished on the basis of democratization and not In opposition to it). Thus as Bag argues:

“The political payoff for the CPM was the creation of a highly effective rural apparatus, an electoral machine perhaps unmatched elsewhere in the world. Contesting three different sets of elections—local, provincial, national—each staggered a few years apart, full-time CPM members were regularly engaged in brokering the needs of their electoral base in exchange for votes. Traditional factionalism and clientelism played a part in the panchayats, as branches of West Bengal’s vote-bank. Local leaders often disbursed land and aid amongst their own dol—their circle of kin, caste and economic dependents—just as in other parts of India. On the other hand, the Panchayati Raj made local power-brokerage participatory: support had to be courted from those who had previously been excluded from any decision-making, while party membership became a relatively meritocratic sorting device for distributions among the poor. In conditions of scarce resources, the panchayats stood in the middle of a pyramidal system of patronage, with Alimuddin Street, the CPM’s HQ, at the apex.”

It was therefore on the basis of such a system of mediations that the CPM was enable to ensure its electoral support and maintain a loyal rural vote bank, within a frame work of electoral democracy. And whilst from 1977 its vote as a percentage of total votes dropped the nature of the first past the post system ensured that it maintained healthy electoral majorities on the basis of its control of rural seats. Thus by 2001, even inspite of the emergence of the challenge of the Trinamool Congress the Left Front continued to take 37% of the vote and 143 / 294 seats allowing for its Left Front coalition to maintain a formidable majority in the West Bengal legislature. The Trinamool Congress attaining 30% of the vote managed only 60 seats. As Bag argued in this election:

 "The electoral edifice constructed by Basu and Dasgupta—panchayat patronage in the countryside, bureaucratic prebends and union kickbacks in the cities, vote blocks of Left Front junior partners in the hill regions—was apparently still intact.”

Yet after 2001 there emerged a period of “complacency and crisis” for the Left Front. Demands for development from various sectors merged with entrenched networks of graft and corruption to accelerate business development projects through methods such as coercive slum clearances and land grabs. In events at Singur and later Nandigram the Left Front government sought to force through industrial development polices and Free Trade Zones against the resistance of local groups. Such events saw Left Front cadres and supporters leave the coalition as the state government increasingly violently confronted by local opposition both of which allowed for the opposition Trinamool Congress to gain ground.

After such events the Left Front increasingly appeared less as a paternalistic government and appeared more defined by its naked use of force and repression of rural populations. Taking for granted its rural base, it began a process which alienated much of this base. Thus in 2008 the Trinamool Congress took the districts of Nandigram and Singur on the basis of this growing disaffection and in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections they spread their influence across the state. By the 2011 elections the Trinamool Congress seized power and the Left Front, which had previously appeared unshakable in West Bengal was no longer in government. In the 2016 West Bengal Elections the Left Front Coalition in league with the Indian National Congress lost a further 28 seats as the Trinamool Congress cemented its control over West Bengal, not without opposition however.

Yet one important question to ask in the case of West Bengal is how we are to conceptualise and understand such a radical overturning of existing relations of patronage and dependency. How could such a regime renowned for its stability, in a matter of years alienate its rural base and see itself out of government.

As Partha Chatterjee, writing in advance of the fall of the Left Front government noted, studies between 2003-2006 began to focus upon the question of “What explains the extraordinary stability of the Left Front’s rule in West Bengal?” identifying institutional effectiveness and clientelism as key factors in the maintainence of the Left Front’s base. Yet as Chatterjee identified, after the violence of Nandigram and the Left Front’s losses in panchayat elections could it be possible to explain the emerging crisis in West Bengal which later saw the Trinamool Congress ascend to power, through these previous factors of stability.

As Chatterjee noted Left Front rule in West Bengal functioned on two different levels. At one level there is the Left Front coalition itself. It has formed and maintained a consociational coalition which represents a large swathe of West Bengali society, it derives its power not from property ownership or caste privilege but from its paternalistic promise to ensure the security and properity of West Bengal’s rural poor. Through its reforms to land and the panchayat system it intervened through electoral democracy but also outside of this, acting as a mediator between a variety of economic and social interests. The Left Front in this sense represented itself (much in the same way as the Barisan Nasional of Malaysia) as the provider of stability, prosperity and security within West Bengal. Yet at the other level the Left Front was involved in what Chatterjee terms “the management of illegalities” and in particular negotiations with local groups who have utilised violence or more importantly the threat of violence to influence the Left Front’s governing apparatus. As Chatterjee argues whilst at the level of the state the Left Front was dominant at the local level the distribution of power was far much more diffuse and differentiated. The management of illegalities, popular pressures and violence through processes of negotiation was thus one of the key ways in which the Left Front was able to produce stability and reproduce the image of itself as the representative of order and prosperity.

It was then Chatterjee argued, the decline in the ability of the Left Front to manage these processes and a growing distrust amongst the subjects of Left Front rule weakened their ability to co-opt large swathes of rural West Bengal and which would he correctly predicted spell the end of Left Front rule.

In this sense Chatterjee was arguing two things, firstly that the prolonged stability of Left Front rule was based upon a series of mediations and negotiations which required such stability to be continuously reproduced. Secondly that it was changes in these processes of mediation and negotiation which allowed for the electoral defeat of the Left Front in 2011. Thus it wasn’t changes from without or the imposition of new legal or electoral rules nor merely other external forces. It was on the basis of forces which had enabled the prolonged stability of Left Front rule which later enabled its collapse. The conditions of its end were present all along.

For observers of Malaysian politics the example of West Bengal doesn’t allow for direct comparison. In West Bengal for example the panchayat system has allowed for the greater penetration of democracy at local levels, in Malaysia local government has since 1969 been suppressed and curtailed by central government. Yet nevertheless the combination of consociational coalition government, patronage relations and a skewed electoral geography ensure that comparative lessons can be learned, in particular in the way in which seemingly impenetrable and stable regimes can be subject to challenge.

Following Chatterjee’s analysis the task would then be to investigate whether or not within the very processes which produce stability it is possible to identify forces which undermine or challenge such stability, which entail the production of other systems or political forms. What Foucault would term archaeology. It is in this sense worth turning our eyes as Chatterjee does both to the dynamics of elite relations and also to the forms of negotiation between the formal spheres of politics and government and the management of illegalities, popular pressure and violence in order to understand their potentiality to function otherwise.

In Malaysia for example vote buying is one such example of both elite relations and the management of illegality, and yet it is itself subject to a series of pressures governing its successful functioning. In particular here is the importance of the availability of finance and the ability of the existing BN coalition to convince those voters of the worth of its patronage.

Yet the management of popular pressures and the use of violence would also be important to interpret. In particular the growth of forms of violence such as the firebombing of churches or the red shirts protests which seek to remind the ruling coalition of their responsibilities. Rural challenges to development projects or consstruction projects, even to migrant labour or the management of FELDA settlements or urban protests by taxi drivers or against GST, or the TPPA or housing relocation programmes also highlight challenges to the hegemony of the BN coalition, and areas in which the government has to fight to maintain its power.

There are then it is worth noting in Malaysia a whole series of points at which stability is reproduced and prolonged and these points are themselves sites of contestations in which processes of mediation and negotiation are continuously ongoing. Whether or not there is a growing distrust is one thing, but challenges certainly exist.

Historically in Malaysia the ruling coalition has been successful at managing and overcoming challenges to its rule encompasing everything from elite conflicts to mass protest movements and popular violence through processes of negotiation and co-optation, but this is not to say that these processes are impervious to change or challenge. They are in fact the site at which any meaningful challenge would have to take place.

The point is then be not to turn away from practices such as vote buying in moralistic indignation but to more fully understand their operation within the democratic process itself.