BANGKOK, Thailand — Across Asia’s rickety democracies, there is at least one season when the poor can trust politicians to visit their villages and share the spoils of power.
That would be the weeks leading up to election day.
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Since the rise of democracies over dictatorships in Southeast Asia, clean election advocates have tried everything to convince villagers of their votes’ sanctity. A Filipino archbishop once urged voters to “take the bait but not the hook”: pocket the cash, if you must, but vote with your heart.
But while vote buying is illegal throughout the region, pre-election handouts of cash and gifts remain endemic in many parts of Asia. Enforcers once forced voters to use carbon paper in the booth to prove they’d ticked the right box. Now they demand mobile phone snapshots of ballots, a practice that triggered a phone ban in Thailand’s polling stations.
Why are voters who can afford camera phones willing to sell their vote for $10 — the Asia Foundation’s estimated average price per vote in Thailand’s July elections?
The answer eludes reformists who have long hoped rising incomes across Asia would erode the practice. Instead, experts believe the price per vote is going up and vote-buying methods are only growing more sophisticated.
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In the Philippines, villages that once received less than $5 per vote can now hope for up to $200 if competition drives political rivals to splurge. Even in China, state media reports that communist officials who once doled out $2 per vote in intra-party village elections now must spend more than $100.
The most recent pushback against vote buying comes from Malaysia where, in early July, Kuala Lumpur police unleashed tear gas and water cannons on protesters calling themselves “Bersih,” the Malay word for “clean.” Elections in Malaysia are anything but, according to activists leading the 20,000 demonstrators.
This filthy perception of vote buying is often not shared by the poor, said Frederic C. Schaffer, a University of Massachusetts political scientist and author of “Elections for Sale: The Causes and Consequences of Vote Buying.”
Many in Asia’s laboring classes view politicians’ handouts as “part of a gift-giving culture,” Schaffer said. “It’s expected that, if you come to someone’s house, or if you’re a politician coming to their neighborhood, you arrive bearing gifts.”
“Politicians will distribute food and money and won’t explicitly ask for votes in exchange,” Schaffer said. “But it’s effective in creating a sense of obligation. In the
voters’ eyes, this is often a gesture of caring, a concrete gesture that treats them with dignity.”
He cited the example of a reform-minded Taiwanese politician whose family regarded his refusal to buy votes as unbelievably rude. “They were humiliated,” Schaffer said. “He finally had to hand out gifts because of the intense pressure.”
Far from a simple exchange of cash for votes, buying elections is an evolving art form in Asia. Known techniques include:
The payout: Compensation is passed out with an explicit message — I’m paying you to vote for me — or just to ingratiate voters to the politician.
Payouts can include cash, livestock or even booze. One candidate famously enamored himself to voters by offering a half-gallon of “bumbo” — spiced wine — to every man at a campaign event. The year was 1758 and the candidate’s name was George Washington, later elected as the first U.S. president.
The vote void: Voters in a district leaning towards a rival politician are paid to disqualify themselves.
The most common method involves exchanging cash for an identification card required at the polling station. In the Philippines, as well as Mexico and Venezuela, party workers have forced villagers to stain their fingers with ink, the mark signifying a person has already voted.
The reverse pork barrell: Precincts are warned that voting against the ruling party will brand them as disloyal and halt construction of roads, schools or dams.
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Frustration with this tactic has helped fuel the clean politics uprising in Malaysia, said Wong Chin Huat, a political scientist with Monash University in Kuala Lumpur. “When you vote in a lawmaker, it’s often not about making law but directing where the budget goes,” he said. “If there’s a way to find out who someone voted for, and that’s used against them, then that’s wrong.”
The offer you can't refuse: The payout paired with a threat. I paid for your vote. You’ll pay if you don’t deliver it.
Political parties who buy votes are often in league with gangsters, Schaffer said, because they need to shore up loads of off-the-books cash to buy votes. They frequently post enforcers outside polling stations to scare voters into honoring their agreement. In the most recent Thai election, a number of voters surveyed by the Asia Foundation were convinced thugs could somehow find out how they voted despite strict privacy rules.
Gangsters allied to rival political parties also may threaten or kill each others’ foot soldiers. As with many other elections in Thailand, July polls saw the gunning down of at least five “canvassers,” political lackeys often tasked with bribing voters. And in the Philippines, police often notice a spike in kidnapping-for-ransom crimes before elections, presumably to raise funds.
Powerball politics: A political party subsidizes an underground lottery promising absurd odds if their candidate wins the election. If a $1 bet promises a $10 return, for example, gamblers will place big bets and urge friends to vote for whoever can deliver the winnings. This technique is somewhat rare, said Schaffer, who has documented it in Taiwan and Thailand.
The Tasmanian Dodge: When paid-off voters arrive to the polls, a party minion hands over a ballot already filled in. The voter submits it and collects a clean ballot for the minion. The minion then fills in the ballot and hands it to the next paid-off voter and so on. This method of ensuring compliance is known as “telegraphing” in Cambodia and “lanzadera” (Spanish for shuttle) in the Philippines, Schaffer said. It was known as the “Tasmanian Dodge” in Australia and the U.S. during the unruly 1800s.
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Even the most dedicated election reformists concede that vote buying is extremely difficult to erase. Still, Malaysia’s politics have become so corrupt, Chin Huat said, that the Bersih movement is gaining inertia.
“If we convince enough people to take electoral reform seriously, and the government refuses to do anything, we’ll change the government,” he said. “Shape up or get ready to be shipped out.”
In Thailand, the very levels of society lambasted for selling votes — the laboring class — is at odds over the morality of vote buying. Some defiantly claim to take the worm but not the hook. But some anti-establishment activists have aggressively equated vote sellers to “slaves.”
But in any Asian society in which votes are bought, the desires of the poor will be distorted, Schaffer said. “The effect is we don’t know what the poor want,” he said.
“Their voice has been erased by the fact that their votes are bought.”