The middle class, voter education, and vote buying
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The middle class, voter education, and vote buying

Frederic Charles Schaffer wrote a paper entitled “Clean Elections and the Great Unwashed Vote Buying and Voter Education in the Philippines” in 2005 which looks at vote buying principally in the Philippines, but also takes a comparative approach particularly in review of literature. Below are some relevant excerpts:

We must be careful, of course, not to overstate the role of civic education in generating this indifference to, or suspicion of, democracy. It is, after all, nearly impossible to measure directly and accurately the impact of voter education campaigns on the value that poor people attach to democracy; there are too many other factors that also shape opinion. Indeed, the small injuries of class inflicted by individual voter education advertisements may be of little consequence on their own. But repeated many times over, and combined with other injuries of class, these edu- cation materials may well be eroding the commitment of the poor to democracy in their own small but diffuse ways.

Election watchdog groups, public-minded corporations, government election bodies, reformist political parties, and other civic educators sometimes try to clean up dirty electoral practices by teaching ordinary voters to change their behavior.

Among the behaviors that civic educators around the world single out for reform, vote buying appears to be the most common, perhaps because educators believe it to be particularly amenable to change, and perhaps too because it is so widespread.

Credible reports of vote buying have come from all regions of the globe, and in many countries the scale of this practice has been mas- sive. In the Philippines, an estimated three million people nationwide were offered some form of payment in the 2002 barangay (community level) elections—about seven percent of all voting aged adults (Social Weather Stations 2002). In Thailand, thirty percent of household heads sur- veyed in a national sample said that they were offered money during the 1996 general election (Pasuk et al. 2000). In Taiwan’s third largest city, Taichung, and its surrounding county, twen- ty-seven percent of a random sample of eligible voters reported in 1999 that they accepted cash during electoral campaigns past (Cheng, Wang, and Chen 2000). In the Armenian city of Yerevan, seventy-five percent of a random sample of citizens reported that an electoral bribe had been offered to them, their friends, or their relatives during the 2003 parliamentary elections (Transparency International Armenia 2003). In Brazil, an estimated six million people nation-wide were offered money for their votes in the 2000 municipal elections, about six percent of all voting aged adults (Speck and Abramo 2001). In Mexico, a national post-election survey found that about fifteen percent of respondents reported receiving from a party either a gift or assis- tance (Cornelius 2004, 50-52). While these numbers—all derived from mass surveys—must be treated with care, they do provide a conservative, if rough, gauge of just how widespread the practice is in certain countries.

In Thailand, voter education campaigns also produced unintended consequences. During the 1995 election, for instance, public service ads inspired the very behaviors they were trying to discourage—in schoolchildren no less. One observer explained: To promote the elections, mock polls were organized in many schools. But in one primary school there were unexpected results: “one team bribed the others with candy, while another straightfowardly stuffed papers with their candidate numbers into the hands of younger pupils.” This was not seen as a natural thing for Thais to do. Rather, as the assistant principal told the press, it was the prod- uct of modern media culture: “They did not know they were doing anything wrong. They saw anti-vote-buying advertisements on TV but did not get the whole message. They thought bribery might help them win, so here we got plenty of candy today” (Callahan 2000, 133).

Interestingly, it is the middle class in Thailand that most actively works to promote clean elections. Pollwatch, by far the largest pollwatching group in the country, draws most of its vol- unteers from this class: one survey found that sixty-four percent of PollWatch volunteers in the 1992 election belonged to the middle class (LoGerfo 2000, 228-29). Indeed PollWatch prefers to recruit its members from the middle class. As one scholar observed during the 1995 election, “since low education levels are seen as one of the main supports of election fraud, PollWatch actively recruited ‘educated people’—students, teachers, business people, lawyers, civil servants—to work at the volunteer level” (Callahan 2000, 9). Thus, as in the Philippines, there is a class dimension to clean election reform: urban middle class organizations such as Pollwatch are trying to discipline how the rural poor vote. As one scholar commented on the 1992 elec- tion, “these middle class stalwarts were acting to ensure that Thailand’s largely rural electorate would choose only ‘good’ politicians who did not buy votes” (LoGerfo 2000, 229).

As in the Philippines, the poor in Thailand have sometimes reacted to the educational efforts of Pollwatch and other civic educators in ways unanticipated by reformers. Recall the reaction of school kids to the anti-vote buying television ads, or the reaction of those who attended the educational forums in Chiang Mai Province. Both the forums and tv ads generated the very beliefs and behaviors they were designed to forestall. The second comparative point is that voter education seems most likely to have unintend- ed consequences when it is undertaken by middle classes in formation, by middle classes trying to define who they are in contrast to the poor. Such is the case in both the Philippines and Thailand.

The incipient nature of middle class culture has led to much storytelling by middle class intellectuals in both countries as they try to work out what it might mean to belong to the mid- dle class. In Thailand such cultural work has resulted in an ongoing effort “to construct the Thai middle class in terms of political practice and ideology” (Ockey 1999, 240). In the Philippines it has produced what one historian called “‘burgis [bourgeois] projects’: efforts on the part of mid- dle upper class intellectuals to construct and display Filipino society and culture mainly to them- selves” (Cullinane 1993, 74). As in Thailand, one finds a strong political and ideological component in that construction. Public service ads that describe the evils of vote buying appear to be part of these middle class storytelling projects. Political education campaigns, in other words, might not only be intended for the poor; they may also serve to remind middle class Thais and Filipinos of who they are and how they are different from—and morally or politically superior to—the poor. One scholar thus described the drive to curb vote buying in Thailand as an unintended form of “midle-class cultural imperialism” resulting from attempts to construct a class ideology. “The unfortunate side-effect of these attempts,” he writes, “has been to consolidate a conviction among the middle classes that democracy belongs to the middle class, and that the lower class- es are incapable of effective participation in a democratic system. The middle class frustration with the common practice of vote-buying is the most dramatic indication of this attitude” (Ockey 1999, 245-246). The same could have been written of the Philippines.

BP: Just an interesting perspective that BP has not seen expressed in the current debate about vote buying. Will be looking at blogging more at vote buying in the coming weeks.