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Vote-buying and democracy

Publication Date : 20-05-2014


Listening to the complaints about “vote-buying” by some of the sore losers of the recent legislative election or watching some of them going nuts after losing, one could almost be forgiven for thinking that the election had been a total disgrace or Indonesia’s democracy had gone to the dogs.

But the following points are more than enough to dispel these notions: 1) the antics and semantics of the losers do not explain vote-buying but indicates how much money they had spent with nothing to show for it afterward; 2) losers explain, complain and whine while the winners keep mum, go home and celebrate; 3) as long as the concept (and practice) of secret ballots remains sacred, voters can never be bought. The incessant complaints about vote-buying are nothing more than sour grapes, post-election fatigue or a pesta demokrasi (fiesta of democracy) hangover.

More seriously, the critics of so-called “vote-buying” missed some important points on the relation between money, politics and democracy: Unlike people in the street, who overwhelmingly believe that “politics is dirty”, they assume and regurgitate that  money is “dirty”, while politics is “noble” and democracy is a moral system and both are tainted by the “dirty” money, not realizing that with or without money, politics is “dirty” because in the pursuit of the holy grail of politics (i.e. government positions), politicians use every trick in the book and every means at their disposal to get what they want.

As Harold Lasswell (1936) wrote, politics is about “who gets what, when and how”, and the “what” in that definition is unmistakably money. The government collects it from the people, spends it recklessly and will give it back to the people, usually around election time, in the form of subsidies, social assistance and so on to influence the voters, of course.

So, not only is politics dirty but the whole business of governing is dirty because in both instances, you have dirty politicians playing with other people’s money or the money they never earned. This deadly embrace is the reason why corruption is inevitable and endemic, as the steady parade of high-profile politicians to Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) headquarters indicates.

Money, they say, is the root of all evil but the fact of the matter is, it is only so because we don’t have enough of it. To run an election you need money, and the government itself also needs money to run. Money isn’t called a “liquid asset” for nothing. Even spiritual institutions, which mostly look down on money, can’t get enough of it and, quietly, they make you accept that even to be God-loving, you have to have enough money to donate.

Those complaining of vote-buying are equally remiss on the nature of democracy. They think it is a noble and moral system when, in fact, it is only the best of the worse (to paraphrase Winston Churchill) and there is no right or wrong or “clean” or “dirty” in democracy.

It is a practical and pragmatic management solution that reduces all complex moral equations into mere necessities. They also forget that democracy, as a concept, has deep and deeply rooted ties to money.

This is why most democracies, if not managed properly, will tend toward oligarchies over time, while corruption is inevitable and endemic in even the most established of democracies. But if you want to correct this by trying to run a democracy with people without money or the poor, they will not hesitate to overthrow your democracy or, at best, they will give you a “mobocracy” or the rule of mobs.

But over the years, through trial and error (and sometimes much violence) and economic development, which tends to push everyone to the middle, democracy gets supported by a middle class, which has just enough property to appreciate a stable political system and enough money to finance their political participation, but not enough to play the “vote-buying” game.

Indonesian democracy, with its very rich (oligarchs) and the very poor (mobs) buffeting a small middle class, is a deadly combination of oligarchy and mobocracy, where the poor are always taking to the streets trying to tear things down, while the oligarchs cry out for more law and order and a tough leader.

In that context, a certain amount of vote-buying is inevitable and will never be eliminated entirely, not only because of that deadly mix but also because politics is dirty, politicians are “political animals” and are no angels, and all are hypocritical about money.

So, the poor revel in their “fiesta of  democracy” and expect a few coins thrown into their rallies; after all, what’s a festival without money to brighten and liven things up?

Of course, not all the practices that fall under the rubric of vote-buying are acceptable: organized vote-rigging, vote-selling, cheating the illiterate, the blind and the aged and the nouveau riche politicians taking advantage of the “festival” to throw around their ill-gotten money in a kind of political money-laundering system should have no place in the fiesta of democracy.

But the aspect that should draw the ire of all politicians, both winners and losers, is the “vote-buying by stealth”, committed by the oligarchs who campaign non-stop via their own respective media outlets just because they own them or because they have money to burn.

They don’t just buy boxed lunches at political rallies, they buy a whole political party and its leaders or build one from scratch as the political vehicle for their blind ambitions, subverting not only a level political playing field but controlling the whole game.

This is the real “vote-buying” that should be condemned; otherwise Indonesia’s democracy, while it hasn’t gone to the dogs completely, will continue to be wagged by its own oligarchic tail.


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