The decay of vote buying, the flipside

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

JANUARY 26 — It is an old story. My friend, the late Nazrin Hassan, was disappointed after the 2004 elections. He told me so.

A man he had looked up to as a progressive, as a reasonable voice of moderation in the national government was associated with cash handouts on voting day.

There was no proof, of course, but money was disbursed for his cause and it was unlikely he was clueless about individuals doing so. It poked a hole in his idealism about Malaysian politics.

The candidate won.

It seems that RM50 and some household items were necessary to be given, Nazrin was informed, to mobilise the voter. Wait, wait, there’s a valid excuse.

The voter wants to cast his ballot for the paying leader anyway but needed a little help from the leader so that he gets to the polling booth. That’s no reason to be pedantic, is it, to be annoyed with the incentive? It’s just lubricant.

Everyone needs a little bit to do a little bit. But it is the bit they like, therefore no harm, no foul.

That memory recollected as I evaluate the topic of the day — vote buying at the general election last year.

Perikatan Nasional (PN) — in particular PAS leaders — faces persistent accusations of vote buying following its near-complete annihilation of opponents in the Semenanjung’s north and east coast.

Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and healthy chunks of Penang and Pahang. Dark blue storm. Surely the answer to this triumph is suspect behaviour.

However, it does appear even if lubricants were present they were for a segment rife to vote in that direction to begin with. Still illegal, no? Perhaps but it is not straightforward.

Two responses from the accused do the media rounds currently; one, they were handouts requested by the people, and the second, cliché but a classic “before judging us look at our adversaries, they do it too”.

Vote buying. Where to begin when the whole matter is crowded by senseless moral indignations rather than deep and personal self-examinations.

To avoid going round in circles, as the issue far-reaches into the idea of power and people, split those two parts — votes and the buying of them. Then analyse.

Votes shape the manner and tone of democracies. Without the vote, there is no democracy. More about votes later.

Money (That’s what I want)

Buying the currency for power — votes — with currency is an impossible relationship to untangle.

To begin with, observers point out it is easy to recognise a politician who has no money to spend, he is unelected. Sitting in a coffeeshop, happy to share his views and thoughts on the country without the power to alter things.

It’s a cynical view but it has more than a kernel of truth.

Indeed, show up at the election prep office of any political party and say you want to help, they would rather you arrive with cash than ideas. One buys posters and Facebook ads, and when no one is looking, the votes directly. The other, ideas, they are still overstocked from the last election.

This is more pronounced in developing countries. A substantial number of people in many constituencies are drawn to money due to personal needs and shortcomings and therefore find it difficult to refuse it. Money is passed down and the candidates linked to those notes handed out historically do better.

Malaysia is at the right end of the “developing countries” segment without breaking out. Which means it is still mired in a culture of money for votes.

For now, until democracy financially frees most Malaysians from desperation which leads them to trade their votes for a low price.

While the rudimentary and uncouth cash physically slipped into voters’ palms is pilloried, let’s not forget there are other more elaborate and indirect ways to canvass support. And they are kosher.

Like repaving roads a week before Parliament’s dissolution, offer laptops to school going children or toll-free travel during festive holidays. Are those not vote-buying overtures? Or announcing the building of a school or bridge on the campaign trail?

Actually, to be truthful to the average voter, RM200 in their fists from a stranger, is far more tantalising than a bridge across the river in four years’ time. The appeal of RM200 dissipates in the days to come but the bribing agent is only interested in the voter till he walks out of the voting booth. So transactional love is all very fine.

There are only two things to sum up the procuring of votes. One, they are very difficult to distinguish even if they can be legally determined. Which is why those accused of it can always provide an excuse. Second, it is widespread in power corridors to induce support via financial remunerations, therefore, PAS deputy president Tuan Ibrahim Tuan Man is factually correct. It does not however, excuse his people of the allegations. Though it removes the moral superiority of his accusers.

Voters queue up to cast their votes at the SJK (C) Selayang Baru November 16, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara
Voters queue up to cast their votes at the SJK (C) Selayang Baru November 16, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara

Voters queue up to cast their votes at the SJK (C) Selayang Baru November 16, 2022. — Picture by Hari Anggara

It annoys when sycophants present vote-buying as the malady of one or a few parties, and not something present in degrees — direct or indirect — within all Malaysian parties.

Intentions are hard to measure. Only the politicians know deep inside of themselves how much they are willing to compromise voters to get their day in the sun.

Parties need to grow to decide the high road even when it means losing elections. Yes, yes, naïve much.

Can’t buy me love

The history of suffrage is long, hard and filled with misery. A gallery of men and women — many unrecognised by record books — paid often with their own lives the price to enshrine votes in most countries in the world.

Votes give the common man leverage. A voice. The right to demand, to engage, to make more of himself. It is beautiful when fulfilled.

Unfortunately, a culture of independent and informed voting is difficult to get off the ground and constantly circumvented by men who use their resources to secure power by getting voters to vote against their own interests.

I’ll put the above two paragraphs as a placeholder for now. As the future unfolds.

Here’s the good news.

Malaysia is getting better as a democracy. Nazrin would still be disappointed but the signs are around that while a segment of Malaysians end up voting against their interests due to inducements, there are more seats resilient to interference.

Majority of voters were ruled by their conscience and interested to be engaged. Not enough?

Well, it is never enough. It only gets better with work. Democracy is always a work in progress; like a garden, the weeds wait at the edges.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.