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Protesters in Malang, East Java, demonstrate against vote buying during the 2014 national election campaign. H Prabowo/CrowdSpark

A third of Indonesian voters bribed during election – how and why

The practice of handing out cash or items in an effort to influence votes – known as vote buying – is pervasive in Indonesia.

My PhD research found that as many as one-in-three Indonesians was personally exposed to the practice in the previous national election. That would put Indonesia in third place on the list of countries with the most vote-buying practices.

The research analysed data from multiple sources, including surveys with more than 800,000 respondents across the country from 2006 to 2016.

My article aims to explain why vote buying is deeply rooted in Indonesia despite opposition from the society and the fact that it appears to have a relatively small impact on who voters support.

Vote buying: past and present

The practice of vote buying in Indonesia dates back to the country’s first election in 1955. One of the country’s oldest political parties, PNI, which was founded by the first president Soekarno, distributed a large sum of money to local leaders to win the election.

During the New Order era, buying votes was not a popular strategy as political parties saw no benefit under a voting system that always produced the government-backed Golkar Party as the winner. However, Golkar was sometimes reportedly engaged in pouring money into electorates to mobilise support.

Vote buying was almost unheard of in the 1999 election when Indonesia became a new democracy following the fall of New Order regime. At that time, the competition was still between political parties and not candidates. Contests between candidates, I argue, have contributed to the rise in vote buying.

I noticed that the practice of vote buying began to flourish in the 2009 election, after the government allowed political candidates to enter the political race. The fact that each candidate not only competes with candidates from other parties but also with other candidates from his or her own party has exacerbated the practice.

Vote buying continues today. During my 13-month fieldwork in 2013 and 2014, I found that most candidates were relatively open when discussing how much money they distributed to voters and how they engaged in vote-buying operations.

The practice is so ubiquitous that a famous one-time national parliament member once dared me in an interview to cut his finger off if I could find a legislator who got elected without buying votes.

Despite the high prevalence of vote buying in Indonesia, little is known about its scope and how it affects election results. My research attempts to answer these questions.

Using a dataset compiled after the 2014 legislative election, I found that vote-buying practices involved of up to 33% of voters. This means that, of 187 million registered voters in the 2014 election, up to 62 million were the targets of vote buying. This figure would make Indonesia the country with the third-largest vote-buying practice, after Uganda and Benin.

Spreading against all norms and laws

In most countries, including Indonesia, vote buying is illegal and socially unacceptable.

The recently passed election law makes buying votes a crime. The penalty is a maximum fine of Rp 48 million (US$3,329) and four years in jail.

People receiving bribes to vote for certain candidates also earn negative labels from the society for failing to execute their democratic mandate properly.

Knowing that vote buying is regarded unfavourably in Indonesia, I assumed it would be difficult to ask my respondents about it. I expected they would mostly lie about it for fear of being punished or excluded socially.

Based on this assumption, I created an experimental survey designed to encourage voters to give honest answers. Unlike regular surveys, my survey involves a set of disguised questions that do not deter respondents from telling the truth.

The survey is based on a method carried out in Nicaragua and Lebanon to anticipate respondents lying about vote buying.

Interview results prove that my assumption was wrong. Surveys using either direct or disguised questions show Indonesian people openly admit that they took the bribe to vote for certain candidates. This suggests vote buying in Indonesia is less stigmatised than previously thought.

At the height of the 2014 campaign, I witnessed how popular terms such as NPWP and golput were among voters. In normal usage, NPWP is the acronym of “tax file number”, but in this context it stands for “Nomer Piro, Wani Piro”, representing the question “What number on the ballot are you and how much do you dare to give?”

Meanwhile, golput usually refers to people who deliberately abstain from voting, but in this case it means golongan penerima uang tunai to represent a group of voters who are willing to vote if given cash.

Low return, high cases

Even though vote buying is ubiquitous in Indonesia, its impact on voters’ choices is relatively low. My research shows that vote-buying practices influence only up to 11% of the total electorate.

I offer two explanations for the low impact of vote buying. First, the candidates target the wrong voters. My research shows that, instead of targeting loyal voters, political candidates mostly target uncommitted voters who do not reciprocate with votes.

Loyal voters, who account for only 15% of total voters, are highly contested among political candidates, making them difficult to target.

Second, the tendency of vote brokers to gain more money from political candidates by inflating the numbers of loyal voters also makes vote buying less effective. Many of the voters bribed by brokers are in fact not even loyal to the candidate. They may receive the money but they choose other candidates.

Some brokers even support multiple candidates, including those from different parties, resulting in massive defections.

But, if vote buying is proven to produce very low returns, why is it still prevalent?

I have calculated that the average margin that determined whether one candidate won or lost the election in Indonesia was only 1.65%.

So, if buying votes can influence up to 11% of voters, no wonder many political candidates are still doing it. It may give them a chance to clinch victory.

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