A vote for sale

A major dilemma in democratic policy-making is that bad policies can be good politics and good policies can be bad politics. For instance, broad public policies such as universal education or health care may be good for growth but may be electorally ineffective. On the other hand, clientelism and vote buying may generate excessive redistribution at the expense of the provision of public goods and may therefore be seen as bad for growth. Yet, these strategies are proved to be electorally effective.

Political competition between parties to win electoral support is a distinguishing feature of democratic forms of government. Parties seek to attract electoral support with programmatic promises (public goods, services) for the benefit of all citizens as well as targeted redistribution in several countries, broadly termed as “clientelistic linkages”.

Cash, gifts and non-material goods promised to individual voters, such as jobs, exclusive access to public services, are considered as forms of clientelistic goods. But if a promise, such as a tax credit given to businesses, is made because of the lobbying effort of the businesses’ representative body, should that be considered a programmatic promise or a clientelistic good?

The buying and selling of votes has long been studied in the political science and economics literatures. In this context, lobbying theory prominently led to a better understanding of how democracy works but there is no clear consensus about it in terms of welfare implications. Back in 1988, Jeffrey Weiss showed the well-known result that no equilibrium exists for a majoritarian voting game with vote-selling: for positive prices anyone on the losing side will want to sell his or her vote, i.e. there is excess supply, and for zero prices there is excess demand. Weiss argues that these strategies are suboptimal.

Cash, gifts and non-material goods promised to individual voters are considered as forms of clientelistic goods. 

Thomas J. Philipson and James M. Snyder, on the other hand, have argued that equilibrium always exists and involves vote selling only when it implies a Pareto-superior outcome one which leaves at least one person better off and no person worse off.  More recently, Eddie Dekel and others analysed campaign promises that are contingent on clientelism and found that total payments received by voters are higher and less widespread than with upfront vote buying.

Interestingly, they imply that vote buying may lead to a situation where parties’ valuations, rather than voter preferences, become the driving force that determines the winner.

In Malta, the General Elections Act prohibits electoral candidates from distributing cash or material goods or procuring certain favours during an electoral campaign and considers such acts as corrupt practices and therefore punishable. This provision of the law was added because of the practice of parliamentary candidates or their campaigners visiting the homes of citizens and handing out “promotional materials” was quite widespread.

There was the assumption that distributing gifts or favours during an election period undermined Malta’s democracy, since citizens who receive something from a political candidate may feel pressured to vote as an exchange of favour for favour instead of freely and fairly.  

Despite the letter of the law, the practice of the government of the day as well as parliamentary candidates distributing favours or material goods continues to flourish, if not during the electoral campaign certainly in the days preceding it.  

Some months ago, ADPD candidate Arnold Cassola had claimed that several Labour MPs were distributing food items to particular cohorts of voters, for the express aim of influencing votes. Of course, there was not a whimper when some years ago former Nationalist ministers had done so too: one flooded his district with teddy-bears, another one had produced a perfume with his name on it, while yet another one had distributed stress-balls.

There was not a whimper when some years ago former Nationalist ministers had also distributed food items to constituents.

I’m not sure I would have minded getting a teddy bear, which I would promptly have given to one of my grandchildren. I would positively have appreciated the stress-ball given that life has become such a hassle. As to the perfume, there I might have balked at the possibility of getting a stinky bottle.

Other instances included ministers of candidates distributing bottles of wine, visiting a care home’s residents and gifting them with small bags of oranges, handing out roly-polies to elderly patients quarantined during the COVID-19 pandemic with the message “Courage” emblazoned on them, and giving out cupcakes for Mother’s Day. One candidate took the practice to a whole new level, offering free maths private lessons to primary students.

It is not uncommon for candidates’ offices to cold call constituents and ask them whether they “need anything”. I myself got such a call after the General Election proclamation. I refrained from requesting a hamper of oranges, roly-polies, and cupcakes, and perhaps a bottle of Petrus wine, even though I have a sweet tooth.

The gifting allegations do not seem to have had a serious negative impact on the candidates themselves or the government. The indifference reveals how electoral gifts seem to operate as a medium through which many citizens can come to know the personal qualities and capabilities of a candidate. Perversely, electoral gifts seem to be valuable to Maltese electors as they navigate a democratic landscape that has become increasingly ‘atmospheric’ and ‘conspiratorial’ in recent years, with a near-constant buzz of speculation surrounding the intentions, identities and activities of politicians.

It almost seems that gifts serve a strategic purpose to help candidates make themselves visible as viable political contenders, chiefly by showcasing their “qualities” to get things done, which one might argue are fundamental to political ideas and delivery. It almost suggests that gifting is also a constitutive element of the deepening entanglement between democracy and capitalism in Malta, which appears to be giving rise to hyper-personalist and economy-centric politics.

The latest confirmation of this was the survey carried out by Sagalytics for the University’s Faculty for Social Wellbeing, which found that a bread-and-butter issue the cost of living ─ was the second most important issue for voters whereas the fight against corruption placed eighth. Also, only 35.4% disagreed with politicians offering a preferential service.

The expectation of an obligatory return is what makes the act of a politician distributing things during a parliamentary election season appear as a form of corruption, bribery, or coercion that, critics say, ‘vitiates democracy’. Such a view reflects liberal ideals that hold that voters in a democratic government system have a fundamental right to exercise independent individual judgement when casting a ballot, and that material goods given by political actors to citizens prior to elections can cloud this judgement and make free choice impossible.

A problem with the classic argument that electoral patronage clouds voters’ judgment and makes free choice impossible, is that voters are always exposed to a host of dynamics that unevenly influence their electoral decision-making. In a study of patronage politics in India, Dr Dusi Srinivas made the case that election-season offerings should not be singled out as having an ‘undue’ coercive effect on voters’ choices compared to the multiplicity of other political influences that invariably exist.

Srinivas details how farmers in a village pragmatically draw on gifts that they receive from patrons to skilfully assess the qualities and capabilities of political contenders; it is through such moral deliberation that citizens see themselves not as passive client-voters, but as proactive and reasoned electoral decision-makers. I could count myself as one of them, even though I am not a farmer. 

I recently found a biro from one politician in my letterbox. I do not feel I am being bribed to vote for him at all, but I am happy that, rather than giving me oranges, he gave me a pen. After all, as they say, the pen is mightier than the sword.

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