How To Buy An Election

Posted on January 12, 2016



We have heard of the refrain, “Money makes the world go round” and this would be true of winning elections as well. It would be naive to believe that it should cost nothing to win political office and indeed to form a government.

But how much money is needed before it becomes excessive, unfair, immoral and illegal?

Sources of political financing

Currently in Malaysia, there is little transparency and accountability when it comes to political financing. If not for the exposé by the Wall Street Journal of the RM2.6 billion that went into the private bank account of Prime Minister Dato Seri Najib Razak, we would not have realised how generous the Arabs are and their eager participation in our national political affairs.

Huge private donations such as the one received by PM Najib are as rare as halal pork but political parties and politicians do receive donations from the public. The opposition parties regularly holds fundraising dinners and events so that people can donate.

Another big source of funding available to both sides would probably be from corporate entities who are keen to sow political seed money and hoping that it would yield economic fruits. You can’t fault business people, they are in it for the money. But what we do need is transparency and accountability, not just in the giving but in the way the Government hand out contracts and make deals with the private sector.

Let us also not forget that the main component parties in Barisan Nasional are also big business owners. UMNO, MCA, MIC and PBB are direct owners of multi-billion ringgit enterprises that are given sweetheart deals by…yes, the Government.

Since coming into power in 2009, PM Najib has taken vote-buying to a new level with his “I help you, you help me” mantra. Quoting political scientist Bridget Welsh in an article she wrote in April 2013, “The use of electoral incentives is well-known and honed, but there is a fundamental shift in the overall pattern this time round. Scholars such as Universiti Sains Malaysia emeritus professor Francis Loh have described the electioneering pattern as from one of patronage to ‘developmentalism’, where voters have moved from relying on everyday personal ties and relations with politicians to the promise of development projects.”

Developmentalism is nothing but the abuse of public funds to buy votes. Welsh studied 3 budgets/supplemental budgets and conservatively estimated that PM Najib since he took office in 2009 till just before the dissolution of Parliament in April 2013, used RM57.7 billion to prepare for the 13th General Election. This includes the BR1M handouts which accounts for only about 10 percent of the estimate.

The consequences of such targeted allocation of public resources are that its benefit are often short-term, unfair in its distribution and it deprive funds from areas that are really in need of development like education, healthcare, essential infrastructure and research.

How are money spent

Under the Election Offences Act, there is a limit of RM200,000 for a candidate contesting for a Federal seat but according to Tan Sri Dr Chua Soi Lek, the former President of MCA, the actual figure spent usually is between half a million to one million ringgit per candidate. The excess would be attributed to the party and not the candidate.

Given this figure, the budget for Barisan Nasional to contest all 222 Federal and 576 State seats in GE13 would be between RM400 million to RM800 million. That’s a whole lot of money to spent! Is it any wonder that PM Najib needed a RM2.6 billion slush fund to “buy” GE13.

So, how are money actually spent during elections?

There are numerous reports of cash being given out to voters to secure votes, ranging from RM50 to RM500 each voter and stacks of cash handed to village or longhouse chiefs to secure the votes of whole communities. The practice of reimbursing voters for traveling to vote is also common.

Money would also be spent to treat voters to meals, gift hampers, vouchers, lucky draws and free transportation. Celebrities like Psy of the Gangnam-style fame would be hired to draw the crowd at political rallies. Most parties give allowances to their party workers.

But the biggest recipients of election expenditure were probably those in the advertisement industry. Tens of million were probably spent by BN to buy ad space in both print and online media and billboard all throughout the country.

Is cash really king?

Tun Dr Mahathir said that PM Najib told him that “Cash is King”. With money you can buy anything, even elections. And looking at Barisan Nasional’s ability to access money from public resource, private sources and even foreign sources, it does look like a done deal for the next General Election.

How can the playing field be levelled for the 14th General Election where money politics would likely be taken to a whole new level as the Government of Najib Razak is facing possible defeat in the light of the RM2.6 billion deposit, the 1MDB scandal and division within UMNO? This would be a question I would like to explore in my next article.