The cost of selling a vote



Frequently it seems it is easy to right wrongs, particularly in the Philippines where power, money and position can readily facilitate totalitarian behavior. The powerful here could right wrongs with a word—but they generally don’t so as not to risk diluting their power or exposing to enemies the skeletons in their own closets. The prospect of a sudden loss of power and position must be enough to give a few people nightmares.

In underdeveloped societies and economies money buys power directly and overtly. In the advanced economies the connection is less direct, it is much more difficult to convert money to power as societies have developed effective and ethical checks and balances—you can get the trappings of wealth but not so easy to gain unconstrained power.

In less developed economies with high poverty incidence, inadequate public education systems, virtually non -existent social welfare and obsession with bureaucracy and red tape, money easily buys power and impunity. In such an environment, the more reliance is placed on democratic processes the greater the opportunities for their manipulation. Lip service to democracy in such a setting just facilitates kleptocracy (government by thieves).

Elections are a critical foundation of democracy and to tolerate interference with them as happens in so many parts of the world is a denial of democracy. Election interference is however so prevalent that academics have studied the benefits of candidate buying, vote buying and intimidation. Findings from some of these studies purport to show that manipulating the results can have beneficial effects.

Co-operatives are good targets for those who want to manipulate the electoral process. Their directors are elected from members in democratic elections. They collect income which they spend on contracted supplies and services thus control of a cooperative would allow for control of the way in which the necessary goods and services are procured—so perhaps it would be a good business proposition to invest in a bit of vote buying and intimidation.

It is not easy to counter this sort of behavior in a Philippines context; too much fundamental societal change would be needed to make any difference—educating the electorate, imbuing a respect for ethical business practice, removing poverty and putting in place a social welfare system. So interference with elections is destined to continue so long as there are those who can personally benefit from it.

The Philippines’ electricity cooperatives are a good example of what can go wrong. They serve many consumers as virtual monopolies. They are categorically imbued with the public interest. They are poorly regulated and in some cases there is not even an acceptance of responsibility to one of the two potential regulatory bodies—Cooperative Development Association, or National Electricity Administration.

There are about 120 electricity cooperatives serving half the nation’s households. A single cooperative may have a revenue of P1 billion or more, but this is peanuts in comparison to the value of their influence over power generation contract awards which may have a value of P22 billion for a single award and diesel fuel purchases which can run to as much as P100 million for a year’s supply.

These cooperatives whose track record on governance and service delivery has been consistently shown to be very poor (other than for a few shining examples) and which have been well known and reported to suffer from political interference which has made their performance worse, have traditionally just been responsible for electricity distribution with National Power Corp supplying the generation and holding influence over the fuel purchases.

With no change to the way invasive politicization happens in the Philippines the cooperatives are now being given direct responsibility for big money generation contracting and dispatching—setting the priority for which generator gets used in preference to others, under the guidance of the local government unit—the gorilla is invited into the room and told to sort things out without the guidance of any appropriate regulations.

I wonder if ordinary Filipinos think it is wrong to sell their vote? Surveys in Africa have shown that up to 58 percent of voters do indeed think it is wrong to sell their vote, but a further 30 percent think it is understandable. In Ukraine where the price of a vote in a national election is now the equivalent of P1,700, 87 percent of people were simply not prepared to sell their vote. In the Philippines particularly in the less well-off provincial areas I think it is very understandable that people sell their votes for the simple reason that the electorate in the majority of cases cannot grasp the implications of such a transaction.

To sell a vote perpetuates the feudal system, it help the “Lords of the Manor” to get their Ferraris and Maseratis. The consumers who presumably want an efficient and economic supply of electricity get P200 to P500 every few years in exchange for which they throw away any likelihood of getting a good service and otherwise have to rely on the patronage of the “lord” which in the Philippines can be the difference between life and death. It is an excellent deal for anybody who is in a position and has the inclination to manipulate the election for their own benefit, the rate of return must be astronomical. Only a fool [or a philanthropist]would invest the money in some form of industrial venture with all the problems of actually employing people, importing raw materials and suchlike whilst hoping to get an IRR of 10 percent if they were lucky!

Effective governance of electricity cooperatives while on paper may appear to be under control is in fact virtually non-existent leaving the organizations open to political capture and use for self-interest against the public interest. The only thing which can stand between politically motivated misuse and the interest of the consumers, according to the World Bank is a strong and highly professional management—but if the election of directors is manipulated for self-interest, even though it may be just “power tripping,” what chance is there is getting some strong and professional management to look after the consumers best interests?

It is not too difficult to right this particular wrong, it’s just another of those “peculiarities” that lots of people are aware of but that nobody does anything about.

Mike can be contacted at


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  1. I think filipinos think its ok to see your vote as you make some money. Im sure most dont understand the consequences of it. & very importantly filipinos like rules & laws as long as they dont affect them. They know corruption goes on & dont complain unless its bought out in the open as in the pork barrel scam.
    But a very good article, & its strange how it takes a foreigner to point all this out. We find it important, they find it less important.