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, buy 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.