In a post a few months ago, Matthew noted some challenges involved with education initiatives in the Philippines, where income disparities played a significant role in the success of an anti-vote-buying campaign. In particular, poor Filipinos perceived one campaign as condescending or insulting, and believed that the middle- and upper-class individuals behind those campaigns demonstrated a lack of respect in their approach to voter education. The issue goes much deeper than a single poorly-executed education campaign. Even popular anticorruption movements—such as the one that ousted President Joseph Estrada in 2001—were divided along class lines. Poorer Filipinos celebrated (and continue to regard) Estrada as a champion of the poor, while middle- and upper-class Filipinos demanded his resignation following allegations of plunder.
This tension between socioeconomic classes affects countless issues tied to Philippine corruption—from how Filipinos view their politicians, to how they define corruption at all. In his post, Matthew noted one such definitional problem–whether a politician helping constituents to pay for expenses associated with events like funerals or weddings can be classified as “vote buying”–but there are many other similar socioeconomic disparities in the perception of such interactions. It seems that members of different socioeconomic classes expect different things from their local, provincial, and national governments and politicians. To many of those facing extreme poverty, receiving a free birthday cake each year, or having government officials pay for a funeral, are not acts of impropriety, but rather are demonstrations of goodwill and a concern for wellbeing—values which they admire in political candidates.
But the conceptual problem is not simply borne of economic disparity. In many ways, politicians exacerbate these problems by “branding” public acts as their own personal contributions to society, rather than as official acts of their office. A simple drive around any Philippine province demonstrates the extent of this problem. Countless bridges, banners, buses, public housing units, food, disaster relief goods, and even announcements of recent public school graduates prominently feature the names and photographs of politicians. These purposeful efforts to put ones personal stamp on government works are insidious and must be eradicated from Philippine politics.
The efforts of politicians to brand public works projects or more direct benefits has a number of perverse effects:
- First, branding of public works with the names of elected officials both changes the nature of what it means to be a public servant, and allows those public servants to elicit praise and commendation merely for doing their job. Working in government becomes an opportunity to further personal popularity, and entire cities serve as unofficial campaign materials. In many cases, the politicians who brand bridges and other public works had nothing to do with their construction or development—their only contribution is a fresh coat of paint. This is particularly problematic in a country where name recognition plays such a huge role in politics.
- Second, personalized gifts like birthday cakes have almost nothing to do with good governance, yet they provide politicians with an opportunity to associate their name—not that of their office—with acts of kindness and thoughtfulness that many voters perceive as a genuine respect for constituents.
- Third, and relatedly, politicians intentionally blur the line between benefits and vote buying, and win over voters not only because they’ve given them a reward in exchange for support, but also because that reward creates a normative belief that the politicians, who often use public funds in order to provide such “benefits,” become associated with acts of kindness. These hidden motives are more insidious, precisely because many people will choose not to view such acts as bribery. As Matthew pointed out, such confusion around what constitutes vote buying has made certain educational campaigns unsuccessful.
This type of behavior differs from the direct vote buying which occurs during elections. Although the personal branding is similar, the acts I mean to address are those that occur in office—mostly funded by government resources—and not under the guise of campaign efforts. The context is important, because such acts are particularly deceptive when not explicitly done as part of an official election campaign.
The question of how to warn voters of the impropriety of such behavior is more complex than the one presented here. Matthew alluded to several ways in which educational campaigns could approach such a problem in his earlier post. It may also be helpful, however, to target politicians’ behavior specifically—by banning personalized brandings of public works or benefits, and insisting that all projects be marked only with the seal of the official office that created them. At present, online shaming campaigns are informally taking place through social media—suggesting that at least some people have grown tired of these self-serving tactics—and Congress is considering doing away with the practice. Going forward, attacking the behavior of politicians themselves could aid in efforts to do away with improper vote buying.