Posted in economics, elections, institutions, politics by jrahman on February 6, 2012

In a recent interview with the Prothom Alo, the outgoing Chief Election Commissioner of Bangladesh said that ‘it’s important to stop the flow money play in the election process’  (in Bangla: নির্বাচনে টাকা ছড়ানো বন্ধ করতে হবে। এটা আমরা পুরোপুরি নিয়ন্ত্রণ করতে পারিনি। নির্বাচনে টাকার ছড়াছড়ির বিরুদ্ধে জনমত গড়ে তুলতে হবে।).  Apparently, that’s the biggest challenge facing the Commisson.

It got me thinking.  What exactly is this টাকার খেলা (money game)?  The simplest version of the game is that the prospective candidate, or their agents, pay the voters a large sum of money just before the election, and the voters go on to vote for the biggest payer.  No, in fact there is an even simpler version, where the candidate invites the voters for a biriyani feast, and the well fed voters go on to vote for the candidate.

Ah, but how does the candidate enforce this transaction?  Voting is secret, so how do you know that after pocketing your ‘large amount’, or eating your biriyani, the voter isn’t choosing the other side?

Apparently, the moneyed candidate is well aware of this commitment problem, which is resolved by offering the prospective voter a Quran to swear on.  The idea is this — the voter takes the money with one hand, and puts the other on the Quran to promise their vote.  Of course we Bangladeshis are so honest that we would never break a promise.

That candidates (or their agents) do this seems beyond doubt.  I have been told by several parliamentary and local government candidates that this is how things are.  But it doesn’t quite make sense to my westoxified mind.

For one thing, in a culture that frowns upon using the left hand for any purpose other than wiping one’s nether zones, which hand is used for what bit of this vote selling business by the voter?  More seriously, the assumptions about the morality of the typical Bangladeshi voter seems a bit odd.  Obviously, the idea is that you don’t swear lightly on the Quran?  But do you swear on the Quran to do something that is self-evidently dodgy?

Perhaps the voter has little choice in terms of making the promise.  I mean, wouldn’t you promise anything to keep these guys out of your home?  Fear, dear reader, is the key here.

But if that were so, then why would the candidate need to bribe?  In Happy Days, Fonzi never has to throw a punch.  He just raises his collar and says heyyyy and people back down.  If people are afraid of what Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury or Joinal Hazari might do if they lose, surely Chowdhury or Hazari wouldn’t need to spend the money on the ordinary voters — far better to ensure that the instrument of fear, your cadres, are better prepared.

So, theoretically, it doesn’t seem all that right to me that this voter bribing (and other throwing-money-at-the-voters projects like a massive biriyani feast) story is as simple as it’s made out to be.

Putting theory aside, I started thinking about an empirical question — how do we know that money really matters in the election?

Well, presumably the candidates know what they are doing, and since they spend a lot of money, it must follow that money matters.  So far, so good.  But the question really isn’t whether money matters, but how much does it matter.

In 1964, Paul McCartney sang that he didn’t care too much for money, because money couldn’t buy him love.  Thirty years later, Steve Levitt (of Freakonomics (in)fame) found in a classic paper that money can’t apparently buy elections much:

When a candidate doubled their spending, holding everything else constant, they only got an extra one percent of the popular vote. It’s the same if you cut your spending in half, you only lose one percent of the popular vote. So we’re talking about really large swings in campaign spending with almost trivial changes in the vote.

What about Bangladesh?  I am pretty sure that nothing like this has ever been done in Bangladesh, even though the data exist for at least four general elections and a number of local government elections over the past couple of decades.  For now, let me note some anecdotes.

Was Selina Hayat Ivy more ‘moneyed’ than Shamim Osman in Narayanganj?  Was MK Anwar the most moneyed minister (other than the Madam herself) of the last BNP government?

Here is a good one.  Salman F Rahman ran on his own in 1996 and lost deposit.  Running against Nazmul Huda in 2001 with AL ticket and lost by a only few hundred votes.

What matters more — the candidate’s history and personal qualities, the party support (marka), or money?  After accounting for the other differences, how much does money really matter?

Of course, the fact remains that candidates spend a lot of money.  So we need to answer why candidates spend money.

I again turned to Levitt’s paper, which suggests that money doesn’t necessarily cause a candidate to win.  Rather, the candidate who’s attractive to voters also ends up with a lot of money.  Let me propose a theory based on Levitt’s idea in the Bangladeshi context.

Suppose that voters care about a candidate who is: (a) able to look after their interest; and (b) willing to do so.  Voters care about both.  Just because someone is honest doesn’t mean they will be able to look after the voters’ interest.  And just because someone can look after the voters doesn’t mean they will do so.

In this world, what role does money play?  Could it be that the candidate spending a lot of money is signalling to the voters an ability to look after their interest?  If the said candidate has a family brand (dynasty), or well known clout in their party, then they would need less money to signal their ability.  But for a new candidate, money seems a relatively good signalling device.

And beyond signalling their ability to deliver, money seems to be of limited use.  It can’t swing the election decisively if the candidate can’t demonstrate their willingness to match the voters’ wish.  I suspect the candidates’ history or party support play a more decisive role here.

Seen this way, I am not sure money in elections is a problem as such.   Rather, the problem seems to me how candidates are chosen by the parties.  If parties don’t have canditates who can demonstrate ability or willingness, they sell their tickets to moneyed people.  And that’s a problem insofaras it shuts out non-moneyed people from politics.

But is the problem here really money?  Or is it that the rules surrounding political parties fail to produce strong grass root leaders (assuming that there aren’t strong grass root leaders — an assumption I am not sure would hold scrutiny)?

And in any case, the really moneyed doesn’t seem to care about elections — after all, Salman F Rahman seems to be doing fine without bothering with the 2008 election.

I am not saying my musings are necessarily right.  Rather, I am saying that the mainstream thinking underlying the Election Commissioner’s comments require further scrutiny.  Instead of all the hai hai about the insidious influence of money in our election process, wouldn’t it be better if someone actually tried to figure out why and how much money really matters?

5 Responses

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  1. Fugstar said, on February 6, 2012 at 5:02 pm

    When you are an apolitical technocrat you zone in on things like money, or corruption-as-commodity. You cant tinker with structural issues, more moral-spiritual ones (really).

    But then again, Money cleverly spent is different from money stupidly spend, all being morally equal.

    Propaganda invested through the decades into the media and institutional system sets the field in which the players compete. You see this every few years when they change the kind of liberation monologue taught through the schools.

    I suppose interviewing political candidates from yester year, a large number, about theire rises and falls, and the causes of their success and failure might yield something interesting about the various kinds of capitals, their flow and contestation in society.

    problem of course is getting hold of them, especially the opposition ones.

    Not really DS-Neilsen fodder though, nor CRAP.

    do you know what happened to the PPRC?

  2. dhakashohor said, on February 7, 2012 at 4:17 am

    Its about signalling the way you describe it.

    But it’s also about fairness. Sure you fear SQC. But, fear itself is not enough year in, year out. SQC must show that he gives something back – thus the biriyani etc. So it’s more like the ultimatum game. Only econ grad students think that 99,1 is a stable equilibrium. I’d say with your average Bangladeshi, the pie needs to be shared 90-10. 90 going to SQC/Salman and 10 going to electorate.

    There’s also the whole James Scott theory behind feudalism. The feudal lord looks after the serfs in the lean years, not pressing them for tax. In the bumper years though, he takes his overbearing tax. Maybe election years are made to be lean?

  3. jrahman said, on February 13, 2012 at 10:35 am

    Fug, no idea what happened to PPRC. Why would getting hold of old politicians be difficult? They are still there, and in my experience, happy to talk.

    DS, yes, fairness/feudalism theories could also be at play. Either way, the point is that the simplistic ‘money is the biggest problem’ story should be revisited, because I am not sure we actually understand the role money plays.

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