Vote buying has always been a regular feature of Philippine elections. It has been successfully used by moneyed politicians, often belonging to political dynasties, local gentry classes, and traditional clans, to entice the electorate to vote or not to vote for specific candidates.
In the recently concluded mid-term Philippine elections, quite a number of independent poll watchdogs observed that vote buying has become rampant compared to previous electoral exercises.
Some analysts pointed out that the automation of Philippine elections forced many candidates, especially at the local levels, to buy votes to ensure victory. That is because with automation, the avenues for electoral cheating became limited and more expensive. Thus, moneyed politicians were compelled to re-focus their so-called “black operations” through vote buying.
A Closer Look at Vote Buying
There are different forms of vote buying in the Philippines. This type of “transactional politics” has evolved through several decades, and entrenched political operators have “perfected” the practice. Some of the most common forms of vote buying include:
1. Actual monetary rewards – Individual voters are given cash in return for their votes. In some cases, politicians buy votes to prevent “unfriendly” voters from casting their ballots. This is done to weaken the bailiwicks of a rival candidate.
2. Providing goods and services – In many areas in the Philippines, politicians distribute grocery items, food stuff, rice, school supplies, gift cards, and other consumer goods to entice the people to vote for them. The goods are often made available during campaign sorties.
The practice of providing goods and merchandise has been deemed illegal by the Philippine Commission on Elections. To get around the law, politicians distribute coupons instead. These coupons can be redeemed by voters from a local village leader or from a known political operator.
3. The vote or “gabot” practice. Gabot is a Visayan term which means to uproot. The “vote or gabot” practice is usually employed by politicians who own large tracts of urban lands where informal settlers can be found. Because these politicians own the land, they can intimidate residents to vote for them or for their chosen candidates. If the voters defy the land owner, then they will be uprooted, literally, from their places of residence after elections. Thus, the term “gabot” came about. Although this practice has elements of intimidation and coercion, it can still be considered a form of vote buying albeit in a more violent way.
There are still other “creative” forms of vote buying that Philippine politicians employ during election season. The most prevalent practice, however, is the distribution of cash for voters. Giving out cash is discreet, less cumbersome, and can be quickly implemented. It also provides instant gratification for the target voters. Most important of all, politicians can always deny that they provided money to buy voters because the transactions are undocumented with no paper trail.
The Process of Vote Buying in the Philippines
A successful vote buying operation is primarily dependent on the existing political organizations of politicians. Without an organization, a candidate will never be able to launch a massive vote buying operation that will have an impact during election proper.
The process of buying votes follows a four-step approach: (a) mapping; (b) preparation; (c) operation; (d) monitoring.
This is the planning stage. During a mapping session, a candidate will gather his or her trusted village leaders, political operators, organizers, and influential local contacts. These personalities are usually village officials such as the barangay (village) chairman or select councilors.
The mapping stage can be considered as a strategy session. Each local leader will give a general assessment of the strength of the running candidates in his area of jurisdiction. The local leader will then provide a detailed description of each political block existing in the village. The blocks will be divided into (a) sure voters; (b) vacillating/undecided voters; (c) “enemy” voters; and (d) uncompromising/straight voters.
Note that the last category (the uncompromising voters) are usually described in these sessions as “can not be bought.” In the village level, these are the politically conscious voters block. Politicians usually have separate campaign strategies for this block. If the number of uncompromising voters is negligible, they will be ignored in the planning process.
Vote buying operations will be focused on the vacillating/undecided voter block. In any given village, this block is usually in the majority especially at the first stages of the campaign. The budget for buying votes, therefore, will be pegged on the actual number of undecided voters. The leaders will also brief the running politician on how much money would be required to sway these voters.
In the case of “enemy” voters, political operators usually employ two kinds of strategies. First, if the “enemy” is stronger that the sure voters, a vote-suppression operation will be adopted. This means that vote buying activities will focus on preventing the “enemies” from casting their ballots. This is the maximum target. The minimum target would be to allow the “enemy” voters to go to the polls but with a rider that they will not vote for the rival politician.
Another strategy to overcome “enemy” votes is to outbid the rival politician. If the other party is offering P300 per voter, the political operators will try to offer more in order to sway these so-called “enemy” voters.
For the sure voters, they are given incentives like cash, free transportation to and from the polling precincts, free lunch and snacks, and other largesse. These sure voters are cultivated by politicians and their operators.
Take note that the mapping stage is not just a single event. Several meetings will be held during the entire stretch of the election campaign season. These meetings serve as intelligence gathering sessions. Plans and projections are adjusted based on fresh data and information gathered by the local village leaders and operators.
One week before election day, a politician will set-up his or her so-called “war room.” This war room will serve as the nerve center of the vote buying operation. It is a discreet place where money will be counted and prepared in time for the special operation stage. Only the most trusted individuals are allowed inside the war room.
A typical “war room” is just an ordinary room within the campaign headquarters of a politician. It is devoid of any furniture except for a table, a filing cabinet, and a couple of chairs. The stacks of cash, usually in P50 and P100 denominations, are hidden inside the war room.
There is always a guard at the door, two to three assistants, and one operator who acts as a trusted supervisor. The guard ensures that no one will stray into the secret room. The assistants are responsible for putting money and the sample ballots in the pre-marked ordinary white envelopes. The operator/supervisor ensures that everything is in order and running smoothly. He is also responsible for ensuring that no pilferage will occur.
The envelopes with money are sorted per village. They will be placed into a marked box. These pre-marked boxes are given to local village leaders who are responsible for distribution to individual voters or families. It only takes a couple of days to prepare the money needed to buy votes.
Special operations are conducted on the eve of election day. Local leaders usually distribute money during the night or at the wee hours of the morning. This stage is a simple distribution operation. The special operations groups are normally divided into teams in order to facilitate faster distribution. The teams are provided with transportation. Local leaders are also rewarded with extra cash as compensation for their efforts.
If there are no unforeseen events during the closing days of the campaign period, this stage will not be given much attention. However, there are times when a rival candidate will try to out-buy a contender. In this case, the local leader will alert his campaign headquarters and brief his principal about the situation on the ground. If the counter-operation of a rival candidate will affect the outcome of the elections, a second wave of vote buying operation will be set in motion. Depending on the financial capability of a candidate, another set of envelopes will be prepared. This time, the amount of money given to the voters will be greater so as to ensure electoral victory.
Such massive vote buying operations are conducted in a highly discreet manner. At the village level, however, these operations are an open-secret. People are aware that special operations are ongoing but no one has been prosecuted for this kind of illegal election activity.