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How much is your vote worth?

Nearly one in seven people across Asia is offered bribes in exchange for votes

Illustration by Meel Tamphanon

Democracy should not come at a cost: vote-buying is a disturbing trend across Asia -- a region that is no stranger to authoritarian regimes.

Vote-buying is only one of the symptoms of a systemic lack of political integrity that weakens the trust citizens have in their elected representatives and limits their ability to speak up freely and safely against corruption.

In the latest Global Corruption Barometer -- Asia, we asked nearly 20,000 people across 17 countries whether they were ever offered a bribe in exchange for votes. The results were surprising.

Our results show nearly one in seven citizens is offered bribes in exchange for votes in national, regional or local elections. Vote-buying is highest in Thailand and the Philippines, where 28 per cent of citizens are offered a bribe in return for their vote.

Vote-buying rates, by country*

*Percentage of citizens offered bribes in exchange for votes.

Too often, political leaders act in their own self-interest at the expense of the citizens they serve. To have any chance of curbing corruption, we need to ensure that leaders act with greater integrity.

Political integrity means that people with political power consistently act for the common good, while providing equal and meaningful access to those affected by their decisions.

Often one of the root causes of political corruption is election abuse, including fraudulent, undeclared funding of political parties, vote-buying or the spread of fake news during campaigns.

Across the region, a majority of citizens (55 per cent) believe that their government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. This opinion is particularly common in Mongolia and the Maldives, where 68 and 70 per cent of citizens, respectively, believe this to be the case.

Country in focus: The Maldives

Over the last decade, domestic and international election observation missions have flagged vote-buying as a serious issue in the Maldives. The most common form of vote-buying and influencing of votes through patronage is through cash “gifts” or “donations” ranging from MVR4,000 to MVR20,000 (approximately US$300 to US$1,300).

Other forms include providing funds for families who require health care and other necessities, but cannot afford it on their own, to compel them to vote in a certain way.

Vulnerable groups in communities are also exploited in exchange for their votes, especially young people who are victims of substance abuse and addiction.

Despite allegations of widespread vote-buying, especially during parliamentary elections, no legal case has been prosecuted to date. This is primarily due to loopholes in the legal framework.

While the Penal Code and General Elections Act recognises gift-giving to influence voting as an act of bribery, donations made by candidates directly or indirectly are not considered vote-buying.

Consequently, candidates and political parties continue to shower schools, community-based organisations and island communities with donated “gifts” during campaigns.

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