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Towards A Cheaper Democracy

Democracy is capital intensive, so much so that empirically, in developed and developing country alike, the candidates with more money almost always win over the candidates with less money. This dynamics make the type of person that win the office (legislative of executive) is the types that can raise the most money. As a result, the elected officials are beholden to recoup their investment. In the US, they are dictated by the lobbyists that donate to their fundraising. In Indonesia, they have to recoup their investment by seeking projects, accepting bribes, or pushing favorable legislation that benefit their donors (often at the expense of general public interest).

Can we make a cheaper democracy, one in which elections are cheaper to win (relying less on money and more on policy ideas)? The aim is to increase diversity of the people winning parliament seats so we can have more people that focus less on recouping their investment to win the office. We can replace the entrenched incumbent politicians with new blood.

This is a two phase initiative for a more inclusive policy making. After we are done with placing enough new blood in the parliament, the next phase is to dominate the dynamics of legislating new laws by these new bloods. Or put in another way, how the rising new blood faction can wrestle power away from the remaining entrenched politicians.

What makes democracy expensive? Logistics of campaign and rewarding involved parties (not limited to just political parties, but parties as in “pihak”).

What is the cost structure of a campaign? Do all of the expense counts toward winning, or is it only reliant on some of the factors, while the remaining factors are just waste of money. Even for the relevant factor, do we know the effectiveness of vote per dollar generated? Do we have cheaper alternative that produce the same number of vote or equal cost options that can drive higher number of votes per dollar?

“In a forthcoming book entitled Democracy for Sale, political scientists Ward Berenschot and Edward Aspinal write that Indonesia’s districts came to be dominated by “a netherworld of personalized political relationships and networks, secretive deal making, trading of favors, corruption, and a host of other informal and shadowy practices.”

Elections were a cornerstone of this game. They had become hugely expensive affairs, with the cost proportionate to the amount of power over lucrative projects or natural resources the winner could dole out to supporters. For bupatis governing land- and forest-rich districts, they routinely ran into the millions of dollars. Berenschot, Aspinall and other academics who have studied Indonesian elections over the past two decades have identified a uniform, systematic process by which candidates spend their money.

First, they pay off officials in their political party to ensure their selection as a candidate. Next, they recruit an extensive group of political activists and influential figures to join their “success team.” Then they provide cash for the success team to buy up the support of local powerbrokers  —  village chiefs, religious leaders and the heads of sports clubs who enjoy extensive influence in some places. These individuals in turn solicit the support of people within their own spheres of influence.

Candidates organize expensive rallies and concerts, paying for popular singers to perform and handing out free meals. Finally, they engage in what is generally referred to as a “dawn attack,” organizing dozens of supporters to hit the streets and knock on doors, handing out money directly to voters to solicit their endorsements. This, Berenschot told us, is the costliest part for candidates. He estimated the price of running for bupati at between $1.2 million to $6 million.

The funds come from local businesspeople and contractors, in the expectation of rewards if the candidate is successful. “After the election, it is payback time, and campaign donors and workers can expect to be rewarded by winning candidates with jobs, contracts, credit, projects and other benefits,” write Berenschot and Aspinall. But they also note that incumbents start from a position of advantage, having built up a “war chest  —  typically by engaging in various forms of corruption,” for the next election. “The exchange of favors and material benefits at every stage of the electoral cycle is so pervasive that it is apt to think of democracy in Indonesia as being for sale.””
Source: The Palm Oil Fiefdom

Well, it turns out that money politics is very very entrenched in the status quo. Is Indonesia beyond helping?

“Some local leaders have broken the cycle, running campaigns based on popular policies such as subsidized healthcare, and resisting corporate influence while in office. However, they have tended to break through in urban areas with more mixed economies, where no single interest is quite so overwhelmingly powerful. (An obvious example is President Joko Widodo, who began his political career as a mayor in Central Java before becoming governor of Jakarta). The authors of “Democracy for Sale” make the case that such leaders are far less likely to emerge in places where the economy is concentrated in a small number of sectors, or even in just a single one. These conditions, they suggest, tend to occur in the rural, forested areas where agribusiness and extractive industries are preeminent.”
Source: How corrupt elections fuel the sell-off of Indonesia’s natural resources

It seems that our institutional weakness is derived from a variant of resource curse. I suppose that change is easier to come from urban region first. The voters derive their livelihood from diverse sources in such a way that it hard for any one interest to dominate them all. Optimizing logistics should be possible here. Furthermore, it is also possible to buy voters with ideas rather than money. This is because of both idealist reason (people should vote to protect their rights) as well as pragmatic reason (it is prohibitively too expensive for cash bribe to be effective because of the already high income of the urban dwellers compared to their rural counterparts).

I need to learn more about the logistics of campaigns and the related institutions of elections to have a more in-depth understanding.

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