Whenever elections are around the corner, the issue of vote-buying surfaces. Vote-buying is an act that has occurred for centuries, but the word itself only entered the political lexicon in the 21st century. Vote-buying has become widespread and has numerous ramifications on elections and the election process.
Depending on the context of the voter and the political party candidate, vote-buying is an economic exchange to influence a political decision. This act is done in secrecy by the majority of its proponents, while others damn the consequences and do it in the open. The political actors engaged in this activity during the recently concluded primaries for the 2023 general elections and the 2022 Ekiti governorship election held in June 2022.
According to political scientists and analysts, the impacts of vote-buying have ramifications on the practice and institution of democracy in a country. Therefore, what is vote-buying, its causes, and its effects?
Meaning of vote-buying
Vote-buying is the process whereby politicians and/or political parties seek, attempt to buy votes, or eventually induce voters to get their votes on or before election day. These inducements take the form of financial resources (money), goods and services, or pledges (such as promises of special favours or treatment).
This phenomenon entails political parties enticing voters to come out before and on election day and vote for their preferred candidate(s). The political actors use this method to influence the voters to change their electoral behaviour in exchange for tangible rewards. They (political actors) willingly offer to pay, while voters receive the payment on their own accord upon toeing the line of the payer.
The most common form of vote-buying across the world is the attempt to distribute money to voters in the polling queue or around the polling station on election day and food items just before elections. It is, therefore, not a surprise when vote-buying is described as a voter selling his or her vote to the highest bidder.
Apart from the physical cash (money) circulated on the day of polling, the promises offered by politicians and political parties before election day include assurance of offering a contract, securing amends, or provision of individual gifts or specific infrastructure for a community. Politicians/candidates and political parties generically offer broad promises during campaigns, while the agents of candidates and/or political parties induce voters with money on election day on behalf of their principals.
Vote-buying occurs in developed democracies such as the United States of America and Canada and developing democracies such as Nigeria, Brazil, Argentina, Kenya, Mexico, and The Philippines. The voters mainly targeted in nascent democracies by politicians and political parties are the people in the C, D, and E socio-economic classification, which are people of lower-income status. Also, in some matured and developed democracies, voters are even paid to abstain from voting on election day to amplify the chances of a particular contestant not winning the poll.
It is important to highlight that this activity is illegal and is designated as electoral fraud. A good number of countries have enacted legislation to tackle this menace.
Vote-buying in Nigeria
History of vote-buying in Nigeria
Vote-buying has, unfortunately, become an integral part of Nigeria’s modern politics. However, its history can be traced back to the Second Republic (1979-1983), when politicians flaunted their wealth brazenly during the conventions and the primaries of some of the major political parties at that time.
However, the buying of votes that Nigerians know today started during the campaigns and primaries of the two major political parties – the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the National Republican Convention (NRC) – for the 1993 presidential election. The parties that took part in the 1993 general elections spent between N120 million to N1 billion in vote-buying during primaries, the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), a civil society group, revealed in 2019. Vote-buying was one of the reasons that Ibrahim Babangida, the country’s Military President, mentioned for annulling the 1993 presidential election, which was adjudged to be the freest and fairest in the country’s history.
Since the country’s return to democracy in 1999, vote-buying has become more prevalent in Nigeria’s election cycle. The general elections that were conducted in 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, and 2019, as well as the off-cycle polls conducted in the same period under review, have witnessed the distribution of cash, food, and valuable items among the electorate at an astronomical rate every election year. In fact, following the introduction of technology since the 2011 elections, vote-buying has assumed a frightening dimension as politicians and political parties have seen and utilised it as their major means to influence the process because the chances for rigging are constricted by each election year.
Current law against vote-buying in Nigeria
Section 121(1) and (2) of the 2022 Electoral Act addresses violations concerning bribery and conspiracy. This section stipulates that anyone who directly or indirectly attempts to induce any voter with gifts, loans, promises or procurement, attempts to or canvasses voters with money, or anybody who receives money or any other valuable consideration after voting or refrains from voting has committed an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N500,000 or imprisonment for one year or both.
Section 127 of the same Act stipulates that any person who directly or indirectly corruptly gives out money after the date of an election has been announced to influence a voter to either vote a particular way or abstain from voting, or when a voter accepts money and any other form of inducement during the electioneering period has committed an offence and is liable on conviction to a fine of N100,000 or imprisonment for one year or both.
Essentially, the provisions of the Electoral Act above simply state that both the payer and receiver of vote-buying will be arrested and prosecuted for violating election law.
Methods/styles of vote-buying in Nigeria
Vote-buying occurs at multiple stages of the election season in Nigeria, especially during the party primaries, campaign period, and election day. Two main methods are employed by politicians and political parties in conducting this activity.
The first method used by the political actors is offering cash to vote. For this approach, the political actor(s) induces the voter with cash, and payment is made on election day but paid before the actual voting. The payer seeks and gets the assurance of the voter that he or she will vote for a particular candidate or political party. The payment is made either secretly or in the open within the vicinity of the polling station or a distance away. Aspirants jostling for elective positions during their party primaries induced the party delegates through this method.
The vote-for-cash method is another method of vote-buying. In this instance, the payer demands the voter provide evidence that he or she voted for a preferred candidate or political party before payment is made.
The methods by which the voter provides the evidence are:
- The voter intelligently raises the ballot paper for a political agent to visually confirm that he or she voted for the preferred candidate or political party
- The voter takes a photograph in the voting cubicle and shows it to a political agent to demonstrate that he or she voted for the preferred candidate or political party
- The political agent positions him or herself near the voting cubicle to see the voter thumbprinting beside the logo of the preferred candidate or political party
Once confirmation is made, the voter is rewarded by the political agent with cash within the vicinity of the polling station or a distance away. There were numerous instances of this method utilised by the political actors during the 2022 Ekiti State governorship election. The political agents told the voters in the queue in Yoruba “to collect money so that they can cook soup at night.”
Causes of vote-buying
There are several reasons why vote-buying is rampant. They are:
Poverty is the root cause, while voters agree to be induced by political actors. For example, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said in 2020 that 82.9 million Nigerians live on less than $1 a day, representing 40 per cent of the population. With such a high number of people lacking the financial resources and essentials for a minimum standard of living, it is, therefore, not surprising when they agree to collect N5,000 (just under $8, using the parallel market rate of N600=$1) to sell their vote to the highest bidder.
To such persons, they are not mortgaging their future; rather, they are only looking for the means to survive. The political actors know this and continue to weaponize and perpetuate poverty, using it as a tool to claim political power.
Desperation by politicians
Politicians and political parties worldwide are desperate to get power and will, therefore, use all available means, legal and illegal, to ensure that they are elected. They consider the amount expended on campaigns and insist they cannot afford to lose the elections. They also dream of the thought of having enormous power and wealth they can gain if they are elected into office.
So, apart from violence and snatching ballot boxes, political actors see vote-buying as a crucial way to get to power. They either induce voters to vote for their parties or to abstain from voting (especially in the stronghold of their opponents). They see this phenomenon as a way to tactically outsmart their opponents in winning elections.
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Many voters, especially in developing countries, view politicians and political parties as entities that use governance to corruptly amass wealth while in office and forget to implement developmental policies for the good of society. The obscene display of wealth, affluence and power by these political actors, their apparent neglect of the electorate who voted them into the office and the unfulfillment of election promises over the years have only further amplified the thoughts of the average voter.
This betrayal of trust by the political actors has now forced the voters to demand gratification every election cycle before they go out to vote for the preferred candidate or political party canvassed by the former. In Nigerian parlance, it is called “share of the national cake.” The voters do this because they know it is mainly during the election year that they come in contact with their representatives and the politicians have subsequently weaponised this excuse to induce the electorate with vote-buying.
Introducing technology into the electoral process, particularly in Africa, South America, and Asia, has drastically reduced the chances of political actors rigging elections. The use of handheld electronic devices to read biometric voter identity cards, the tracking of election materials, and the electronic transmission of results have made manipulating election results harder for political actors.
Knowing that the traditional ways of rigging (planting people without proper means of identification to visit random polling units to vote, snatching and massive thumbprinting of ballot papers, and stuffing of unaccounted ballot papers and carrying them to the collation centres) are largely unfeasible, political actors have resulted to vote-buying as a means of enchanting their chances to win and checkmating their opponents.
Large war chest for political actors to prosecute elections
This is another major point that facilitates political actors to brazenly engage in vote-buying. Although in some countries, there are laws that put a cap on political expenses, they are largely ambiguous in definition and practicality.
For example, Section 88 of the recently assented 2022 Electoral Act in Nigeria jacked up the spending limit for presidential candidates to N5 billion, while N100 million and N70 million, respectively, are the new limits for senatorial and House of Representatives candidates. The maximum amount of election expenses for state House of Assembly and local government chairmanship candidates is N30 million. Councillors contesting for seats in local government areas are not to exceed the sum of N5 million for their campaigns.
Taking into cognisance the aforementioned statistics of the poverty rate in Nigeria, such amounts of money spent by politicians are just so immoderate and detrimental to the country’s economy. Although Section 89 of the same Act defines the period of election expenses as from the time Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) publishes the notice for election schedule up to the election day, it only limits that period to political parties and not the candidates themselves, who even begin to spend money from the period leading up to the primaries.
Also, while the political parties are mandated to file a return of their election expenses to INEC within six months after the election (which is a LONG TIME), there is no such provision obligating the candidates to do such.
Therefore, candidates and their political leaders, especially those who enjoy the power of incumbency, are at will to lavishly spend money on vote-buying to achieve their aim – even though there is a law to checkmate them – because the provisions of the law addressing election finance is vague.
Lack of arrest and prosecution
This point is closely related to the immediate past point explained. Over the years, political actors have been able to blatantly spend money on vote-buying and other things in flagrant violation of the law without any repercussions. Previous electoral acts in Nigeria stipulated that specified sanctions be meted out to candidates and political parties who contravene the election expenses’ limit, yet there has not been any successful arrest and prosecution of people or entities who have defaulted, especially the prominent political parties and their candidates.
With the inability or limited capacity of INEC to identify and, more importantly, prosecute offenders, the political actors continue to flagrantly spend money on inducing voters, knowing there is little or no chance of being caught or the money being traced to them, per adventure that anyone is arrested.
Negative effects of vote-buying
As mentioned in the prologue, there are consequences for vote-buying, and they are mainly negative. These negative effects are:
Election of unpopular leaders
A direct implication of vote-buying is the election of unpopular leaders by the electorate. The inducement of the electorate means that voters have turned a blind eye to capable candidates and elect unwanted politicians, who will get their mandate and govern at the expense of the majority. This, therefore, indicates that people who are not fit to govern may be elected and will rule with ignorance. And this leads to…
Lack of accountability by corrupt leaders
Because of the corrupt nature in which they got into office, political officeholders who utilised vote-buying during the elections are deemed to be more interested in recouping their investments through the looting of the treasury rather than providing good governance, and the dividends of democracy promised to the electorate during the campaign.
Those in positions of authority believe they have little or nobody to be answerable to as they did not test their popularity to get elected. These leaders make unfavourable decisions and misuse resources from the people’s commonwealth, knowing that they will face little accountability from the electorate who sold their vote.
Voters get induced to vote on election day
As earlier mentioned, many persons in developing democracies claim that they do not participate in elections because they have “not been mobilised” to vote. The failure of politicians and political candidates to provide money to prompt voters does not spur them to vote.
However, this is not good for democracy. By waiting to receive money from political actors before voting, the voters misuse the power given to them by their country’s constitution at every given period. Financial inducement and gratification should not be the basis to encourage people to come out and participate in what ordinarily should be their civic duty. If people are encouraged to vote based on money, then it means that the highest bidder, not the most competent person, wins an election, which would be detrimental to the people in the long run because of the…
Entrenchment of poverty
When politicians notice that the voters are always susceptible to vote-buying and their actions provide the desired results, they will hardly get to improve the people’s standard of living. Instead of implementing good policies and carrying out good actions to mitigate the challenges of the electorate, members of the political class who came in through vote-buying will continue to constrict the enabling environment to make it more difficult for the people to succeed. They weaponise and entrench poverty the more so that the voters will depend on them for financial handouts and gifts every election cycle.’
The bastardisation of the electoral process and democracy
Whenever vote-buying becomes the order of the day for an election, it questions the credibility, legitimacy, and integrity of such a poll. It also casts doubt on the ability of the elected person to properly function in office as he or she did not test his or her popularity fairly, which is what election is basically about.
Suppose a country’s electoral process is so monetised to the extent that only rich politicians or those sponsored by political parties dominate the political landscape. In that case, it is a danger for elections and democracy in general because money politics schemes out the “haves not” and people with integrity from actively participating in the entire process. This is because only those who view politics as investments can afford to participate in and contest elections in such countries. Such a practice is antithetical to democracy, which encourages popular political participation.
Remedies to vote-buying
- The adequate political education of the electorate on the need to shun vote-buying by the electoral umpire, political parties, politicians, and the media
- Review and strengthen electoral laws, especially provisions on the secrecy of ballot by voters (kudos to INEC for prohibiting the use of camera phones and other capturing devices in the polling booth/cubicle) and campaign finances and election expenses of the political actors
- Arrest and prosecution of political agents and their principals who engage in vote-buying by law enforcement agencies
- Effective monitoring of political parties’ campaign finances by electoral management bodies
- Strengthen and improve the economy by governments at all levels to empower their citizens and reduce the level of poverty