Vote buying is a phenomenon found all over the world. Vote buying differs slightly from clientelism in that the latter often entails more durable relationships based on repeated interactions, relationships and symbolism. The buying of votes, on the other hand, can be viewed as a more episodic and transactional event. As a political strategy, clientelism is infinitely preferable, as it is associated with much high predictability of outcomes. A Mexican PRIista or Argentinian Peronista has likely been supporting the same party for years and is well enmeshed in a system of favors, relationships, symbolic exchanges and functions to demonstrate expressions of party loyalty (see studies by Javier Auyero for the case of Peronist clientelism).
In Guatemala, however, political parties do not have nearly the resources, organization, or ideology to establish such structures and relationships. Guatemalan political parties are incredibly ephemeral, often functioning for only 2 or 3 elections before fading into irrelevance and being disbanded. Thus, parties often rely on more abstract promises and proposals to influence voter preference. But parties have also had a long history of offering more tangible inducements, such as food, fertilizer, building materials, etc. A recent (2012) study the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Accion Ciudadana and the University of Notre Dame examined the phenomenon of vote buying in Guatemala and provides some concrete evidence on the prevalence of this activity.
The investigation found that 37% of respondents reported being aware of vote buying in their locality. Only 4.4% of respondents reported that their vote was influenced by vote buying activities however. Due to the likelihood of under reporting the study utilized a methodology to establish a more accurate estimate of actual participation in vote buying, arriving at a figure of 17%. Given Guatemala’s poverty and lack of established political parties, one might view this figure as rather low. It would seem logical that the cost of a vote for Guatemala’s poor majority would be rather economical for political parties versus the rather high cost of advertising, especially buying television air time. Yet vote buying is unpredictable. Individuals may accept material inducements from many parties and vote for none of them on election day. Improvements in electoral practices, particularly disallowing individuals to enter with cell phones, and thus photograph their ballot to confirm their loyalty, have reduced the efficiency of one-off vote buying transactions.
Yet in certain localities, vote buying is prevalent. The following table presents the results of a survey in 7 neighborhoods of a low income urban area on the periphery of Guatemala City. Survey respondents were asked to identify any of the following 4 activities undertaken by political candidates and parties in their neighborhood during the most recent elections in 2011: General promises and commitments; Promised personal benefits; Campaign paraphernalia, food and trinkets; and materials or a community project.
The evidence from the survey shows that political candidates and party operators are much more prone to promises, of a general or personal nature, than to opening the coffers to provide tangible benefits. And when they do opt to make use of campaign funds for material inducements, they are more likely to be of an insignificant nature (party shirts and hats, food, etc) than a contribution of materials to a community project, or carrying out a project on their own.
Is this good news for political consolidation in Guatemala? Its hard to say. If it is a demonstration that political parties are shifting away from vote buying to more ideological and policy based platforms, this would be a positive step. However, if it is simply a political calculation that investing in material vote buying is less cost effective than broader advertising campaigns, then it may not signify any improvement in Guatemala’s weak political party system. In either case, in the absence of more stable political parties that represent the interests of the majority of Guatemalans, the country’s democracy will remain fragile and even superficial.