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Philippine Studies Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints
© Ateneo de Manila University
64, NO. 2 (2016) 265–87
In the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries poor people’s voting
behavior has been subversive of elite interests, causing the upper classes
to be skeptical of votes cast by the poor and to “educate” them on the
“proper” exercise of suffrage. But voting by the poor can be understood
within a “moral economy” framework in which communal interests
transcend utilitarian calculations. Populist politicians (Joseph Estrada in
the Philippines and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand) have brought localist
voting patterns to the national level, resulting in adverse reactions: an elite-
led insurrection ousted Estrada in 2001, while the Thai military staged the
coup of 2014 to break the electoral bond between pro-Thaksin politicians
and the poor.
MARK R. THOMPSON
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THOMPSON / SOUTHEAST ASIA’S SUBVERSIVE VOTERS 267
How can voting possibly be subversive? Voting is the heart of
what we have come to call democratic rule, a core civic duty.
“Making democracy work” involves citizens taking their
duties as “shareholders” in the political system seriously.
Voters choose among competing politicians, upholding
the principle of political choice and popular empowerment through the
very act of entering the voting booth and casting their ballots. No voting,
no democracy.1 To paraphrase Shakespeare, would not voting by any other
name smell as democratically sweet?
Yet, for many scholars, voting is a rather smelly business. Unconﬁrmed
(un)academic gossip has it that during a 1990s conference on Southeast
Asian politics a prominent scholar of the region’s politics compared voting
to a trip to the toilet—the voter was alone and engaged in a dirty business
that needed to be hidden away, with voters seldom emerging from the voting
booth smelling of roses. Benedict O’G. Anderson (1996, 14) has argued that
voting is “the only political act imaginable in perfect solitude . . . the polar
opposite of other forms of personal political participation.” The “logic of
electoralism” is thus “domestication: distancing, punctuating, isolating.”
It conﬁnes “active and regular participation specialists—professional
politicians—who not only have a strong interest in their institutionalized
oligopoly” but are also generally drawn from the middle classes and the elites
It is common for scholars of the Philippines, and Southeast Asia
generally, to speak of (when they are not openly denouncing) ties between
voter clients and elite patrons in terms of clientelism, or worse, the simple
buying of poor peoples’ votes. Voting has been put at the front and center
of a growing discussion of “money politics,” with voters either bought or
heavily inﬂuenced by particularistic political ties to politicians (Aspinall
2015a). Vote buying is only the most extreme form of political corruption
in this view, with voters not engaging in policy issues but only looking for
some form of short-term payoff, direct or indirect. It is not uncommon for
scholars to conclude that voting can be corrupting, particularly for poor
voters, contributing to their disempowerment. Power corrupts the powerful,
but voting appears to corrupt the powerless.
Such critiques have been a leitmotiv of discussions of electoralism since
the mid-nineteenth century in the US when political “bossism” became
rampant in large US cities (the locus classicus is Banﬁeld and Wilson 1963;
for a revisionist view see Golway 2014). Critiques of vote buying in the US
were echoed in other electoral democracies such as in the United Kingdom
(Stokes 2011). Carl Schmitt (1923/1996), in his (in)famous critique of
parliamentarianism during the interwar German Weimar Republic, argued
that voters elected parliamentarians who were without principles, who
governed according to corrupt compromises reached in proverbial smoke-
ﬁlled rooms. For Schmitt (1970, 237), who later became a Nazi party
member, “true democracy” could not be achieved with elections, but only
through a strong leader acclaimed by “the people,” leading to the emergence
of an “identity of the rulers and the ruled.”2
This Rousseauian idea of direct democracy involving leader’s intuiting
the volonté générale has long lurked behind critiques of electoral democracy,
beginning with the words of the great Genevois himself. Jean Jacques
Rousseau (1913, 74) in Du contrat social famously scoffed thus about voting
in England: “The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly
mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As
soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing.”
Or is it perhaps the other way around? Many of Southeast Asia’s voters are
poor, some desperately so. Given their poverty and everyday powerlessness,
is not voting a form of temporary empowerment? When studying a village
in eastern Nueva Ecija province in the Philippines during the early martial
law period, anthropologist Willem Wolters (1983) discovered how much
ordinary people missed voting in competitive elections under the “New
Society” authoritarian rule of Ferdinand E. Marcos. What academics and
Philippine elites saw as corrupting patronage distribution at election time,
local peasants saw as a rare opportunity to beneﬁt from redistribution from
the rich to the poor.
Studies of voting in India have found that voters treasure not just the
material rewards for their communities linked to elections but also the
idea of citizenship that voting expresses. Mukulika Banerjee (2007) goes so
far as to describe the role elections play in poor people’s lives in India as
“sacrosanct,” with voters taking the act of voting seriously and responsibly.
In the Philippines, a Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (2004)
article summarized the conclusions of a major study of Philippine elections
by the Ateneo de Manila University’s Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC
2005) as “the poor voter is a thinking voter.”
In this professorial address, I argue that poor people’s voting behavior
is often subversive of elite interests and expectations, which is one (usually
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unstated) reason why the upper classes are so skeptical of votes cast by the less
well off. I will examine, ﬁrst, how voters have mobilized against dictatorships
via elections in the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. If dictators
monopolize power and much wealth, why was it that poor voters could not
be bought off (or at least intimidated by “guns and goons”)? Next I turn to
the way “elite guardians” in newly restored electoral democracies attempt to
“educate” poor voters to exercise their right to suffrage “properly” and how
it is resisted by the disadvantaged who consider it condescending. I suggest
instead that the voting behavior of the poor can be better understood within a
framework that I term the “moral economy” of elections. There is a sense of
community that motivates poor voters when they consider whom to vote for
that transcends utilitarian calculations. Finally, I examine the widespread,
and thus “subversive,” support by poor voters for “populist” politicians:
Joseph E. Estrada in the Philippines and Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand.
The poor’s support for Estrada and Thaksin drew the wrath of elites, who
reacted by launching “people power coups,” upper-class demonstrations
backed by the military in the Philippines (2001) and Thailand (2006, 2008,
and 2014). In the Thai case, the return to authoritarian rule in 2014 shows
how elites deem the strong electoral connection between populist politicians
and the poor electorate as subversive.
The “corruption-of-poor-voters-by-unscrupulous-politicians” argument tends
to ignore the fact that when authoritarian rulers “steal” elections that they
would otherwise lose the result is often mass mobilization against dictatorship.
As Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead (1984) argued about elections
in El Salvador, among other cases, such exercises are often demonstration
elections for external actors (particularly the US). Although usually not
overly concerned about domestic legitimacy, authoritarian rulers still need
voters to play their supportive “role.” If dictators are so rich and powerful,
how can they possibly lose elections in countries where the majority of
voters are poor? Even if patronage distribution happens to be in short supply,
electoral terror by dictators, or simply widespread vote fraud, could surely
make up the difference. Yet massive antiregime protests have broken out
in several countries around the world after electoral authoritarian rulers
engaged in blatant electoral manipulation and have “stolen” elections
(Kuntz and Thompson 2009). An “imagined community” of robbed voters
joins opposition activists and regime turncoats to overthrow a dictatorship
discredited by popular balloting, even though theories of clientelism
would suggest that authoritarian rulers should have a massive advantage in
terms of what Filipinos sadly term the Three Gs: Guns, Goons, and Gold.
Stolen elections mobilize ordinary citizens, strengthen the opposition, and
divide the regime, thus helping overcome signiﬁcant barriers to collective
revolutionary action. Stolen elections are triggering events that suddenly
transform the political situation into a favorable one for mass mobilization
and the overthrow of a dictatorship.
In the Philippines Ferdinand E. Marcos was challenged during the
ﬁrst major elections held under martial law, the 1978 Batasang Pambansa
(legislative) polls. In Cebu a small opposition party, Pusyon Bisaya, surprised
many observers by winning several seats. In Metro Manila old-guard
opposition forces, in alliance with left forces, attracted strong voter support,
“losing” only after they were cheated. Despite coming up short in the
(fraudulent) counting, the opposition achieved a temporary breakthrough
in the country’s capital through a massive “noise barrage” of pot banging
and political slogans. There was also protest (that led to the arrest of several
oppositionists) after the election results were manipulated (Thompson
1995, ch. 4). Philippine voters, once they again had the chance to vote after
the declaration of martial law, relished the opportunity to cast their ballots
against the dictatorship.
The assassination of opposition leader Benigno “Ninoy” S. Aquino Jr.
as he was attempting to return to the Philippines from exile to the US in
August 1983 created a mass protest movement in the Philippines. By the end
of 1983 it had become obvious that Marcos was neither planning to resign
as demanded by opposition demonstrators nor was he about to be toppled by
ongoing demonstrations. Opposition forces split over the issue of whether to
participate in the 1984 Batasang Pambansa elections, with those groups that
did take part doing better than anticipated, although still only representing a
minority in parliament.
Marcos’s call for “snap” presidential elections for February 1986,
largely to placate his wavering US ally, proved a major miscalculation. The
opposition electoral camp was emboldened. It united behind the candidacy
of Corazon “Cory” C. Aquino, who promised to carry on her “martyred”
husband’s anti-dictatorship cause and appeared to symbolize a selﬂess
commitment to restoring democracy. Although she herself was from one of
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the richest landowning families in the Philippines and her campaign was
run by her family and elite friends, she won voter support across class lines.
A mediocre speaker, Aquino still drew huge crowds in urban and rural areas
throughout the country; these crowds often waited hours, sometimes during
downpours, for her usually delayed campaign appearances. She recounted
her and her husband’s suffering, which she linked to the general oppression
of the regime and the need to restore human rights and democracy. The
opposition revived an old slogan: Tanggapin ang pera, ilagay sa bulsa, pero
bumoto sa kursonada (Take the money [offered by pro-Marcos politicians],
pocket it, but vote for the one you like). Marcos might have had most of the
money, but the opposition had morality on its side.
The opposition revived the National Movement for Free Elections, or
Namfrel, to document inevitable electoral fraud (Hedman 1999). Despite
Marcos’s dominance of media coverage, intimidation of opposition activists
(with a number of high-proﬁle killings), and massive use of government
resources, Namfrel estimated that Cory Aquino had in fact won the
1986 election by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent against Marcos.
This was crucial in Aquino’s claim that Marcos had stolen the election
and that therefore he should resign. By participating in elections the
Aquino-led opposition gained control of the movement against Marcos,
outmaneuvering both the communists as well as military rebels led by
Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and later joined by Deputy Armed
Forces Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Fidel V. Ramos, who had also been secretly
organizing against Marcos.
When the coup plot by the military rebels was discovered, their leaders,
Enrile and Ramos, held a press conference at Camp Aguinaldo announcing
they were resigning from the Marcos government. The streets around
the camp remained empty for several hours, as these military men had
long been closely associated with Marcos. Only when Aquino ally Manila
Archbishop Jaime Cardinal Sin and Agapito Aquino, Aquino’s brother-in-
law, broadcast their support on an opposition radio station, Radio Veritas,
later that evening did large numbers of people begin to gather in front of
the rebel-held camp. The crowd—estimated to have been between one
and two million people at peak morning periods during the four days of
People Power—blocked soldiers sent by Marcos from attacking, with nuns
handing ﬂowers to government tank commanders to calm frayed nerves.
Seeing where the allegiance of the masses lay, Enrile had little choice
but to endorse the new Philippine leader, Cory Aquino. The electoral
campaign and “People Power” after the stolen elections were crucial in
defeating the Marcos dictatorship.
Filomeno Aguilar Jr. (2007, 79) employs a cockﬁght metaphor,
commonly used in Philippine popular culture to describe elections, to assess
the impact of the “snap” polls this way:
After many years, the country had its ﬁrst credible match involving
two worthy contenders. Marcos was the ‘red’ cock ﬁghting against
the ‘yellow’ hen that was Cory Aquino. Obviously, the latter was
the favorite underdog, and many citizens made a concerted effort
to prevent a fraudulent result. When it became apparent that the
election had been stolen . . . the extreme frustration over an imminent
underdog victory fueled the popular sentiment that crystallized into
People Power. The spectators in the cockpit, as it were, became so
fed up that they left the bleachers and mobbed the arena.
Cory Aquino and her “yellow” elite supporters later interpreted EDSA
as “a miracle,” a divinely sanctioned popular uprising against an evil dictator
in order to reestablish a righteous democracy. Lisandro Claudio (2013)
has pointed out that this elitist narrative denies agency to the poor masses
crucial to the success of People Power. One poor EDSA demonstrator told
Michael Pinches (1987, 101): “At EDSA rich and poor came together
but now it is like it was before—they can’t be bothered with us.” Both
as voters and as demonstrators, the poor majority of Filipinos subverted
the Marcos dictatorship and brought Cory Aquino to power, enabling a
democratic transition, even if “yellow” elites soon tried to play down the
In Myanmar (then known as Burma), the opposition National League
for Democracy triumphed in the 1990 elections (which followed the brutal
crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations in 1988). Having repressed
demonstrations, the country’s military rulers mistakenly believed they could
control the electoral process as well. Despite detaining major opposition
candidates (including its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi), the regime was stunned
by the result, with the opposition winning nearly 60 percent of the vote and
80 percent of the seats in parliament and the promilitary national unity
party receiving 20 percent of the vote but only 2 percent of the seats. The
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military refused to recognize the results and convene parliament, and instead
imprisoned dozens of opposition parliamentarians, with many others ﬂeeing
abroad (Human Rights Watch 2010). The military junta did feel compelled
to commit to a “Road Map to Disciplined Democracy” that involved writing
a new constitution, approved in a 2008 referendum, and holding tightly
controlled elections in 2010, which the opposition boycotted. The reasons
for the liberalization of military rule after 2011 are complex (Bünte 2013;
Callahan 2012; Huang 2013), but one factor was that despite repression the
opposition, electorally legitimated since 1990, never lost popular support,
with Aung San Suu Kyi symbolizing the popular will despite spending more
than two decades under house arrest. When free and fair elections were
ﬁnally held in 2015, the result was virtually the same as twenty-ﬁve years
earlier, the opposition taking just under 80 percent of the elected seats. As of
this writing, the opposition controls parliament and has elected a president,
Htin Kyaw, a close ally of Suu Kyi. Myanmar’s subversive voters emerged
from a quarter of a century of repressive military rule to replicate their earlier
deﬁant vote in favor of the opposition.
In Malaysia the 2013 national elections, in which the opposition won
more votes but fewer seats in a gerrymandered election, did not lead to the
defeat of the ruling United Malay National Organization (UMNO), whose
“implausibly claimed victory” strained its legitimacy (Case 2014). Meredith
Weiss (2013, 2016), who studies “money politics,” pointed to the role
UMNO’s huge largesse to voters played in the balloting and in authoritarian
resilience in Malaysia. But it does not explain why the majority of Malaysians,
and a signiﬁcant plurality of Malays, voted against the ruling party and for
opposition parties. Many of the poor apparently could not simply be bought
off by UMNO. It was largely due to this electoral setback that the UMNO
regime had become more vulnerable than at any time since the 1969
Emergency, which was also sparked by opposition electoral gains. Many
voters who felt robbed in this and earlier elections came out in support of
the Bersih clean election movement, which represented the most signiﬁcant
political mobilization in Malaysia in nearly two decades.
Even in tightly controlled Singapore, ordinary citizens have been using
the ballot box to demonstrate to the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) their
growing dissatisfaction with their monopoly on power. Stephan Ortmann
(2011) points out that the PAP’s vote share declined signiﬁcantly in the 2011
parliamentary elections, with the opposition winning a record number of
seats, showing that there had been “meaningful contestation for ruling power
for the ﬁrst time” in Singapore’s recent history. Although the PAP performed
better in the 2015 elections, in large part due to the nostalgia following
the death of the country’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, and the ﬁftieth-
anniversary celebrations of the city-state’s existence, the regime’s hegemony
had been broken through by the willingness of ordinary (particularly working
class) Singaporeans to vote for the opposition—despite PAP threats to punish
opposition constituents in terms of public service delivery. In the past the
PAP had responded bitterly to such mass-based opposition, claiming voters
were “immature and ungrateful for the decades of progress” so benevolently
brought to them by the PAP (Haas 1999, 174). By taking voting (too) seriously,
ordinary voters who use elections as opportunities to “subvert” such regimes
have endangered electoral authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia.
After democratization, self-proclaimed “elite guardians” in Southeast Asia
did not waste time trying to “instruct” poor voters how to behave properly
in the region’s new democracies. Claiming to be motivated by civic duty,
voter education campaigners are often biased against the poor, stereotyping
them as easily corrupted by unscrupulous politicians. Frederic Charles
Schaffer (2005) describes how “election watchdog groups, public-minded
corporations, government election bodies, reformist political parties, and
other civic educators” attempt to “clean up dirty electoral practices” through
a “disciplinary component” designed to “train voters to act ‘correctly’”
through voter education programs.
Schaffer argues that the Philippines is a particularly interesting example
of this phenomenon because of the emphasis that Filipino elites place on
civic education of poor voters as the key to achieving a “mature” democracy.
The Catholic Church and big business (particularly the Makati Business
Club) have played the leading role in funding and organizing these voter
education drives. “Civic educators” are mostly drawn from the upper and
middle classes “who ﬁnd elections to be a source of both frustration and
anxiety” because they fear that poor voters are easily swayed by “inept,
depraved, and/or corrupt” politicians, including movie actor politicians. (A
derogatory expression used by the upper classes to describe this phenomenon
among poor voters is bobotante, which combines bobo, stupid, with voter,
botante.) Thus “many in the middle and upper classes are left with a feeling
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of electoral powerlessness” because as a minority (with the “ABC” upper and
middle classes making up only a little over 10 percent of the electorate) they
cannot determine election outcomes (ibid.).
Civic-minded voter education activists in and outside of government took
a similar attitude in Thailand. Pitch Pongsawat (2007) described the discourse
of the Electoral Commission of Thailand (ECT), which was established in
the “reformist” 1997 constitution, and the Poll Watch Committee, a volunteer
electoral watchdog, as presenting electoral participation to ordinary voters in
“a ‘duty’ mode, not in the mode of ‘citizen’s rights.’” The implication, in
Pitch’s view, is that elections were turned into a “ritual of imposing political
order to perpetuate state power, rather than a state-led campaign to mobilize
people to vote in the name of promoting people’s power to make decisions
and take control of the state” (ibid., 99). The ECT’s slogan for the 2001
Thai national elections was “Election is the Duty—Choose the ‘Good’
Person for Parliament,” which drew on a long-standing conservative royalist/
nationalist narrative aimed at “corrupt” politicians. Pitch (ibid.) assesses the
implications of such sloganeering:
It is interesting that the ECT-led election-cum-democracy campaign
to promote democratic elections had, in essence, no democratic
content at all. The Election Commission deﬁnes a “good” election
candidate simply as one who is not corrupt and not a vote buyer; the
government’s anti-corruption campaign always presents the corrupt
politicians as national traitors . . . Thus, in fact, the ECT does not know
how to provide coherent details on how democratic principles can and
will ﬁx the corruption issue, beyond the idea and desire that politicians
should be a patriot and/or a royalist. The election-cum-democracy
campaign was, therefore, a moment when authoritarianism and royal
patriotism were presented in the name of democratic promotion. The
logic here is both tautological and absurd.
In both the Philippines and Thailand poor voters have developed a very
different understanding of elections than their would-be civic educators.
Poor voters generally view such voter-education campaigns as insulting,
based on stereotypes about the ease of buying the votes of the poor. This
can be termed, following Sennet and Cobb’s terminology (1972/1993), “a
hidden injury of class.” The poor see electoral politics as a (rare) form of
dignity in their lives. What elites consider irresponsible electoral behavior,
the poor view as a legitimate exercise of suffrage, which in turn largely
subverts upper-class efforts to “educate” ordinary voters. Michael Connors
(2003) has noted that in Thailand voters often have to be paid to attend voter
education seminars! This suggests just how cynical the poor often are about
In the Philippines sixteen focus-group discussions conducted with
informants by the IPC (2005) in urban and rural communities in different
parts of the archipelago revealed that upper-class views about ordinary voters
are largely based on misconceptions. With results that parallel ﬁndings in
other developing countries, the poor took their public duty as voters seriously,
understanding that campaigns can be manipulated but still seeing elections
as an avenue to bring about political change. They took an idealistic view of
the leadership qualities they seek in politicians. Although recognizing “the
negative aspects of elections” and the dubious character of many politicians,
the poor continue to believe in the importance of voting (ibid.).
It turns out that even “vote buying,” so strongly attacked by upper-class
civic educators, is more complicated than generally portrayed. A postelection
representative survey of 1,200 voters in the 2001 national polls conducted by
Pulse Asia showed only 38 percent of poor voters who took money from
candidates actually voted for the candidate or groups of candidates who gave
it to them. Twenty percent of those voters said they would have voted for
the candidate or candidates anyway. Moreover, those who took money from
politicians had mixed motives, with less than a third saying they accepted it
because they needed it and others saying that they think of it as an obligation
by politicians to be generous to their supporters. They described how local
politicians give out money as a “handout” with no obligation to vote for the
candidate, the money seen as “goodwill” rather than “vote buying” (Schaffer
2005). In a recent survey by Pulse Asia (2013), 22 percent of voters in the
2013 elections were offered money during the campaign. While 57 percent
of those offered accepted the payments, only 31 percent actually voted for the
“candidate who offered money or material thing[s] in exchange for [their]
vote” (ibid.). Such data led Schaffer (ibid., 18) to conclude that
most voters who received money still apparently exercised their
freedom of choice . . . . These observations suggest that voter
education materials which tell people not to treat their votes like
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commodities miss the mark of how most poor voters think of their
votes. The resulting friction between reality and representation
generates much of the antipathy felt by many poor voters across the
nation towards the [voter] education materials.
As part of their strategy of coping with their economic marginalization, the
underprivileged view elections from within the mutual exchange networks
in which they are embedded. They do not see themselves as “selling their
votes” to “corrupt politicians,” but believe they are voting for leaders who
will beneﬁt their local communities.
Anyarat Chattharakul (2010) offers a detailed account based on
extensive ﬁeldwork in a suburb of Bangkok of the workings of “vote
canvassing networks” (huakhanaen). Anyarat argues they cannot be viewed
through the “narrow lens of ‘vote buying.’” Rather, they are underpinned
by long-term relationships, “both hierarchical and horizontal, between the
candidate, multi-level canvassers, and voters” (ibid., 68). Taking up a similar
theme, Andrew Walker (2008, 101) writes about what he calls the “rural
constitution” in a village he studied in northern Thailand, which “provides
a basis for judgments about legitimate, and illegitimate, political power in
electoral contexts.” He elaborates (ibid., 101–3):
It is embedded in the everyday politics of discussion, gossip and
debate about the personal attributes of leaders, resource allocation,
development projects and administrative competence. It is an
important cultural domain where the everyday politics of village
life spills over into the more formal arena of electoral contest. The
rural constitution is an unwritten constitution made of numerous
informal provisions, but they can be grouped usefully under three
main headings: a common preference for local candidates; an
expectation that candidates will support their electorate; and an
emerging emphasis on strong and transparent administration . . .
[I do not] intend to deny that “vote buying” . . . [has] inﬂuence on
electoral behaviour in . . . rural Thailand. But I do insist that these
speciﬁc institutions need to be placed in the much broader context of
everyday political values.
Students of “clientelist” politics in the Philippines have come to similar
conclusions (Landé 1966; Machado 1974; Kerkvliet 1995; Quimpo 2005).
The poor are embedded in such voting networks based on kinship, personal
ties, and exchange of goods and services with local leaders acting as electoral
gatekeepers but also helping their poor clients on an ongoing basis in order to
cement the loyalty of their followers (Kerkvliet 1990, 8). Studying a village in
central Luzon, Benedict Kerkvliet (ibid., 13) found that lower-class villagers
typically put forward the claim that they are entitled to “economic security,
a decent living, and personal respect,” which parallels but also exceeds
the earlier central demand (backed up by a threat of rebellion) of peasant
politics in Southeast Asia that the right to subsistence agriculture be upheld.
Although usually no longer in open rebellion, the poor use their votes to
make demands on the rich.
The argument here is that the electoral behavior of the poor is informed
by a strong sense of communal responsibility that can be termed the “moral
economy” of elections.3 Voting behavior is based more on long-term
community interests, less on short-term individual material inducements,
than is commonly assumed. Ordinary people do not approach elections
simply as “interest maximizers” but rather in terms of long-term bonds
involving exchanges between voters and politicians based on trust and
respect. In this classic politics of mutuality, “exchanges” with politicians are
judged to be right and fair based on the extent to which they correspond to
communal norms, what Walker (2008) has termed the “rural constitution.”4
Another important aspect in the poor’s voting calculus is their high
level of socioeconomic vulnerability. Vote canvassing networks in Thailand
or “clientelist” ties in the Philippines provide security to those facing higher
risks in life. They turn to politicians they trust and who respect them,
seeking not short-term individual gain but longer-term security within their
communities (Anyarat 2010).
Given the limited interest of the upper class-centric media and many
academics, this local electoral moral economy long remained hidden at the
national level. The rich literally shut out such vote-canvassing networks.
While ordinary voters tend to live in open (ban poet) or semi-open housing,
making them accessible to vote canvassers, the wealthy dwell in closed
housing (ban pit) of guarded condominiums or separate houses not easily
accessed by canvassers (ibid., 81–84).
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This pattern is part of a phenomenon that Anek Laothamatas (1996)
has termed Thailand’s “two democracies.” The ﬁrst is the democracy of
“opinion leaders” (urban-based middle and upper classes, the mass media,
and academics), while the second is the democracy of elections dominated
by poorer, provincial voters. Anek suggests that Bangkok’s upper classes and
their newspaper and electronic media outlets pursue an idealized vision
of political parties, which they believe should only pursue programs that
advance the national interest (as elites understand it anyway). Urban elites
believe “shameful vote buying and perverted electoral behaviour” to be
rampant among provincial voters in Thai elections (ibid., also see Callahan
2005). But Anek points out that upper-class critics assume but never prove that
the poor sell their votes. Anek (ibid., 202) takes a morally relativist position,
suggesting that the “rural interpretation of democracy” is just as “legitimate
and rational as that of the urban middle class.” A similar point can be made
about the Manila-based press in the Philippines and its condescending
attitude to rural voters and the “corrupt” politicians they tend to elect. In
Anek’s terms, poor and elite voters live in different moral universes.
In a study of a Thai province, Yoshinori Nishizaki (2008) examined the
image of a leading Thai politician, Banharn Silpa-archa, in his home bailiwick
of Suphanburi province. Banharn, who brieﬂy served as prime minister in the
mid-1990s, was commonly ridiculed by the Thai upper classes and by many
scholars as an uncouth thief, a proverbial “walking ATM who dispenses dirty
money to anyone who needs it” (ibid., 435; cf. Nishizaki 2011). But Nishizaki
(2007, 360–61) argues that Banharn constructed “moral authority” in his own
province that cannot be facilely attributed “to vote-buying, patronage or pork
barrelling . . . Suphanburians support him, not because they are coerced
or bought, but for the simple reason that that they regard him as a good
leader.” Ignorance of this different “moral universe” explains why the upper
classes are able to maintain a national-level monopoly on electoral morality.
By concentrating on the supposed domination of local politics by corrupt
politicians—cavalierly dismissed in Thailand with labels such as jaopho
(“godfather,” apparently introduced into Thai after the Hollywood ﬁlm of
that name) politicians or trapo in the Philippines (“traditional politicians,”
a word that also means “dirty rag” in Tagalog) (Ockey 2004, 82; Quimpo
2005)—national elites bring electoralism into disrepute. By contrast, poor
voters experience democracy quite differently, voting not out of narrow self-
interest but rather for politicians seen to beneﬁt their community.
With the rise of populist politicians Joseph E. Estrada in the Philippines and
Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, the moral economy of elections, previously
hidden at the local level, suddenly appeared center stage in both countries.
With their charismatic, media-based campaigns, these populist politicians
could appeal directly to poorer voters, which also led many local politicians
to join their political bandwagon. Both Estrada and Thaksin faced adamant
opposition from elites threatened by the class appeals that challenged not just
their privileges but also their “moral monopoly” as self-proclaimed guardians
of democracy. Unable to weaken these politicians electorally, a coalition of
civic activists, communalist elites (the Catholic Church hierarchy in the
Philippines, royalists in Thailand), and big business groups supported their
unconstitutional overthrow in “people power”-backed coups (2001 against
Estrada; 2006, 2008, and 2014 against Thaksin).
In terms of campaign narrative, Estrada promised to help the common
tao (people) at the expense of the elite. He and his friend and fellow movie
star politician Fernando Poe Jr., popularly known as FPJ, who ran for
president in 2004, championed the cause of the poor, promising in effect, “I
will help you” (Thompson 2010). Early on Estrada stressed he was ﬁghting
against long odds to defeat entrenched elites in the Philippines. Estrada and
FPJ starred in movies dubbed “proletarian potboilers” because they played
downtrodden heroes ﬁghting for their rights against corrupt elites (Hedman
2001). These ﬁlms won a vast masa (i.e., the poor masses) audience drawing
on a “familiar trope in Philippine society and cinema—that of the outlaw/
criminal/rebel.” Through a “dialectic of recognition and appropriation,
Estrada or ‘Erap’” appears to know “the real people who lived, laboured, and
suffered nearby, round the corner” (ibid., 42).
Estrada’s slogan, Erap para sa mahirap (Erap for the poor), summed up
his appeal: his nickname “Erap” is the inverse of pare (friend), suggesting
Estrada was a friend of the poor. His image as a ﬁghter for the poor in his
movies was easily transferred to the political stage. Although Estrada did
much more to help the poor than is commonly recognized—particularly
in terms of land reform and small-denominated government bonds helping
those with limited savings to gain a higher return—he was able to produce
few clear pro-poor policy successes in his two and a half years in power
(Borras et al. 2007; Estrada 1999; Briones 2014). But Estrada retained the
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loyalty of poor voters (as both opinion polls and the pro-Estrada uprising
“EDSA Tres” demonstrated) through his politics of dignity in siding with the
For Thaksin such deﬁance took longer. Only after he came under
sustained attack by traditional Thai elites did Thaksin adopt a rhetorically
populist stance. However, when Thaksin did begin making an open bid for
ordinary voters’ support, he developed a similar storyline. He told ordinary
voters, “I belong to you,” and promised to turn “the Will of the People into
state policy” (Baker and Pasuk 2008, 68–70).
Whether a movie-star politician like Estrada or an inadvertent populist
like Thaksin, by utilizing media appeals to the disadvantaged both politicians
were able to tap into the electoral moral economy, but now at the national,
not the local, level. No longer were poor voters simply electing “corrupt”
politicians at the local level. They were now installing national populist
leaders hated and distrusted by elites. Similar to local clientelist politicians,
national populist appeals were couched in paternalistic terms, promising
to help the underprivileged while strengthening their dignity vis-à-vis the
condescending rich. By bringing this once hidden local “moral universe” to
nationwide attention, Thaksin was viewed nationally as Banharn had been
locally. In the 2001 election, Thaksin promised investment money for Thai
villages, credit for poor farmers, and health care at a nominal cost for all
Thais. Once in power, Thaksin used state-owned media under his control to
launch a weekly radio program to play up his pro-poor activities (ibid., 65).
Thaksin and Estrada’s populism made them targets of heated attacks
from traditional elites. In Thailand “yellow shirt” protestors took to the streets
shortly after Thaksin’s overwhelming victory in the 2005 elections, accusing
the reelected prime minister of massive corruption. Such charges are not
new in Thai politics and corruption appears to be widespread. However, it
seems unlikely that they were the main reason for the intensity of the largely
urban-based upper- and middle-class-based hostility to Thaksin. Calls by elite
demonstrators to dismantle the electoral process were revealing: protestors
feared the voters who kept electing Thaksin and his allies. Similarly, anti-
Estrada demonstrators accused his administration of corruption. While
undoubtedly accurate, corruption has not been unusual in Philippine
politics (with, for example, the subsequent Arroyo administration matching
Estrada peso for peso in the huge illegal gambling industry, which was the
ostensible reason for Estrada’s downfall). Like Thaksin, Estrada may have
discredited himself in the eyes of the upper and middle classes, but he did
not lose his base of support among the poor. Claims that a pro-Estrada
crowd that nearly overthrew his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, a few
months later in May 2001 (known as “Edsa Tres”), were “manipulated” by
“unscrupulous” politicians ring hollow, given the open elite support for the
earlier “Edsa Dos” that overthrew Estrada. Unable to win in the electoral
arena dominated by populist politicians and supported by ordinary voters,
elites launched military-backed insurrections instead.
Poor voters commonly subvert elite interests and expectations when they
cast their ballots. They also often act contrary to what might be predicted
by a “money politics” perspective common in scholarship about elections
in the region. Dictators have a virtual monopoly on “guns, goons, and
gold”—yet they have been challenged electorally in several Southeast Asian
countries. While in Malaysia and Singapore electoral authoritarian regimes
continue to cling to power despite ample evidence of voter anger, in the
Philippines “robbed” voters mobilized against the Marcos dictatorship after
the manipulation of the “snap” presidential election in 1986 to overthrow
it in People Power protests. After the restoration of electoral democracy,
self-appointed elite electoral “guardians” in the Philippines and Thailand
conducted nationwide voter education campaigns to convince “ignorant”
poor voters not to vote for “corrupt and irresponsible” politicians. But such
campaigns were condescending, speaking of voting as one of the poor’s
“duties,” not as a major part of their citizen responsibilities that studies
in the Philippines (IPC 2005; Aguilar 2007) and elsewhere such as India
(Banerjee 2007) show is how the poor themselves view voting. Aguilar (2007,
72) points out that Philippine elections “are hugely popular, taken seriously,
and draw very high (80–85 percent) participation rates.” Recent studies
in the Philippines have also pointed to how the extent of “vote buying”
is overestimated and its signiﬁcance overstated (Schaffer 2005; Pulse
Asia 2013). The poor’s voting behavior can be better understood within a
framework that can be termed the moral economy of elections in which
poor voters cast their ballots based on communalist considerations (“who
will help our village or area”) and not simply individual beneﬁt (“what’s in
it for me?”). This sense of mutuality cultivated by poor voters when deciding
how to vote transcends mere utilitarian calculations, as a large literature
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on vote canvassing networks in Thailand and patron–client politics in the
Worse than the poor’s support of “local champions,” considered by elites
as corrupt politicians, were national populist politicians whom “subversive”
poor voters supported in droves. Estrada in the Philippines and Thaksin in
Thailand in a sense “nationalized” this electoral “moral economy” by using
the media to make promises to help the poor. They both became genuinely
popular because of their respectful attitude toward the poor and/or the pro-
poor programs they implemented. Under the pretext of corruption charges,
elites launched “people power coups” backed by the military against Estrada
in the Philippines in 2001 and repeatedly against Thaksin and his successors
in Thailand in 2006, 2008, and most recently in May 2014. In the Thai
case, the return to authoritarian rule in 2014 can be understood largely as
a reaction to the seemingly unbreakable electoral connection between pro-
Thaksin politicians and the poor electorate. In Southeast Asia “subversive”
poor voters remain a major elite concern.5
This professorial address is a reconstruction and reworking of a keynote speech of the same title
delivered at the 2014 Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA) International Conference,
“Gazing Out: Locating Asia in the Philippine Political Worldview,” 10–11 April 2014 (resched-
uled to 2–3 May 2014), Graduate and Continuing Education Building, University of the Philip-
pines Visayas, Iloilo Campus, Iloilo City, Philippines. I would like to thank the PPSA board and
its then president Herman Joseph S. Kraft for this kind invitation and for those (still) attending
the conference (despite its rescheduling due to inclement weather) for their feedback. I also wish to
thank two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful comments that I believe have strengthened
the paper, the editorial team of Philippine Studies: Historical and Ethnographic Viewpoints for
their constructive editing suggestions, and the journal’s editor, Filomeno V. Aguilar Jr., for his
1 Of course, it could be objected that in electoral authoritarian regimes, where voting may be free
but not fair, regular balloting is not enough for the system to be considered democratic. But it is
clearly a necessary, if not sufﬁcient, condition.
2 It might be objected that, as a Nazi, Schmitt had no interest in “democracy” whatsoever. In fact,
he never subscribed, at least in terms of his own political theory, to the Nazi racist ideology,
attempting instead to justify authoritarian rule through decisive leadership legitimated through
plebiscitary, Rousseauian-style popular acclamation. In fact, Schmitt was forced to resign from
a high-ranking Nazi position when he was attacked in an SS publication for not being a “true”
anti-Semite, citing his earlier writings that had criticized Nazi racial theories.
3 This use of the term “moral economy” is indebted to James C. Scott (1976), who, in turn, was
inﬂuenced by E. P. Thompson (1971). The main thesis of the moral economy school is that the
poor insist that social relations be structured to insure communal subsistence, not individual
advantage. Given the precariousness of their circumstances, risk reduction is more impor tant
than interest maximization. While Thompson applied the concept of moral economy to bread
riots in eighteenth-century England, Scott studied peasant rebellions in twentieth-century
Southeast Asia. In this essay, rather than protests, the focus is on the poor’s attitude toward
4 It might be objected at this point that even if the votes of the poor are informed by communalist
preferences after a campaign is over an unjust political system has been preserved, if not
reinforced, through the electoral system. It is true that the poor do “return to the same old
system” after an election where they remain relatively weak. But it is more than this. They are
constitutive of an electoral system that gives them, as has been shown above, some real power
(surprising considering that they are poor and presumed powerless), including a veto over
leaders they see as not adequately serving their communities. The general point is that given the
context of the (inevitable) weakness and vulnerability of the poor it is surprising that the “same
old system” gives the poor any power at all via their votes.
5 In the 2016 Philippine presidential campaign (ongoing as of this writing) one of the presidential
candidates has been a cause for elite worry. Using pro-poor populist appeals, Vice President
Jejomar “Jojo” Binay did well in early opinion polls, despite corruption allegations concerning
his time as Makati mayor. Elite fears of Binay paralleled earlier worries about Estrada, whom the
rich saw as corrupt but remained popular among poor voters (ANC 2015). The rise of Rodrigo
“Digong” Duterte in the polls, who has run with a call for restoring “peace and order” even if it
proves to be at the expense of human rights, is a more complicated case because his strongest
base is not the poorest voters (“E” in Philippine election polling lingo) but with elites and lower
middle-class voters (Flores 2016). Duterte’s neoauthoritarian appeals to elites and the lower
middle class make his election strategy similar to Prabowo Subianto’s bid for the Indonesian
presidency in 2014, as he also called for strong-armed tactics to “restore discipline,” which
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is acting head and professor of politics, Department of Asian and
International Studies (AIS), and director, Southeast Asia Research Centre (SEARC), City University
of Hong Kong, Kowloon Tong, Kowloon, Hong Kong. He worked at universities in Germany (Muenster,
Munich, Dresden, and Erlangen) and in the United Kingdom (Glasgow) before moving to Hong Kong.
Thompson was a Rotary Foundation scholar at the University of the Philippines in the Political Science
M.A. program in 1984–1985. The Anti-Marcos Struggle, based on his PhD thesis, was published by
Yale University Press and New Day Publishers in 1995. Thompson has been a visiting fellow at the
Institute of Philippine Culture, Ateneo de Manila University (1986–1987); a visiting scholar at the
Department of Political Science, the University of California, Berkeley (2001); a visiting professor,
Department of Political Science, Keio University (2007); the Lee Kong Chian Distinguished Fellow for
Southeast Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore (2008) and at Stanford University
(2009); and a nonresident fellow at the Department of Political Science, De la Salle University (since
2011). He has published on Philippine, Southeast Asian, and more general comparative politics
themes and is the author of Democratic Revolutions: Asia and Eastern Europe (Routledge, 2004) and
coeditor of Dynasties and Female Political Leaders in Asia: Gender, Power and Pedigree (LIT Verlag,