Payoffs, Parties, or Policies

“Money Politics” and Electoral Authoritarian Resilience in Malaysia

Author: Meredith L. Weiss


A key part of what sustains electoral authoritarianism over the long term is genuine popular support. Dominant parties, particularly in a developmental context (the primary setting for such regimes), and especially where elections are more than minimally meaningful, curry performance legitimacy and loyalty not just through skewed rules and coercion, but through material incentives: “money politics.” If challengers can find a way to de-emphasize support based on material inducements, they stand a chance of securing gains via elections, rather than relying on economic downturns to shrink patronage coffers. Drawing on extensive original ethnographic and survey data from electoral-authoritarian Malaysia, I explore campaign finance and distributions on both sides in the latest, most regime-threatening general election, which was held on May 5, 2013. Evidence suggests that it was by disentangling clientelist networks from the patronage they so often serve to disseminate, allowing a focus on more programmatic than particularistic appeals, that the opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance so nearly bested the long-dominant Barisan Nasional regime, which has held power since 1973. Persona—being known and seen among the electorate—still matters as much as before, but relies less consistently than in the past on targeted patronage as a premise for loyalty.

Countries: Malaysia

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© Meredith L. Weiss