Remittances and Vote Buying

December 23, 2018
The money that emigrants send back to their home countries constitutes one of the most important sources of foreign revenue for Latin America. Remittances help families to smooth risks and facilitate their access to health and education. Remittances also reduce poverty. While much has been researched about the developmental consequences of remittances, only recently have political scientists started to look into the political consequences of these monetary inflows. 
A fascinating research agenda has set out to explore how recipients alter their political behavior as a consequence of the income effect of remittances. Several articles have pointed out that this extra income has the capacity to sever clientelistic ties by making recipients less vulnerable to vote buying. This, in turn, has consequences for recipients’ political behavior, because they can now afford to vote their conscience or not vote at all, damaging the electoral fortunes of incumbents and facilitating political change. For instance, according to research by Tobias Pfutze, this “liberating” mechanism is said to have facilitated the Mexican political transition to democracy in 2000. 
Yet, no research to date has looked at how political parties may change their electoral strategies when a substantial part of the electorate receives remittances. This is the task we undertake in our article. Do parties target remittance recipients or stay away from these relatively “expensive” targets to concentrate instead on poorer voters? The evidence that we show below, based on the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), suggests that in a majority of Latin American countries, remittance recipients are actually attractive targets for clientelistic machines (we restricted the analysis to countries that have at least 4 percent of remittance recipients). In Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Guatemala the gap in the probability of being targeted between remittance and non-remittance recipients reaches the 95 percent level of confidence, and it reaches the 90 percent level in El Salvador and Colombia. Our multivariate analysis, taking into account selection effects, reveals that remittance recipients are about 4 percent more likely to be the target of vote buying efforts than non-remittance recipients. 
What may cause parties to consider remittance recipients as interesting targets even if their higher income makes them, in theory, less attractive? In our article, we argue and demonstrate that remittance recipients continue to be the target of parties’ clientelistic machines because remittances alter fundamental aspects of electoral behavior in ways that are relevant for parties’ electoral strategies. For instance, some research has shown that remittance recipients disengage from electoral politics, turning out to vote less than non-remittance recipients. The distribution of gifts is therefore related to turnout buying, which explains why parties still want to mobilize remittance recipients by distributing gifts and favors. Moreover, recent research has also shown that remittance recipients are more likely to place themselves towards the right of the political spectrum, supporting less taxation and redistribution. The combination of these two findings led us to predict that (rightist) parties seek to secure the loyalty of remittance recipients located in the center-right of the political spectrum and that exhibit inconsistent turnout records. Therefore, remittance recipients continue to be interesting targets for party machines. 

To test these propositions, we looked into the El Salvadoran 2014 electoral process, in which the leftist party FMLN won with a razor thin margin in the second round, beating the rightist ARENA party. El Salvador is an excellent case study to test the above propositions taking into account the crucial role that remittances play in the country’s economy (around 17 percent of GDP in 2014 according to World Bank data). This makes remittance recipients a very coveted section of the electorate. Moreover, a close look at the electoral campaign gives evidence that remittances were a salient issue in the campaign trail. Especially the rightist party ARENA appealed to remittance recipients by agitating the fears that an FMLN victory might lead to a deterioration of the bilateral relationship with the United States, affecting in turn the flow of remittances to the country. ARENA also presented itself in the campaign as the party capable of guaranteeing the security of remittance recipients in the face of rampant crime.

The results that we showed above for Latin America based on LAPOP survey data suffer from social desirability bias because they rely on obtrusive measures of vote buying. The levels of vote buying are therefore very likely to be underestimated as respondents are unlikely to be sincere about their involvement in such exchanges. We circumvented this problem by using a list experiment fielded in the aftermath of El Salvadoran electoral process. Roughly 20 percent of our sample received remittances. More importantly, the experiment shows that over 35 percent of remittance recipients received a gift or favor, while only 3 percent of non-recipients were targeted. Further, we found that of the 9.4 percent of respondents who received a gift or favor, three-quarters were remittance recipients.

Multivariate analysis controlling for multiple alternative explanations of vote buying confirmed this finding, as well as the proposition that remittance recipients that identify ideologically with the right and abstained in previous elections were more likely to be targeted. We found that among the 35 percent of remittance recipients that were offered gifts and favors during the 2014 electoral contest, approximately half of them were voters with both right leanings and low turnouts in previous elections. About a quarter were right of center voters, with consistent turnouts.

Although with the data at hand we are not able to provide a definitive answer as to which party was engaged in buying the vote or turnout of remittance recipients, there is enough evidence pointing at ARENA as the party mainly responsible for the patterns we find. First, ARENA better finances and clientelistic networks have traditionally allowed the party to outspend competitors; second, for the FMLN, trying to buy the electoral support of remittance recipients would entail engaging in double persuasion (turnout buying and preference buying), a strategy that is considered too costly, and therefore unlikely; third, as we mentioned above, a look at electoral messages during the campaign demonstrate that ARENA appropriated the issue of remittances by connecting it with concerns about crime and about the bilateral relationship with the U.S.; finally, a direct question in the survey experiment about which party engaged more actively in vote buying in respondents’ neighborhoods shows that ARENA beats the FMLN by 20 percentage points.

Perhaps the most important substantive issue that our article raises is the extent to which our findings question the previous optimism about the role of remittances in severing clientelist ties, as well as the implication of remittance flows for the chances of political change and democratic consolidation. Yet, the finding that remittance recipients are more likely to be the subject of attention by party machines is not incompatible with remittance recipients being more capable of escaping clientelistic exchanges. Future research should explore this possibility.

Also, a systematic exploration of the conditions under which vote buying of remittance recipients is more likely to occur is another subject awaiting further theorization. For instance, the El Salvadoran 2014 election was a very tight race, which may have induced parties to search for the support of remittance recipients with special zeal not to be found in less competitive elections. All these are indeed open and fascinating questions to be explored in future research.

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Article in LARR:

How to Cite: González-Ocantos, E., Kiewiet de Jonge, C., & Meseguer, C. (2018). Remittances and Vote Buying. Latin American Research Review53(4), 689–707. DOI:







About Author(s)

Ezequiel_LARR's picture
Ezequiel González-Ocantos
Ezequiel González-Ocantos is Associate Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow of Nuffield College. His book Shifting Legal Visions: Judicial Change and Human Rights Trials in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2016) won best book awards from the American Political Science Association, International Studies Association, and Latin American Studies Association. His work has also been published in Comparative Politics, American Journal of Political Science, and Comparative Political Studies, among other journals.
Kiewiet_LARR's picture
Chad Kiewiet de Jonge
Chad Kiewiet de Jonge is Affiliated Professor in the Political Studies Division at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) in Mexico City. His research agenda includes a large-scale study of clientelism and electoral intimidation in Latin America, a project examining the development of democratic attitudes in new democracies, and ongoing research on electoral behavior in the Americas. His research has appeared or is forthcoming in American Journal of Political Science, Political Behavior, Public Opinion Quarterly, and Comparative Political Studies.
Covadonga_LARR's picture
Covadonga Meseguer
Covadonga Meseguer writes on international migration, the internationalization of policies, and Latin American political economy. Her work has appeared or will appear in Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, International Migration Review, International Studies Quarterly, World Development, European Journal of Political Research, and other journals. She is the author of Learning, Policy Making, and Market Reforms (Cambridge University Press, 2009) and coeditor of the special issue “International Migration and Home Country Politics,” Studies in Comparative International Development 49, no. 1 (2014)