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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