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  • Writer's pictureWinston Peng

A Noob's Guide to Political Machinery

Updated: Apr 24, 2019

What is the meaning of 'grassroots' in politics? They are the common or ordinary people who cast their votes during elections. 'Grassroots members' in a political party are the rank and file party members that engage with the grassroots citizens. Grassroots citizens and grassroots party members are not the same.

Political parties build 'vote banks'. A vote bank has branches and divisions placed in strategic areas to garner votes from communities members. A popular person within the community holds the potential to be a political agent who can wield influence for a political party.

Popularity is attained by serving the community, active engagement in discourses or by mere talent to entertain the crowd. In some countries, actors and sportsmen have become successful Presidents and Prime Ministers.

In order to spread influence, political parties divide themselves into geographical boundaries; they go by state, district, towns/cities and precincts. At the lowest level, political party members are led by their precinct leaders. Precinct leaders identify and recruit volunteers to work and win over members of the community.

Party members expect to be compensated in the long run. They join the party that is most fulfilling and rewarding. A party member's performance is measured by his/her ability to influence grassroots citizens.

Party leaders depend on their grassroots members to rake in the votes. Party leaders send other members to validate the performance of their party comrades so that the claim to having grassroots support is real for the candidate prospect. If party members collude against party leaders and do not convey the ground sentiment of voters, party leaders may unintentionally reward grassroots members who do not have the community's trust. That may be a death knell in a run up to an election. The success of a political party therefore, depends on how attuned the party is to the grassroots voters. Changing the mindset of voters require far more effort than just buying them off. Paying off voters are considered bribes. They come in the form of cash, dinners parties, gifts or any economic benefit that may sway voters' decisions. For a society to develop, it is important to educate the grassroots to help them to be aware of how important their votes can be for national development.

Unfortunately, lower income groups and rural areas see elections as a once-in-every-five-year windfall to earn a few hundred ringgit by selling their votes. Ironically, in a ballot box, a person who has spent 20 years to pursue knowledge and productivity is no different than a totally uneducated or poor individual who is willing to sell his vote for RM50. In a democracy, they are both absolutely equal.

Hence, political funding policies play a key role in our civil development. The party that provides most benefit to members will 'win'. It may not be the most principled party with the best vision. Money is the underlying motivation.

Politicians expect payoff for their time and commitment as they sacrifice their time, family and other opportunities. Political parties address this need by developing funding mechanisms through donations and business ventures. Monies and profits received are distributed to party members as 'allowances' to compensate them for their work. 'Allowances' can eventually bloat and become a serious source of wealth.

Both donation and business ventures model have their weaknesses. Solicitation of donations require politicians to return favors to businessmen. Sustaining a sizable business venture under the wings of a political party would instead compete with industry players, turning away voters. Ruling parties often take advantage of government machinery and resources to absorb and even out their political expenses. Joining a political party can be a good option for youths who for example, have not performed well academically but possess streetwise attributes. Academic qualification is not a prerequisite for a political career. Politician aspirants only need to toe the party line and show willingness to achieve party objectives by hook or by crook.

Politicians can become extremely wealthy and when they do, it is problematic. Wealth becomes key motivation for party members instead of welfare and well-being of citizens. The costs of a party maintaining its vote bank gradually increases with this type of model as expectations and demand of party members turn into greed. Feeding party members take precedent over feeding the citizens. That's when the public loses confidence with a political party.

Both political funding models have deep, irreversible impacts. Can a political party be successful without money politics?

I will share some ideas in my upcoming blog.

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