Past Events

[Book Discussion] Mobilizing for Elections: Patronage & Political Machines in Southeast Asia

Across Southeast Asia, as in many other regions of the world, politicians seek to win elections by distributing cash, goods, jobs, projects, and other material benefits to supporters. But they do so in ways that vary tremendously—both across and within countries.

Mobilizing for Elections: Patronage and Political Machines in Southeast Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2022) presents a new framework for analysing variation in patronage democracies, developed through examination of distinct forms of patronage and different networks through which it is distributed.

The book draws on a large-scale, multi-country, multi-year research effort involving not only interactions with hundreds of politicians and vote brokers but also surveys of voters and political campaigners across the region. At the core of the analysis is the concept of electoral mobilization regimes, used to describe how key types of patronage interact with the networks that politicians use to organize and distribute these material resources: political parties in Malaysia, local machines in the Philippines, and ad hoc election teams in Indonesia. In doing so, the book shows how and why patronage politics varies, and how it works on the ground.

Date: 3 July 2023, Monday
Time: 8.00pm – 9.30pm
Venue: Penang Institute, 10-12 Brown Road, 10350 George Town


About the Speakers

Edward Aspinall is a Professor in the Department of Political and Social Change, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. He researches politics in Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia, with interests in democratization, ethnicity, and clientelism, among other topics.

Meredith L. Weiss is Professor of Political Science in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy at the University at Albany, SUNY. She has published widely on social mobilization and civil society, the politics of identity and development, electoral politics and parties, institutional reform, and subnational governance in Southeast Asia, with particular focus on Malaysia and Singapore.

Allen Hicken is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan where he is also an affiliate at the Center for Political Studies, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, and WCED. He is currently a Visiting Professor at Singapore Management University in the School of Social Sciences. His work focuses on political institutions, political economy, and policy making with a special focus on Southeast Asia, where he focuses on Thailand and the Philippines, but has also work in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Timor Leste.

Paul Hutchcroft is a scholar of comparative and Southeast Asian politics who has written extensively on Philippine politics and political economy. He is Professor of Political and Social Change in the Australian National University’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs (of which he was founding director, 2009-2013).

Moderator: Dato’ Dr Ooi Kee Beng, Executive Director of Penang Institute


Penang Institute hosted professors Meredith Weiss, Edward Aspinall, Paul Hutchcroft and Allen Hicken to hold a discussion about their recently published book: Mobilizing for Elections: Patronage & Political Machines in Southeast Asia.

The book is a comparative study of certain countries in Southeast Asia and the workings of their respective political machinery in mobilising elections, with a highlight on Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It presents an innovative approach to analysing variation in patronage democracies, by investigating different patronage forms and the various networks through which they are distributed.

Among the different types of election mobilising machines that were discussed, the speakers observed the wide-spread usage of party-based machines in Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Turkey, and Mexico, where political parties run the show, while the Philippines predominantly uses local machines, where they are more localised and grassroots based. Ad-hoc machines – teams formed just for the purpose of elections – were widely used in Indonesia, Peru, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

Patronage politics has the potential to strengthen existing social divisions. However, they could simultaneously weaken and mitigate these divisions under specific conditions, mitigate and soften these divisions. The speakers then discussed that political systems are often shaped by a few factors, namely the consolidation of economic resources, the relative strength of local state institutions versus coercive authorities, and the level of autonomy and egalitarianism within local social networks.

The panellists continue to point out the difficulty in implanting policy reforms due to the complexity of electoral patronage systems. the complexity of electoral patronage systems and the difficulty in implementing policy reforms. Additionally, they also suggested implementing bureaucratic reforms aimed at minimizing the discretionary powers of politicians as intermediaries. Anti-vote buying campaigns are popular, but they’re usually not considered effective.

The topic of decentralisation was also covered by the panellists. While acknowledging that decentralization is important for effective governance, it is also vital to note that decentralisation is not a universal solution and can result in diverse outcomes, contingent upon the local context and leadership of different governments. The effects of decentralization are, after all, influenced by several factors that differ from country to country, including competition levels, citizen engagement, and the strength of civil society. Greater competition frequently results in more positive consequences, particularly when there is an active and dynamic presence of civil societies. On the other hand, lack of political competition may entrench patterns of patronage politics.