A team of researchers has documented a record amount of money changing hands in this year’s presidential election.

Viewed from abroad, or even from the national capital, one issue dominated the 2016 election campaign in the Philippines: the seemingly unstoppable rise of Davao City mayor and presidential candidate, Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte seized headlines for his cavalier attitude toward human rights and record of brutal suppression of crime during his period in office in Davao City.

However important the Duterte phenomenon may be, it was only one act on the Philippine electoral stage. Viewed from the pits, the elections looked very different.

Philippine election campaigns are organised by complex webs of opportunistic alliances and strategic slates, in which local politicians – often affiliated to influential clans and only loosely organised around parties — construct local political machines consisting of hundreds or even thousands of vote brokers or liders.

The usually municipal-level politicians organising these teams forge alliances with candidates running for national or provincial office, but they are typically most concerned about their local races. Overall, the elections this year did not deviate from this long-established pattern, but with record levels of vote buying.

Our brief account here draws on the preliminary findings of a team of around 50 researchers, distributed in constituencies throughout the Philippines. Around the country, these researchers interviewed candidates, campaign workers and liders, observed campaign events, collected campaign paraphernalia and catalogued messages, appeals and largesse targeted to voters.

Philippine elections are complicated. Citizens vote simultaneously for multiple offices at three separate levels of government. At the national level, they cast separate votes for the president, vice president, 12 senators, a congress member representing their local constituency, and a national party list. At the provincial level, they vote separately for governor, vice governor and members of a provincial board.

Finally, in the municipalities or cities, they cast votes for a mayor, vice mayor and a varying number of local councillors. (The heads of barangay – the lowest level of Philippine local government – will be elected in October, along with barangay council members).

Parties are notoriously weak in the Philippines. The typical pattern of election campaigning involves a local machine, usually centered around a mayor or mayoral candidate. They generally forge alliances with candidates at the provincial and/or national level. These higher-level candidates provide their local allies with resources — such as cash, campaign material and other benefits. In return, the local candidates deploy their mobilising apparatus to help the campaigns of their higher-level partners.

Candidates at all levels need local machines to campaign door-to-door and to provide voters with the incentives that fuel turnout. Sometimes, these alliances follow party lines, sometimes they cut across them. The core of these relationships are often extended family or other personal ties.

Even these alliances, however, are not entirely reliable, especially for higher-level candidates.  What counts most for the people working on the ground is their local team. One campaign manager in southern Luzon explained:

We tell the voters to focus on the mayor and the city councillors. If they still have the energy to go to the governor, please vote for the governor, if you still have the energy to vote for congress, please vote for the congressman, then if you still have the energy to vote for the president, please do so. But focus first on the mayor and the councillors, that’s the marching order.

A poster for Rodrigo Duterte.

A poster for Rodrigo Duterte with other candidates in the background.

What makes these machines run is money – according to our researchers, a record amount of it this time around. The lion’s share of funding typically comes from some combination of contributions from the congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral candidate.

For example, the congressional candidate may pay for all the pollwatchers, the gubernational candidate may pay for public meetings and logistics, and they all may pitch in to fund vote buying. Neither national parties nor presidential candidates contribute much in the way of resources. Council candidates may chip in, organise supplemental campaigns, or simply piggyback on the campaigns run by their patrons.

The major expense for nearly all campaigns from congress down is direct payments to voters. Vote buying goes by a variety of local names such as inangayan (sharing) or uwan-uwan (rain-rain) in parts of the Visayas, ‘special ops’, or ‘giving thank yous’.

Across the archipelago, our researchers encountered a typical pattern in which liders are responsible for approaching and wooing a small numbers of voters, usually living in a handful of households in their neighbourhood. The liders distribute cash to these voters, along with flyers or sample ballot papers which instruct the recipients about which candidates to support.

Typically, the liders distribute the cash in the last couple of days prior to the election, sometimes in the final hours. At times, it comes in one tranche, other times in two or more waves, especially when opponents have offered voters more money.

In distributing the cash, liders typically prioritise the voters they have previously identified as strong supporters. If the race is especially tight and there is cash remaining, the next in line are undecided voters, followed by supporters of the other side. Another option is to pay your opponent’s voters to stay home – or even to take a trip – on voting day.

The amounts paid vary tremendously across office and locality. The highest amount we encountered was 5,000 pesos (A$ 144) per voter in a booming tourist area. In contrast, local council candidates may hand out token amounts as small as 20 pesos (A$ 0.58). What really seems to make the difference is the resources available to the competitors and the heat of the race. At stake are political offices that give access to lucrative projects and public sector jobs.

All told, while Duterte looms large on the national stage, his is far from the only drama worth watching.

The research on which this report draws was jointly organised by the Australian National University, Canberra, and De La Salle University, Manila, with primary funding from the Australian Research Council.

Edward Aspinall is a professor of politics at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.

Michael W Davidson is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of California, San Diego.

Allen Hicken is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and the Center for Political Studies at the University of Michigan.

Meredith L Weiss is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the State University of New York at Albany.