HomeAsia-Pacific Social Science Reviewvol. 13 no. 1 (2013)

Sources of “Sandwich Coalitions”: Distributive Strategies and Democratic Politics in India, Thailand, and the Philippines

Arun Swamy

Discipline: Social Science, Political Science



This article addresses the influence of distributive conflict on democratic consolidation in India, Thailand, and the Philippines by examining the conditions conducive to a political strategy that I term a “sandwich coalition.” Sandwich coalitions are formed when political actors occupying or seeking the apex of a political hierarchy undercut the power of middle-level actors by championing the needs of politically excluded or marginalized actors further down. They can occur in both electoral and non-electoral settings and in a variety of social structures. The article builds on previous work in which the author argued that successful sandwich coalitions can be conducive to democratic consolidation by giving poor voters a stake in electoral democracy and elites a relatively nonthreatening way to remain electorally viable. This article argues that institutional factors, rather than socioeconomic differences, are the most important determinant of whether sandwich coalitions are built successfully. Specifically, sandwich coalitions depend on the ability of leaders to build direct links to poor voters, by delivering benefits to them in exchange for electoral support. This suggests that a crucial limiting condition is the honest administration of elections. In India, sandwich coalitions were made possible by the colonial creation of an elite civil service that was able to administer elections impartially. In Thailand, this became possible after the 1997 reforms. In the Philippines, where decades of electoral reform efforts have focused their attention more on the monitoring of abuses by NGOs than by ensuring an effective permanent election administration, sandwich coalitions have been attempted but seldom last.