Clientelism is the exchange of goods and services for political support, often involving an implicit or explicit quid-pro-quo. Clientelism involves an asymmetric relationship between groups of political actors described as patrons, brokers, and clients.
Richard Graham has defined clientelism as a set of actions based on the principle take there, give here, with the practice allowing both clients and patrons to gain advantage from the other's support. Clientelism is typified by "exchange systems where voters trade political support for various outputs of the public decision-making process".
The origin of the practice has been traced to ancient Rome. Here relationships between the patron (patronus) and client (cliens) were seen as crucial to understanding the political process. While the obligations between these were mutual, the key point is they were hierarchical. These relationships might be best viewed not as an entity but rather as a network (clientela), with the patronus himself perhaps being obligated to someone of greater power, and the cliens perhaps having more than one patron. These extensions increase the possibilities of conflicting interests arising. While the familia was the basic unit underlying Roman society, the interlocking networks (clientela) acted as restrictions on their autonomy but allowed a more complex society to develop. Historians of the late medieval period evolved the concept into bastard feudalism. There is, as is usual, ambiguity in the use of political terminology and the terms "clientelism", the "patron-client relationship", "patronage" and the political machine are sometimes used to describe similar or related concepts.
The reigns of Julius Caesar (49-44 BCE) and Tiberius (14-16 AD) have been characterized as examples of widespread clientelism. In the 1500s, French political theorist Étienne de La Boétie did not use the term clientelism, but described the practice of emperors who used gifts to the public to gain loyalty from those who were eager to accept what amounted to bribery:
- Tyrants would distribute largesse, a bushel of wheat, a gallon of wine, and a sesterce [coin] : and then everybody would shamelessly cry, "Long live the King!" The fools did not realize that they were merely recovering a portion of their own property, and that their ruler could not have given them what they were receiving without having first taken it from them. A man might one day be presented with a sesterce and gorge himself at the public feast, lauding Tiberius and Nero for handsome liberality, who on the morrow, would be forced to abandon his property to their avarice, his children to their lust, his very blood to the cruelty of these magnificent emperors, without offering any more resistance than a stone or a tree stump. The mob has always behaved in this way--eagerly open to bribes.
Susan Stokes et al. distinguish clientelism as a form of non-programmatic policy within distributive politics. It meets the criteria through failing to meet the two requirements of programmatic distribution, that are (1) 'formalized and public' and (2) 'shape actual distribution of benefits or resources'. Within non-programmatic policy, clientelism is then distinguished from 'pork-barrel politics' in that voters are given a benefit or are able to avoid a cost conditional on their returning the favor with a vote. The patron/client system can be defined as a mutual arrangement between a person that has authority, social status, wealth, or some other personal resource (patron) and another who benefits from their support or influence (client). The patron provides selective access to goods and opportunities, and place themselves or their support in positions from which they can divert resources and services in their favor. Their partners-clients- are expected to buy support, and in some cases, votes. Patrons target low-income families to exchange their needed resources for their abundant resources: time, a vote, and insertion into networks of other potential supporters whom they can influence. However, patrons are unable to access the information needed to effectively form the exchange; thus they hire intermediaries, brokers, that more equipped to find out what the targeted voter needs, which voters will require less prodding, and if the voter followed through on their end of the bargain. As Stokes, Dunning, Nazareno, and Brusco emphasize, brokers in turn serve political leaders, and they may also not target resources exactly as leaders would wish; the resulting principal-agent problems can have important implications for understanding how clientelism works.
Patronage, turnout buying, abstention buying, and vote buying are subcategories of clientelism. Patronage refers to an intra-party flow of benefits to members. Turnout buying, coined by Nichter, treats or bribes voters to the polls whereas abstention buying treats or bribes voters to keep them from going to the polls. Vote buying is a direct transfer of goods or services, in exchange for one's support and vote. The result for the good or service is a question of did you or will you vote for me? A key to understanding clientelism might come in stressing not only the mutually beneficial relationships of exchange but also asymmetries in power or standing. Implied is a certain selectivity in access to key resources and markets. Those with access, the patrons (and/or sometimes sub-patrons or brokers) rely on the subordination and dependence of the clients. In return for receiving some benefits the clients should provide political support.
Stokes' research on clientelism in Argentina assumed that the Peronist party was providing financial support to prospective voters to buy their votes. It was hypothesized that Peronists targeted moderately opposed voters because they were thought to be easily persuaded to change sides at the party's minimal expense. Stokes elaborated on the need of the Argentinian Peronist party to be able to track who their clientele in fact voted for amidst the secret ballot system. Stokes' argument is that the potential for vote buying depends on the accuracy with which the patron party, the Peronists in the case of Argentina, are able to monitor votes. She uses evidence to show that overall smaller communities offer less anonymity, making it easier for the patrons to find out who committed to supporting them. Thus, Stokes concludes that this is one of the reasons why vote buying is more frequent in relatively small communities. Another reason is that smaller communities are generally more poor. Furthermore, smaller communities, which are generally more poor and have a greater need for resources, are a more attractive target.
Research by Nichter promoted a simpler hypothesis for the Argentinian election cycle: to prove Peronists were solely buying supporting voters' turnout, not all the people's votes. He dismissed Stokes' arguments on patrons spying on smaller and poorer communities, instead saying the Peronists initially targeted votes assumed to be their strong supporters. In this case the patrons would be reasonably sure they receive a vote from a person if this person receives a good from them.
Numerous factors which lead to a clientelist political system have been identified. One large one is poverty. As the wealth of the average citizen increases, patrons must spend greater and greater sums of money to gain their votes. Therefore, clientelist strategies are most effective in societies with a prevalence of poverty, when the cost of giving constituents gifts is low.What is more, the electoral system also heavily affects the viability of clientelism. Candidate-focused elections allow patrons to enforce direct trades of support for favors flowing from office. This helps foster personal relationships necessary in clientelism. In more politicized bureaucracies, elected officials have greater control over government services, meaning that patrons are better able to redirect public resources to their constituencies.
In short, clientelism is much more likely to occur in high poverty states where elections are personalized and elected officials have large control over public resources.
Clientelism has generally negative consequences on democracy and government while also having more uncertain consequences on the economy.
The accountability relationship in a democracy, where voters hold elected officials accountable for their actions, is undermined by clientelism. This is because under clientelism, votes are contingent on gifts to clients rather than the performance of elected officials in office. Clientelism also degrades democratic institutions such as the secret ballot and administrative oversight. These factors both weaken democratic institutions and negatively impact the efficiency of government.
Corruption and the perception of corruption have also been established as strongly correlated with clientelist systems. There are many reasons for this. For one, patrons often appear above the law in many clientelist systems. What is more, some acts in clientelist systems such as vote buying, could be inherently illegal. Finally, resources needed for patrons to maintain the clientelist system could necessitate illicit means of obtaining goods.
Some scholars believe that because patrons focus on the control and procurement of private goods, they also neglect public goods such as roads and public schools which aid economic development. Scholars also note that rent seeking and corruption, prevalent in clientelist systems, could negatively impact the economy as well. Nevertheless, there is still great uncertainty in the economic effects of clientelism.
It is common to link clientelism with corruption; both involve political actors using public and private resources for personal gain, but they are not synonymous. Corruption is commonly defined as "dishonest and fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery", while political clientelism is seen as "the distribution of benefits targeted to individuals or groups in exchange for electoral support". It is common to associate the two together because they moderately overlap. There are different forms of corruptions that have nothing to do with clientelism, such as voter intimidation or ballot stuffing. "Clientelism is considered negative because its intention is to generate 'private' revenue for patrons and clients and, as a result obstruct 'public' revenue for members of the general community who are not a part of the patron-client arrangement."
Clientelism as a strategy of political organisation is substantially different from other strategies which rely on appeals to wider programmatic objectives or simply emphasize higher degrees of competence. It is often assumed that clientelism is a vestige of political underdevelopment, a form of corruption, and that political modernization will reduce or end it. But alternative views stressing the persistence of clientelism – and the patronage associated with it – have been recognized.
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