Clientelism and Political Parties


Imagine a country with a clientelistic political system composed of a series of patronage networks corresponding to political parties, lots of poverty, elections, weak democratic institutions, and low administrative capacity.

The leaders of the patronage networks compete for the spoils of the central government, which they then push down the network. In practice, at the top this looks like envelopes full of cash and juicy contracts handed out to deputies, at the bottom it looks like local leaders handing out bags of grain and minor jobs to poor people (who make up a good chunk of the society). Each node in the network skims some fat off the top. In exchange, each layer swears political to fealty to higher layers in the network, through votes, loyalty, and a willingness to get out into the streets when called upon.

In this country, political parties do not trade in ideology, but rather the exchange of political power for resources. They frequently change names, symbols, and rhetoric. These parties lack strong, formal organizations and instead rely on strong informal relationships.

This appears to be a glass half empty country.

Instead of a point, I have questions; and instead of answers, I’d be happy to settle for more, better questions. My instincts tell me that political parties should be ideological rather than regional/social/clientelistic—there’s a slew of reasons for this, but I’ll leave that to future discussion. But would ideological parties actually be better for the poor? Clientelistic parties yield ongoing benefits to the poor, would ideological parties in an ineffective government be able to do much better? How long would it take the benefits of a central government public project, a major hydroelectric plant for example, to outweigh the ongoing benefits dispersed by patrons to poor clients? Do the poor count more in a clientelistic system where they can exchange a vote for a concrete benefit, or in a system where they trade a vote for the promise of a better long-term future? Where does their vote have more causal power?

Assuming we want to, could we use constitutions to shape the evolution of political parties? Would it be through electoral institutions—proportional representation versus majoritarian and all the little ways to manipulate each system (there’s a long discussion to be had on this topic)? How else could institutions shape political parties? What other, non-institutional variables matter when it comes to political party formation?

Is it really possible to have control over where society wages politics? If patronage networks are entrenched, is it possible to shift politics from the networks to political parties? If not, how can we achieve second best outcomes—i.e. how can we make patronage networks better at serving the public good and leading to more efficient long-run outcomes?


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