Democracy and Clientelism Essay

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Democracy and Clientelism:

Political clientelism is basically considered as the distribution of discriminatory benefits to people or groups in exchange for political support. Clientelism is a form of personal exchange that is always characterized by uneven balance of power between those involved and a sense of compulsion. Throughout history, this term has continued to create confusion and controversy due to the broad and varied range of political exchanges that it contains. Since it's a way with which the uneven and hierarchical exchanges of a feudal society are described, clientelism is also a means of describing the relationships between patrons and clients. The theory of democracy explains that voters have the right of making their choices freely, particularly during political elections. This concept has created new platforms for representation and political accountability as well as the benefits for sustaining and cultivating clientelistic bonds (Szwarcberg, 2009). In places with weak democracies, clients use patrons to obtain resources and for political inclusion.

Relationship between Clientelism and Democracy:

For both academic researchers and observers, the relationship between clientelism has continued to be a point of major discussions. Many of these observers have usually perceived political clientelism in nearly complete negative terms with only a few exceptions. On one hand, clientelism has been linked with historic social contexts and characterized with economic downturn. Additionally, this concept has also been associated with uneven political deals with special interests in many countries including the United States. Therefore, the relationship between political clientelism and democracy has continued to be a fundamental tenet of political theory. This is mainly because of the impact of these two on each other and their role in the political landscape of many countries. Actually, the relationship between the two continues to dominate the politics of modern societies in many countries across the world.

The effect of clientelism on democracy is critical particularly in understanding whether it undermines the freedom of people to choose freely. Understanding the effect of political clientelism on democracy is also necessitated by the fact that some political parties use clientelistic incentives to mobilize voters. The fact that some clientelistic political parties thrive in rallying low-income voters while others fail also necessitates the need to understand the effect of clientelism on democracy. According to the findings of various studies, clientelism basically undermines democracy in many countries, particularly developing nations. Clientelism influences the behavior of a wider set of voters particularly those who receive benefits way before an election. This concept also undermines the freedom of people to choose freely during an election since political parties that use clientelistic incentives receive more political support than parties that don't offer such incentives to voters. Political parties that use clientelistic strategies in exchange for support and votes tend to be more effective than parties with non-clientelistic strategies and thus undermining democracy.

However, democracy can change clientelism when it not only provides elections and civil freedoms but also providing additional benefits to the voters. Generally, clientelism has always thrived in places where democracy has failed to provide material benefits to voters and thus performed poorly. Clientelism acts as a substitute channel of representation, a way of making poverty more bearable and a means of creating a joint sense of community in areas where democracy performs poorly. Therefore, for democracy to change the culture of political clientelism, it needs to provide the things that clientelism provides. While the freedom to choose freely and civil liberty is important, people also need material benefits like health care, economic redeployment and education (Moreau, 2009). Democracy can change clientelism by providing these exchanges through democratic means thus increasing electoral competition.

Negative Aspects of Clientelism in Politics:

The concept of political clientelism is considered as both good and bad for politics since it contains
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negative and positive aspects. Given that many scholars have emphasized on the negative aspects of clientelism, it has more negative than positive interpretations for politics. As previously mentioned, clientelism is bad for politics since it undermines democracy. The use of clientelistic inducements by political parties in exchange for political support and votes tarnishes the quality of democracy and does not provide a level-playing field during elections. Democratic accountability, which is the ability of voters of endorse their leaders through election is negatively affected by clientelism. Furthermore, this concept lessens governmental accountability while decreasing the pressure on governments to offer public goods.

Political parties sometimes seem to compete through clientelistic inducements rather than the presentation of smart candidates and better policies. This strategy has usually proven to be more effective for incumbents as compared to their challengers resulting in political bias. This is because the incumbent is likely to be involved in the pre-election uneven management of public resources and allocations (Vincente & Wantchekon, 2009). Therefore, parties and governments are allowed to get away with the provision of deficient public goods and distort public policy debates. As a result of the use of clientelistic strategies by candidates, political bias is evident in the fact that voters tend to choose parties that offer incentives rather than good policies.

Positive Aspects of Clientelism in Politics:

While the concept and practice of political clientelism has resulted in more negative implications on politics, it also has some positive aspects. Clientelism seems to be a good strategy in places with weak democracies since it fills the gap that such democracies fail to do. While people have a more substantive perspective of democracy, they want material benefits like health care and education. Clientelism emerges as the best means of providing these immediate needs and benefits, particularly when democracy doesn't provide them. Therefore, in such instances, clientelism is good for politics since it serves as an alternative form of political domination by violent means and promotes political entrepreneurialism.

Secondly, clientelism is also good for politics because it may result in certain democratic results including developing political knowledge and bargaining skills. This may even result in a process through which people become democratic citizens because clients not only use patrons for resources but also for political inclusion. Through linking political representatives to citizens and ensuring a political parties response to the immediate needs of citizens, clientelism appears to be good for politics. In such instances, clientelism provides a means of ensuring that constituency service is provided through integration of citizens into politics.

Causes of Clientelism:

Clientelism in politics has developed to become a cultural phenomenon but has also grown to become an institutional aspect during elections. While clientelism traces its history to colonial times, it was not imposed by colonial powers. In modern democracies and politics of developing nations, clientelism has developed to be elite-driven since politicians use it as a means of mobilizing political support and votes. The number of votes and political support that political parties and politicians gain is to a great extent dependent on the quality and extent of their clientelistic inducements. The causes of clientelism are attributed to a combination of various factors that includes certain economic systems.

While clientelism may occur in a developed country, income inequality, poverty and underdevelopment are considered as the three major causes of clientelism (Gallego & Raciborski, 2008). In a poor and unequal society, clientelism usually emerges as a result of social preferences, particularly in strong reciprocity. Politicians in such societies always find it easier to develop patron-client relations because citizens lack various material goods and services due to poverty. Clientelism emerges in places where the state has failed to achieve its social functions and where democratic standards have not been completely adopted across all sectors of society. Moreover, it occurs in places with no distinct rules on operations of public business and where public or private activities have no clear regulations to ensure due process and fairness.

Solutions for Clientelism:

In order to counter the negative aspects of clientelism, there is need to…

Sources Used in Documents:


De Sousa Luis. "Clientelism and the Quality(ies) of Democracy Public and Policy Aspects."

Central European University, 2008. (accessed April 12, 2011).

Gallego, Jorge Andres & Raciborski, Rafal. "Clientelism, Income Inequality, and Social

Preferences: and Evolutionary Approach to Poverty Traps." Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 2008. (accessed April 12, 2011).

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