The fundamental idea of clientelism, at first glance, naturally seems to be a rather undemocratic practice, considering that such patronage-networking effectively encourages outright vote-buying. Indeed, precisely such a type of behavior has been credibly charged with assisting in the manipulation of elections by the ruling party Fidesz in Hungary, and is extensively characterized as a prime technique of “stealth authoritarianism” by Ozan Varol. Yet this is not a characterization that rings true everywhere. In fact, some scholars classify this sort of system as a type of structure that can instead entrench democracy and render it less vulnerable than it would be otherwise. This contrast is one that certainly demands some degree of examination, as it has great potential repercussions for the fate of democracies worldwide.
According to Paul Staniland and Vipan Narang, so-called “patronage democracy” is democracy in which there is an established system of patronage, which “involves particularistic, clientelistic exchanges between individual and collective groups of voters on the one hand and politicians on the other.” Also known as clientelistic democracy, this characterizes political systems which emphasize personal connections and quid-pro-quo interactions that in many cases constitute what most would consider to be corruption. Such a system effectively institutionalizes the need for personal connections as a means of getting things done and getting elected, and is specifically cited by Ozan Varol as a major technique characteristic of stealth authoritarianism.
In Hungary, where the leadership of Viktor Orban has seen the rapid backsliding from liberal democracy, this sort of behavior has dramatically increased. In a study conducted by researchers from Yale and UC-Davis, it was found that clientelistic behavior in a majority of Hungarian villages had significantly increased over the past few years, which, according to the researchers, reflects an increasingly dominant Fidesz. Specifically, the research shows a fairly systematic abuse of state resources for the purpose of vote-buying, by denying or granting access to certain government benefit programs as an “incentive” to push voters to support particular candidates. As many as 10% of the individuals interviewed in some villages had experienced this sort of behavior which, while obviously not being a majority, is still a seriously significant slice of the population where votes are being manipulated. Petr Kopecky and Peter Mair further characterize this sort of politics as being one explicitly meant to assert state power, stating,
“…the increasing politicisation of the ministerial bureaucracy in contemporary Hungary can be traced back to the desire of governing parties to enhance the political control over the formulation and implementation of public policies under conditions of polarised political competition.”
If indeed connected to Fidesz’ burgeoning entrenchment as the researchers suggest, this sort of behavior would be an example of democratic erosion within the political system of a nominally democratic country, and signifies a marked shift towards authoritarianism.
Yet patronage systems can have a very different effect in certain other countries, where they seem to have had little impact on competitive democracy. One of the most interesting examples of how patronage and clientelism can interact with a democratic system can be found in India, where a long-lasting tradition of democratic governance is starkly at odds with almost every political science model. Considering its tremendous poverty, practically all models and prediction systems would conclude that India should be a dictatorship of some kind, or at the very least a much less stable democracy along the lines of its coup-prone neighbor Pakistan. Yet, India has somehow beaten the odds, and remains the world’s largest democracy, 52 years after its independence, with rule of law only interrupted by a two-year state of emergency under Indira Gandhi (which, it is worth noting, was followed by her overwhelming electoral defeat and a peaceful transfer of power.) Furthermore, the degree of patronage and clientelism found in India is not only significant, but a near-universal and pervasive part of its political system, with major parties such as the currently governing BJP having entire organizations devoted to this sort of activity, cultivating loyalty and electoral support through direct constituent service via non-governmental organizations. (While this is, in principle, different from Hungary’s manipulation of the government bureaucracy itself, the end result – vote-buying – is the same.) Yet, despite all of this, present-day India has competitive multiparty elections where the outcome is entirely unknown prior to the counting of the votes. The difference in India’s case may very well be that such tactics are generally used by all parties in a given election, meaning that there is actual competition at stake, unlike in Hungary where such tactics are seemingly only used by the party in power. Such networks and behaviors, specifically when existing among individuals or legislators, incentivize working within the system (due to the potential personal benefits and kickbacks from patronage interactions between policymakers) rather than seeking to circumvent it through military force, coups, or other more blatant subversions of civil democratic norms. More importantly, this environment makes it such that the usage of more anti-democratic means of gaining support, such as outright violence and threats, is less attractive than the more PR-friendly option of constituent patronage. This type of behavior, by all accounts, encourages byzantine, bloated, and inefficient governance, but seems to have had little to no effect on the continuity of civil democratic institutions in the world’s second-largest country.
While this sort of political activity is certainly less than “clean” and can obviously incentivize a variety of highly problematic behaviors that border on outright vote-buying, the divergence here from Hungary is quite clear. This, then, raises a host of questions, foremost among them being why Indian democracy has generally not, for lack of a better word, been poisoned by this system of constituent patronage and corruption, while Hungarian democracy quite possibly has. To this I would posit that perhaps India’s vast size and heterogeneity allow different parties to carve out their own fiefdoms where their clientelistic policies can become entrenched, making it difficult for an ascendant party to use similar mechanisms to assert electoral control. Regardless of what the end conclusion may be, this contrast in the practical effect of “corrupt” patronage politics is very interesting, and seems to hint that there are other factors at play in determining the health of a democracy than mere corruption and administrative kickbacks.