Bringing the client back into clientelism research. Insights from a workshop on the Demand Side of Clientelism

by Miquel Pellicer and Eva Wegner

Since the 1990s, political science scholarship has produced substantial knowledge on political clientelism in different world regions. At the origin of this research is the insight that economic development, social modernization and democratization have often not led to programmatic politics and democratic accountability but to a co-existence of programmatic politics with clientelism where parties or candidates offer (and voters demand) particularistic goods in exchange for political support.

Most definitions describe clientelism as the exchange of selective benefits for political support (Kitschelt and Wilkinson 2007; Stokes 2007). This could, in principle, cover a whole range of goods on both sides being exchanged in any moment between elections and with a considerable time-lag between the delivery of the two goods. Empirically, however, clientelism has long been operationalized as a short-term exchange around elections, political support as voting, and selective benefits as small, immediate goods. This focus on vote buying has had three important consequences for research:

  • Most research has focused on the supply side of clientelism with an emphasis on how parties or candidates gain access to resources and how they target these resources in the most electorally beneficial way. Poor voters have often been conceptualized as willing vote-sellers if only they were targeted by the parties.
  • Clientelism is considered to be bad for accountability in general and for the poor in particular. In standard vote-buying exchanges poor voters trade their vote for small gifts (money, a bag of groceries, cement). As a result, public goods are underprovided (Keefer and Khemani 2004, 2005; Robinson and Verdier 2013) and inequality persists (De Ferranti 2004; Pellicer 2009).
  • Poverty is thought to be the core driver behind the persistence of clientelism. Because vote-buying is contingent on a sufficiently large number of voters willing to sell their vote cheaply, clientelism is thought to decline in tandem with poverty.

Recent literature on clientelism has made a series of important critiques about this literature. First, a number of scholars have pointed out that there are other relevant types of clientelism beyond vote-buying, including more socially embedded, iterative, and coercive types (Nichter forthcoming; Pellicer et al. 2017; Mares and Young, forthcoming). Second, a clientelistic exchange requires not only an offer but also someone willing to take the offer; thus, understanding what drives voter evaluations of clientelistic offers is important. Third, it is not uncommon for clients to take the initiative and actively demand clientelistic transfers. Lastly, not all types of clientelism might be equally bad, sometimes they provide valuable insurance in contexts where states underprovide public services.

In addition to some published work exploring these new avenues in research on clientelism, there is a series of new research projects taking a “citizen perspective’’ on clientelism, such the project of Jeevan Baniya, Stephen Meserve, Daniel Pemstein and Brigitte Seim on voter’s attitudes towards clientelism in Nepal,  the work of Tessalia Rizzo on the (lack of) interaction of clients with the bureaucracy as well as our own project on the demand side of clientelism in South Africa and Tunisia.

Our workshop, “The Demand Side of Clientelism: Agency, Trade-Offs, and Welfare Implications”, held on 26th and 27th of June 2018 at the University of Duisburg-Essen aimed to bring together a group of international scholars working on these new topics. One of our key aims was to include different methodological perspectives on these topics ranging from ethnographic to experimental research. The participants came from different social science disciplines, namely, political science, economics, anthropology, and sociology.

One of the recurrent topics of the workshop were the vast differences in client welfare associated with different types of clientelism. On one end of the welfare spectrum is coercive clientelism, in which patrons control access to social assistance programs or administrative services and where vulnerable clients are forced to trade political support for access to services they are entitled to, as highlighted by Isabela Mares’ presentation (“Clientelism and Coercion: Electoral clientelism in Eastern Europe” – joint with Lauren Young) on coercive clientelism in Romania and Hungary as well as by Eva Wegner’s research (“Are All Forms of Clientelism Equal? Citizen Assessments of Clientelistic Exchanges in South Africa” – joint with Miquel Pellicer, Markus Bayer, and Christian Tischmeyer) on clientelism in South Africa. On the other end are collective clientelistic exchanges where clients increase their bargaining power by coordinating votes in an area to access valuable local public goods such as infrastructure, as shown in Miquel Pellicer’s presentation (“Clientelism from the Client’s Perspective: A Framework Based on a Systematic Review of Ethnographic Literature” – joint with Eva Wegner, Markus Bayer, and Christian Tischmeyer).

Several presentations delivered additional insights into the welfare implications of clientism. Ward Berenschot’s work on India and Indonesia (“Informal Democratization: Broker Networks and Access to Public Services in Indonesia and India”) identified several factors that matter for how good a deal clients get, notably the level of broker competition, institutionalization, and broker-client inequality. Miquel Pellicer’s presentation proposed two fundamental dimensions of clientelism that correspond to the two main negative welfare implications of clientelism: a vertical dimension, associated with consequences of clientelism for inequality and accountability, and a horizontal dimension, associated to lack of public goods provision. Jeffrey Paller’s presentation on “Everyday urban politics: Leadership and civic life in Ghana” stressed the importance of non-material goods exchanged in clientelistic relations, such as respect and dignity. These can flow both ways towards the patron, but also towards the client, and are key for the evaluation of clientelism by clients.

Two presentations highlighted the role of client agency in clientelistic exchanges. Lindsay Benstead’s presentation on “Why Are Some Authoritarian Regimes More Likely to Fail? Parliamentary Clientelism and Regime Stability in the Arab World” and Jovan Bliznakovski’s work on “Benefit-seeking in Clientelism: Evidence from six Balkan Countries” both showed how individual benefit seekers actively approach and try to establish and maintain a relationship with politicians in order to get employment, contacts, or general assistance.

The long-standing assumption that poverty drives clientelism was qualified and questioned in a number of presentations. Simeon Nichter, presenting work from an RCT (“Vulnerability and Clientelism” – joint with Gustavo Bobonis, Paul Gertler, and Macro Gonzalez-Navarro) that decreased the dependence of Brazilian villagers on water supplied by politicians, argued that vulnerability to shocks is particularly important to understand the demand for certain types of clientelism. Kristen Kao’s work on Malawi (“Poverty and Clientelism: Do the Poor Embrace Vote Buying?” – joint with Ellen Lust and Lise Rakner), in turn, emphasized that, when given a choice, the poor prefer local public goods over immediate, vote-buying types of benefits. Additionally, Mogens Justesen and Anders Woller (“Electoral clientelism and the cost of voting“) argued that factors other than poverty make voters attractive to clientelistic machines. Their work on South Africa identified the cost of voting as an important such factor.

The role of non-clients for determining the costs of clientelistic exchanges was taken up in work by Jessica Leight (“Community targeting in vote buying and politician accountability“ – joint with Dana Foarta, Rohini Pande, and Laura Ralston), Isabela Mares and Eva Wegner. Jessica Leight showed in a laboratory setting that citizens are particularly likely to punish politician’s misbehavior when they are not targeted by clientelistic transfers in a context where others are. Isabela Mares work argues that politicians use of types of clientelism serves as policy signals for non-clients. Eva Wegner’s presentation showed that poor South African’s have very distinctive views on the social desirability of different clientelistic exchanges and might socially exclude clients that become too closely linked to the patron.

In addition, a more general lessons emerged from our workshop that is relevant for future research:  One of the core questions in the study of clientelism is what drives its persistence, and, from a policy perspective, what types of interventions can increase the demand for democratic accountability. For the time being, the supply literature in clientelism focuses either on large socio-economic changes that decrease the share of poor in the electorate or on institutional reforms that increase voting secrecy. In addition, the accountability literature focuses on interventions that increase information on politicians’ efforts and performance. Yet, both literatures are limited by their disregard of the client’s side: to the extent that clients might benefit (or perceive to benefit) more from clientelism than from the formal democratic process (as shown in the work of Bliznakovski, Benstead, Nichter, Paller, and Berenschot in our workshop) they will contribute to sustain or demand these type of exchanges; similarly, if coercion is involved in clientelism (as shown by the work of Mares and Young, and Wegner et al), decreasing poverty or electoral reforms are not going to help much.

Workshop Conveners

Miquel Pellicer, University of Duisburg-Essen

Eva Wegner, University College Dublin

Local Organizing Team

Markus Bayer

Christian Tischmeyer

Hannah Wilms

Workshop Participants:

Sarthak Bagchi, Leiden University, Netherlands

Markus Bayer, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany

Lindsay Benstead, Portland State University, USA

Ward Berenschot, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, Netherlands

Jovan Bliznakovski, University of Milan, Italy

Christof Hartmann, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany

Mogens Justesen, Copenhagen Business School, Denmark

Kristen Kao, University of Gothenburg, Sweden

Harold Kincaid, University of Cape Town, South Africa

Jessica Leight, American University, USA

Isabela Mares, Columbia University, USA

Simeon Nichter, University of California San Diego, USA

Jeffrey Paller, University of San Francisco, USA

Miquel Pellicer, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany

Christian Tischmeyer, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany

Eva Wegner, University College Dublin, Ireland

Anders Woller , University of Copenhagen, Denmark


De Ferranti, David M. 2004. Inequality in Latin America: Breaking with History? World Bank Latin American and Carribean Studies.

Keefer, Philip, and Stuti Khemani. 2004. “Why Do the Poor Receive Poor Services?” Economic and Political Weekly, 935–43.

———. 2005. “Democracy, Public Expenditures, and the Poor: Understanding Political Incentives for Providing Public Services.” The World Bank Research Observer 20 (1): 1–27.

Kitschelt, Herbert, and Steven Wilkinson. 2007. “Citizen-Politician Linkages: An Introduction.” In , edited by Herbert Kitschelt and Steven Wilkinson, 1–49. Patrons, Clients, and Policies. Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mares, Isabela, and Lauren Young. n.d. “Conditionality and Coercion: Electoral Clientelism in Eastern Europe.”

Nichter, Simeon. Survival Politics: Why Citizens Sustain Clientelism. Cambridge University Press.

Pellicer, Miquel. 2009. “Inequality Persistence through Vertical vs. Horizontal Coalitions.” Journal of Development Economics 90 (2): 258–266.

Pellicer, Miquel, Eva Wegner, Lindsay J. Benstead, and Ellen Lust. 2017. “Poor People’s Beliefs and the Dynamics of Clientelism.” GDL Working Paper.

Robinson, James A., and Thierry Verdier. 2013. “The Political Economy of Clientelism.” The Scandinavian Journal of Economics 115 (2): 260–91.

Stokes, Susan. 2007. “Political Clientelism.” In , edited by Carles Boix and Susan Stokes, 604–27. Handbook of Comparative Politics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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