Corey Recvlohe

How Clientelism Supports Competitive Authoritarianism

Clientelism in the context of politics in Latin America is the practice of voters (clients) receiving gifts or payments in exchange for votes for political candidates (patrons). However, this phenomena effects how party politics is organized throughout elections, and particularly primes electorates toward personalistic populist rhetoric, which in many cases leads to or boosts competitive authoritarianism. Why is clientelism so effective? Why do patrons consistently use commodities and cash payoffs to herd support? Clientelism is the political substrate through which populists — and competitive authoritarians in particular — derive community organizing infrastructure and build on-the-ground relationships with substantive political impact that constructs, sustains, and directs popular movements.

Populists are political neophytes in many cases and originate from outside the traditional political structures of affiliation. In appealing to mass communities, populists harness the ire of the marginalized and forgotten, promising to fight elites using all available means. In the early, middle, and late 20th century, populism usually was temporary and constrained to periods of crisis, but more recently, competitive authoritarianism at times has taken root throughout South America — challenging conventional notions of the populist phenomena and what it means for stability, justice, and democratic consolidation in Latin America.

In this examination, we will investigate how clientelism provides the organizational infrastructure through the context of competitive authoritarianism, and in addition look at the ways in which clientelism is experienced by poor and marginalized communities, as well as try to understand how patron-broker relationships work from a practical standpoint.

The Client Experience

Photo by Germán Canseco/Procesofoto.

Clientelism and populism have a rich history in particular states such as Bolivia, going back as far as the mid-to-late 1980s with CONDEPA (Conscience of the Fatherland) and MIR (Leftist Revolutionary Movement). Many of the poor and indigenous populations of Bolivia view clientelist relationships with politicians as part of civic engagement, and patrons seek to personalize electoral campaigns by having direct impacts on local constituents. Potential voters quite often receive wool, sugar, rice, and toys in exchange for work; many times attending multiple rallies to stock up on gifts. It is through this process of exchange that clients build reputations of allegiance, in hopes of attaining steady employment to provide for their families, hoping to be recruited into jobs within public administration, health, education, particularly concerning construction projects, hospitals, and schools. Clientelism provides practical financial solutions for everyday problems, especially communities lacking important resources.

Clientelism as a political strategy for populists goes hand-in-hand with Caudillo style leadership, often using local brokers to organize rallies to gauge support. As a political ritual, the rally is a powerful mechanism for heightening emotion and solidarity with fellow community members; songs, passionate speeches, soft drinks, cookies, all play into the performance of the celebration as patrons arrive to hand out manifestoes and deliver oral denunciations of the status quo. “Warmth” (carino) is a powerful sense wanted by clients and potential supporters. Affective politics is the desired treatment for the disaffected who are in desperate need of advocates.

“We give them bread today, when we are the government, we will give them work. If we give them medication today, when we are the government, we will give them health…If we give them bricks today, when we are government, we will give them houses. If we give them pencils today, when we are the government, we will give them education”

Max Fernández, statement from the National Directive of the UCS (Solidarity Civic Unity) 1989

Through the lens of the client, the transactional nature of gifts for political support is not lost on the average participant; clients take advantage of the relational dynamic, often traveling from one rally to another to stock up on wanted items. It is the nature of clientelism with which clients partly desire to engage, but at the same time are offered no alternatives to this arrangement. With a lack of infrastructural components providing educational and economic benefits, opportunities flow freely from patrons through brokers, giving voting cohorts the chance to accumulate goods needed for daily survival.

The Broker Experience

Photo by Frank Neirynck

Brokers play a very important role supporting the patron relationship with local voters, as they are the intermediaries that facilitate on-the-ground activity and distribution of goods. Patrons develop a series of brokers in specific regions, relying on their intimate knowledge to create support for and monitor rallies to gauge campaign effectiveness (using attendance as a performance measure for general enthusiasm).

Brokers are desired not only for their persuasive abilities but their deep understanding of local networks, knowing who to target to potentially recruit auxiliary rally attendees in need of specific commodities. These skills are honed through trial and error, with best performers moving up the ranks to execute increasingly more complex and sophisticated voter corralling efforts. However, brokers involved with winning campaigns aren’t necessarily the same ones who have the highest attendant gatherings, or spend the most on cash transfers; winning is what counts.

Neither are brokers strictly partisan. Most will move from one patron to the next, depending on economic benefits or requirements. In this sense, brokers perform needed services for aspiring politicians — with no qualms about specific policy initiatives or ideological frames. Brokering is a business, with much demand.

Of course, there are brokers who shy away from clientelistic practices, but they most often are competing with others who play by the established rules. Strangely enough, the embedded nature of clientelistic practices is pervasive and normalized in the sense that not engaging in voter buying or rally bribing severely disadvantages prospects for those ambitious enough to attempt the high road, exposing campaign organizers to the risk of losing income for not performing to the level expected by paying patrons.

Fujimori’s Peru

Photo by Staff Sergeant Karen L. Sanders, United States Air Force.

Clientelism in Peru was of a nominally different nature with respect to Fujimori. Because of Peru’s lack of strong party structures, Fujimori relied on a specific sort of relationship with potential supporters, namely through the process of campaign clientelism. The lack of developed partisan institutions significantly disadvantaged party machines, forcing Peruvian candidates in the late 80s to focus strictly on using other methods to build large rallies, in attempts to influence media coverage and display strong political support among the electorate. It was important at this time for candidates to put on displays communicating information to potential competitors and campaign backers that there existed sufficient organizational support that would carry through to voting booths. Clients, voting goers, and rally participants were glad to go along. Receiving t-shirts or meals were fair trades for attendance; especially as it was well understood that such gifts did not guarantee votes, the practice was sufficient for both patrons and clients. What we can gather from this example is that even when there exists insufficient infrastructure for traditional vote-buying and partisan job guarantees, the method of supplying potential voters and bystanders with commodity goods for their rally support is still a viable strategy for creating the necessary conditions required for attracting other potential voters and supporters who may be the needed difference in a tight election.

Indeed another form of direct clientelism took place under Fujimori’s FONCODES social spending program. Due to support lost among Peru’s poorest during the neoliberal adjustment period, Fujimori was desperate to rebuild his populist bona fides. FONCODES spent nearly $650 million on 17,000 projects around Peru in every province. Classrooms, health posts, drainage systems, electricity, and agricultural land were all targeted for development, specifically in poor areas. On a per capita basis, more money was spent in Peru’s poorest districts, resulting in nearly a 30% across the board jump in pro-Fujimori sentiment in those very areas.

As we see with Fujimori, he keenly understood how to use clientelistic practices even when there existed no traditional party machines. Whether deploying mobile support groups (portátiles) or facilitating TV spectacles to communicate populist appeals, there was a concerted effort to take advantage of existing broker-client networks toward the aim of riding a personalistic wave that would set the stage for authoritarian maneuvers.

And once in place, the awesome purse of the state gave Fujimori tremendous leverage to buy back support lost from those who most suffered from the very neoliberal designs he promised not to impose. Whether right or wrong, the practice of rally organizing and vote buying was pernicious and key to competitive authoritarianism as seen in Peru during the 90s.

Chávez’s Venezuela

Photo by Embassy of Venezuela, Minsk.

With the case of Venezuela, we can observe how specific clientelistic strategies were used to help recover Hugo Chávez’s collapsing popularity after an initiated recall referendum in 2004. Utilizing oil revenues that were funneled to Special Funds geared toward supporting poor communities, Chávez instituted direct cash payments and commodity gift transfers to large constituencies of voters through Misiones, or “missions to save the people.” Targeting shantytowns, rural and urban schools, discount stores, and job creation cooperatives, direct clientelistic payments were organized.

One Misione in particular, Misión Ribas, was administered by the Ministry of Oil and Energy and specifically targeted poor adults who lacked high school level education. Using funds provided directly from PVDSA (Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A.), nearly 600,000 students in 2004 were given lessons provided through video disseminated media; and more than 200,000 received scholarships to offset costs accrued from attaining learning supplies and materials. Another educational Misione, Misión Sucre, provided direct cash transfers deposited directly into banking accounts for those who needed the most basic subsidies. An interesting Misione of note was Misión Identidad, which bypassed corrupt bureaucratic red-tape, specifically registering beneficiaries for voting access. Not only did this program register to vote targeted communities, it was a nexus for informing potential voting blocs about other Misiones that were of associative interest. We see that the pivotal practice of clientelism with respect to Misione programs was to deepen and strengthen patron-client relationships through provisions of fundamental, centrally key, and cross-functional clientelist programs — all working together to necessarily address the crumbling political support Chávez so desperately needed to gain back, in continuance of his authoritarian project.

And in tandem with Misione programs, Chávez as well engaged in resource distribution, not unlike Fujimori, with nearly $1 billion estimated spent towards electricity, water, housing, and other initiatives. This material support to poor communities only entrenched the already well developed incumbent strategy deployed not many years earlier. Forging comprehensive clientelistic aims could be seen as simply doing what the government was elected to do, in particular addressing the direct needs of those citizens who required assistance — but the targeted and uneven nature of these politically oriented policies were only facets of the broader competitive authoritarian mindset (guaranteeing the creation and maintenance of loyal voting blocs).

Add on top of sophisticated voter-organizing and benefactive efforts the aspect of implementing communicative hegemony by removing competing rival messages through telecommunications laws revoking broadcasting rights. Full situational command of how the electorate interfaced with information, in combination with revving up patronage programs, created the environment required to defeat political opposition to removing horizontal accountability within the Venezuelan state.

In this context, Chávez understood clearly that he needed specific clientelistic practices on the ground level, interfacing with the mass public who benefited the most from gift transfers. As it happened, he was fortunate to have initiated this process during an oil boom, but nonetheless, understood the practicality of establishing those client/patron relationships to drive voter registrations in tandem with tangible benefits. It is not surprising that after telling a story about starting the Misiones and seeing his poll numbers improve, Chávez was quoted to have said: “It’s not magic, it’s politics.”


Clientelism cannot be simply understood through a lens of corrupt practices by brokers and patrons, necessarily. Poor communities of marginalized citizens desire goods, and in exchange, they provide political endorsements — smart political operators utilized these methods in strategic ways. More recently, competitive authoritarians have mastered the practice of transfers and gift payoffs to retain and build on what power they have garnered.

In the cases of Bolivia, Peru, and Venezuela, there are vast populations of economically deprived and poor citizenry; often these constituents live at a subsistence level of poverty. It should not be surprising that the practice of clientelism is pervasive and integrated to such a degree that politicians use these methods when needed and required.

However, what is interesting is how clients perceive these transactional relationships. From the perspective of campaign clientelism, patrons get their show of attendance communicating to the media and rivals their operational effectiveness, and voters experience aspects of communal solidarity through celebration and fellowship, even though it may be ultimately transitory and empty of substance.

With respect to Fujimori and Chávez, it can be seen how direct clientelistic practices work through the prism of social benefit payments. Whether building infrastructure, registering voters, selling subsidized food, or providing pay-to-learn programs, there are real advantages that cannot be blighted, giving actual meaning to marginalized groups in real need. But these tradeoffs are not solutions, they are temporary and ad hoc, playing to the hopes and fears of people in desperate want of real, lasting, and structural — or otherwise economical — solutions to everyday problems (in other words, systems of development that rely on accountable stakeholders acting in good faith to provide equitable outcomes). Clientelism does not provide political justice or buttress populist machinations, on the contrary, it is the conduit through which authoritarians derive consent of the governed; and we can precisely observe how these methods have enabled demagogic personalists in their quests to reconfigure and remake the states they were elected to serve and protect.