Political Clientelism, Vote-Buying and Democracy: a Reflection on Mexico

Political clientelism is a widespread phenomenon all over the globe, and Mexico is certainly no exception; it is rather a living laboratory where several varieties of the practice are cultivated. How should we evaluate this practice? Mass adult suffrage and electoral competition provides even the most humble citizen with a resource, as Scott (1969: 1143) pointed out many decades ago. One question is, however, to what extent “the humble citizen” is able to use this resource to benefit her or himself?  Some scholars take a normative view on political clientelism in their studies, and obviously the practices they find do not conform to the requirements of liberal democracy. Another approach is to find out how political clientelism actually works in a specific time and place. Using ethnographic methods, we can obtain a view from the clients’ perspective, and learn something about what meanings and effects this practice has for those who participate in it.

In my recent research in Mexico http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-2456.2015.00259.x/epdf (Hagene, 2015), an ethnographic approach, primarily participant observation, has allowed me to question several positions typical of the “conventional knowledge” on the issue. I have carried out ethnographic fieldwork in a village of Mesoamerican origin (pueblo originario) on the outskirts of the Federal District of Mexico, amounting to fifteen months spread over more than a decade, covering federal elections in 2006 and 2012. My ethnography is based on this long term personal presence in and interaction with the local community.

I followed a problem-solving network over time, from its inception more than a year before the election in July 2012, instigated by a local broker working closely with the politician Adrián, who pretended to become the candidate for delegation chief for the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD). However, at the beginning of the year, the party chose to nominate another candidate for this election, and Adrián, with whom the local broker was working, switched over to represent another party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which knew how to appreciate his clientelist effort. One PRI militant told me “The PRI wants to recuperate the delegation, so we need Adrián, because he comes with a certainestructura (structure, organization) from the PRD” (Hagene, 2015: 154).  Theestructura, of course, was the clientelist network. And he was right.  In spite of the low scores in this delegation for the PRI in previous elections (16 percent of the votes in 2009), and the fact that Adrián had been working with his network in favor of the PRD until recently, Adrián won the position as delegation chief for the PRI. He became the only PRI representative in the position as delegation chief among the 16 delegations of the Federal District. 

In my recent article http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-2456.2015.00259.x/epdf I rely on electoral statistics to show how the clientelist networks that Adrián had built prior to the elections constituted an electoral base for him, even if he migrated from one party to the other (Hagene, 2015: 154). However, my long-term involvement with the community offered an intake to reflection on a series of other aspects of political clientelism; I want to draw attention to some of them.

First, there is the tendency to conflate political clientelism with vote-buying, which is quite widespread in the literature, see for instance some standard works such as Schedler (2004), Kitchelt and Wilkinson (2007) and Díaz-Cayeros et al. (2009). In my study I found that from the client’s point of view, these are two very different practices: vote-buying is illegal and illegitimate, it is constantly talked about pejoratively, and something for which candidates are always accused if they win an election. Political clientelism, on the other hand, does not have a specific term, but is talked about in terms of “social work” or “helping each other”. It is carried out in problem-solving networks, which blend into the massive amount of communitarian networks, through which most community tasks are solved (this aspect is further developed in Hagene and Gonzáles, forthcoming). The resemblance to communitarian networks, and the way in which the network activates affective rationality among its participants provides legitimacy to the practice. Obviously, this view of the practice of political clientelism obtains from the perspective of the client. From the position of the patron – the party, the candidate- it is possible to regard political clientelism as just another way of spending resources in order to gain votes, which might just as well have been invested in vote-buying.  The same seems to apply from the “godlike position of science”, or the “objective discourse of science” (Jackson, 1996:9)

Second, there is the issue of force and coercion, often argued to be part of the clientelist practice, as I discuss in Hagene (2015: 145).  I find that such is not necessarily the case. Along with Tosoni (2007), I find that legitimacy distinguishes clientelist domination from that of physical threats and violence. Thus, when political clientelism is practiced in ways which hold high degrees of legitimacy, force and coercion are not needed.

Third, there is the question if political clientelism will disappear with the advent of economic development and political competition. In my study (2015), I argue that poverty and inequality certainly form part of the context in which political clientelism thrives; the members of the problem-solving network were not middle- or upper-class persons. I did, however, find that political competition, more than doing away with clientelism, democratized it. Candidates from any party could run these operations, and voters mightbe able to invest their resources (votes) in support of various parties.

This point simultaneously negates another common view: that political clientelism is a practice only open to the party in power, that is, in control of the public budget. In the case I provide, the candidate was not in a public position where he could grant favors directly to people. The benefits he helped people to obtain, were the result of the programmatic politics of welfare benefits given by the Legislative Assembly of the Federal District (ALDF), where the PRD had the majority. But even if many members of the local community had the right to many of these benefits, they did not have access to them in practice.  Programmatic politics without a well-functioning professional bureaucracy leaves a gap between the citizen and the state. This space can be filled with clientelist practices by candidates and brokers from any party, as I have described in my article (2015: 149-154). Obviously, there are many ways to operate clientelist practices, but the network I have followed had the advantage of – just like the Catholic practice of promesa(promise) to a saint: You promise the saint to do something, provided the saint helps you first (Hagene, 2008:  65). The clients had by and large received the benefits to which they were entitled well in advance of the election!

Such was, however, not the case for the broker in my study (Hagene, 2015). This leads us to a final point; the broker expected a reward from the candidate in exchange for securing enough votes for him to win the position as delegation chief. He was hoping to be employed in the delegation. When Adrián migrated to the PRI in order to be a candidate, unlike the clients, the broker had not received his benefit. He had to follow the candidate to the new party if he should stand a chance to be rewarded for his services. But, unless he managed to make the clients vote for Adrián, even when this meant voting for the PRI, Adrián stood little chance to win, thus the broker would not obtain public employment. So the broker worked hard to explain that people were now required to vote for the PRI, a job that implied both undertones of affectivity, social gatherings and reciprocation. The broker finalized his clientelist cycle with a taco-party on Election Day, to which the network participants were invited, encouraged to show the voter’s ink on their fingers (Hagene, 2015: 154). Of course, this only showed that they had voted, not for whom. But Adrián won the election, and the broker got his employment in the delegation. Meanwhile, the clients had used the resource of their votes to obtain the benefits pertaining to them from programmatic politics, but which were obstructed by too little information and too much patronage.

Thus, my recent research (Hagene, 2015) questions conventional knowledge on political clientelism at least regarding the following issues

  • The conflation of political clientelism and vote-buying
  • Force and coercion do not necessarily form part of political clientelism
  • Political competition, more than doing away with political clientelism, appears to democratize it
  • Practicing political clientelism is open to any party, not only the one in control of public spending

Finally, I would like to point to a paradox in the functioning of political clientelism as I have described it in my article. Problem-solving networks of political clientelism may serve as leverage for many people of humble economic means to obtain benefits to which they are entitled by programmatic politics. However, the machinery of the state leaves a gap where political clientelism operates, partly to help people obtain their rights, partly by handing out public positions in payment to brokers and other political friends (patronage), thus perpetuating the need for clientelistic problem-solving networks.


Díaz-Cayeros, A., Federico Estévez and Beatriz Magaloni. (2009). Welfare Benefits, Canvassing, and Campaign Handouts. In J. Domínguez, Chappell Lawson and Alejandro Moreno (Ed.), Consolidating Mexico's Democracy.  The 2006 Presidential Campaign in Comparative Perspective (pp. 229-245). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hagene, T. (2008). Negotiating Love in Post-Revolutionary Nicaragua. The role of love in the reproduction of gender asymmetry. Oxford: Peter Lang

Hagene, T. (2015). Political Clientelism in Mexico: Bridging the Gap Between Citizens and the State. Latin American Politics and Society, Vol. 57 (No. 1), pp. 139-162. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1548-2456.2015.00259.x/epdf

Hagene, T. and I. Gonzàlez (forthcoming). Deep Politics: Community Adaptations to Political Clientelism in 21st Century Mexico, Latin American Research Review, Vol. 51 (No. 2).

Jackson, M. (1996). Introduction. In M. Jackson (Ed.), Things as They Are.  New Directions in Phenomenological Anthropology (pp. 1-50). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Kitchelt, H. and S. I. Wilkinson (Eds.) (2007). Patrons, Clients, and Policies.  Patterns of Democratic Accountability and Political Competition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schedler, A. (2004). El voto es nuestro. Cómo los ciudadanos mexicanos perciben el clientelismo electoral. Revista Mexicana de Sociología, Vol. 66 (No. 1), pp. 61-101.

Scott, J. C. (1969). Corruption, Machine Politics, and Political Change. The American Political Science Review, Vol. 63 (No. 4), pp. 1142-1158.

Tosoni, M. M. (2007). Notas sobre el clientelismo político en la ciudad de México.Perfiles Latinoamericanos, Vol. 29, pp. 47-69.

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