NEW ORLEANS, Louisanna — Although clientelism, the exchange of favors or material goods for political support, does not change the course of elections, it still plays an important role in Argentinean communities, especially low-income ones. The Borgen Project spoke with Virginia Oliveros, Associate Professor of Political Science at Tulane University, about her research on clientelism and the provision of favors in Argentina. There is a perception that clientelism is one-dimensional, but the relationships involved and the possible impact on elections are complicated.
Favors, Brokers and Public Employees
For the provision of favors, such as expediting access to a welfare program that provides food regularly or providing someone with a government job, relationships between citizens and brokers, people who provide favors or material goods in exchange for political support for their bosses, are vital. Usually, people do not feel comfortable asking strangers for a favor. The relationship between citizens and brokers is no different. For citizens to ask their broker for a favor, they need to have an ongoing relationship. Additionally, citizens who provide more political support can ask for more favors, like public employment.
Public employees are also involved in the clientelist network. In exchange for political support, they directly grant favors to citizens and work with brokers to grant favors indirectly. Brokers cannot grant all favors independently, as they are not official government employees. When a broker needs assistance from somebody inside the government, they will contact a public employee with whom they have a connection and ask if the employee can help grant the favor. The public employees who work with brokers will do the work to help the broker.
A Snapshot of Clientelism in an Argentinian Slum
Clientelism in Argentina plays a significant role in providing material goods for poor neighborhoods. Javier Auyero, a professor at The University of Texas at Austin, says that “in contexts of extreme material deprivation and sociocultural destitution, la red peronista [the clientelist network associated with Argentina’s Peronist party]operates as a problem-solving network that institutes a web of material and symbolic resource distribution. It functions as a source of goods and services, a safety net protecting against the risks of everyday life, one of the few remaining paths of social mobility, and a solidaristic community that stands in opposition to the hardship and exclusion visited on those living in poor and destitute areas.”
In Villa Paraíso, an Argentinian shantytown, unemployment is rampant. As a result, reciprocal networks are important. These networks include families and neighbors completing tasks, such as taking care of animals and fixing buildings, for each other for survival and income purposes. In Villa Paraíso and other poor areas, citizens depend on reciprocal networks, brokers and the government for survival.
Also, decreases in jobs have “drained the slum economy, causing informal reciprocal networks to bleed to death.” Those who had a job in Villa Paraíso before the decreases became unable to support their family and neighbors via reciprocal networks, and citizens of Villa Paraíso increasingly turned to the local government or brokers for food and medicine.
There is not much of a line between the provision of favors and material goods via clientelism in Argentina. Oftentimes, citizens receive both favors and material goods from brokers. In addition, a favor and the provision of material goods can go together. For example, a broker can help citizens sign up for a government program that regularly provides medicine. In this situation, the citizen receives a favor and material benefit. Additionally, clientelism does not only occur in poor neighborhoods. For instance, politicians can implement business regulations or enforce existing ones if business owners do not support them.
The Effect of Clientelism on Elections
While Virginia Oliveros says, “no election is decided on clientelism,” local elections in poor areas may be more influenced by it. Brokers help citizens survive in poor neighborhoods. So, citizens may want to give back to the broker and the candidate that the broker is working for.
At the same time, the effect of clientelism on elections is somewhat unknown. While clientelism provides candidates with name recognition and could generate feelings of reciprocity, citizens may not actually vote for the candidate. The person in the voting booth is the only one who knows how they really voted. In terms of other forms of political support, like attending rallies and hanging posters, brokers can track who engages in these activities and reward them appropriately. Still, these activities do not directly bring candidates into the office as voting does.
Clientelism in Argentina is complex and plays an important role in political and everyday life. Clientelism also poses difficult questions in regards to ethics. How do morality and implications for democracy compare to the goods and services that clientelism provides for poor communities? Clientelism is complicated, and it creates a dilemma for scholars, political leaders and citizens to contemplate around the world.
– Anna Ryu