Illiberal Democracy: The End of Clientelism?

This weeks article, authored by Claudio A. Holzner, was about the concept of clientelism with a focus on the PRI political party in Mexico. Holster highlights the fact that under the PRI (Party of Institutionalized Revolution) the political activity by the rural and urban poor was severely circumscribed, consisting primarily of ritualistic and regime-supportative activities. With the advent of democracy in Mexico and the the deepening of neoliberal reforms all of this was supposed to change. Even with recent trends that emphasize the democratic participation of rural and urban poor populations clientelism has not gone away in Mexico and may even be strengthening in many areas.


Clientelism is broadly defined as giving material goods in exchange for electoral support. Clientelism is not isolated to certain neighborhoods in Mexico, in fact clientelism is a common experience among urban and rural poor across Mexico and Latin America which is not surprising given the region’s strong history with authoritarian tendencies. “The prevalence of strong ties among clientelism organizations and the information constraints they create helps account for the staying power of clientelism in democratic settings” (Holzner). According to Granovetter there are two sources of opportunities and constraints among organizations with strong ¬†and weak ties: the ability of the organizational leaders to monitor behavior and control the flow of information to its members. Holster states that “… organizations based on strong ties or networks are characterized by densely knit clusters of social interaction, with many points of contact among individuals within the network but few outside of it.” However, strong ties do not necessarily make for strong movements because those same characteristics that motivate and strengthen political participation can be used by leaders to stifle or control the participation of rank and file members. This amount of control makes it easy for clientelism organizations to reward or sanction those under its patronage. This discretionary power is easily abused by ambitious and corrupt leaders who, with the support of the PRI party and government officials, take advantage of residents’ tenuous property rights to shake them down for cash contributions and to control their political activity. It is no secret that PRI leaders go to great lengths to monitor and enforce he political behavior and loyalty of members. “The basic clientelism contract in which political leaders exchange material resources for votes would quickly break down if patrons did not have the ability to observe how clients actually vote” (Holzner).


The existence of clientelism undermines some of the basic principle of democracy. However the west interprets democracy though a very liberal lens. Therefore should we be so eager to dismiss the existence of clientelism in a democracy in Latin America? The region itself has a very strong history of authoritarian tendencies, even during its time with democratic governments. Clientelism in a democracy does create an illiberal democracy. The question is, does an illiberal democracy have a legitimate place on the world stage that is dominated by liberal democracies?