Clientelism is a relationship of exchange of favors between citizens and politicians.
Its origin dates back to the Roman Republic and can be found in various spheres of government power.
Clientelism was already observed in the Roman Empire when the plebeians depended on the patricians. These commoners became “clients” who received “sponsorship”. In this way, both were obliged to provide assistance when requested.
The patricians were expected to help them financially or through judicial interventions and appointments. For their part, customers provided varied services.
In this way, the relationship between patricians and plebeians, which was antagonistic, was also complementary because both classes depended on each other for survival. It is important to emphasize that clientelism was regulated by the laws of the Roman Republic.
Votes for Benefits
Currently, clientelism can be understood as an exchange of votes for favors between voters and politicians. Normally, this happens in societies where social inequality is very high and generates populist governments.
Thus, a relationship of dependency is established between voters and political leaders. The citizen comes to trust that being a friend of a politician will solve any economic and social dispute he may have. For his part, the politician knows that he can count on a certain number of votes to be elected.
Clientelism, however, is not a violent form of domination. It is based, above all, on the reciprocal trust between voter and candidate.
Neither voters nor politicians think about the long term. What counts is being elected to the next election and reaping the maximum possible benefits there, whether in terms of appointments or material goods.
Clientelism vs Corruption
Despite being a reprehensible practice typical of young democracies, clientelism should not be seen as corruption. Or else, according to some scholars, it is the softest part of a corrupt society where the State almost always works in a personal way.
After all, clientelism takes advantage of voters’ need for them to be dependent. This makes it difficult to judge a person who has nothing to eat, selling his vote for a basic food basket.
Not to be confused with nepotism, which is the practice of nominating relatives or people without qualifications for public office.
Unlike clientelism, corruption takes place within well-defined boundaries, transgressing established laws of the country.
Example: when a businessman tries to benefit from his friendship with a political leader to obtain tax exemptions for his company, win a tender and evade taxes.