Chronic Clientelism, Brazilian Style

Picture: coolloud, Flickr

With the FIFA World Cup only a few months away, Brazil will soon be the center of world’s attention. The country has made some enormous investments in preparing for the event, yet these investments may not serve the Brazilian population itself. Last June people took to the streets with the trigger being an increase in public transportation fares. This is just the surface of all the issues that underlie the outcry. While a huge amount money is spent on the World Cup, the population has poor access to opportunities within education and healthcare. Brazilians are well familiar with the corruption that continues to prevail in their country and the unequal societal structure has led to clientelism gaining a strong foothold. A particular form of clientelist politics observed in Northeast Brazil gives insight into the complex political environment in the country.

Clientelism refers to exchanging political support for goods and services including the opportunity for employment. Such practice in politics is by no means limited to Brazil, but is a phenomenon in various countries. The recent Colombian elections are an example of elections heavily affected by clientelism as candidates offered money for citizens’ votes. What makes Brazil interesting is a particular form of clientelism taking place in the Northeast. Here the variant has been called “declared support” by Simeon Nichter. It focuses on citizens as political actors. So called “prospective clientelism” involves both the citizen and the politician or elite and concerns post-election benefits. To get post-election benefits such as goods or services as well as opportunities, many people decide to declare publicly which candidate they support and will vote for.

Declared support thus refers to clientelism in which citizens engage in strategic behavior. When citizens are strategic actors in clientelist linkages they may choose to declare their support or remain undeclared. Both could be a strategy, but a citizen declaring the choice of whom they will support is inevitably more risky as there is a possibility that the citizen could be disfavored in case she declared her support to the candidate that loses the election. Therefore a strategic citizen would be expected to consider the benefits promised to declared supporters, the credibility of getting these benefits and the candidate’s probability of winning the election before declaring her support. Nichter’s research suggests that voters who declared their support for a candidate before the election are favored by politicians. The voters who declared support for the opposing candidates before the election are by contrast disfavored. Remaining undeclared results in being neither favored nor disfavored.

The citizens that were interviewed in the research explain that they trust that politicians will help them if needed since they declared their support for them before voting. One example relating to health was that medicines could be unavailable at the public pharmacy, yet declared supporters could get these medicines through the politicians, who would buy them at private pharmacies. The risk in declaring support is the possibility that the candidate loses the election. In such cases it is reported that the citizens who declared support for the losing candidate before the election are disfavored, especially with regards of health and employment. It is also alleged that the cash transfer program “Bolsa familia” that aims to reduce poverty could be used as a political tool by regional officials and serve the same purpose as clientelism. Such allegations are yet unproven, but it appears that “Bolsa familia” has not managed to eliminate inequality.

The demonstrations that took place last year in June illustrate the wide array of problems that stem from an unequal system characterized by corruption. While the citizens are aware of their rights and demand improved living conditions by protesting, they are also strategic actors and act with the aim to improve their quality of life. How to improve the quality of one’s life varies greatly depending on the situation one finds oneself in. The research about declared support reveals that the clientelism prevalent in the Northeast Brazil focuses on goods and services that are fundamental for one’s well-being.

Declaring support is a tactic in the current state of affairs, it is a strategy to try to gain opportunities for a better life. It would seem that Brazilians know the system only too well. “It’s hard to get rid of corrupt politicians. The people vote for them because they want handouts of bricks or houses or jobs,” one man comments. He points to the very core of the issue; one’s opportunities for adequate housing or being able to get a job may depend on the political support given. Therefore, declared support becomes an opportunity and a risk at the same time, yet a risk many are willing to take.


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