Chapter Eight: Problems with Clientelism and Proportional Representation in Latin America

Chapter eight is one of the most exciting chapters in the novel so far, partially because the relationships that have been slowly developing throughout the novel are finally reaching a climax, but also because we learn more about the details behind the hostage crisis. Patchett has a knack for dropping startlingly important facts nonchalantly in the middle of a paragraph, in this case the fact that a tunnel is being dug under the house through which the military will attack the terrorists in an attempt to end the crisis. We also learn more about the terrorists’ somewhat unreasonable demands for the government, one of which is to reform the voting laws in their home country. Though I am a political science major, I am not very familiar with the voting laws in Latin America, so I was interested to explore the issues surrounding elections in these newly democratic nations.

I began by reading the introductions to some books on the subject to try to figure out what problems General Benjamin might have with Latin American elections. I quickly found that the major feature of the Latin American process that distinguishes it from those of other democracies is not an institutional standard like voting laws, but rather is a non-institutional aspect of government known as electoral clientelism, which is a direct exchange between politicians and voters. Clientelism is much like pork barrel spending in the United States in that politicians are offering incentives to voters on a local level so they can gain votes and remain in office. However, as Mona Lyne points out in her book The Voter’s Dilemma: Democratic Accountability, clientelism is far more direct because politicians are often offering what she calls “particularistic goods” rather than collective goods to the people in exchange for their vote (24). Particularistic goods differ from collective goods because they are only beneficial to one person or group and can even be harmful to other groups, while collective goods are universally advantageous (Lyne 26).

In most Latin American democracies, the majority of people residing in both rural and urban areas are either living in poverty or extreme poverty. While it would appear that clientelism would be beneficial to the lower class by allowing them a means to gain the particularistic goods they need, Lyne argues that it actually ends up hurting them in the long run. Because the poor are so focused on obtaining these particularistic goods, they are willing to vote for those who can deliver rather than the politicians that represent the policies they support or the social change their countries need (Lyne 25). According to Michelle Taylor Robinson’s Do the Poor Count?, this problem is amplified by the lack of access people living in impoverished areas have to information about their governments. Often living without television sets or time to actively follow the news, lower-class people typically aren’t aware of national issues that affect them or which politicians are supporting policies that would benefit them, which also happens to lower the incentive for politicians to represent the interests of the poor (Robinson 5). Many such voters have inadequate reading skills (Adult literacy rates in Latin America hover around 90 percent and are lower than 80 percent in some countries), preventing them from gaining information from newspapers or reports that wealthier people could use to keep up with government (Robinson 33). Instead, lower-class people have to rely on the changes they see in their everyday lives, further reinforcing the practice of clientelism.

Not only does clientelism prevent the poor from voting based on national issues, but it also affects their ability to sanction politicians when they don’t act in a representative manner. Because voters are tied to the politicians, whom they refer to as their “patrons,” they must break from the entire network of people within the party who represents them and try to find new patrons. Often, this means breaking from the people who ensure they receive state funds, essentially welfare (Robinson 45). Therefore, it becomes a very costly decision for low-income voters to change their allegiances, and they are discouraged from sanctioning through other forums as well. The wealthy are able to penalize politicians by withholding campaign funds and can participate in protests against the government without worrying about lost wages or the threat of being arrested, a luxury not afforded to the Latin American lower-class (Robinson 35).

While Robinson and Lyne argue that non-institutional aspects of the Latin American political systems are the main contributors to the lack of representation of the poor, Timothy Power, one of the leading researchers in the field of Latin American politics, claims there are also institutional factors that make the government unrepresentative of people from all economic and social classes. Fifteen of eighteen Latin American nations use proportional representation for their primary electoral system. Power uses the example of Brazil to illustrate the ways in which proportional representation prevents voters’ voices from being heard despite mandatory voting laws in the country. In Brazil, the candidates for the Chamber of Deputies and the state assemblies run in multi-member districts (Power 90). When voters get their ballots, there are no lists of candidates with their parties listed, as is the practice in most European nations that operate under this system. Instead, voters must write in the name of the candidate for whom they wish to vote, spelling the name correctly, which can be difficult in a nation in which almost half of the population is “functionally illiterate” (Power 92). This system is obviously highly inconvenient, but also prevents proper representation because many people from the same party have to run against each other and even the most popular politicians aren’t able to obtain just five percent of the vote. The way in which proportional representation is applied in Brazil makes it nearly impossible for even a wealthy voter’s voice to be heard, much less the poor.

With all of these issues in the Latin American electoral systems, I can see why General Benjamin would ask for reforms to voter laws. While the elections don’t seem to represent any voter, low-income voters are particularly disadvantaged due to their lack of access to information about the government and ability to sanction politicians who don’t represent them well. If I were to move forward with this topic, I would like to look at how the problems we have with our electoral system in the United States compare to those in Latin America, particularly with the degree to which people feel their voice is represented in government. I think it would also be interesting to compare pork barrel spending projects to the practice of clientelism to see if they operate in a similar manner. I wonder if Americans are as inclined to vote for politicians that bring collective goods to their area as Latin Americans are to vote for those who provide them with particularistic goods.

Works Cited

Lyne, Mona M. The Voter’s Dilemma and Democratic Accountability: Latin America and beyond. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2008. Print.

Power, Timothy J. “Politicized Democracy: Competition, Institutions, and ‘Civic Fatigue’ in Brazil.” Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs 33.3 (1991): 75–112. JSTOR. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.

Taylor-Robinson, Michelle M. Do the Poor Count?: Democratic Institutions and Accountability in a Context of Poverty. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. Print.


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