From coronelismo to clientelismo

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Read the Preface and an excerpt from the recently released book by Francisco Farias

Prefácio [Rachel Meneguello]

The publication of Francisco Farias's research on politics in the northeast of Piauí adds valuable data on the changes in regional politics, constituted throughout the initial process of Brazilian democratization.

The book From coronelismo to clientelismo: electoral practices in Piauí, Brazil indicates how clientelism begins to occupy the terrain of the dominant coronelista dynamics in the state and establishes transformed electoral practices. Based on qualitative interviews carried out in the selected municipalities of Barras and Esperantina, with politicians, party cadres, members of the electoral justice and government administration, and rural and urban workers, the author seeks to show how the dynamics of the free vote, as the author calls the overcoming of the political practices of coronelismo.

An analysis of the initial transition period shows that democratic politics brought a new arrangement of forces established with the new parties and the direct local and state elections of 1982, fundamental to redefine, even during the military dictatorship, a new relationship between the states of the federation and central power. It was in this context that the regime's opposition parties won important victories in state governments, valuable for the continuation of the democratization process, with the entry of new actors into national politics.

This context of transition and new institutional arrangements, in which the author locates the observed transformations, had a limited translation in the state of Piauí. As the state is a terrain marked by the dominance of a traditional political organization, of an oligarchic character, historically defined by the dominance of families, notably within it, few new actors were protagonists in the changes of the period, but new relationship conditions were defined between the electorate and politicians, giving new operating conditions to the representative system. It is in this context that Francisco Farias finds new practices, and re-dimensions the understanding of political insertion in the domain of state clientelism.

At the end of nearly four decades of democratic construction, the literature on the Brazilian transition, as well as on the national party system and its subnational implications, has become voluminous and diverse. This book dialogues with the literature at the time of its elaboration, the still early stages of the 1990s, under a specific theoretical focus. It is a fundamental reference for understanding the role of popular sectors in building participation in the democratic environment, their relationship with politics and politicians, and the definition of clientelistic dynamics in a state in the rural Northeast.


extract from the book [Chapter 1, item 2: clientelism]

Political clientelism – present in the horizontal (Executive and Legislative) and vertical (national and regional government) relationships of the contemporary State apparatus, as well as in electoral campaigns and in the management of government policies – appears as the bargaining of resources, positions and equipment social groups for political support. Its understanding is therefore part of the analysis of the “support policy” (an expression by Nicos Poulantzas).

The support policy, that is, the implementation of government measures to satisfy the needs of the salaried class, arises in order to contain the appetite of the capitalist class to plunder the workforce, guaranteeing the simple or normal reproduction of the proletariat at the level of civilization reached. . Through state services, the ties of political subordination are reinforced, ultimately benefiting the values ​​of the ruling class, as these services presuppose a relationship with the discourse of the representation of the people-nation, that is, they present themselves as a modality of realizing the “national-popular will” (aspirations of the bourgeoisie).

Differently, the policy of class alliance, that is, the implementation of social policies that promote the expanded reproduction of the workforce, is born out of the interest of subordinate fractions of the dominant class in conquering political hegemony. In Europe, after the Second World War, the internal bourgeoisies (represented by liberal parties and employers' associations) established alliances with the working classes (under the leadership of socialist parties and union forces), with a view to overcoming the power of American interests in their countries. This, in part, resulted in the so-called welfare state.

Clientelistic practices are effects of the legal-bureaucratic structure of the bourgeois state. Only a State apparatus governed by the norms of egalitarian law and universalist bureaucratism can institutionalize the demand for the separation of “public” and “private”, that is, what are State resources and resources of the ruling class. It would not be feasible to establish the rule of formally equal and universal access to political-administrative positions and to maintain a criterion of indistinction between “public” and “private” resources, since it would not produce the meaning of the state bureaucracy presenting itself as representative of the centralized political community, the people-nation. The confusion of “public” and “private” is a way of exercising the role of the state bureaucracy linked to decentralized political communities, the city-people or the region-people, since such forms of communities are more receptive to the political influence of land ownership traditional, with a localist vocation and an oligarchic tendency.

The existence of political clientelism presupposes, therefore, the validity of capitalist modernization, both national and local. Rather than being an obstacle, clientelism is an alternative to the range of practices, guided by the national-popular ideology, of the bureaucracy of the modern-bourgeois State. Despite the fact that the rule of separation between the public and the private prohibits the practices of selective distribution of resources and state services seen as normal, the national-popular ideology contains the possibility of interpreting the “common interest” of the collectivity as the result of the search to satisfy the greatest proportion of particular, parochial or individual interests, legitimizing the traits of competition with the State.

Political clientelism is still a way of reinforcing political solidarities within the dominant class, since the benefits distributed (positions, funds, equipment) are signs of economic concessions by the hegemonic fraction to the interests of subordinate fractions, in exchange for political stability. In other words, the exchange of immediate material advantages for political legitimacy is an aspect poster in intergovernmental, party, electoral relations. However, more profoundly, it is the interests of fractions of the ruling class that, to a large extent, constitute the latent content, the substance of the relationship between the branches of the State apparatus, the competition of the dominant parties and electoral disputes.[I].

intergovernmental relations

Clientelistic practices tend, therefore, to be present in intergovernmental, horizontal and vertical relations. On the horizontal plane, we can point out the relations between, on the one hand, the Ministries and the leader of the Executive and, on the other hand, the Parliament. The clientelistic pattern becomes plausible in the relationship between the Executive leader and the peripheral area of ​​Ministries, because in this area, in the case of democratic and multi-party regimes, the secondary parties of the ruling coalition are found. A minister from this circle seeks to influence the Government's decisions favorable to his portfolio, in the form of a bargaining of his party's votes for the approval of Executive matters in Parliament. The less visible side of this intergovernmental relationship are the concessions made by the core of the hegemonic fraction to the interests of its peripheral segments.

In terms of vertical intergovernmental relations, clientelistic practices are similar. This is the case of the issue of public employment. The governments and bourgeoisies of the peripheral regions are, in part, incorporated into the national hegemonic power via the concentration of public employment. If in these regions there is greater pressure from graduates of the educational system for access to the State apparatus, the opposite of this refers to the disorganization of traditional economic activities, resulting from capitalist expansion. On the one hand, the “sponsorship” of public offices can mean an element of “irrationality” of the state organization, as it would reduce its technical efficiency (costs and benefits ratio, in those sectors in which the results are quantifiable). On the other hand, although it seems paradoxical, there is an element of “rationality” of employment in the State apparatus, as a policy of hegemony (“national integration”).

We can list two sets of constraints for the vertical cleavage of the bourgeois state apparatus. On the one hand, there is the need for a division of tasks among members of the State bureaucracy regarding the formulation and implementation of social policies, in which the national sphere of the State tends to retain the strategic goals and budgetary control of such policies, while the local sphere is especially inclined towards the management and execution of services. This division of tasks would not be strictly technical, since the social accountability of local power fulfills the function of diverting the struggle of the dominated classes against the central power of the bourgeois State.

On the other hand, there is the functionality, in different branches of the State apparatus, of accommodation of different interests of the dominant class, according to the unequal distribution of productive forces in the territorial space. In this case, the regional section of a national faction (or alternatively the set of capitals of that region) “controls” the central state apparatus and, eventually, the subnational state apparatus in that region, while the other regional sections of the hegemonic fraction (or regional capital blocs) can “lodge” in subnational apparatuses in peripheral regions. Such functionality of the vertical branches of the state apparatus reinforces the bonds of solidarity within the hegemonic fraction (or in the set of regional capital blocs), at the same time that it organizes competition between the regional sections of the hegemonic fraction (or between the blocs of regional capitals).

The central government/subnational government relationship is, therefore, conditioned by the bourgeoisie relationship of the pole region/peripheral bourgeoisie. The posture of the peripheral bourgeoisie can assume three different positions: subordination (associated bourgeoisie); autonomy (regionalist bourgeoisie); selective conflict (internal bourgeoisie). Commercial capital in the periphery tends towards an associated bourgeoisie posture (subordination to the industrial capital of the core region). The productive capitals (agrarian and industrial) in this region tend towards the position of an internal bourgeoisie (selective conflicts, given the basis of local accumulation, with the bourgeoisie of the core region). Medium capital in the peripheral region would be more receptive to a regionalist campaign, in the sense of preventing capital flight to the core region.

One of the fractions of the peripheral bourgeoisie, therefore, tends to hold hegemony in the local sphere of government. It cannot be assumed that peripheral subnationalities are a sphere of power of medium capital, while big capital dominates the national sphere. A case study showed that medium capital was also marginalized in the periphery.[ii] But the opposite is also valid: it cannot be generalized that, in the phase of monopoly capitalism, the regional spheres will be under the hegemony of monopoly capital. There are cases in which the regional bourgeoisie is dominated by “competitive” capital.[iii]

But we still lack more specific concepts for the analysis of intergovernmental relations. It is not a “dual state” (independence of the spheres of government), as proposed by Peter Saunders[iv], due to the structural dependence of the local sphere of government. Intergovernmental relations are correlated more specifically to coalitions within the power bloc (classes and fractions of dominant classes). In these coalitions (or “compromises”) of dominant classes and fractions, there is subordination (or selective opposition), but also concessions.

The discourse of “globalization” that a homogeneous territorial space of capital accumulation would be constituting nowadays, assumes a double meaning: on the one hand, it minimizes the movement of economic polarization, disregarding the tendencies towards concentration/centralization of the capital and the inequality of the development of the productive forces in the geographic space; and, on the other hand, it underestimates the role of compensatory policies to alleviate regional inequalities and, consequently, to reduce separationist political tensions.

One effect of this discourse was the legitimization of the end of national regional development policies, with the rise of “neoliberal” governments. In the Brazilian case, for the 1990s, it is possible to diagnose a regional reconcentration in the country. The policy of dismantling regional development plans and agencies is of interest to the hegemony of international financial capital and its associates, in the sense of being a way of containing government spending and, therefore, of contributing to the resolution of the fiscal crisis of the State .

In the same direction, the tendency towards centralization of the State budget, brought about by the “neoliberal” policy, is a requirement of financial capital, in order to avoid particularist demands and guide state spending by the “general interest of society” (financial capital). . This encounters resistance in medium-sized capitals, which have more influence in the regional spheres of the State.

In turn, administrative decentralization, making the local sphere of the State responsible for managing social policies and encouraging political participation (“local governance”), apparently seeks to improve efficiency and effectiveness in the administration of social funds to compensate for the cuts of their amounts by “neoliberal” governments. However, more profoundly, this transfer of governmental attributions brings greater security to the hegemony of the financial bourgeoisie, since it diverts the struggles of the working classes to regional spheres, controlled, many times, by subordinate bourgeois fractions, which tend to transform these spheres into “bastions of conservatism”, that is, of preservation of national hegemony.[v]

In this sense, the notion of “local governance” tends to hide the domination of the regional bourgeoisie and its political-ideological service in the construction of national hegemony. “Local governance”, in the view of some analysts, would point to the relationships between, on the one hand, different “interest groups”; and, on the other hand, “local authorities”, without there being any previously determined pattern in these relationships.[vi] This would preserve the principle of policy autonomy: “[…] state agencies must be studied in full, not determining beforehand their subordination to any agent or process present in society”.[vii]

The result of this approach, which does not seem to distinguish the epistemological autonomy of political science and the interdependence of politics and economics in the social whole, would be a descriptive and non-dense approach to the political process, whose limit is that of not apprehending the structural dimension of the political fact , that is, its invariants, captured through the systematizing method and dense description. Thus, an analysis of practices and institutions without reference to evaluative structures would become as deficient as a treatment of structures without reference to institutionalized practices; to characterize localities and urban situations, structural factors will provide the important “context” elements, although not all the explanations, which precisely presuppose that “political processes” are examined.[viii]

The analytical validity of the concept of local governance has been questioned based on studies on urban policies in Brazil, marked by clientelism. Such a characteristic, in our view, would result from the influence of fractions of the bourgeoisie on urban policies, an influence expressed not only in the effects of policies, but also in the processes of their formulation.

Bargaining vote analysis

Alain Rouquié[ix] points to the poverty conditions of the working classes as the cause of electoral clientelism or the bargaining vote. He considers that the halter vote (the political-electoral relationship analogous to dependence on land) and the clientele vote (the political-electoral relationship corresponding to independence in the market) are, in essence, “pyramid structures” linked to “contexts of penury”.

However, the worker on the large pre-capitalist rural property, although living in perhaps more precarious conditions (without access to treated water, electricity, medical facilities, etc.) your vote is an exchange good; on the contrary, due to his personal loyalty to the boss, he simply gives his vote, as a kind of tribute or homage to the landlord. It can be concluded that the social framework of the pre-capitalist latifundium works as an impediment to shortages by inducing the worker to a utilitarian attitude at the political level. The problem of considering poverty as an explanatory foundation of electoral clientelism consists, therefore, in abstracting the type of social relations under which the situation of misery is reproduced. A more consistent explanation of the bargaining vote would result from taking into account the social structural context.

René Lemarchand[X] tends to identify as the foundation of political clientelism not the capitalist social structure, but rather the legacy of a pre-capitalist past. For the author, in Third World countries, the colonial heritage would be the determining factor for the presence of clientelism in modern democracy. In his words, “[…] it is primarily where social change has substantially stagnated behind political modernization that forms of clientelist dependency have had the most resistance”.[xi]

But the “marginalized” population (without stable employment) and the poor in the urban peripheries – undoubtedly the target of clientelistic practices – is not a legacy of the colonial past of these countries, since urban underemployment, as specific studies show[xii], is rather a product of the type of capitalism created in these societies, which, by implementing dependent industrialization, adopts a technological standard aimed at high-income consumption, restricting the scope of industrial employment, given the greater concentration of capital.

Finally, approaching electoral clientelism as “pre-modern” would disregard the fact that this policy pattern is one of the ways in which modern (bourgeois) democracy works, and not an external (“environmental”) condition. This criticism becomes more plausible when we consider that clientelism persists even in the most developed bourgeois societies, albeit in a more sophisticated way.[xiii]

The idea of ​​an electoral practice analogous to the practice of the economic market is developed in Joseph Schumpeter: “[…] in economic life competition is never completely absent, but it is hardly perfect. Similarly, in political life there is always some competition […].[xiv] To simplify matters, we restrict the kind of competition for leadership that should define democracy to free competition for the free vote”; “[…] party and political machine […] constitute an attempt to regulate political competition which is exactly similar to the corresponding practices of a trade association”.[xv] A restriction that could be placed on the Schumpeterian approach is that the competitive logic does not apply to the set of political-electoral practices, but only to a particular domain.

On the contrary, the left party promotes a policy of breaking with the isolation of individuals and the immediacy of interests in the political field. Relying on experiences of associativism of the working classes, developed within the scope of struggles for demands (grassroots organizations, unions), it sets up an organizational form that favors the growing involvement of workers in the political process, aiming to ensure the defense of broader interests. In this way, leftist politics converts voting into an expression of class solidarity.

* Rachel Meneguello Professor of Political Science at Unicamp. She is the author, among other books, of EN: The formation of a party (1979-1982) (Peace and Earth).

*Francisco Pereira de Farias is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Piauí (UFPI).


Francisco Farias. From coronelismo to clientelismo: electoral practices in Piauí, Brazil. Teresina: Edufpi, 2020.

Available at


[I] For a different view of the manifest-latent contents of the intergovernmental process, see P. Gremion. Le pouvoirpériphérique. Paris: Seuil, 1976.

[ii] Jean Lojkine. The capitalist state and the urban question. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 1981.

[iii]D. Lorrain. La montae en puissance des Villes. economy and humanism, no. 305, p. 6-18, 1989.

[iv]Peter Saunders. Social theory and urban questions. London: Holmes & Meir Publisher, 1981.

[v]A. Granou. La bourgeoisie financière au pouvoir. Paris: Maspero, 1977.

[vi]Patrick Le Gales. Du gouvernement des villes à la gouvernance. Revue Française de Science Politique, v. 45, no. 1, p. 57-95, 1995.

[vii]Eduardo C. Marques. Social networks, institutions and political actors in the government of the city of São Paulo. São Paulo: Annablume, 2003, p. 51.

[viii]Edmond Preteceille. Urban inégalités, gouvernance, domination. In: R. Balme; A. Faure; A. Mabileau (Dir.). Les nouvelles politiques locales. Paris: Presses de Sciences Politiques, 1999.

[ix]A. Rouquié. L'analyse des non concorrentielles elections: clientelist control and authoritative situations. In: G. Hermet (Org.). The elections come from the autres. Paris: Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques, 1978.

[X]R. Lemarchand. Comparative political clientelism: structure, process and optics. In: S. Eisenstadt; R. Lemarchand (Orgs.). Political clientelism, patronage and development. Beverly Hills: Sage Publications, 1981.

[xi]L. Roniger. Civil society, patronage and democracy. International journal of comparative sociology, v. 35, no. 3/4, p. 207-20, 1994, p. 215.

[xii] See, for example, Oliveira (1972).

[xiii] R. Theobald. The decline of patron-client relations in developed societies. Archives europeennes de sociologie, v. 24, no. 1, p. 136-147, 1983; R. Theobald. On the survival of patronage in developed societies. Archives europeennes de sociologie, v. 33, no. 1, p. 183-191, 1992.

[xiv]JA Schumpeter. Capitalism, socialism and democracy. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1984, p. 338.

[xv] Schumpeter, 1984, p. 353.

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