Clientelism, a patron-client relationship that rests on personal loyalties and quid pro quo between individuals of normally different social status, is a reality that has existed in Brazil since its first day as a colony. Indeed, when seafarer Pero Vaz de Caminha wrote to Portugal’s King D. Manuel on 22 April 1500 officially informing him of the country’s discovery, he considered the occasion opportune to request of the monarch a good job for his nephew.
Due to the fact that clientelism is widely associated with corruption, and accordingly the abuse of positions of public responsibility for private gain, the weak condition of the rule of law in Brazil comes naturally as a historical by-product of the clientelism practiced by the Portuguese colonizers.
Unlike a country like the United States, where its first settlers possessed a strong commitment to the rule of law, the first settlers in Brazil, in contrast, tried to disrespect the law and did not acknowledge basic notions of public service and public trust.
These colonizers, explains law professor Keith S. Rosenn, “bequeathed the Brazilians a weak sense of loyalty and obligation towards the body politic, and a strong sense of loyalty and obligation towards family and friends”.
During the colonial period, the Portuguese Crown was largely dependent on the landed aristocracy for the development of Brazil’s economy and for its military security. Landowners administered justice in their lands and possessed their own private militias for the purposes of maintaining public order.
Being independent of the law, they became paternal protectors of the population surrounding their homes. As history professor Márcio Valença explains: “The landowner’s authority… depended on his capacity to impose his rule. This depended, among other things, on having his own private militia, a number of armed men to offer protection to his clients and protect his own property and interests against the incursions of competing landowners and other threats.
“The patron-client relationship was based on mutual exchange and the expectation of both sides that it would provide future yields. The patrão provided resources, protection and links to the outside world… The ‘client’ offered support and obedience… The patron-client system depended on the interaction between individuals and favoured informal flexible relationships”.
When Dom Pedro I, the eldest son of the Portuguese king, declared Brazil’s independence on 7 September 1822, he then organized a powerful state bureaucracy recruited from members of the rural aristocracy. But as early as 1885, people like liberal leader Joaquim Nabuco were already complaining of those bureaucrats producing a “rotten system” through which it sucked all the nation’s resources in order to “redistribute them to its clients”.
With the fall of constitutional monarchy on 15 November 1889, local rural bosses became the mediators between citizens and the government. These local bosses maintained their traditional power by demanding the personal loyalty of those under their paternal protection. The economic security and social wellbeing of individuals flowed directly from their personal dominion.
There was indeed a certain sense of noblesse oblige on their part, with their vassals developing a sense of personal loyalty to them. As the late American anthropologist Charles Wagley explains: “Frequently the local political boss, the coronel was a sort of patrão to his followers, who received favors and expected future favors. A lower-class worker without a patrão of the kind or another was a man without a protector in time of need. The patrão provided some measure of social security – generally the only form available to the worker”.
The process of industrialization initiated in the 1930s created a large urban class that ended up developing apart from the old influence of the landed aristocracy. It did not, however, alter certain patterns of clientelistic behavior, as those in power are still expected to be “generous” towards their supporters and personal acquaintances.
In reality, the change in terms of social structure did not modify traditional clientelistic practices, because those who moved from the countryside to the cities ended up preserving their old tendency to view all relationships, including those with public officials, in personal (clientelistic) rather than impersonal (legal) terms.
A prosperous rural oligarch called Getúlio Vargas was the first political leader to capitalise on the preservation by new urban classes of the clientelistic mind-set inherited from the countryside.
In 1938, he masterminded a coup that installed the Estado Novo (New State), a personalist dictatorship where he assumed the role of a paternal ruler who directly appealed to the popular masses in Brazil as the great benefactor of the working people.
According to Joseph A. Page: “Upon assuming the presidency after the revolution of 1930, he set about creating a relationship of dependency not only between government and private enterprise… but also between government and labor. This relationship turned out to be a mirror image of the traditional tie between haves and have-nots in rural Brazil.
“Peasants who moved to the cities encountered a social structure quite different from the one to which they were accustomed. They have to live in amorphous slums and, as Brazil industrialized, to toil in impersonal workplaces. Thus it was easy for Vargas to substitute the government as the authority figure that would take care of the needs of employees, just as the landlord… had done in the countryside”.
In today’s Brazil many are those who still believe their political leaders are morally bound to provide supporters with extra-legal “favores“. These expected favours can come in the form of such things as T-shirts, bags of basic foodstuff, bags of cement, beer, telephone lines, musical instruments, and paint for buildings.
A recent survey of city councilors in Rio de Janeiro has found that 40% of these politicians owned multi-service centers for the purposes of providing voters with free yoga classes, massages, gyms, dental care, and so forth.
The electoral process in Brazil can fairly be described in terms of clientelistic bargains which eventually include the purchase of votes. This is so because many citizens consider it “absolutely normal” to receive money from politicians.
A 2002 survey carried out by the prestigious IBOPE on behalf of Transparency International found that no less than 6% of all Brazilian voters in 1999 had received pay-offs in exchange for votes during that year’s municipal elections.
A politician once tried to justify corruption by suggesting that he needed money to finance certain “obligations” of his mandate. “When people come to me,” he explained, “I must have money to help them.”
Without a doubt, one of the most common “favors” voters in Brazil ask of politicians is the provision of a public job. This is far more valuable than the equivalent post in a truly democratic government subject to the rule of law.
In fact, public jobs are “common currency” in Brazilian politics, serving as a type of “income-generating property” to pay off supporters and place them within positions of the state machinery that can be useful to the political bosses.
As Rosenn explains, “political clientage, whose roots go back to the patrão system of traditional rural Brazil, still dominates the bureaucratic structure.
“One who owes his job to political clientage is less likely to be averse to doing [illegal] favors for family and friends. Moreover, the influx of large numbers of untrained and unqualified personnel has itself generated more red tape, partially to give superfluous employees something to do, partially to diffuse responsibility so that fixing blame for incompetence becomes more difficult… Large numbers of civil servants have at least one other daytime job; substantial numbers show up only to collect their paychecks.”
The Lula administration has deeply developed this sort of clientelism by employing within the state machinery around 40,000 members and supporters of the ruling PT party.
A retired STF chief justice, Maurício Corrêa, explains that even the most highly technical jobs are going to unqualified party members, who nonetheless must give a levy constituting up to 20% of their salaries to the party.
By thus being indirectly financed by taxpayers of all ideological inclinations, the governing PT has now, unsurprisingly, become far richer than all other parties put together.
Another good example of clientelism currently taking place in Brazil consists in the distribution of money to poor families in the form of a supposed anti-poverty programme called Bolsa Família (family fund).
This programme is held by the federal government and provides small cash to around 8.7 million Brazilian families, roughly a fifth of the country’s population. Such “generosity” offers no real solution to their problem of poverty, although it allows them to consider the government a paternal provider to them, although such excess in government spending is one of the main reasons public debt, taxes and interest rates are so high. Real interest rates in Brazil are among the highest in the world, with its government grabbing an estimated 38% of GDP in the form of taxes and contributions.
Some practical measures that have been suggested for reducing the problem of clientelism are things like the reduction of public jobs currently held by political appointees, and the ending of spending schemes for congressmen who get more funding when the government needs their votes.
But, while these measures seem really important, they are unlikely to be supported by the very same politicians who are the main beneficiaries of clientelistic schemes.
Augusto Zimmermann is a Brazilian Law Professor and the author of the well-known books Teoria Geral do Federalismo Democrático (General Theory of Democratic Federalism – Second Edition, 2005) and Curso de Direito Constitucional (Course on Constitutional Law, Fourth Edition – 2005). His e-mail is: email@example.com.