Book Political clientelism and democracy in Belize: From my hand to yours

[This is an excerpt from an article in THe Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

On many measures the standards of democracy, elections, accountability, transparency, and economic performance in the Commonwealth Caribbean appear to be relatively high. Since independence, democracy has remained well-entrenched, bar one or two notable exceptions, there are regular transfers of power between the main political parties, turnout at elections continues to be generally healthy, there are a good number of institutional checks and balances, and GDPs per capita are in the middle-income category. However, as is often the case, when you look behind the headlines, the story is more complicated and often less positive. And this is where this volume by Vernon is so important. It is one of a very small number of studies (the others consider Jamaica), which focus on the key issue of political clientelism: what it is, how it operates, and its impacts on the broader body politic.

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Vernon defines political clientelism as ‘an informal and dynamic political exchange between individual or collective clients, who provide or promise political support, and patrons, who provide or promise a variety of targeted and divisible resources and favours’ (p. 1). As the volume’s title indicates, Vernon is primarily concerned with the situation in Belize, although one chapter does provide a wider regional context. The work’s strength lies in the fact that most of the research was undertaken as part of an earlier PhD, which allowed a significant amount of primary research to be undertaken, including interviews with key political figures and fieldwork in four electoral constituencies. The book’s primary focus is the period from 1954, when universal adult suffrage was introduced to the then British colony, to 2013, when the PhD was concluded. The book is framed around three identified epochs: 1954–80, the pre-independence rooting phase; 1981–91, the transitionary but still formative phase; and 1992–2013, the phase of rampant expansion.

Across the three periods Vernon constructs a picture of how political clientelism took root in Belize. He identifies a range of reasons why this happened, including: the initial role of the dominant People’s United Party (PUP) in integrating more clientelist practices into its range of strategies to appeal to voters once more formal social policies began to fail. The growth of the ‘handout game’ when the United Democratic Party (UDP) became a serious rival to the PUP. The implementation of neoliberal economic policies, which limited the state’s capacity to act. The arrival of major financial players in Belize, including Lord (Michael) Ashcroft. The shrinking of ideological and policy differences between the PUP and UDP, which meant other means were needed to attract the support of voters. The politicisation of bodies that oversaw the electoral process. And the efforts by the political parties to attract the new immigration population to their doors. Vernon also details how the formal and informal mechanisms, such as constituency clinics and the awarding of public sectors jobs, helped clientelism to take a stranglehold over the country. Further, he sets out who benefits and how, arguing that most socio-economic groups gain, and that politicians have become ‘equal opportunity patrons across urban and rural communities, gender, ethnicity, and migratory status’ (p. 188). Vernon estimates that at least 20% of the electorate was (and probably still is) receiving handouts in some form.

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It is to Vernon’s credit (unlike some previous authors on clientelism) that he pulls no punches and articulates the undoubted damage clientelism has had on Belize’s democratic system. He underlines a range of concerns, including: an emphasis on short-termism at the expense of longer-term social welfare programmes. A wasting of public funds because of inadequate oversight of how monies are allocated. The creation of a parallel and largely informal system for disbursements that has weakened and marginalised formal public institutions. That politicians are not really legislators, but patrons. The result is that Belize is now a ‘clientelist democratic state’ (p. 193) and politicians and voters have now reached ‘mutual clientelist dependency’ (p. 195). However, Vernon does see some ‘flickers of hope’ (p. 211) in recent (albeit isolated) attempts by politicians and civil society to re-establish some degree of formality and accountability in government programme spending. What also offered some hope for this reviewer is that many examples of poor practice or even worse have been catalogued by auditors, the media, and others. So, what is happening in Belize is clear for all to see.

Peter Clegg is Professor of Politics and Dean & Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Political clientelism and democracy in Belize: From my hand to yours by Dylan Vernon, Kingston, The University of the West Indies Press, 2022.