"The fear of party patronage with the accession of the new democracies to the EU was largely unnecessary."
“One of the things which the European Union (EU) feared with the accession of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe in the 90s, was party political interference in the appointment of officials, and privilege of loyal party members. In short, party patronage. But the interference in or lobbying for official positions does not take place on a larger scale in Eastern European countries as opposed to Southern- or Western European countries.” Being interviewed is Prof. Dr. Petr Kopecký, an expert on Eastern-European politics. He came from the Czech Republic (CZ) to study political science at Leiden University and wrote his PhD in 1992 on the transformation of political systems in Eastern- and Central Europe. “The fear of party patronage with the accession of the new democracies was largely unnecessary.”
Patronage as such does take place
Prof. Dr. Petr Kopecký goes on to say that it is not to say that we shouldn’t worry about patronage as such. “Political parties as organisations have relative little influence in contemporary Europe. Individual interference still takes place. Ministers might appoint others but they don’t do this on behalf of their political party. Nowadays the leaders have become the party. But overall party patronage has declined in Europe and it is really less of a problem than is assumed. When we think about party patronage we either think of the United Kingdom (UK), where there is no interference whatsoever or we think of Greece, where political interference happens at a large scale. ”
Learning about the legacy of different types of political regimes political appointments
“Aside from Eastern European politics, my interest lies mainly in political parties and institutions that play a role in the transformation of political systems. My recent work has been on political appointments and how political parties actually control these appointments.” This interview will be on one of Kopecký’s latest works which was carried in five new democracies, namely Argentina, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Ghana and South Africa and served as the pilot study for the Party Patronage in Contemporary Europe project. The focus in this project will be on European democracies, especially the new democracies (meaning the post-communist countries). “We want to learn more about the legacy of different types of political regimes on the appointments, which is why we included some non-European countries as well. So we chose countries that previously represented a non-democratic regime to test our theories.”
What is party patronage
There are two basic understandings of what party patronage is:
- Party patronage is seen as a type of exchange between political parties and the (potential) voters in which resources of some kind are traded for political support. In other words a political party might do something, for example appoint someone in a certain function, in order to “buy” votes. This is described as “clientilistic politics”. Examples of clientilistic countries in Europe are Italy and Austria, where people would have to vote a certain political party in order to get access to social housing for example. A quid pro quo in other words. In Europe this has decreased enormously because this type of politics has become too expensive. You see this mostly in poor countries, for example in Africa.
- Party patronage is a process by which political parties try to control the state via political appointments. This is described as “politicization of the state”. The object here is not about the party or the voters but rather about how the party controls positions within the state. How do parties operate when they’re in the government? This is the focus of Kopecký’s research. For example in Italy where the Christian democrats were in government for 50 years. They started off as clientilistic but were later cemented so much into the government that they politicized the state. But the politicization of the state goes on in countries that are not clientilistic as well. In the Netherlands for example, parties have controlled a lot of jobs within the state but not for a clientilistic benefit. This was always about how the party would function once it got into the government.
“In new democracies you could encounter people who do not want to talk about their political systems. This has much to do with the previous non-democratic regimes where people could have been persecuted for talking openly about their government or their political views.” Kopecký explains that this was less the case in his research as the respondents were largely academics or policy makers. “Within this community the problem of not talking openly about government or political views is less urgent. However, the topic of party patronage in itself is very sensitive in any country. Not just new democracies. Partly also because some of the people we spoke to, themselves might have been or are political appointees.” The way in which Kopecký got respondents to tell their story as opposed to a socially desired story was by:
- Neutralizing the language. Meaning that instead of using the term party patronage which is a loaded word, the researchers would opt for describing the process by which political leaders might use their power to influence political appointments;
- Carefully selecting respondents. People who made the appointments possible or the appointees were not used within this research. Neither were politicians, except for for example retired politicians who did not mind talking about party patronage.
Erosion of political parties themselves
If you look at political parties in Europe, one of the things that can be noted is that traditionally political parties were strongly rooted in the community. Actually often political parties came forth from social movements, be it the working class or from a religious movement. When we talk about the “erosion of political parties themselves” we refer to the loss of the link between the political parties and society. We can see this in a couple of ways:
- The membership of political parties is declining over the last 20 years. It has gone roughly from 20% of the population being a member of a political party to 12% in recent times. This is a trend all over Europe.
- There is a decrease in political identification, the number of voters who identify themselves with a political party is relatively low. They may vote for a party but they don’t feel particularly attached to that party. This used to be much stronger. It meant something if you voted for the labour party for example. People voting for the same party from the cradle to the grave are almost not to be found any longer.
- The link between political parties and organisations has become less. For example political parties used to have very strong links with trade unions. The religious parties used to have very strong links with churches. This is all much less the case currently.
Nowadays people choose instead of just following like in the past
Generally speaking, people are far better informed about political parties and their agendas nowadays. So they really choose based on the contents of the political party rather than following or being loyal to one party for the rest of their lives. This has very clear consequences for political parties, for example:
- Party politics is now far less predictable than it used to be. It’s harder to say which party will win elections or which is most popular as people change their mind fast seen the decrease in identification (and membership for that matter). To make a long-term prediction about the ruling political party has become nearly impossible;
- Because the parties don’t have a very strong binding with the community they have to find the resources for their survival somewhere else. As a result they have become very dependent on the state. In the past parties could easily survive with membership fees and without state interference. There were enough volunteers to campaign or arrange meetings but this is no longer the case. In order to get these things done political parties need money. Where do they get this money from? Usually from the state.
The perception of party patronage in several European countries – does it happen more in Eastern- and Southern European countries as opposed to the Western- or Northern countries?
The debate about how far political parties can go or which
positions should be made politically available is current
throughout Europe. A very good example of this can be found in the
Netherlands where the question about whether or not mayors should
be appointed or elected keeps coming up year in year out. “The
perception of how often party patronage takes place has often to do
with how scandalous specific cases have been. For example if a
mayor were to misuse his power gravely in the Netherlands you would
probably hear that party patronage takes place at a high level in
the Netherlands. Party patronage does not take place less in the
Netherlands than it does say in the Czech Republic (CZ). The
CZ is clearly not Austria, where there is policy on party
patronage, but it’s not Italy or Greece either. Yet if you would
talk to a citizen of the CZ (or of any Eastern European country for
that matter) the perception would be that party patronage takes
place on a large scale. This has partly to do with the legacy of
the past. People distrust politicians and the state. So every
scandal that happens with politicians is blown out of proportion.
It reinforces the feeling that politicians are not to be trusted.
Our research has shown that the “scandal” in Eastern European
countries wasn’t very different from “scandals” happening in other,
say Western- or Northern European countries.”
Political patronage happens to a far lesser extent in Eastern Europe than is excepted
“I’m a minority when I say that political patronage happens to a far lesser extent in Eastern Europe than is excepted. Unfortunately this has much to do with the fact that it has become a sport in Eastern Europe to see politics in a negative way. If someone says something positive about politics they must be naïve. Don’t get me wrong, there is corruption in Eastern European politics but the level is blown out of proportion and the number of cases is not even that much different from other European countries. Also, it has to be said that corruption is often prosecuted nowadays. This was a requirement for the accession of Eastern European countries in the EU, which has had clear effect.”
Removing politics from the daily life of institutions is another extreme
“I must be fair, I’m not entirely against some level of political patronage. I actually think it’s a good thing. I believe that when politicians are held accountable for what they do, it is reasonable that they have some scope of choice in who will be the people that will execute the policies once they are in power. It would be sad if people on the implementation level would be politically appointed but I find it legitimate to say that we need some political figures embedded in institutions. It’s not zero sum that all politics should be politically neutral. Who chooses the people who decide on millions of tax payers’ money? I prefer a politician who was chosen by the people to carry out this task even though he or she is appointed to that institution.
EUKN, Elizabeth Winkel
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